Biblical Theology Briefings

The Adultery

Nigel Beynon

The sermon text: how we approach Hosea

Speaking on just one verse is often a launch pad for pietistic reflections, so let me explain my choice of this verse, and indeed my whole approach to Hosea.

When I came to preach a four-week series from Hosea I spent some time trying to understand the structure of the book and therefore which passages to speak from. Commentators all agree that the book splits into chapters 1-3, and chapters 4-14. After that though it gets rather complicated and there is very little agreement. As I did this work, it also became clear that the message of Hosea is really summed up in chapters 1-3. Those chapters give us the big picture message:

Israel's adultery, God's pronouncement of judgement on them, yet his continued love and plan to restore them

It seemed to me that the rest of the book, rather than telling us anything substantially new, instead filled out those points. Indeed chapter 4 starts as a court case, a charge is brought against Israel and then evidence is laid out. While that tone changes in later chapters, they still function in a similar way - giving the detail of what chapters 1-3 state in summary.

My conclusion was this: chapters 1-3 give us the big themes of the book, or the main moves in the plot; chapters 4-14 then fill in the detail - giving examples, proving the case and showing what this looks like in practice.

Of course that understanding of the structure of Hosea then influenced how I preached it. In each sermon I examined one of the four main themes identified from chapters 1-3. That sermon would then dot around chapters 4-14, in order to provide detail and example.

I found there were some real advantages of this approach rather than say, preaching chapter 1 the first week, chapter 2 the second and so on. E.g. each sermon was simpler as it explored one idea rather than all the ideas in say, chapter 1. Also, over the four weeks we saw the story of Hosea move forward a week at a time, rather than seeing the whole story in chapter 1, then repeated in chapter 2 and so on.

However, I have to admit that strictly speaking, it is not "exposition" as we would normally think of it. Rather than working our way through a book sequentially brining out the main point of each section, this is I suppose a "topical analysis". However, if the understanding of Hosea's structure given above has some merit, then I hope it is a justifiable approach.

Given all that, early on in the sermon I said the following:

Before we get into the sermon let me say something about the structure of Hosea and our four weeks looking at it. In chapters 1-3 we get the whole message of Hosea stated - in two different forms - in Hosea's own life, and then in a poem. That really tells us everything - that's the big picture. Then rest of the book, chapters 4-14, unpacks that same message - so that what was stated in bare fact is fleshed out with detail and explanation.

Given that - each week rather than work sequentially, we are going to study Hosea thematically - take one aspect of Hosea's message we find in chapters 1-3 - then explore how it is filled out in the rest of book. Tonight our theme comes from v2 of chapter 1.

What this passage is not about: false trails in the sermon

One of the real strengths of Hosea is its imagery of adultery. The language of love and faithfulness contrasted with adultery and prostitution, gives the book a real power and cutting edge into our imaginations and lives. However it does also present some dangers.

There can be confusion over the moral issues surrounding God's command to Hosea and his subsequent action. People sometimes object to God commanding Hosea to marry an adulterous women like Gomer (perhaps suggesting that it was against the Mosaic law), and condemning him to a failed and tragic marriage. Some commentaries try to deal with this by suggesting that Gomer is merely a metaphor for Israel, rather than a real person. However, there is no indication in the text that Gomer is merely a metaphor; rather she and the children they have are treated as real people.

Moreover, there is no need to try and defend God or Hosea in this way. For a start it isn't clear from Hosea 1:2 whether Gomer was already an adulterous/prostitute, before Hosea married her, or whether God is saying that is what will happen. Even if she is already adulterous, the Mosaic law only forbids priests from marrying someone like her, not a prophet like Hosea.

Perhaps the main issue here is the simple suffering that Hosea is put through. However, while we don't want to minimise that, the prophets are often called to suffer, (e.g. Jeremiah). And they often have to "act out" their message. That is what Hosea does so graphically in his marriage.

The second area where we could quickly go wrong is by identifying too closely with Hosea. One could do this in a few ways - the more ridiculous sense of copying Hosea would be to say we should marry adulterers or not work at faithfulness in our relationships, so that we might see what it feels like to be betrayed. The more ‘sensible' copying of Hosea would be to concentrate on chapter 3 where God commands Hosea to take Gomer back, and to conclude that the main message of Hosea is about overcoming problems in marriage, particularly adultery, and staying together (that is how I have heard it taught).

