1 Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel,
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
2 there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
3 Therefore the land mourns,
and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field
and the birds of the heavens,
and even the fish of the sea are taken away. – Hosea 4:1-3 ESV
With the opening verses of chapter four, Hosea’s book begins to focus in on the specific sins of which the people of Israel were guilty. Up to this point, God has addressed the general nature of their spiritual adultery, using Hosea’s wife Gomer as a visual illustration. But now He three damning charges against His covenant people.
- They display no faithfulness
- They lack steadfast love
- And they have no knowledge of Him
In essence, God is taking Israel to court. He uses courtroom language, accusing the people of Israel of having violated their covenant agreement with Him. Hosea declares that God has “has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land” (Hosea 4:1 ESV). The word translated as “controversy” is rîḇ (reeve) in Hebrew, and it refers to “a dispute” or “a legal contest.” The NET Bible translates that verse this way:
…the Lord has a covenant lawsuit against the people of Israel. – Hosea 4:1 NET
He was charging them with a breach of covenant. They had failed to do what they said they would do. All the way back in the book of Exodus, we have a record of God’s giving of the Mosaic Covenant to the people of Israel. Moses was called by God to the top of Mount Sinai, where he was given a copy of God’s covenant agreement. It contained all the rules and regulations that would govern the conduct of His chosen people. And Moses was given instructions to return to the base of the mountain and deliver the terms of the agreement to the Israelites.
Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 NLT
They ratified the covenant agreement – not once, but twice. Moses erected an altar to Yahweh on which they offered sacrifices. Then he read the entire content of the covenant agreement to the people. When he was done the people responded again:
“We will do everything the Lord has commanded. We will obey.” – Exodus 24:7 NLT
Some forty years later, the people of Israel would stand on the border of the land of promise, waiting to enter and possess the land promised to them by God. But as Moses prepared to turn over the reins of leadership to Joshua, he took one more opportunity to charge the people to keep their covenant commitment to Yahweh.
“Therefore, obey the terms of this covenant so that you will prosper in everything you do. All of you—tribal leaders, elders, officers, all the men of Israel—are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God. Your little ones and your wives are with you, as well as the foreigners living among you who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:9-13 NLT
Moses reminded them that the covenant came with blessings and curses. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. But if they chose to disobey, they would experience the curses that God had outlined (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Moses had been very specific concerning the ramifications for their disobedience.
These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. – Deuteronomy 28:46-48 NLT
Now, centuries later, Hosea was recording God’s declaration of breach of covenant against the people of Israel. They were completely devoid of faithfulness (trustworthiness), no steadfast love (loyalty), and no knowledge of Him. That final charge does not mean that they had no knowledge of God at all, but that they failed to acknowledge Him as the one true God. They were guilty of violating the very first of the covenant commandments:
“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me.” – Exodus 20:2-3 NLT
Their failure to acknowledge Yahweh’s authority and sovereignty had led them to distrust Him and to treat Him with disloyalty. But their disregard for God and His covenant had produced a litany of sins that manifested themselves in their treatment of one another.
You make vows and break them;
you kill and steal and commit adultery.
There is violence everywhere—
one murder after another. – Hosea 4:2 NLT
Every one of these charges is a violation of the covenant they had so eagerly and aggressively agreed to keep.
“You must not murder.
“You must not commit adultery.
“You must not steal.
“You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
“You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.” – Exodus 20:13-17 NLT
Their refusal to acknowledge Yahweh as their one and only God had led them to commit a long list of sins against one another. If they could not love and obey God, they would never be able to love one another. The entire community was experiencing a breakdown in their social order because they had lost trust in God, which led them to become disloyal to Him. And with no fear of or reverence for God, there was nothing to motivate their behavior. They had returned to the days of the judges when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV). It had become a moral free-for-all, with no rules to manage their conduct. Their commitment to the covenant had long ago faded, and they found themselves governed by selfishness, distrust, greed, lust, and a host of other sins of the heart.
And Hosea explains that their abandonment of God had left a dark stain on the land.
That is why your land is in mourning,
and everyone is wasting away. – Hosea 4:3 NLT
God had warned them that breaking their covenant agreement with Him would have devastating consequences.
“The Lord himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me. The Lord will afflict you with diseases until none of you are left in the land you are about to enter and occupy. The Lord will strike you with wasting diseases, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, and with blight and mildew. These disasters will pursue you until you die.” – Deuteronomy 28:20-22 NLT
Now, they were experiencing the veracity of these warnings in real life. All they had to do was look around and they could see the far-reaching consequences for their sins.
Even the wild animals, the birds of the sky,
and the fish of the sea are disappearing. – Hosea 4:3 NLT
Like a prosecuting attorney presenting his case in a court of law, God brought a series of charges against the people of Israel, backed by strong evidence that more than proved their guilt. There was little they could say or do to refute God’s stinging indictment against them. Creation itself testified against them. And God was not going to allow anyone to pass the buck or absolve themselves of complicity in the charges. He will take each and every one of them to task for their involvement in the violation of their covenant agreement.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.