4:15 Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The LORD liveth. 16 For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the LORD will feed them as a lamb in a large place. 17 Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone. 18 Their drink is sour: they have committed whoredom continually: her rulers with shame do love, Give ye. 19 The wind hath bound her up in her wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices.” (Hosea 4:15-19)


               When sin and transgression is found among the people of God, it is a tragic and most serious thing. The Prophets were continually speaking about this condition among the ancient people, and they did so with unmistakably strong language. Hosea is in the midst of describing the sin of God’s people and its consequences. His words assist us in understanding the Divine evaluation of sin. They confirm that the Lord’s longsuffering in no way diminishes the magnitude of sin, nor is it designed to make men more tolerant of its presence. While all of this is very apparent to those who are pure in heart, it completely eludes those who are themselves living at a distance from the Lord. Sin is like a narcotic that puts the heart, soul, and mind to sleep. It causes the conscience to become seared and dead, unable to be touched by the truth of God. What we have in this passage is likened to a heavenly shout, piercing through the dullness that attends sin, and calling for slumbering ones to awaken t o the gravity of their situation. This is a very real description of the moral and spiritual predicament of the kingdom of Israel. Let us give heed to it.


                4:15 Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The LORD liveth.”

               It is important to keep before us the nature of Hosea’s prophecy. It is like a parabolic description of transgression found among the people of God. This is not how the sins of those who have never been exposed to God are described – like the Gentiles in the first chapter of Romans. Nor is it the way the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh, Babylon, Moab, Egypt, and Tyre are described (Gen 18:20; 19:13; Jonah 1:2; Isa 13:1; 15:1; 19:1; 23:1). Sin among those in covenant with God is of a different order, and is described in a unique way. It is more serious, more perverse, and more offensive to God. It requires more hardness of heart to commit, more deliberation, and more determination. All sin is not alike, and woe to that naive person who imagines that it is. Modern clerics may teach the church to be tolerant and understanding of sin within the body of Christ, but no such toleration is ever reflected in a single word from God. There is forgiveness for those who have given themselves to sin, but never toleration or acceptance. Sin must be defined, acknowledged, and rooted out, else condemnation is certain.

               PLAYING THE HARLOT. Hosea has already used this phrase – “play the harlot” (3:3). Jeremiah used the same expression (Jer 3:6) and Ezekiel as well (Ezek 16:28). To “play the harlot” is to willingly assume the role and nature of a spiritual whore or prostitute. This takes place when a person in covenant with God gives their affection to someone or something else. It happens when delight and satisfaction are sought at the hands of someone other than God. This is a description of a spirit that is not faithful to the Lord, but seeks enjoyment, fulfillment, and advantage in temporal experiences in which He is not resident. This is kind of language James uses toward those who were drifting from the Lord. “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4).

               LET NOT JUDAH OFFEND. Other versions read, “Do not let Judah become guilty,” NASB “let not Judah trespass,” DARBY “at least let not Judah offend,” DOUAY there is no need for Judah to sin too,” NJB and “may Judah avoid such guilt.”NLT

               The kingdom had been divided into Judah and Israel, with two separate kings, and two capital cities (1 Kgs 14:21; 16:29). Now, in his condemnation of Israel, God urges Judah not to join in their iniquity. The idea is that Israel would not cease from her iniquity, and that Judah must avoid participating in her ways. A judgment had already been pronounced against Israel. God would cause the kingdom to cease, break the bow of its strength, and have no more mercy upon it. (1:4-6). There was no need for Judah to participate in Israel’s sins – no need for it to be judged for doing the same things.

               COME NOT TO GILGAL. Israel was making pilgrimages to places of idol-worship. One of those primary places was “Gilgal.” Later Hosea says of this place, “All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them” (9:15). He said they sacrificed bullocks in Gilgal – but not to God (12:11). Because it is the nature of sin to exert pressure on those who see it, Judah is urged not to join in the practice of going to Gilgal to sacrifice to idols.

               The New Covenant way of saying this is, “neither be partaker of other men's sins: keep thyself pure” (1 Tim 5:22). Like the warning to Judah, this is not speaking of the sins of the heathen – of those who have no convenant with God. The sins of reference are those found among professing believers. Ephesians states it this way, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph 5:11). While this includes the sins of the world, it primarily addresses the passing fads and preferences within the Christian community that reflect the values and appearances of the world. Just as Judah was not to embrace the practices of the corrupted kingdom of Israel, so the people of God are not to adopt the worldly practices of the professing church.

