Originally posted Jan 27, 2014. Video from July 18, 2018.
Many people treat religion like some sort of game. There are rules to abide by, plays to be made, points to be scored and champions to be crowned. Of course, in some ways the analogy can be a positive one: we do run a race, there is a prize, we do have rules we must follow, and we will either be crowned as champions or fail to finish (1Co 9:24-27). But on another level, playing at religion is the deadliest game that can be played. As Christ himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:21 ESV; see our first post for Works Cited). Many religious people can say the right words or do the right things, but do so out of either habit or insincerity, in either case failing to truly know the Lord and his will (Mat 7:22-23). In the same way, Israel was playing hide and seek with God. Hosea brings this pattern to the forefront in the next two chapters of his work to point out three reasons not to play at religion.
First: You can run, but you can’t hide. This should seem obvious to any believer. We “serve the living and true God” (1Th 1:9), the Great I AM (Exo 3:13-15), who is everywhere, knows everything and can do anything (Psa 139). And yet we deny these truths almost daily: the white lie, the raunchy profile pic, the hateful thought—all of which point to the real problem: the filthy heart (Mark 7:21-23). But the part of ourselves that we view as hidden away, or that we refuse to look at, is the very thing God looks at most closely (1Sa 16:7; Mat 5:21-48). Yahweh thus reminds Israel of this truth: “I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hidden from me; for now, O Ephraim, you have played the whore; Israel is defiled. Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they know not the LORD” (Hos 5:3-4, emphasis added).
So while Israel had forgotten her Creator, God could not ignore the sin of his people. As we’ve seen already, their sin was not a onetime lapse in judgment; it had become a way of life: “And the revolters have gone deep into slaughter;” “Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked with blood. As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests band together; they murder on the way to Shechem; they commit villainy” (5:2; 6:8-9). Out of pride and self-seeking, precept became tradition, tradition became opinion, and opinions don’t bind anyone, so “like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (6:7; see 5:5). And such flagrant violations of the Lord’s will could not be hidden from God. As Moses said centuries before, “if you . . . have sinned against the LORD . . . be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23; see too Ecc 12:14; Rom 2:14-16). So since they had replaced God’s law with man’s opinions, God’s people would stagger as he struck them; they would reel under the weight of his hand (5:5).
Second: You can seek, but you won’t find. The prophet’s tone becomes even more ironic in the next two verses: “With their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the LORD, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them. They have dealt faithlessly with the LORD; for they have borne alien children. Now the new moon shall devour them with their fields” (Hos 5:6-7, emphasis added). Amazingly, while Israel knowingly worshipped the Baals through illegitimate priests, they still claimed to worship Jehovah! Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, don’t we betray God in the same ways? Don’t we mistreat others and then try to seek the Lord in worship (5:10; Deu 19:14)? Don’t we welcome the doctrines and disciples of man with open arms (Hos 5:11)? Don’t we say our prayers, sing our songs, and crack open our check books with the fervor of a dead man?
But Yahweh doesn’t just want our worship, he wants us to listen (1Sa 15:22-23); he doesn’t want what he’s commanded for its own sake, he wants our humble gratitude (Psa 50:6-8; 51:16-17); he doesn’t just want us to pray with others, he wants us to be the answer to those prayers (Isa 1:12-17). Jehovah roots true worship in the heart of devotion: “Your love [Hebrew hesed] is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. . . . For I desire steadfast love [hesed] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:4-6; see Mic 6:6-8 and the NET notes). So when we seek God in worship without preparing ourselves spiritually and morally, we do not find the Lord because he is not there. And as the NBC points out, “If God’s presence is terrifying, his absence is worse.”
And finally: You can’t find healing till you confess to the Healer. Reading the last point, you were probably thinking about Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (emphasis added). God, of course, saves those who call on him humbly through baptism (Acts 2:21; 22:16; 1Pe 3:21), and he desires that all men accept this call (1Ti 2:4; 2Pe 3:9). But with each of these promises there is also a precept: ask, seek and knock; arise, be baptized and be washed; trust in the resurrection and appeal to God; know the truth and repent. In other words, you can’t put forgiveness before repentance. To think of God saving an impenitent sinner is to deny the holiness and love of God and to trample the Son of God underfoot (1Pe 1:14-21; Heb 10:29). As one of Hosea’s contemporaries wrote, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa 59:1-2, emphasis added).
It was for this reason God had turned away from his bride; not because she wouldn’t want saving, and much less that he didn’t want to save her! But because they sought their healing elsewhere: “When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound” (Hos 5:13, emphasis added). All the armies of Assyria could not save Israel from the punishment that would befall her; in fact, they would lead the charge (see the ESVSB and NET notes)! So instead of seeking true deliverance through their Savior, Israel would suffer his wrath (5:14; 6:5). As painful as this would be for both them and him, the Lord’s purpose was still to redeem his bride through repentance. As Ralph McKay pointed out recently, though God has prepared plans for his people, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11), this would only come to be after seventy years in exile (29:10), and only then because the people would seek the Lord in repentance (29:12-14). As Hosea himself then implores:
Come, let us return to the LORD;
It’s time to stop playing hide and seek with God. We have to stop hiding our sins, because he sees them (1Jo 1:6-9). We have to stop our casual will worship and get back to the heart of praise (Col 2). We have to stop playing at religion and turn to God in true repentance. Because until then, God is hiding from us: “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me” (Hos 5:15, emphasis added). If you’ve left the body of Christ, now is the time to return. If you’re showing up to worship in body but not in spirit, now is the time to get real. And if you’re tired of trusting in yourself, now is the time to submit. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jam 4:7-8).