Originally posted Jan 20, 2014. Video from July 11, 2018.
Leaders are often under-appreciated by their followers and over-appreciated by themselves, and this plays out in numerous ways in our society. We often expect the world out of our presidents, our coaches and our bosses, and then when they fail to meet our unrealistic expectations we make light of their work, call for their dismissal, or make things difficult for them. There is, of course, a degree of truth to this. As John Maxwell often points out, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This doesn’t mean that good leaders alone make for a safe and prosperous nation, a winning team or a good quarter. But of all the many contributing factors and people, leaders have the greatest influence on the final outcome.
This is true spiritually as well. God doesn’t only outline the responsibilities of our leaders, he points out their qualifications, he equips and empowers them to lead well, and he teaches us how to hold them accountable (see Eph 4:7-16 and almost all of 1Ti). It is also true at home, where the faithfulness of the father is the greatest indicator to future faithfulness in his children (Eph 6:4). It is for this reason that when there is a problem at home, at church, at work or in our communities we look to leaders first. Such was also the case for ancient Israel, so Hosea (like the other prophets and even Christ himself) saves his harshest words for Israel’s kings, priests and prophets. We’ll turn our attention now, then, to three reasons Israel’s leaders would soon be judged.
Reason #1: They fed on the flock. Spiritual nourishment is the first task of spiritual leadership. Each gospel writer closes his account reinforcing this truth: leaders spread the gospel, lead people to faith and repentance, baptize others for the forgiveness of their sins, and then build them up to keep Christ’s commandments (Mat 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49). John’s account is even more vivid, recounting Jesus’ charge to Peter: “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19 ESV; see our first post for Works Cited). Elders are therefore called to emulate the same depth of leadership shown by God, David, Jesus and Peter (Psa 23; 1Sa 17:31-37; John 10:1-21; 1Pe 5:1-4).
Israel’s religious elite, though, failed to uphold this divine pattern. As Hosea says, “Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother” (Hos 4:4-5, emphasis added; compare the BHS, NET and NBC notes). Israel’s leaders loved their titles, but were derelict in their duties. They were so busy trying to keep their jobs that they were no longer doing their jobs. They, of course, kept up appearances, but they encouraged religion for the wrong reason: so they could eat (4:8)! They turned the means of ministry into its end, serving the god of their belly rather than the God above (Php 3:9; Rom 16:17-18). So, “The more they increased, the more they sinned,” but God promised to “change their glory into shame” (Hos 4:7). They would be reminded that their responsibility was to serve, not be served; to feed the flock, not to feed on it (Mark 10:42-45).
Reason #2: They exploited ignorance. While the leaders were gorging on the people’s sacrifices, the people were starving spiritually. In perhaps the most quoted verse in Hosea, the prophet writes, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos 4:6). The chief fault of Israel’s spiritual leadership was that they had rejected true knowledge as revealed in the Mosaic covenant and substituted for it their own manmade religion. Verse 2 therefore compares Israel’s sins with the ideal of faithfulness as revealed in the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:1-17), and finds her lacking on every point: “swearing, lying, murder, stealing and committing adultery . . . bloodshed follows bloodshed.” The only surprise here is that Israel’s leaders didn’t see it coming:
At first the residents of the northern kingdom continued to worship God, even though they were doing it in the wrong way; but very soon they also began to worship Canaanite gods. Before long they had substituted Baal for God and no longer worshiped God at all. It is not surprising that Jeroboam’s false priests were unable to preserve the true worship of God. (LASB; see too Deu 12:8-14; 1Ki 12:26-30)
Because Israel had rejected a deep, personal knowledge of God and his will, God says he will remove her status as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:6). As Theodore of Mopsuestia paraphrases verse 6, “My people are like a priest who is compromised. He has fallen from his previous dignity and does not appear worthy for any reason” (Commentary on Hosea 4). God will therefore punish accordingly: “like people, like priest” (Hos 4:9). They too worshipped their bellies, so they too would starve: “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding” (4:9-12; compare the NET and NASB notes). Rather than building up the kingdom of God, these self-appointed priests were building their own kingdoms, exploiting the ignorance of the people rather than correcting it.
Reason #3: Their bad influence spread down and out. Bad leadership leads to ignorance of God among one’s followers and beyond. When elders, preachers and teachers turn from sound (literally healthy) doctrine, there’s no end to the diseases that will break out. You can hear the ironic tone in Hosea’s rant: “My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles” (4:12, emphasis added). Because of this they left the authorized worship of the temple for the strange fire offered “on the tops of the mountains . . . on the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth” (4:13; see Lev 10:1-2). Nor should we expect God to save us from the second and third order effects of our sins, or to support our cause: “Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with [whores] and sacrifice with cult prostitutes” (Hos 4:13-14). When you stand apart from God, you face the problems of this world without your only true shield.
Israel was not alone in her sins, though, at least not for long. Just as error in one congregation spreads to others, Judah soon followed her sister into sin. For this reason, the prophet warns the southern kingdom as well: “Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, ‘As the LORD lives’” (4:15). Since the calves of Dan and Bethel had changed the house of a God (Hebrew Beth-El, Gen 28:19) into a house of Evil (Hebrew Beth-aven), Judah is warned not to renew her covenant with Israel at Gilgal, “where Israel circumcised the new generation, observed the Passover, and where they camped when they marched around Jericho seven days (Josh. 4:19; 5:10; 6:1-14)” (ESVSB). Like people, like priest; and sister like sister.
Failed leadership brings false teaching, false discipleship and false worship. Though both Israel and Judah had been warned, neither listened, becoming instead like the very things they worshipped: “Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn” (Hos 4:16). So while they chose and rejected their leaders at will, they would be leaderless and without protection, “Like a lamb in a broad pasture.” Though much has changed since the days of Hosea, human nature has not, nor has God’s expectations for his chosen leaders. The church of our Lord needs leaders who teach his word boldly, patiently and in truth (Tit 1:9-2:1; 2Ti 2:24-26). Leaders who point us beyond ourselves and to the God who speaks to us (2Ti 3:16-17). And leaders who rebuke us when we turn from what he has said (Mat 15:7-9; Col 2:16-23). May God be praised that we have many leaders who do so today! And may we continually be a blessing to them—praying for them, submitting to them, and following their example (Heb 13:7, 17).