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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 12–19
Verses 12–19

In these verses we have, as before,

I. The sins charged upon the people of Israel, for which God had a controversy with them, and they are,

1. Spiritual whoredom, or idolatry. They have in them a spirit of whoredoms, a strong inclination to that sin; the bent and bias of their hearts are that way; it is their own iniquity; they are carried out towards it with an unaccountable violence, and this causes them to err. Note, The errors and mistakes of the judgment are commonly owing to the corrupt affections; men therefore have a good opinion of sin, because they have a disposition towards it. And having such erroneous notions of idols, and such passionate motions towards them, no marvel that with such a head and such a heart they have gone a whoring from under their God, Hos. 4:12. They ought to have been in subjection to him as their head and husband, to have been under his guidance and command, but they revolted from their allegiance, and put themselves under the guidance and protection of false gods. Song (Hos. 4:15) Israel has played the harlot; their conduct in the worship of their idols was like that of a harlot, wanton and impudent. And (Hos. 4:16), Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer, as an untamed heifer (so some), or as a perverse or refractory one (so others), as a heifer that is turned loose runs madly about the pasture, or, if put under the yoke (which seems rather to be alluded to here), will draw back instead of going forward, will struggle to get her neck out of the yoke and her feet out of the furrow. Thus unruly, ungovernable, untractable, were the people of Israel. They had begun to draw in the yoke of God’s ordinances, but they drew back, as children of Belial, that will not endure the yoke; and when the prophets were sent with the goads of reproof, to put them forward, they kicked against the pricks, and ran backwards. The sum of all is (Hos. 4:17), Ephraim is joined to idols, is perfectly wedded to them; his affections are glued to them, and his heart is upon them. There are two instances given of their spiritual whoredom, in both which they gave that honour to their idols which is due to God only:—(1.) They consulted them as oracles, and used those arts of divination which they had learned from their idolatrous priests (Hos. 4:12): My people ask counsel at their stocks, their wooden gods; they apply to them for advice and direction in what they should do and for information concerning the event. They say to a stock, Thou art my father (Jer. 2:27); and, if it were indeed a father, it were worthy of this honour; but it was a great affront to God, who was indeed their Father, and whose lively oracles they had among them, with which they had liberty to consult at any time, thus to ask counsel at their stocks. And they expect that their staff should declare to them what course they should take and what the event should be. It is probable that this refers to some wicked methods of divination used among the Gentiles, and which the Jews learned from them, by a piece of wood, or by a staff, like Nebuchadnezzar’s divining by his arrows, Ezek. 21:21. Note, Those who forsake the oracles of God, to take their measures from the world and the flesh, do in effect but consult with their stocks and their staves. (2.) They offered sacrifice to them as gods, whose favour they wanted and whose wrath they dreaded and deprecated (Hos. 4:13): They sacrifice to them, to atone and pacify them, and burn incense to them, to please and gratify them, and hope by both to recommend themselves to them. God had pitched upon the place where he would record his name; but they, having forsaken that, chose places for their irreligious rites which pleased their own fancies; they chose, [1.] High places, upon the tops of the mountains and upon the hills, foolishly imagining that the height of the ground gave them some advantage in their approaches towards heaven. [2.] Shady places, under oaks, and poplars, and elms, because the shadow thereof is pleasant to them, especially in those hot countries, and therefore they thought it was pleasing to their gods; or they fancied that a thick shade befriends contemplation, possesses the mind with something of awe, and therefore is proper for devotion.

2. Corporal whoredom is another crime here charged upon them: They have committed whoredom continually, Hos. 4:18. They drove a trade of uncleanness; it was not a single act now and then, but their constant practice, as it is of many that have eyes full of adultery and which cannot cease from that sin, 2 Pet. 2:14. Now the abominable filthiness and lewdness that was found in Israel is here spoken of, (1.) As a concomitant of their idolatry; their false gods drew them to it; for the devil whom they worshipped, though a spirit, is an unclean spirit. Those that worshipped idols were separated with harlots, and they sacrificed with harlots; for because they liked not to retain God in their knowledge, but dishonoured him, therefore God gave them up to vile affections, by the indulging of which they dishonoured themselves, Rom. 1:24, 28. (2.) As a punishment of it. The men that worshipped idols were separated with harlots that attended the idolatrous rites, as in the worship of Baal-peor, Num. 25:1, 2. To punish them for that God gave up their wives and daughters to the like vile affections: They committed whoredom and adultery (Hos. 4:13), which could not but be a great grief and reproach to their husbands and parents; for those that are not chaste themselves desire to have their wives and daughters so. But thus they might read their sin in their punishment, as David’s adultery was punished in the debauching of his concubines by his own son, 2 Sam. 12:11. Note, When the same sin in others is made men’s grief and affliction which they have themselves been guilty of they must own that the Lord is righteous.

3. The perverting of justice, Hos. 4:18. Their rulers (be it spoken to their shame) do love, Give ye, that is, they love bribes, and have it continually in their mouths, Give, give. They are given to filthy lucre; every one that has any business with them must expect to be asked, What will you give? Though, as rulers, they are bound by office to do justice, yet none can have justice done them without a fee; and you may be sure that for a fee they will do injustice. Note, The love of money is the ruin of equity and the root of all iniquity. But of all men it is a shame for rulers (who should be men fearing God and hating covetousness) to love Give ye. Perhaps this is intended in that part of the charge here, Their drink is sour; it is dead; it is gone. Justice, duly administered, is refreshing, like drink to the thirsty, but when it is perverted, and rulers take rewards either to acquit the guilty or to condemn the innocent, the drink is sour; they turn judgment into wormwood, Amos 5:7. Or it may refer in general to the depraved morals of the whole nation; they had lost all their life and spirit, and were as offensive to God as dead and sour drink is to us. See Deut. 32:32, 33.

