The Foolishness of Forsaking God

1 Rejoice not, O Israel!
    Exult not like the peoples;
for you have played the whore, forsaking your God.
    You have loved a prostitute’s wages
    on all threshing floors.
Threshing floor and wine vat shall not feed them,
    and the new wine shall fail them.
They shall not remain in the land of the Lord,
    but Ephraim shall return to Egypt,
    and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria.

They shall not pour drink offerings of wine to the Lord,
    and their sacrifices shall not please him.
It shall be like mourners’ bread to them;
    all who eat of it shall be defiled;
for their bread shall be for their hunger only;
    it shall not come to the house of the Lord.

What will you do on the day of the appointed festival,
    and on the day of the feast of the Lord?
For behold, they are going away from destruction;
    but Egypt shall gather them;
    Memphis shall bury them.
Nettles shall possess their precious things of silver;
    thorns shall be in their tents. Hosea 9:1-6 ESV

In these verses, the prophet Hosea delivers his own stinging criticism of the people of Israel. He warns them not to rejoice prematurely, falsely assuming that they will somehow escape God’s judgment. It is important to recall that, under the reign of King Jeroboam II, they were experiencing an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. Things were looking up. If they judged their status on circumstances alone, they would wrongly assume that they were in a very good spot, politically, financially, and spiritually. To all appearances, it would seem that their decision to worship the false gods of the pagan nations that surrounded them was actually paying off.

But Hosea warns them against making that faulty assumption. The truth was that God was upset with them and was preparing to rain down judgment on their parade. And Hosea makes sure they understand why God was about to turn their prosperity into poverty and disrupt their peace with a time of confusion and chaos.

…you have been unfaithful to your God,
    hiring yourselves out like prostitutes,
    worshiping other gods on every threshing floor. – Hosea 9:1 NLT

The people of Israel had grown accustomed to bountiful harvests, and they had attributed their fruitfulness to their false gods. Each year, they would offer sacrifices  on the threshing floors as they celebrated the obvious blessings provided by their false gods. Rather than acknowledge the goodness and grace of Yahweh, they robbed Him of glory by attributing His blessings to lifeless idols. So, Hosea warns them that the tap to God’s bounty was about to be turned off.

So now your harvests will be too small to feed you.
    There will be no grapes for making new wine. – Hosea 9:2 NLT

They had forgotten the words of the psalm that had been intended to remind God’s people that He was the source of all blessings, including their annual harvests.

Truth springs up from the earth,
    and righteousness smiles down from heaven.
Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings.
    Our land will yield its bountiful harvest. – Psalm 85:11-12 NLT

In the book that bears his name, James would echo this sentiment by describing God’s gracious provision for all our needs in poetic terms.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, with whom there is no change or shifting shadow. – James 1:17 BSB

The people of Israel had removed God from the picture. As they enjoyed all the benefits of a bountiful harvest, they neglected to give thanks to the one who had provided it all. And, in doing so, they showed disdain and disrespect for God – a mistake that would cost them dearly.

Centuries earlier, God had warned His chosen people what would happen if they forgot Him. As they stood on the border to the land of Canaan, preparing to enter in and take possession of it, Moses addressed them.

“It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking. It is a land where iron is as common as stone, and copper is abundant in the hills. When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.

“But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the LORD your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the LORD your God…” – Deuteronomy 8:8-14 NLT

And Moses would go on to tell them what would happen if they became proud and forgot the Lord.

“You will plant much but harvest little, for locusts will eat your crops. You will plant vineyards and care for them, but you will not drink the wine or eat the grapes, for worms will destroy the vines. You will grow olive trees throughout your land, but you will never use the olive oil, for the fruit will drop before it ripens. You will have sons and daughters, but you will lose them, for they will be led away into captivity. Swarms of insects will destroy your trees and crops. – Deuteronomy 28:38-42 NLT

Now, Hosea was letting them know that they were about to experience much more than famine, drought, and a drastic drop in their agricultural production. God was going to remove them from the land altogether.

You may no longer stay here in the Lord’s land.
    Instead, you will return to Egypt,
and in Assyria you will eat food
    that is ceremonially unclean. – Hosea 9:3 NLT

This news would have shocked and surprised them because they believed the land to be theirs by right. It had been given to them by God as part of the inheritance He had promised to Abraham. Surely God would not evict His chosen people from their own land. But they were deadly wrong. God had given them ample warning about what would happen if they defiled the land He had so graciously provided. In giving them the land of promise, God had chosen to evict its current inhabitants because of their “detestable sins.” And before they ever set foot in Canaan, God had warned His people about emulating the ways of the pagan nations living in the land.

“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for the people I am driving out before you have defiled themselves in all these ways. Because the entire land has become defiled, I am punishing the people who live there. I will cause the land to vomit them out. You must obey all my decrees and regulations. You must not commit any of these detestable sins.” – Leviticus 18:24-26 NLT

And He went on to tell the Israelites what would happen if they chose to disobey His command.

“All these detestable activities are practiced by the people of the land where I am taking you, and this is how the land has become defiled. So do not defile the land and give it a reason to vomit you out, as it will vomit out the people who live there now.” – Leviticus 18:27-28 NLT

But, once again, the Israelites failed to listen to God’s warning and, as a result, they were about to be vomited out of the land. In a sense, their sinful behavior had sickened the land, causing it to spew them out. It could no longer tolerate their existence. God’s displeasure with them would take the form of their violent discharge from the very land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. In a sense, the Israelites would be going backwards, returning to the same abysmal condition they had suffered in Egypt generations earlier. But this time, their “Egypt” would be Assyria. And rather than enjoying the bounty of God’s harvest in the land of milk and honey, they would find themselves having to eat food that was forbidden by God, rendering them as further unclean and unacceptable to Him.

They will have no way of receiving forgiveness for their sins because their sacrifices to God will be deemed unclean and unacceptable. They will be relegated to eating this defiled food for mere survival. It will edible but totally ineffectual for relieving the biggest need they faced: Their guilt and condemnation. So, when the annual feast days came around, the people would have nothing to offer to God. Their rejection from the land would prove costly and, ultimately, deadly. They would be destined to die in their sinful state, unforgiven and unable to be restored to a right relationship with their God.