However both of these place us in the shoes of Hosea - without warrant. Hosea is God's mouthpiece to his people, Israel, so the natural position to place us is with them - those listening to God's message through his prophet. The fact that we can come to some ridiculous conclusions shows us we have gone wrong.

Another mistake this sort of application makes is to confuse the ‘illustration' with the ‘substance' of God's message. Hosea's marriage is the illustration of what God is saying to his people. That is clear from Hosea 1:2, "take to yourself a wife of whoredom ... for the land commit great whoredom in forsaking the Lord." The later half of the sentence is God's message to his people, and so that is what we should concentrate on, rather than making Hosea's illustration the main point for us.

This confusion of the illustration and the substance of God's message, has serious pastoral implications. If when we talk about ‘adultery' people hear us to be talking about adultery in human relationships, then they will be in danger of either thinking that God is particularly condemning them, if they are someone who has committed adultery. Or they will think that God isn't talking to them at all, if they are someone who has never been involved in adultery.

Given this I was careful to explain that the ‘adultery' we were talking about is spiritual adultery. To help with this, I often used the phrase ‘spiritual adultery', or ‘adultery against God', rather than just saying ‘adultery'.

A related issue is of course the impact this language has on those who been involved in adultery - either as the one offended or the guilty party. Simply explaining that we are talking about spiritual adultery isn't sufficient to deal with the variety of issues and feelings that this language would raise for them. To try to help with this, I made the following comments:

Now many of us here may know something of adultery - whether first or second hand. I know that talking in these terms tonight may be hard for some of us - so much so - our experience could stop us hearing what God wants to say to us tonight. Can I make two comments?

First of all to those who experienced something of the pain of betrayal of adultery. That is a terribly painful thing - don't want to minimise it. But it just might be - in God's grace he could use your experience for good. In his grace he could use that pain you rightly feel - to lead you to see something of the pain he feels at his people's adultery. I know it's a high price to pay - it was for Hosea - I know you'd prefer it to be otherwise, but you may be able to know God's heart in a strangely special way.

Secondly can I say something to those who have committed adultery themselves. It would be easy to mishear what Hosea is saying and think that adultery is worst thing we could ever have done - and that there is no hope for us.

That's not true - wrong as it is - spiritual adultery is worse. Again - maybe God could use the guilt you might feel at your adultery, to lead you to see the greater horror of adultery against God. While that won't feel very comforting -that is something we all need to see - and ultimately will be for our good to see it.

What this passage is about - the difference biblical theology makes

We will only understand the language and ideas Hosea is using if we understand the nature of the relationship God had formed with his people Israel. It's a simple point, so I think the following extract explains it clearly enough.

Of course to commit adultery presupposes that you are already married to someone. And it presupposes what the Bible teaches about marriage - that the marriage relationship is to be a permanent and exclusive union between two people.

Well that is nature of the relationship between Israel and God. Hundreds of years before Hosea's day God had acted to make Israel his people - or his wife. He brought her out of Egypt, to meet him at Mt. Sinai - and there they were married - joined together in a covenant relationship.

And it was an exclusive relationship - God said to them - "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods besides me". I'm your husband - I'm the one who made you and saved you and cares for you - so you belong to me - must have no other gods. It's an exclusive relationship.

But v2, God's message to Israel is that they are guilty of adultery because she has departed from the Lord. She has spurned, she has left her husband, gone outside that exclusive relationship.

Sermon Shape and Structure

For the main body of the sermon I decided to give a definition of spiritual adultery, which I then filled out.

Spiritual adultery is to spurn your true husband by selling yourself to another for what you think they give you.

The idea of this definition was to try to explore exactly what is going on in spiritual adultery. I don't think it does that very well, but if one does do it carefully then I think it helps us a lot when we get to application. See comments below. Let me go through the various parts of the definition and tell you what I said, with some added comments.