II. The tokens of God’s wrath against them for their sins. 1. Their wives and daughters should not be punished for the injury and disgrace they did to their families (Hos. 4:14): I will not punish your daughters; and, not being punished for their sin, they would go on in it. Note, The impunity of one sinner is sometimes made the punishment of another. Or, “I will not punish them as I will punish you; for you must own, as Judah did concerning his daughter-in-law, that they are more righteous than you,” Gen. 38:26. 2. They themselves should prosper for a while, but their prosperity should help to destroy them. It comes in as a token of God’s wrath (Hos. 4:16): The Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place; they shall have a fat pasture, and a large one, in which they shall be fed to the full, and fed of the best, but it shall be only to prepare them for the slaughter, as a lamb is that is so fed. If they wax fat and kick, they do but wax fat for the butcher. But others make them feed as a lamb on the common, a large place indeed, but where it has short grass and lies exposed. The Shepherd of Israel will turn them both out of his pastures and out of his protection. 3. No means should be used to bring them to repentance (Hos. 4:17): “Ephraim is joined to idols, is in love with them and addicted to them, and therefore let him alone, as Hos. 4:4; Let no man reprove him. Let him be given up to his own heart’s lusts, and walk in his own counsel; we would have healed him, and he would not be healed, therefore forsake him,” See what their end will be, Deut. 32:20. Note, It is a sad and sore judgment for any man to be let alone in sin, for God to say concerning a sinner, “He is joined to his idols, the world and the flesh; he is incurably proud, covetous, or profane, an incurable drunkard or adulterer; let him alone; conscience, let him alone; minister, let him alone; providences, let him alone. Let nothing awaken him till the flames of hell do it.” The father corrects not the rebellious son any more when he determines to disinherit him. “Those that are not disturbed in their sin will be destroyed for their sin.” 4. They should be hurried away with a swift and shameful destruction (Hos. 4:19): The wind has bound her up in her wings, to carry her away into captivity, suddenly, violently, and irresistibly; he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, Ps. 58:9. And then they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices, ashamed of their sin in offering sacrifice to idols, ashamed of their folly in putting themselves to such an expense upon gods that have no power to help them, and thereby making that God their enemy who has almighty power to destroy them. Note, There are sacrifices that men will one day be ashamed of. Those that have sacrificed their time, strength, honour, and all their comforts, to the world and the flesh, will shortly be ashamed of it. Yea, and those that bring to God blind, and lame, and heartless sacrifices, will be ashamed of them too.

III. The warning given to Judah not to sin after the similitude of Israel’s transgression. It is said in the close of Hos. 4:14; Those that do not understand shall fall; those must needs fall that do not understand how to avoid, or get over, the stumbling-blocks they meet with (and therefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall), particularly the two tribes (Hos. 4:15): Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend. Though Israel be given to idolatry, yet let not Judah take the infection. Now, 1. This was a very needful caution. The men of Israel were brethren, and near neighbours, to the men of Judah; Israel was more numerous, and at this time in a prosperous condition, and therefore there was danger lest the men of Judah should learn their way and get a snare to their souls. Note, The nearer we are to the infection of sin the more need we have to stand upon our guard. 2. It was a very rational caution: “Let Israel play the harlot, yet let not Judah do so; for Judah has greater means of knowledge than Israel, has the temple and priesthood, and a king of the house of David; from Judah Shiloh is to come; and for Judah God has reserved great blessings in store; therefore let not Judah offend, for more is expected from them than from Israel, they will have more to answer for if they do offend, and from them God will take it more unkindly. If Israel play the harlot, let not Judah do so too, for then God will have no professing people in the world.” God bespeaks Judah here, as Christ does the twelve, when many turned their backs upon him, Will you also go away? John 6:67. Note, Those that have hitherto kept their integrity should, for that reason, still hold it fast, even in times of general apostasy. Now, to preserve Judah from offending as Israel had done, two rules are here given:—(1.) That they might not be guilty of idolatry they must keep at a distance from the places of idolatry: Come not you unto Gilgal, where all their wickedness was (Hos. 9:15; 12:11); there they multiplied transgression (Amos 4:4); and perhaps they contracted a veneration for that place because there it was said to Joshua, The place where thou standest is holy ground (Josh. 5:15); therefore they are forbidden to enter into Gilgal, Amos 5:5. And for the same reason they must not go up to Bethel, here called the house of vanity, for so Bethaven signifies, not the house of God, as Bethel signifies. Note, Those that would be kept from sin, and not fall into the devil’s hands, must studiously avoid the occasions of sin and not come upon the devil’s ground. (2.) That they might not be guilty of idolatry they must take heed of profaneness, and not swear, The Lord liveth. They are commanded to swear, The Lord liveth in truth and righteousness (Jer. 4:2); and therefore that which is here forbidden is swearing so in untruth and unrighteousness, swearing rashly and lightly, or falsely and with deceit, or swearing by the Lord and the idol, Zeph. 1:5. Note, Those that would be steady in their adherence to God must possess themselves with an awe and reverence of God, and always speak of him with solemnity and seriousness; for those that can make a jest of the true God will make a god of any thing.