Hosea describes their future as filled filled with unrelenting destruction and eventual death. Their once-beautiful homes will end up overrun by weeds. The treasures they had accumulated through greed and graft, would disappear. Their fate was sealed because they had chosen to forsake the God who had graciously set them apart as His own. Now they would discover what life without God was really like, and it would not be pleasant.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Beyond Healing

11 For you also, O Judah, a harvest is appointed.

When I restore the fortunes of my people,

1 when I would heal Israel,

    the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed,
    and the evil deeds of Samaria,
for they deal falsely;
    the thief breaks in,
    and the bandits raid outside.
But they do not consider
    that I remember all their evil.
Now their deeds surround them;
    they are before my face.
By their evil they make the king glad,
    and the princes by their treachery.
They are all adulterers;
    they are like a heated oven
whose baker ceases to stir the fire,
    from the kneading of the dough
    until it is leavened.
On the day of our king, the princes
    became sick with the heat of wine;
    he stretched out his hand with mockers.
For with hearts like an oven they approach their intrigue;
    all night their anger smolders;
    in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire.
All of them are hot as an oven,
    and they devour their rulers.
All their kings have fallen,
    and none of them calls upon me. Hosea 6:11-7:7 ESV

Not all of God’s condemnation was reserved for the ten northern tribes of Israel. He also had more than enough reasons to appoint a “harvest” for the southern kingdom of Judah. In essence, God is warning both nations that they will one day reap what they have sown. Their iniquity will produce a bounty of God’s righteous judgment, and they will end up eating the fruit of their labors. Their years of feasting on faithlessness will be followed by a time of spiritual drought and famine. They will experience leanness of soul.

But even as God reveals His pending judgment, He offers His assurances of future blessing. He speaks of restoring the fortunes of people. That is the desire of His heart, and He will end up doing so for the southern kingdom of Judah. While He will eventually punish them for their sins, sending them into captivity in Babylon, He will also restore them to the land. Because He has plans for them that include the sending of His Son as a descendant of David, born of the tribe of Judah. For that to happen, the tribe of Judah will have to be in existence and living in the land of promise. God will redeem and restore Judah from their exile in Babylon, but not because they deserve it. He will do so because His plan of redemption requires that the Messiah be born of the tribe of Judah and of the seed of David. God would eventually restore the fortunes of rebellious Judah so that He could reconcile sinful mankind to Himself through the Lion of Judah, the Messiah of Israel.

But even as God hints at the hope of restoration for Judah, He confesses that He is unable to offer the same outcome for Israel. While He longs to heal them, He can’t look past the egregious nature of their sin. Everywhere He turns, He is confronted by their wickedness and immorality. From the largest tribe of Ephraim to the capital city of Samaria, the entire nation is filled with iniquity and infected by sin. Their rejection of God had resulted in moral decay and social injustices of all kinds. They were dishonest, uncaring, deceitful, cruel, and completely driven by self-centered motives. In fact, they seem to illustrate the very kind of people Paul warned Timothy about.

…in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT

And the worst part about Israel’s sinful behavior was that they failed to recognize that could see everything they were doing.

Its people don’t realize
    that I am watching them.
Their sinful deeds are all around them,
    and I see them all. – Hosea 7:2 NLT

They had lived without God for so long that they were no longer aware of His presence or feared His punishment. He was completely out of sight, out of mind. But He was watching. And He was appalled at and incensed by their behavior. But, unlike God, the king of Israel derived a perverse sense of joy in it all.

The people entertain the king with their wickedness,
    and the princes laugh at their lies. – Hosea 7:3 NLT

Those who should have been concerned by the growing wickedness in the land were actually pleased with it. When there is chaos among the people, it provides the government with justification for increasing its power and asserting its authority. A peaceful and well-behaved populace does not require the heavy hand of government. But civil unrest and a breakdown in the moral fabric of society create the perfect environment for the growth of dictatorial rule. Anarchy tends to breed tyranny.

God describes a society that is completely out of control. From the prince in the palace to the peasant in the street, everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes. It was a moral free-for-all, with no one adhering to any sort of standard for justice and righteousness. The signs of ungodliness were everywhere. But that shouldn’t be surprising. When they abandoned God, they also left behind His law. There was nothing to regulate and guide their behavior. They were each operating according to their own moral compass and the outcome was not a pretty picture.

The nation of Israel was marked by literal and spiritual adultery. The upper echelons of society were known for their drunken parties and immoral behavior. God describes their sinful actions like a baker’s oven that is maintained at a constant high temperature, with its fire never going out. Their sinful lifestyle could be “cooked up” at any time, day or night.

Their hearts are like an oven
    blazing with intrigue.
Their plot smolders through the night,
    and in the morning it breaks out like a raging fire. – Hosea 7:6 NLT

They never gave their sin a rest. And a lifestyle of unrepentant sin has a habit of escalating in intensity. It becomes like a fire raging out of control. With no godly means of regulating its sin-prone behavior, mankind is destined to endure a steady downward spiral of moral and spiritual decay. It is exactly what happened after Adam and Eve sinned. Their decision to disobey God led to an immediate collapse in the social fabric of society. One of their sons ending up killing his brother. And before long, the descendants of the first couple had polluted the earth with their wicked and ungodly behavior. So much so, that God decided to destroy all that He had made.

The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the LORD was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the LORD said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” – Genesis 6:5-7 NLT

And the state of affairs in Israel was no better. The extent of human wickedness in Israel was beyond belief. Everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. And God points out that their spiritual decline had reached such a low point that the nation had become self-destructive. They were literally annihilating themselves.

Burning like an oven,
    they consume their leaders.
They kill their kings one after another,
    and no one cries to me for help. – Hosea 7:7 NLT

And that last line says it all. In the midst of all the chaos, confusion, societal decay, and moral decadence, no one was bothering to seek God’s help. There was no godly remnant within the society calling out to God in repentance and begging for His intervention. The cancer of sin had spread so deeply that it had left no one free from its influence. The spiritual health of the nation had been completely compromised. They were beyond healing and in need of complete purging.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unrequited Love

1 And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days. Hosea 3:1-5 ESV

Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was meant to parallel the relationship between God and the apostate nation of Israel. And it seems that Gomer played the part of the unfaithful and adulterous wife quite well. It appears that, at some point, she abandoned Hosea and sought out the love of another man. We are provided with none of the backstory to Gomer’s fateful decision and are told nothing of the pain Hosea experienced when she left him. Since few details are provided, it is impossible to know how long Gomer has been gone. But regardless of the length of time and the level of pain that Hosea suffered, he receives a clear, yet difficult command from God.

Go and love your wife again, even though she commits adultery with another lover.” – Hosea 3:1 NLT

Hosea was being given a non-negotiable assignment from God. He was to seek out and restore his unfaithful wife. And what made this command particularly difficult was that she had left him and was now in a relationship with another man. Her actions clearly indicate that she had replaced Hosea with someone else. And God points out to Hosea the glaring similarities between Gomer and the people of Israel. By seeking to restore his adulterous and unloving wife, Hosea will be demonstrating God’s unfailing love for Israel.