1) Spurning your true husband

This has already been stated in the section above. God is their true husband as he is the one who redeemed them, formed them as a nation, and entered into exclusive relationship with him. But Hosea says, 1v2, they have departed from him. They have spurned his love.

I found illustrating this sermon an interesting question, as the book of Hosea provided, and indeed was built on, this very powerful illustration of adultery. That is what gives the book so much graphic power. What I wanted to avoid was bringing in alternative illustrations that took away from that graphic power. So I tried to do two things. First of all, I attempted to fill out the illustration of Hosea's own marriage in the book. Not just stating it, but trying to portray it in more ‘real life' terms. Secondly I used some modern day illustrations - but of adultery, so that we kept that strong theme - an example of that comes in the next section. As example of the former, and to get us into this idea of being spurned, I said the following:

Let's start with 1v2 READ. It's an horrific thing to say isn't it - Hosea I want you to marry an adulterer. I want your wife to be someone who will sleep around and be unfaithful to you.

I wonder how Hosea must have felt - but Lord I want a wife to love me and be faithful to me? Why do I have to do that, why put me though that?

Because v2 - READ. Hosea I want you to do it, because I want your marriage to act out my relationship with my people. My people have been adulterous - they have been unfaithful to me.

I want you to bring that truth to them in the most vivid way. I want people to come and ask you, "Hosea why have you married her - why have you married a tart, a harlot, like that?" You will reply - because that is what you've been like with God. In your relationship with God you have committed spiritual adultery.

Well that makes us ask all sorts of questions - what is this spiritual adultery? Who is Israel's lover? And what is it she has done with them that constitutes adultery?

That takes us to the next part of the definition.

2) Selling yourself to another

This was the main body of the sermon where we filled out from the rest of Hosea, exactly what Israel were doing. I said the following:

Let's go on to the second part of our definition -- spiritual adultery is to spurn your true husband, by selling yourself to another.

In the rest of the book Hosea explains how Israel has gone after two other lovers in particular.

First of all there is Baal. Baal was one of the Canaanite gods - he was the god of nature, or fertility. Let's see some examples:

4:12-14 READ. Israel worshipped and sacrificed to Baal. There is a double sense of adultery going on here - part of worshipping Baal included having sex with shrine prostitutes - so as they committed physical adultery, they were committing spiritual adultery by worshipping another god.

13:1, 2 READ.

At the same time though Israel was conducting an affair with another pair of lovers - that was Assyria and Egypt. Assyria was the dominant superpower in the area, and was flexing her muscles - Israel felt under some threat. To protect herself Israel adopted two policies - one was to form an alliance with Egypt - so Egypt would protect her. The other was to pay tributes to Assyria so she wouldn't invade.

Lets turn to some references; 7:11 READ. 12:1 READ.

3) For what you think they give you

What had struck me though was that the language Hosea used was often not just adultery, but prostitution. At times he spoke of ‘wages' and ‘getting paid'. That leads us further into the nature of this adultery, and in particular to the motive element in it. I said the following,

However there is more going on here than just the fact they worshipped Baal or went to Egypt - in fact there is more going on here than just adultery. It's worse than adultery - at its heart, it is prostitution.

We see that in Hosea's language - see it more explicitly at 8:8-9 READ. That is what a prostitute does isn't it - sells her body to a lover. But of course selling yourself implies you get paid doesn't it - that is the point. And that is why Israel did it. Look at 9:1 READ.

See this filled out in chapter 2. 2:5, 8, READ. Israel thought that everything she had - the grain, wine and oil, the silver and gold - had come from Baal.

That is why she worshipped him - because she thought he paid her for it. Worshipping Baal was an early version of the health and wealth gospel. Come to Baal and he'll make you rich and prosperous - large family, good crops, glowing health. Similarly come to Egypt and she'll protect you.

That is what made these lovers so attractive -Israel found what they offered to pay her just irresistible.

I don't know if you've seen the film "Indecent Proposal". It stars Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. They are a young couple, short of cash, but rich in love for one another. Recession hits and Woody loses his job, so they head for Las Vegas to gamble their last $5000.

There they meet Robert Redford - he's enormously wealthy, throwing around his millions, but looking for love. And so he makes a proposal - one million dollars, for one night with Demi Moore.