               DO NOT GO UP TO BETHAVEN. “Bethhaven” was also a place where Israel was practicing idolatry (Hosea 5:8; 10:5,8). The word “Bethhaven” is a spiritual pun – a distortion of “Bethel,” which means “the house of God.” That place was so named by Jacob after he had wrestled with the angel, and was considered most sacred (Gen 28:17-1).Hosea’s play on words was given because an idol was set up in this consecrate place by Jeroboam(1 Kgs 12:29). Israel was going to a sacred place and committing idolatry. Judah is admonished not to do the same thing.

               DO NOT SWEAR, “THE LORD LIVETH.” Although this expression was of itself proper (1 Chron 18:3), yet it was wholly improper to utter it while doing the wrong thing, for light can have no fellowship with darkness (2 Cor 6:15). Zephaniah categorically condemns the practice of swearing by God, and His competitor as well: “and them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham (Ammonite God)(Zeph 1:5).


                4:16 For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the LORD will feed them as a lamb in a large place. 17 Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.”

               Not only does sin produce a state likened to that of a moral wretch, like a harlot, it also reduces one to the level of an irrational beast. Thus the prophet uses terms that properly depict what sin has done to Israel.

               SLIDING BACKWARD. Sliding backward is the result of being in “slippery places” (Psa 73:18). Transgression is like a steep incline with transitory baubles at the top. It is glazed with “grease” (Psa 119:70) that forbids the slope to be successfully ascended. Thus sin is ever a backward motion – sliding backward – making the individual become “worse and worse” (2 Tim 3:13). That is why “the latter end” of this way is “worse with them than the beginning” (2 Pet 2:20). It is why the longer a person remains in sin, the less likely it becomes that they will recover. There is a state toward which all sin leads, from which recovery is not possible (Heb 6:4-6). Those who imagine they can drift from God with impunity, or without realizing any consequences, are deceived. The Lord has spoken to this issue: “But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:39). Drawing back is the New Covenant equivalent of sliding back. It is no called because a backward stance is more deliberate, when it follows being cleansed from all sin.

               A BACKSLIDING HEIFER. Other versions read “stubborn calf,” NKJV “stubborn heifer,” NASB and “a cow which may not be controlled.” BBE Here the imagery is most vivid. The picture is of an immature animal being led up a slippery slope. Instead of yielding to the leading, and carefully adhering to the narrow path, the uncontrollable heifer straightens its legs, and drives its hoofs into the earth, refusing to move forward. The result it that a backward motion immediately begins, for it simply cannot be avoided.

                In a sense, this is a most interesting paradox. Here the Almighty God speaks of His people as being unmanageable – a “backsliding heifer.” There are a significant number of professing believers who are relying upon the Lord overpowering them, and causing their backsliding to cease. If this imagination was actually true, there could be no such thing as one who could not be controlled. Of course, in the ultimate sense, God does have control over everything. However, here the control is in order to blessing – an experience that will not be forced upon those who do not want it.

               There is such a thing as a people who will have “none” of the Lord – even though they are called by His name (Psa 81:11). This is how the Lord Jesus addressed Jerusalem, confirming they had the same nature as the one described in our text. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke 13:34). The result – their house was left unto them desolate (13:35).

               FED LIKE A LAMB IN A LARGE PLACE. Other versions read, “will let them forage in open country,” NKJV How then can the Lord pasture them like lambs in a meadow?” NIV “can the Lord now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture?” RSV so is Yahweh likely to pasture him like a lamb in a broad meadow?” NJB “so the LORD will put her out to pasture. She will stand alone and unprotected, like a helpless lamb in an open field.” NLT

               The idea is that of Divine abandonment. Rather than being nourished like a young calf in a stall (Mal 4:2), they would be turned into an open field, where they would be subject to wolves and beasts of prey. They would appear free, but their weakness and vulnerability would cause them to be in constant jeopardy. It is one thing to be mature and have access to an open and large field. It is quite another to be a frail lamb and be in such a circumstance. Lambs tend to frolic in such places, unaware of the dangers that surround them. Now, God says He will put them in such a place. This was the dreadful result of their own willing sin.

               JOINED TO IDOLS. Hosea refers to Israel as “Ephraim” 37 times (4:17; 5:3,5,9,11,12,13,14; 6:4,10; 7:1,8,11; 8:9,11; 8:3,8,11,13,16; 10:6,11; 11:3,8,9,12; 12:1,8,14; 13:1,12; 14:8). Ephraim was one of Joseph’s sons, and therefore those descending from him should have been especially thankful, for Ephraim was not one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Israel is called “Ephraim” because the king (Jeroboam) who led them astray was from that tribe (1 Kgs 11:26; 14:16; 15:30).