“This will illustrate that the Lord still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them.” – Hosea 3:1 NLT

As difficult as all of this was for Hosea, God fully understood and could easily empathize with the hurt and anger that he was feeling. In a sense, Hosea was being allowed to experience the very real pain of rejection that God had endured for centuries. His relationship with the people of Israel had been marred by their constant unfaithfulness and repeated rejections of His love. Regardless of how many times He had demonstrated His steadfast love for them, they proved to be spiritual adulterers who made a habit out of giving their love and affection to other gods. And every time they bowed themselves before another “lover,” they were rejecting and spurning the love of God. They were thumbing their noses in the face of the one who had redeemed them from their former life of slavery and had pledged to shower them with His undeserved love and affection.

So, Hosea obeyed the Lord and sought out his wayward wife. Once again, we’re not told how long it took Hosea to locate Gomer. It could be that he knew right where she was all along. It’s more than likely that the rumor mill had been in full effect and Hosea had heard where she was and even knew the name of her new lover. But getting Gomer to return was going to prove difficult and costly. This isn’t one of those Hallmark Cards movies where Gomer runs into the waiting arms of Hosea as the music swells in the background. No, Hosea was forced to buy back his own wife, and he shares the exact price he had to pay.

So I bought her back for fifteen pieces of silver and five bushels of barley and a measure of wine. – Hosea 3:2 NLT

It’s difficult to know just how costly this purchase was for Hosea. But the Mosaic Law provides a bit of context. It outlines the penalty that was to be paid if one man’s ox gored and killed another man’s slave.

…if the ox gores a slave, either male or female, the animal’s owner must pay the slave’s owner thirty silver coins. – Exodus 21:32 NLT

It seems that Gomer’s new relationship was not as loving as it may have appeared. Her new “husband” was willing to enter into negotiations with Hosea to determine a fair price to let her go. And the final price worked out to be about 30 pieces of silver. Hosea paid half of it in cash and the rest in barley and wine. Gomer’s lover sold her out for the price of a dead slave.

Once Hosea had finalized the purchase, he informed Gomer of the new conditions of their relationship. He laid down new rules of engagement that prohibited any further adulterous behavior on her part.

“You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” – Hosea 3:3 ESV

Hosea was pledging his faithfulness to Gomer and declaring his expectation that she return the favor. Something that is easy to overlook in all of this is the difficulty this new arrangement would pose for Gomer. She had a proven track record of unfaithfulness and was going to find Hosea’s demands to be restrictive and repugnant. She had already left him once and it is likely that she would be tempted to do so again. But her forced “faithfulness” was intended to illustrate what was going to happen to the people of Israel. God was going to take them through a time of corporate cleansing that would deny them access to their false gods. And it would come in the form of their defeat and deportation at the hands of the Assyrians.

During their time in exile, the Israelites would find themselves living outside the land of promise and with no access to their former idols or places of pagan worship. They would have no king to lead them or priests to guide them in their worship of their false gods.

“Israel will go a long time without a king or prince, and without sacrifices, sacred pillars, priests, or even idols!” – Hosea 3:4 NLT

And they would be denied any access to God Almighty. Some scholars believe that Hosea told Gomer that their physical relationship would be put on hold as well. Not only would she be denied access to other lovers, she would not be allowed to enjoy intimacy with Hosea.

“You must live in my house for many days and stop your prostitution. During this time, you will not have sexual relations with anyone, not even with me. – Hosea 3:3 NLT

Hosea was placing his unfaithful wife in a form of isolation, and that is exactly what God ended up doing with the unfaithful people of Israel. He sent them into captivity in Assyria, where they were denied all the privileges and prerogatives they once enjoyed as His chosen people. Their unfaithfulness, like that of Gomer, came with consequences.

But God gives Hosea good news. He informs His faithful prophet that the day will come when Israel returns to Him. And it won’t be a forced relationship based on rules and mandatory restrictions. They will willingly return to God and express to Him their love and affection.

“But afterward the people will return and devote themselves to the Lord their God and to David’s descendant, their king. In the last days, they will tremble in awe of the Lord and of his goodness.” – Hosea 3:5 NLT

The prophet Ezekiel provides further insight into this future day when God will restore His disobedient people.

“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.” – Ezekiel 36:24-29 ESV

Even their return to Him will be the result of His gracious power and provision. He will be the one to restore their hearts and provide them with the capacity to love Him unconditionally and faithfully. The prophet Jeremiah makes this point quite clear.

“I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” – Jeremiah 24:7 ESV

“I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.” – Jeremiah 32:39 ESV

Hosea did not possess the ability to instill this kind of change in the heart of Gomer. He had no guarantee that his unfaithful wife would ever return his love and affection. But he faithfully obeyed the will of God and continued to display his love to her, without ever knowing if she would reciprocate. But God provided him with a glimmer of hope by revealing His plans for the disobedient people of Israel. If God could restore and redeem them, perhaps there was a chance that Gomer could one day learn to love Hosea.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Hard Act to Follow

1 Say to your brothers, “You are my people,” and to your sisters, “You have received mercy.”

“Plead with your mother, plead—
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
    and her adultery from between her breasts;
lest I strip her naked
    and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
    and make her like a parched land,
    and kill her with thirst.
Upon her children also I will have no mercy,
    because they are children of whoredom.
For their mother has played the whore;
    she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
    who give me my bread and my water,
    my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’
Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns,
    and I will build a wall against her,
    so that she cannot find her paths.
She shall pursue her lovers
    but not overtake them,
and she shall seek them
    but shall not find them.
Then she shall say,
    ‘I will go and return to my first husband,
    for it was better for me then than now.’
And she did not know
    that it was I who gave her
    the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished on her silver and gold,
    which they used for Baal.
Therefore I will take back
    my grain in its time,
    and my wine in its season,
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
    which were to cover her nakedness.
10 Now I will uncover her lewdness
    in the sight of her lovers,
    and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.
11 And I will put an end to all her mirth,
    her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths,
    and all her appointed feasts.
12 And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
    of which she said,
‘These are my wages,
    which my lovers have given me.’
I will make them a forest,
    and the beasts of the field shall devour them.
13 And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals
    when she burned offerings to them
and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry,
    and went after her lovers
    and forgot me, declares the Lord.” Hosea 2:1-13 ESV

I’m not sure who had the worst assignment from God. Was it Jonah, whom God had commissioned to deliver His message of judgment to the Assyrians living in Nineveh, a people renowned for their wickedness and cruelty? Or was it Hosea, who was given the unenviable task of marrying a prostitute and starting a family? Before you decide, you might want to take a look at chapter two of the book of Hosea, because it adds another level of awkwardness and discomfort to his plight.