At first they refuse of course. But as money gets shorter and shorter, they begin to think - it's only one night. It won't affect our marriage. It's only my body, she says, he'll never have my soul. And one million dollars - just think what we could do with that. And in the end they agree - and she leaves to spend the night with him.

As soon as she leaves Woody knows it was a mistake, but it's too late. She returns the next morning, but it's not the same. They carry on together for a while but in the end his jealousy explodes - they argue - they split up.

It was an indecent proposal - obviously wrong - but in the end it was just too attractive. It was just too tempting - because of what he offered to pay.

Israel find Egypt and Baal just too tempting because of what they offer to pay. The promise of prosperity and protection is just too attractive to resist.

Having spoken about the motive that led them to commit adultery the question that was left is what committing adultery actually constituted. Or to put it in terms of adultery, what was it Israel sold to these other lovers? Again, what I was trying to do was to unpick the meaning of spiritual adultery - it's dynamic and form. I said the following.

To complete the picture - let's just ask - how did Israel sell herself to these lovers? Demi Moore gave her body - what did Israel give to Baal, or Egypt?

What they actually did was to bow down in front of an idol, or to sign a treaty - but they did that in the belief that Baal or Egypt would them give what they wanted. In other words they were putting their trust in Baal - to provide for them, putting their confidence in Egypt - to protect them. That is what they sold to this lover - that is how they made love to them - by giving them their trust, their confidence. The very trust and confidence that rightly belongs to God as their true husband.

Of course the tragedy is - God had promised to provide for them, to protect them, promised to give them the very things they went to these others for. And unlike Baal and Egypt - he would give them to Israel, if she would trust him.

But it's as though Israel said, I don't think my husband is really up to providing for me - I mean, agriculture and farming just aren't his thing. You need a specialist god to help you with that. And I don't know that he can really protect us - international politics are over his head, he hasn't got a grip on it.

To be honest - he's rather impotent - he can't really cope with life in the real world. So I'll go to another, sell myself to another, who will give me what I want.

Application issues: applying Hosea's message of ‘adultery' today

I found the area of application of this part of the Bible to us today one of the most interesting things about preaching Hosea. Without wanting to force inappropriate applications I was keen to see how this applied to both non-Christians and Christians today. But how do we move from the condemnation of Old Testament Israel, to those two groups?

The first thing I did was to list all the material in the New Testament that might be useful in controlling and leading us to applications. In particular I followed the theme of ‘adultery' in the New Testament to see how it was used. Some of the verses are as follows: Matthew 9:14-15; 12:38-39; 16:1-2; 22:1-2; 25:1; Mark 3:38; John 3:28-30; Ephesians 5; 2Corinthians 11; James 4:4; Revelation 17-21.

The non-Christian today

For the non-Christian the hermeneutical questions seemed a bit harder. It would be easy to think that the non-Christian hadn't turned there back on a marriage relationship with God and so Hosea said little to them directly.

However, Hosea 6:7 is an interesting and tempting verse. It could well be saying that there is a parallel between the adulterous covenant breaking of Israel, and the first sin of Adam in Genesis 3. Adam was made to live in a covenant relationship with God, which he broke, just as Israel broke their covenant. However, some commentators think ‘Adam' is a place name rather than a reference to Genesis 3, so you would have to make up your own mind on whether to run with that.

Whatever one decides on that allusion to Adam, I think you can still pursue this ‘creation' line. The Bible is clear that all people are made for relationship with God. Whether one calls this a ‘creation covenant' is less clear, but Romans is plain that we all owe God our worship and lives (i.e. an exclusive relationship) because he created us. Yet is also abundantly clear that none of us have lived like that, or in Hosea's language, we have been adulterous.

One can come to similar conclusion starting at the other end of the Bible. In Revelation 17-18 Babylon is depicted as a great prostitute with whom the world has committed adultery. Here is the theme of adultery broadened to include all nations and how they have rejected the true God and given themselves to the world, sin and the devil. That picture includes all non-Christians, and the consequent judgement they face and so we can then apply God's condemnation of OT Israel through Hosea, to the non-Christian today. There should be appropriate qualification as there are a number of unique aspects to Israel, and their particular role in salvation history, but in broad outline, God's condemnation of them flows to the non-Christian who has committed adultery with Babylon.