               Being “joined to idols” is like being tied up with them, or made one with them. This was the result of their own choice. Out of preference, they became married to idiolatry.

               LET HIM ALONE. This means, make no effort to correct them – leave them to their own devices. This is what Jesus said to do with the Pharisees: “let them alone” (Matt 15:14). This is when God gives people up “unto their own heart’s lust” (Psa 81:12).   


                4:18 Their drink is sour: they have committed whoredom continually: her rulers with shame do love, Give ye. 19 The wind hath bound her up in her wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices.”

               There are shameful things that result from iniquity. These results can only be avoided by repentance and a return to God. The Lord will not allow sin to ultimately yield the good fruit of advantage, joy, and peace. False religion cannot yield good fruit.

               THEIR DRINK IS SOUR. The sourness, or bitterness, is not in the cup from which they drank, but in their belly where the drink went. This is drink that, because of gluttony, cannot be digested. This is a vivid depiction of drunkenness, which leads to all manner of wickedness, foolishness, and indulgence. The whole kingdom of Israel had become obnoxious, foolish, and reprehensible, like a staggering drunk man who was open to all manner of perversion and corruption. An offensive moral odor emitted from them like the stench of as drunken man. This is how the Lord describes the dreadful effects of their sin.

               CONTINUAL WHOREDOMS. They become lewd in their manner of life, like a foolish man moving from one harlot to another. Their manners caused their sin to abound, spreading like leaven throughout the whole their kingdom.

               This is to the spiritual life what “wantonness” is to the flesh. Peter called it “much wantonness,” where enough of sin can never be realized (2 Pet 2:18). Paul also associated “wantonness” with drunkenness and revelry – that is, uncontrollable indulgence in reprehensible conduct (Rom 13:13). The “wantonness” of the New Covenant Scriptures is the “committed whoredom continually” of Hosea. It is what Jesus referred to as becoming “the servant of sin” (John 8:34). This is another way of saying, we become sinful by sinning. That is, a person cannot sin without that sin corrupting and controlling their nature. This is the unavoidable outcome of giving oneself over to sin.

               LOVING WITH SHAME. The meaning of the passage is that the rulers had come to love bribery, saying “Give ye.” That is, rather than protecting the people, as rulers are supposed to do, they shamefully took from them saying, “Give ye.” They did to the people after the manner of the false prophets, of whom Ezekiel said, “Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock” (Ezek 34:3).

               And how does the Lord view such conduct – a manner that does not bring advantages to the people, but rather takes advantage from them? He calls it “loving shameful ways,” NIV or loving shame more than glory. RSV

               Paul would say it this way, “whose glory is in their shame” (Phil 3:19). These are leaders who do not feed the flock, but rather “mind earthly things,” whose “god is their belly.” They see the people of God as an opportunity for career development, a way to obtain worldly fame, make a living, and the likes. Hosea would say they loved with shame.

               WIND BINDING WITH HER WINGS. Other versions read, “the wind has wrapped her up in its wings,” NKJV “a whirlwind will sweep away,” NIV and “a mighty wind will sweep them away.” NLT It was in this sense that the forces of Babylon were called a “destroying wind” (Isa 51:1). The meaning is that Israel’s sin would make them utterly helpless against what was to come upon them. In judgment, the Lord would descend upon them like a tornado or cyclone, carrying them away. They would not be shielded from that stormy blast.

               A New Covenant expression of this kind of judgment is found in Ephesians 4:14 – a condition to be zealously avoided. “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph 4:14). And how is it that people can come into such a state, where the winds of false doctrine carry them about? It is simply by refusing to grow up into Christ in all things (Eph 4:15), and declining to cleave unto the Lord with purpose of heart (Acts 11:23). The inevitable result of such a choice is that the heart will be given to other things – things that compete with God and separate from Him.

               THEY SHALL BE ASHAMED. This is a Divine commentary on the religion of Israel – i.e., “their sacrifices.” The outcome of their religious pretension would be “shame.” That is, they would be disappointed and confounded. Their desires would come short of fulfillment, and their religion would fail them. What they expected from their idols would not be realized. The satisfaction they had sought would not be accomplished.

               Without extensive elaboration, the level of frustration and disappointment that exists among professing Christians is largely owing to the religion they have embraced. They have not truly taken hold of the Lord, and thus they have become ashamed.