While it seems clear that Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was intended to serve as a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God, we can’t ignore the fact that he really did marry a prostitute. And to make matters worse, verses 1-13 of chapter two seem to indicate that there were serious questions about the legitimacy of Hosea’s three children. While Jezreel, Lo-ruhama, and Lo-ammi were all born into Hosea’s family, there would be lingering doubts as to whether they were really his children or not. And this would be because Gomer continued to pursue a lifestyle of unfaithfulness. Despite Hosea’s love for her, she evidently refused to give up her old way of life.

In verse 2 of chapter two, God uses Hosea’s strained relationship with Gomer to portray the less-than-satisfactory nature of His own relationship with the nation of Israel. And God seems to infer that Hosea may have cause for concern when it comes to his wife’s faithfulness and the pedigree of his own children.

At first glance, it’s difficult to determine who is speaking in these verses. It is Hosea or God? But when considered in the context of the rest of the book, it becomes apparent that God is using Hosea’s “voice” to proclaim HIs judgment against His unfaithful and spiritual adulterous “bride” – the nation of Israel. God opens up by declaring: “Plead with your mother, plead for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband — that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts…” (Hosea 2:2 ESV). God is accusing Israel, His wife, of having committed egregious acts of spiritual adultery. Not once, but many times. And what makes this disclosure particularly disturbing is that God had just promised to restore and reunite His rebellious people.

“Yet the time will come when Israel’s people will be like the sands of the seashore—too many to count! Then, at the place where they were told, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said, ‘You are children of the living God.’ Then the people of Judah and Israel will unite together. They will choose one leader for themselves, and they will return from exile together. What a day that will be—the day of Jezreel—when God will again plant his people in his land. – Hosea 1:10-11 NLT

Again, using Hosea’s own children as symbols for the rebellious children of Israel, God states, “In that day you will call your brothers Ammi—‘My people.’ And you will call your sisters Ruhamah—‘The ones I love’” (Hosea 2:1 NLT).  He promises to redeem and restore His illegitimate children, who are the byproduct of Israel’s various love affairs with other gods.

The children themselves are proof positive that Israel has been unfaithful – not once, but on multiple occasions. And, once again, it would appear that Hosea must have had cause to question the legitimacy of his own children. This too-close-for-comfort metaphor would have left Hosea reeling with uncertainty about Gomer’s faithfulness. Yet, his marriage to her had a far greater purpose behind it than his own happiness. God was using this man’s marriage as a living lesson for the entire nation of Israel.

The anger that Hosea would have felt upon discovering Gomer’s adultery paled in comparison to God’s righteous indignation against His chosen people. And just as Hosea would have demanded that Gomer repent and turn from her lifestyle of promiscuity, God was adamant that His people put their adulterous ways behind them.

“Tell her to remove the prostitute’s makeup from her face
    and the clothing that exposes her breasts.
Otherwise, I will strip her as naked
    as she was on the day she was born.
I will leave her to die of thirst,
    as in a dry and barren wilderness.” – Hosea 2:2-3 NLT

God was not going to tolerate their behavior. He warned Israel to abandon their wicked ways or face His abandonment of them. God accused Israel of running after other “lovers” – false gods who offered them help, hope, security, and prosperity.  They were guilty of selling themselves for “food and water, for clothing of wool and linen, and for olive oil and drinks” (Hosea 2:5 NLT). In other words, they were seeking satisfaction and significance outside their covenant relationship with God. And, in doing so, they were insinuating that Yahweh was not enough. He had met their needs.

But God warns them that He is going to limit their ability to wander and prostitute themselves for pay. Their actions were not motivated by love but, instead, were driven by material gain. They willingly gave themselves to their long list of false gods in the  hopes of getting something in return for their efforts. In a sense, Israel was guilty of selling themselves to the highest bidder. They weren’t just immoral, they were mercenary in their behavior – selling their affection in exchange for compensation.

God, assuming the role of the offended husband, declares that he will not stand idly by and watch his “wife” continue to abuse his kindness and mercy.

“I will strip her naked in public,
    while all her lovers look on.
No one will be able
    to rescue her from my hands.” – Hosea 2:10 NLT

And in verses 11-13, God eliminates all doubt that He is addressing the sins of Israel. He portends a day when Israel will pay for its many indiscretions. He portrays a time when life as they know it comes to an end. Their religious feasts and festivals will abruptly cease. The fruitfulness of the land will diminish. The towns and villages will become empty wastelands, occupied by wild animals rather than people. And all of this will take place in 722 B.C. when the Assyrians conquer Israel and destroy the capital city of Samaria. And God leave no questions regarding the cause of their future destruction.

“I will punish her for all those times
    when she burned incense to her images of Baal,
when she put on her earrings and jewels
    and went out to look for her lovers
but forgot all about me,”
    says the Lord. – Hosea 2:13 NLT

Keep in mind, Hosea was living this nightmare out in real life. He was having to watch his own marriage implode right before his eyes, and God was going to expect him to love Gomer in the same way that He expressed love to His own unfaithful people. Every time Hosea felt like throwing in the towel and giving up on his marriage to Gomer, God was going to illustrate with covenant faithfulness should look like. He was not going to overlook or excuse the sins of Israel, but He was also not going to give up on HIs covenant commitment to love them to the end.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Difficult Assignment

1 The word of the Lord that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.  When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Hosea 1:1-2 ESV

We know from the opening lines of this book that Hosea was a prophet whose God-ordained ministry spanned the reigns of four different kings of Judah. During that same period of time, Jeroboam II ruled as the king of the ten northern tribes, known as the nation of Israel. King Uzziah’s reign began in 792 B.C. and King Hezekiah’s reign ended in 686 B.C.. That’s a period of 106 years. According to 2 Kings 14, Jeroboam II reigned 41 years over Israel. Many scholars believe that Hosea’s prophetic ministry lasted some 45 years and extended beyond the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.. So, he was well-acquainted with each of these men.

Hosea was a contemporary of Jonah and Amos and, like them, he was called by God to prophesy to the northern kingdom. The 8th-Century B.C. was a time of prosperity and relative peace for both the northern and southern kingdoms. Both nations experienced tremendous growth and were able to expand their territorial boundaries. But, for the most part, both kingdoms were guilty of apostasy and idolatry during those years. Yet, we’re told that hree of the kings of Judah (Uzziah, Jotham, and Hezekiah) “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 15:3, 34; 18:3 ESV). Only Ahaz proved to be a wicked king who “walked in the way of the kings of Israel” (2 Kings 16:3 ESV). In other words, he promoted the worship of false gods and encouraged the people to turn their backs on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But even the efforts of the three “good” kings did little to curtail the downward spiritual spiral taking place in Judah.