I went for the ‘creation route' in the sermon, although wonder now if Revelation might be better. I outlined Hosea 6:7, then said,

"the Bible is clear that what was true for Adam is true for us all - we all were made to live in relationship with God - and it was to be an exclusive relationship. Where God is our only God. But we have all been unfaithful.

In the NT Paul describes humankind like this "For although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.... Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles."

In other words, humankind - have been unfaithful to God. We haven't treated him like God, or trusted him. Instead we have spurned him by going after other lovers. We have all sold ourselves by giving our trust and confidence to - well - whatever you trust in to get you through life. Yourself probably - that's who most people trust.

Of course living like that looks normal - everyone does it. But God is speaking to you tonight and he wants to take the lid off your life and heart - and show you the truth. He's saying to you - I made you to know me, to be in relationship with me - but you sold yourself, put your trust in others, and so have spurned my love. I wonder if you've ever thought about God like that - a lover, a husband, you have wounded by your betrayal."

Christians today

Applying to Christians is easier in terms of hermeneutical questions. The New Testament is clear we are in a marriage covenant relationship with God through Jesus (see the verses listed above). Thus our sinfulness is adultery. However, I was aware that my application could easily turn into a rather general condemnation of sin, and that we would lose the distinctive feel and dynamic of Hosea. First of all I tried to retain both the emotive force of adultery, for instance having outlined the basic picture of adultery, I said,

I just want us to stop and take in what God is saying about himself here. God is presenting himself as a spurned husband. I wonder if we think of God as capable of that sort of feeling.

We often think of God as sovereign, awesome - and so we can think that our behaviour, how we treat him, doesn't really affect him. As though he is immune to it. But - that's just not the case. He is sovereign, but he is also personal - he is the divine husband. And Israel's leaving him isn't just disobedience, it isn't breaking some abstract law - it is profoundly relational, it is unfaithfulness to her husband.

That is what Hosea is brought to not just act out - but experience in his own marriage. As his wife spurns him, he is brought to feel how God feels for his people - the wounded, broken heart, of a spurned husband.

That is how God feels about sin - it breaks his heart. It is spurning our husband.

Secondly I wanted to try and work through the particular dynamic of committing adultery by giving our trust to other things, rather than God. I don't know how well that worked, but this is what I said,

Let me give two examples - first of all, a material one. God doesn't promise us wealth - but he does promise to look after us, he does say he is in control of all our circumstances.

But tonight, let me ask you, do you have any sense of financial security - any sense of being provided for - then - why? Where do we think that security and provision come from?

Is it because we have a job and salary we can trust, savings we can rely on, the knowledge that we can always apply for another student loan, or go to our parents.

Is that why we feel secure? That's where everyone else puts their trust - very easy for us to copy them. But if we do, if we cut out God from that part of our lives then we are being unfaithful.

We are in effect saying to God - you're impotent - you can't really handle the hard world of finance and student loans. And so we sell ourselves, our trust - to the job, the bank, the parents.

Let's take a spiritual example - as Christians we serve God - lead a Bible study, try and tell friends the gospel, we put on that week of talks - as we do that, where does our confidence lie? The world puts its confidence in its own abilities doesn't it? It says you should be confident because you're good at something, you do it well.

Very easy for us to copy that - to admire and exalt ability and excellence - and to put our trust in doing things well.

Of course it's right to use our gifts and do things as well as we can - but we mustn't put our confidence in that. We mustn't think that spiritual prosperity will come because we worshipped at the altar of excellence.


Thomas Edward McComiskey (ed) The Minor Prophets, volume 1.
This is very helpful, very good on the text.

Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentaries
This is OK, but very long!

David Allan Hubbard, Hosea, Tyndale Commentaries
Usual Tyndale feel - brief and useful, but doesn't do too much

Raymond C. Ortlund Jr, Whoredom, (New Studies in Biblical Theology no. 2)
This is was the most useful book in helping with Biblical Theology, both in OT background and NT fulfilment.

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