But Hosea was not called to prophesy to the southern kingdom. His ministry would be to the ten northern tribes, who were known for their persistent and unrelenting rebellion against God. In the northern kingdom, there was a long line of godless kings who followed Jeroboam II. These included Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, and Pekah. And while these five men are not mentioned in the opening verses of Hosea’s book, it is likely that Hosea’s prophetic ministry took place during the reigns of a few of them. So, why are they left out? It’s most likely due to the fact that their reigns were relatively short-lived and were marked by blatant apostasy. It is said of each of them, that they “did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat” (2 Kings 15:4 ESV). They willingly continued the wicked and idolatrous ways of their predecessor.

We know very little about this man named Hosea. All we’re told is that he was “the son of Beeri” (Hosea 1:1 ESV). We have no idea where he was from or how old he was. But the text makes one thing perfectly clear:  This relatively unknown prophet received a rather bizarre assignment from God.

“Go and marry a prostitute, so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution. This will illustrate how Israel has acted like a prostitute by turning against the Lord and worshiping other gods.”  – Hosea 1:2 NLT

Let that sink in for a minute. The holy and righteous God of the universe is commanding His prophet to marry “a wife of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2 ESV). The Hebrew word is זנונים (zᵊnûnîm), which can be translated as “adultery, fornication, or prostitution.” Everything about this command should raise red flags. Why would a holy God command His spokesman to do such a thing? There are those who believe that God was not telling Hosea to commit a sin by marrying a known prostitute, Instead, they believe God was simply using His omniscience to foretell what would happen after Hosea had married his wife. But there is nothing in the text that supports such a conclusion. It seems rather clear that God told His hand-picked prophet to “take” (lāqaḥ) a prostitute to be his wife. And that word conveys the idea of taking in marriage. It can also mean “to buy” or “to acquire.” This was a case of a good wife gone bad. God was commanding Hosea to take for himself a wife who had a reputation for unfaithfulness.

What makes this command even more disconcerting was that this woman was well-known within the community. So, his marriage to her would have raised eyebrows and loosened tongues. Poor Hosea would have been the talk of the town. But God had a very good reason for giving His prophet to this very awkward and humbling command. It was intended to provide a powerful and visual lesson to the disobedient people of Israel. They too were guilty of adultery, but theirs was of a spiritual nature. And, like the prostitute Hosea would marry, Israel had a well-known and unflattering reputation for unfaithfulness.

And the one who knew their reputation best was the one who had chosen them in the first place. In fact, long before the people of Israel were a nation, God had chosen a man named Abram, who lived in the land of the Chaldeans, beyond the Euphrates River.

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors, including Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River, and they worshiped other gods.” – Joshua 24:2 NLT

Abram was not a God-worshiper. He was a pagan idolater, but God chose Him and promised to make of him a great nation.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.” – Genesis 12:1-2 NLT

And God chose to fulfill that promise by allowing Abram’s descendants to seek relief from a famine in the land of Canaan by moving to Egypt. They would end up staying in Egypt for more than 400 years and, during that time, they would grow to number in the millions. But they would also end up the slaves of the Egyptians. And during their tenure their, they would end up worshiping the gods of their masters. Joshua makes that point clear when he calls on the people of Israel to serve and fear the Lord.

“So fear the LORD and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD alone…” – Joshua 24:14 NLT

Even after God had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt and was leading them to the land of Canaan, they proved to be idolatrous and unfaithful. They reverted to their old, idolatrous ways.

The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted down gold and made a calf, and they have bowed down and sacrificed to it. They are saying, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” – Exodus 32:7-8 NLT

So, when God commanded Hosea to “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2 ESV), it was intended to demonstrate exactly what He had done with the people of Israel. He had chosen them when they were idol worshipers. And even after He had introduced Himself to Abram, the descendants of Abram proved to be less-than-faithful to their new God. During their four centuries in Egypt, they forgot all about Him. And even as He led them to the land of promise, they attempted to replace Him with a god of their own choosing. The apostasy of Israel under the reign of Jeroboam II was nothing new. They had a well-deserved reputation as spiritual adulterers, selling themselves to the highest bidder and offering their affections to any god that came along.

But what makes God’s command to difficult to get our brains around is that He ordered Hosea to raise a family with this adulterous and unfaithful woman.

“Go and marry a prostitute, so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution.” – Hosea 1:2 NLT

Yet, once again, God was simply providing a visual illustration of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. They too had born children “conceived in prostitution.” Each of the kings of Israel had been the byproduct of their own ungodly parents and the inheritors of the godless kingdom bequeathed to them by their royal predecessor. Poor Hosea was being asked by God to use his own life and marriage as a real-life parable that would put the sins of Israel on display for all to see.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Seek the Lord and Live

1 Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

“Fallen, no more to rise,
    is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
    with none to raise her up.”

For thus says the Lord God:

“The city that went out a thousand
    shall have a hundred left,
and that which went out a hundred
    shall have ten left
    to the house of Israel.”

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

“Seek me and live;
    but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
    or cross over to Beersheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
    and Bethel shall come to nothing.”

Seek the Lord and live,
    lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
    and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
    and cast down righteousness to the earth!

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
    and turns deep darkness into the morning
    and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name;
who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
    so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

10 They hate him who reproves in the gate,
    and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
    and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
    but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
    but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions
    and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
    and turn aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time,
    for it is an evil time.

14 Seek good, and not evil,
    that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
    as you have said.
15 Hate evil, and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

16 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:

“In all the squares there shall be wailing,
    and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’
They shall call the farmers to mourning
    and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing,
    for I will pass through your midst,”
says the Lord. Amos 5:1-17 ESV

Amos opens up chapter five with an announcement of Israel’s pending demise and invites them to listen to their own funeral song. Not exactly a happy thought. The Hebrew word translated as “lamentation” is qînâ (kee-naw) and it refers to a dirge or elegy sung to commemorate and mourn someone’s death. And the words of this funeral dirge contain equal amounts of sorrow and sarcasm. Amos describes Israel as a virgin who “has fallen, never to rise again! She lies abandoned on the ground, with no one to help her up” (Amos 5:2 NLT).

This somber-sounding song was meant to convey a sense of scornful derision. The sad reality was that Israel was anything but virginal, and everyone knew it. They had spiritually prostituted themselves with every false god imaginable. Their track record of apostasy and spiritual adultery was well-documented. The prophet Hosea, a contemporary of Amos, had some strong words concerning their ongoing unfaithfulness to God.

“Though you, Israel, are a prostitute, may Judah not be guilty of such things. Do not join the false worship at Gilgal or Beth-aven, and do not take oaths there in the LORD’s name.” – Hosea 4:15 NLT

But their penchant for adultery was more than spiritual in nature. Their abandonment of God had created an atmosphere where immoral and unethical behavior ran rampant. And Hosea records God’s indictment of their wickedness.

“There is no faithfulness, no kindness,
    no knowledge of God in your land.
You make vows and break them;
    you kill and steal and commit adultery.
There is violence everywhere—
    one murder after another.” – Amos 4:1-2 NLT

And Amos lets them know that the day is coming when they will pay for their sins. They will fall, never to rise again. Their destruction will be full and final, with no one coming come to their aid, including God.

Israel will find itself at war, but rather than experiencing victory over their enemies, they will see their army defeated and decimated. For every 1,000 soldiers who go into battle, only 100 will survive. Only one out of 100 soldiers will survive the battlefield or escape being taken captive by the enemy. No nation can experience those kinds of catastrophic losses and hope to survive.

But despite the gloomy pronouncement of coming judgment, there was cause for hope. While the nation of Israel could not avoid the coming destruction, the people of Israel could choose to seek God. Three separate times, God invites His adulterous people to return to Him so that they might live.

“Seek me and live…” – Vs 4

Seek the Lord and live…” – Vs 6

“Seek good, and not evil, that you may live…” – Vs 14

The Hebrew word dāraš conveys the idea of seeking something with great care and diligence. Rather than seeking help from their false gods, they are to seek the one true God. Like a loving husband, God is inviting His unfaithful and adulterous bride to return to Him. The entire book of Hosea provides a powerful illustration of this uncompromising love of God for His wayward people. At the very beginning of the book, Hosea is given a difficult assignment from God.

“Go and marry a prostitute, so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution. This will illustrate how Israel has acted like a prostitute by turning against the Lord and worshiping other gods.” – Hosea 1:2 NLT

And Hosea did just as the Lord had commanded, marrying a woman named Gomer. And, like the people of Israel, Gomer proved to be unfaithful to her marriage commitment to Hosea. She bore him three children but continued to pursue other lovers. And God would use Gomer as a visual illustration of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him. At one point, He would declare an end to His patience and demand to see a change of heart among His people.

“But now bring charges against Israel—your mother—
    for she is no longer my wife,
    and I am no longer her husband.
Tell her to remove the prostitute’s makeup from her face
    and the clothing that exposes her breasts.” – Hosea 2:2 NLT

God will reach the point when He says, “Enough is enough” and exposes the stubborn refusal of His bride to seek Him and Him alone.

“I will not love her children,
    for they were conceived in prostitution.
Their mother is a shameless prostitute
    and became pregnant in a shameful way.
She said, ‘I’ll run after other lovers
    and sell myself to them for food and water,
for clothing of wool and linen,
    and for olive oil and drinks.’” – Hosea 2:4-5 NLT

But God longs to see His people return. He begs them to seek Him so that they might live. Rather than continue their adulterous affairs with the false gods located in Bethel,
Gilgal, and Beersheba, they were to pursue a restored relationship with Yahweh. But God was looking for a change of heart, not just an alteration in their behavior. Their seeking of Him was going to require an abandonment of their other “lovers” – once and for all. Otherwise, God would be forced to cut them off.

“Come back to the Lord and live!
Otherwise, he will roar through Israel like a fire,
    devouring you completely.” – Amos 5:6 NLT

God could not and would not tolerate their ongoing unfaithfulness. And when His judgment came, their false gods would prove powerless to help them. They would be no match for God Almighty. The same God who created the universe, hung the stars in the sky, and formed the oceans, and sent the rain to water the land, would bring His power to bear on the sins of Israel. And there would be nothing they could do to stop Him. Except “Do what is good and run from evil” (Amos 5:14 NLT). He told them to “Hate evil and love what is good” and “turn your courts into true halls of justice” (Amos 5:15 NLT).

God was looking for heart transformation that showed up in behavior modification. They were guilty of all kinds of injustice and immorality. They took advantage of the poor. They despised the truth and promoted an atmosphere where dishonesty and deceit were encouraged and rewarded. But all that was going to have to change. God demanded that they “Do what is good and run from evil so that you may live!” ( Amos 5:14 NLT). 

If they wanted God’s help, they were going to have to show that they were serious about seeking Him. No lip-service. No feigned faithfulness. It was not too late, but they were going to have to be serious about pursuing God and abandoning their old ways of living. And, if they did, a remnant of them just might experience the grace and mercy of God.

“Perhaps even yet the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies
    will have mercy on the remnant of his people.” – Amos 5:15 NLT

Otherwise, they could expect the worst.

“There will be crying in all the public squares
    and mourning in every street.
Call for the farmers to weep with you,
    and summon professional mourners to wail.
There will be wailing in every vineyard,
    for I will destroy them all,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 5:16-17 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Sinner Condemned, Unclean

53 But They went each to his own house, 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”John 7:53-8:11 ESV

This section of John’s gospel is a bit controversial because it is not found in the oldest of the extant Greek manuscripts. While there are more than 900 ancient manuscripts that include the story of the woman caught in adultery, it is significant that none of the early church fathers referred to this encounter in their commentaries on the Gospel of John. It is the belief of most modern commentators that this story was a later addition to the Gospel, which raises the question of whether it should be considered as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

While the evidence seems to indicate that the story was edited into John’s Gospel by some unknown source, it does not necessarily invalidate its authenticity. And there is no reason to assume that its inclusion by someone other than the apostle John means that it was uninspired and, therefore, unworthy to be considered a part of the Canon of Scripture. Perhaps it was part of the oral tradition of the early church and later placed within the text of John’s Gospel to further support the theme of Jesus’ power and authority as the Son of God.

There are those who consider this an apocryphal story, spurious in its authenticity and therefore, unworthy to be considered as the inspired Word of God. But the story does provide insight into the growing hostility between Jesus and the religious leaders, a theme that John is gradually unfolding.

Chapter seven ended with a tense exchange between Nicodemus and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. They were frustrated that their guards had failed to arrest Jesus while He was on the temple grounds. Instead, they had let Him go because they had been mesmerized by His teaching. When Nicodemus had suggested that Jesus be given a fair hearing, his colleagues mocked him for being as uneducated and lawless as the Galileans who mindlessly followed after this huckster from Nazareth.

John has made it clear that Jesus’ hour had not yet come. The Sanhedrin, while determined to have Jesus arrested, were powerless to thwart God’s divine timeline for His Son’s mission. So, Jesus left the temple grounds and headed east to Mount of Olives, just opposite Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley. Evidently, He and His disciples spent the night there, rising early the next morning to return to the temple grounds, where He resumed His teaching.

One can only imagine the frustration of the Sanhedrin as they woke that next morning only to find Jesus sitting in the middle of the temple courtyard, surrounded by a large and attentive audience. His persistent presence and uncanny ability to attract a crowd wherever He went caused these religious leaders great angst. So, as was quickly becoming their habit, they devised a plan by which they might trap Jesus into saying or doing something that might give them grounds for having Him arrested. Because of His growing popularity, it was necessary that they devise a plan that would expose Jesus as a fraud and cause the people to turn against Him.

On this occasion, they chose the controversial topic of adultery to “test” Jesus. This was a hot-button issue among the Jews. The people knew what the Mosaic law had to say about the matter, but there was a lot of debate concerning how to interpret and enforce this particular law. Leviticus 20:10 reads: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

But in this case, the religious leaders drag a woman into the temple courtyard and throw her down in front of Jesus. There is no mention of her male companion in crime. This might be because this woman was guilty of violating another aspect of the law concerning adultery. In the book of Deuteronomy, there is another scenario described in which a man marries a woman only to discover on their wedding night that she was not a virgin. In that case, the law prescribed the following punishment:

The woman must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death, for she has committed a disgraceful crime in Israel by being promiscuous while living in her parents’ home. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you. – Deuteronomy 22:21 NLT

It is impossible to know the true nature of this woman’s crime. But she is publicly shamed, dragged by the religious leaders into the temple courtyard, and thrown at Jesus’ feet. To them, she was nothing more than a prop, a nameless tool in their effort to discredit and destroy Jesus. They were not interested in seeing that justice was done. They simply wanted to create a no-win situation in which Jesus would be doomed no matter how He responded. So, using the woman as bait, they set their trap and waited for Jesus to condemn Himself.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” – John 8:4-5 NLT

These men were experts in the law. They were not interested in Jesus’ views on legal matters but were hoping that He would say something that violated the law or infuriated the people. And John makes their intentions quite clear.

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him… – John 8:6 NLT

They already viewed Jesus as a law-breaker, because He had already violated the prohibition against working on the Sabbath by healing a man and then instructing him to carry his bedroll. So, they must have been convinced that Jesus would choose to violate the law once again, and hoped that He would recommend releasing the woman. If He did, they could accuse Him of being in violation of the Mosaic Law and have Him arrested on the spot. But if Jesus surprised them and announced that the woman should be stoned for her crime, the crowd would probably turn on Him. Adultery had become commonplace among the Jews and the laws concerning its punishment were rarely enforced. And if Jesus had condoned the stoning of this woman, He would have been suggesting that they violate the Roman law which prohibited the Jews from enacting any form of capital punishment.

The religious leaders believed they had Jesus in a conundrum. In their minds, they had Him caught between a rock and a hard place. No matter what He said, He would end up condemning Himself. But rather than speak, Jesus knelt down and began to write in the dirt with His finger. As he did so, the religious leaders demanded that He give them an answer to their question. So, He stood up and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7 NLT). Then, He knelt back down and continued to write something in the dirt.

There has been a great deal of speculation concerning what Jesus wrote in the dirt that day. But the text provides absolutely no insight into the content of Jesus’ message. We are simply told that when Jesus said, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone,” the crowd began to disperse, including the men who had instigated the whole affair. Perhaps Jesus had written the Ten Commandments in the dust. We will never know. But whatever Jesus scrawled in the dirt that day had caused the woman’s self-righteous accusers to slink away one by one, starting with the oldest among them.

Some have speculated that Jesus had shamed these men by writing down a list of specific sins each of them had committed. Embarrassed at having their personal sins exposed, they quickly vacated the premises. While this is an interesting proposal, there is nothing in the text that supports it. All that is clear is that no one was able to pick up a stone because no one was without sin.

This seems to be the main point behind the entire story. Jesus had come to earth in order to provide forgiveness for sin. And, according to Scripture, all men are guilty of sin. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV). And the apostle Paul reiterated that truth when he wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

The religious leaders considered themselves to be pure and holy, fully righteous before God because they painstakingly and pridefully kept the law of Moses. But Jesus exposed the truth about their spiritual condition, revealing their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. These men had arrogantly set themselves up as judges over the people, looking down their noses at the irreligious rabble who were incapable of living up to God’s holy standards like they did. They saw Jesus as no better than the woman they had dragged before Him. He was a lawbreaker and worthy of condemnation and death just as she was. But they failed to recognize their own guilt and their need for cleansing. The sad reality is that they chose to leave rather than face the truth about their own sinfulness. Only the woman remained. She stood before Jesus and the crowd, accused and condemned, her sin openly acknowledged for everyone to know.

But rather than judging her, Jesus asked her where her accusers had gone. He points out that no one stood before her, stone in hand, ready to condemn her for her crime. They had all disappeared, meaning there were no witnesses left to verify her guilt. So, Jesus, acknowledging that her accusers were nowhere to be found, announced to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11 ESV). There were no witnesses left to condemn her, so there was no evidence to convict her. And on that basis, Jesus encouraged her to go and to sin no more. She had been given a reprieve. While evidently guilty of the crime and worthy of death, she had been graciously given a second chance to change the way she lived. Her sin, while real, was forgivable. Her guilt, though undeniable, was survivable. All thanks to Jesus.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When Man’s Wishes and God’s Will Collide

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” –  Matthew 19:1-12 ESV

This is a difficult passage that has caused a great deal of contention and confusion over the centuries. And it’s likely that the disciples were left scratching their heads when they heard what Jesus had to say. These 12 verses deal with a topic that remains highly controversial to this day: Divorce among believers. And like so much of what Jesus taught, what He told His disciples seems to run counter to the prevailing sentiments of times in which they lived. Popular opinion would not line up with Jesus’ take on the matter. That’s why the Pharisees brought it up in the first place. They were trying to test or trick Jesus into saying something that could ruin His reputation among the people. Divorce was just as controversial then as it is now. And if Jesus attacked the peoples’ perceived right to divorce, it would alienate Him from the masses.

It could be that they were hoping He would take a similar tact as that of John the Baptist. It was John’s outspoken stance on divorce and remarriage that had resulted in his execution by Herod.

John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. – Luke 3:19-20 NLT

Matthew opens this chapter by stating that Jesus had traveled into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” – an area sometimes referred to as the Transjordan – which fell under the jurisdiction of Herod. The Pharisees were probably hoping that Jesus would speak against divorce as well, bringing down the wrath of Herod on his head.

Their question to Jesus was carefully worded: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

Behind the question was their understanding or interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-2:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his houseand if she goes and becomes another man’s wife

The Pharisees interpreted this Old Testament passage to mean that God permitted divorce and approved of remarriage. But like so much of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Pharisees tended to read into it the meaning they wanted to get out of it. There were two contemporary rabbinic schools that differed in their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy. One group taught that it condoned divorce for just about any reason, while the other group took a more conservative view, stating that divorce was only permissible in the case of sexual immorality.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had come down on the conservative side of the debate.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

It would seem that the Pharisees had heard about Jesus’ stance on this issue and hoped to cause a stir among the people by getting Jesus to state His more conservative and less popular view.

The interesting point in all of this is the marked difference between Jesus’ area of emphasis and that of the Pharisees. They came asking a question about divorce. Jesus turned it into a lesson on marriage.

As Jesus was prone to do, He responded to their question with a question: “Have you not read…?” 

This unveiled inference by Jesus would have been like a slap in the face to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. But Jesus was about to school them on their understanding of God’s Word, taking them back to the book of Genesis. Paraphrasing the words of Moses regarding the God-ordained institution of marriage, Jesus asked them:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. – Matthew 19:4-6 ESV

Notice His emphasis: What God has joined together. Marriage is to be seen as a God-ordained union between a man and a woman. And no man is to separate that union. In that day and age, a woman was denied the right to divorce. But the husband was free to divorce his wife and, as many interpreted it, for any reason whatsoever, even for burning dinner.

But from God’s point of view, through the covenant of marriage, a man and woman became “one flesh.” They are united in an inseparable bond, sanctioned by God Himself. Marriage was to carry the idea of complementation, but also completeness. Two individuals, by covenanting together in marriage, were supernaturally bonded by God and made a completed whole. From that point forward, He saw them as one, not two.

But appealing to the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1, the Pharisees present Jesus with a follow-up question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” This was their perceived loophole. In their minds, it appeared that Moses had provided a clear and legal escape clause from the marriage bond. 

But the answer Jesus gave them most likely infuriated them.

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – Matthew 19:8 ESV

Notice that Jesus points the finger of culpability straight at the Pharisees. Even though the words of Moses were spoken hundreds of years earlier, Jesus applies them to the men standing right in front of Him. Their hearts were hardened. They were unwilling and incapable of abiding by God’s will concerning marriage. And Moses had made it clear that “from the beginning it was not so.” In other words, from the day God had ordained the institution of marriage, divorce was not to be an option. No man was to separate what God had joined together.

And it’s interesting to note what the Deuteronomy passage goes on to say about this topic.

…if she [a divorced woman] goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:2-4 ESV

Notice what Moses said. The woman who has been divorced and remarried is “defiled.” If she were divorced again and her first husband tried to remarry her, he would be committing an abomination before the Lord. It was totally unacceptable.

As usual, the Pharisees were looking for loopholes. They were seeking God-approved grounds for divorce. But Jesus was emphasizing the sanctity and holiness of marriage. Rather than looking for excuses to separate, Jesus wanted them to recognize God’s command to remain one. Moses made a concession for divorce because of man’s inherent sin problem. He was in no way condoning divorce. He was simply conceding man’s inability to do what God had called him to do: Remain in an inviolable relationship with his wife.

And Jesus reinforces the fact that divorce was not in God’s plan. He had not ordained it and would not condone it. But like all sins, it was inevitable. So, when divorce did take place, there was only one scenario that would be considered biblical grounds for divorce.

“…whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that the Pharisees, while quick to quote from Deuteronomy 24:1, seemed to ignore what Deuteronomy 22:22 had to say:

“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

This discussion led the disciples to question the whole viability of marriage. If remarriage after divorce was out of the question, because it would leave both individuals guilty of adultery, it seemed to make more sense to never marry in the first place. You can see that their view on marriage had been influenced by the idea of divorce as a potential get-out-of-jail-free card. If the marriage didn’t work out, they could always get a divorce. But Jesus had shut down that option.

Yet Jesus informed His disciples that celibacy was not an easy road to take. It had to be something that God led someone to do.

Jesus described three types of eunuchs. The term “eunuch,” referred to “one naturally incapacitated – for marriage” (G2135 – eunouchosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (ESV) Blue Letter Bible). Some were born eunuchs. Others were made that way, through forced castration. But there was still another group of individuals who chose to remain unmarried. They were essentially eunuchs by choice, or as Jesus put it, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” He would have been a case in point. Jesus never married, focusing all His energies on fulfilling the will of His Father.

As we will see, Jesus is beginning to set His eyes on the mission objective waiting for Him in Jerusalem. The storyline is quickly moving to its final stages. And Jesus, while teaching the disciples about issues that relate to everyday life, is trying to get them to understand that there are far more important things on the horizon than debates about marriage and divorce or arguments about who is the greatest in the kingdom. The cross looms large in Jesus’ mind. His destiny carries with it the shadow of death, but also the hope of the resurrection.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Not What God Intended

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification about what the law actually says regarding the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of the Jewish peoples’ misunderstanding of what the law actually taught. Jesus was showing them that they had misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had divorced the idea of adultery from divorce. And Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. This is why He states, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV).

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT).

The context of the passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard-line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do. He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus said to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self, and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Serious Heart Condition

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while the Mosaic Law clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind than they perceived. The issue was the heart.

In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous, even in the midst of their worship of Him. Consider this stinging criticism He leveled against them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people listening to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals, the outward meaning of the law, and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought.

Jesus uses the Greek word, “lust” (epithymeō), which meansto set the heart upon.” The word could be positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context in which it was used. But if you set your heart upon another person’s spouse, lust was most definitely wrong. In its negative usage, lust was to strongly seek that which had been forbidden by God. So, what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act. What would cause someone to set their heart upon something God had forbidden or placed off-limits? And this was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Scriptures had always taught about the heart.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to and haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but you won’t fool God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, the use of over-exaggeration to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life event as an illustration. Early on in King David’s reign, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when nations did battle. But the passage tells us that, while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw.” David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized what he saw to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that might prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to a set of rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him by turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed, their affections would remain misplaced. Jesus came to reveal to them just how much God loved them.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson