Exchanging Glory for Disgrace or How to Become a Pagan


« They exchanged their glory for something disgraceful » (Hosea 4 :7b, NIV)

The book of Hosea is a very interesting description of the mechanism of apostasy –  how the people of Israel slid from the worship of the true God into paganism – and the results of that apostasy.

The first thing to note was that it was a very subtle process.

Bit by bit elements from paganism slid into the theology and religious practice of Israel.

Worship began to be seen less as “the chief end of man”, the achievement of his ultimate purpose and potential, the expression of a relationship in which a person rightly relates to the God who made them, sustains them and loves them; and became merely a form of human-divine commerce – mankind worships and in return the gods make the crops grow.

This change in perspective moves people from purity to pragmatism. It becomes less a concern “Are we worshipping God in the way we should?” and more about “Are we getting what we want?”

If it works, do it.

The other mechanism in the move to apostasy is the move from theocentric worship to anthropocentric worship. It is less about pleasing God and more about enjoying the experience.

If it feels good, do it.

Following these two changes spirituality gradually mutates.

The people of Israel start to include bull statues (the symbol of Baal) in their worship spaces. At the start this is justified by their designation merely as “pedestals” – the invisible Yahweh is stated to be “standing” on top of these statues, therefore the religious innovators can still claim that worship is being directed towards Yahweh.

Of course the reality is that people end up worshipping the statues.

One innovation leads to another. What other elements – which are either fun to do, or seem to be efficacious in getting the results we want – can we borrow from the surrounding nations?

Soon we find the worship of Yahweh has mutated from holy worship undertaken by a purified people into a form of religious feasting with cultic sex thrown in.

We see that change has a dramatic effect on the moral life of the nation – cursing, lying, bloodshed and adultery become part of everyday life (Hosea 4:2).

Worship makes the world.


However, we might think that whilst this may be an interesting historical study it has little to say to us today. However, we would be wrong in thinking that.

Spiritual realities don’t change.

The same forces that operated then still operate now. Christian churches face the same temptations as the ancient Israelites.


The temptation to move from a motivation in worship that is drawn from the understanding that it is our highest calling and fulfils our greatest human potential;  to a motivation which is expressed by the question “What do I get out of it?” or “What’s in it for me?”

The temptation to move from God-centred worship to man-centred worship. Where the key concern is no longer “Are we pleasing God?” but rather “Is everyone having fun?”

These two movements will be sufficient to gradually paganise our worship.

One day we will finally move to the point where we are no longer worshipping God at all.

Our worship will be so sin-ridden that God will not accept it. Our image of god so twisted and corrupt that it is no longer God at all.


This is a real and ever-present danger and the Old Testament gives many examples of it at work amongst the people of God, Hosea is just one instance.

The New Testament sadly shows the same problem affecting the Church. Saint Paul warns that there are always those who will proclaim “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11) the adoption of which leads not to the establishment of Christian churches, but rather to “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9, 3:9).

The most frightening aspect of this is that those within these movements do not understand their deception.

The Israelites with all their perversion of theology and cult still thought they were worshipping Yahweh; the churches spoken of in the book of Revelation still considered themselves to be Christian.


The film “Dogma” gave a fantastic illustration of this process at work. The scenario was that the Catholic church, seeking to speak more relevantly to contemporary society, decided to update its image. The crucifix, with its imagery of Christ suffering and giving his life-blood to save us from our sins, was considered “too depressing”. Therefore a new icon had been developed – the Buddy Christ.

Now the key image to represent the Christian faith was not one showing both the fatal problem of sin and how God has provided a means whereby that problem can be addressed, but rather one that says, “Jesus thinks you’re cool!”

Now on one level this is true. God does love us. But the Bible holds this truth in tension with another – that our sin is killing us. It is separating us from the very love God that wants to lavish on us. We need to be forgiven for it and freed from it (shriven from it, as in Shrove Tuesday) in order to move into the experience of God’s radical love.

Thus by the simply neglect of “half the story” the Christian faith has been twisted, transformed into something quite different, it is no longer about how we can be saved but rather about being affirmed.

Notice that the same two elements are at work –

It is no longer about God – giving Him the worship that is His due and our glory and purpose – but about us and our therapeutic need to feel good about ourselves. We have moved from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocentric one.

Secondly, spirituality is no longer concerned with holy worship and the tools for the rigorous process of transformation into Christ-like holiness. It is no longer focussed on remedying what is wrong with us (our inherent sinfulness) but merely affirming us as we are. We have moved from a concern to worship God rightly, to a concern for the “feel-good” factor.

It is in this context of this very real and ever-present danger of apostasy that we can see the vital necessity of holding fast to the Bible and to its traditional interpretation and to be very careful about testing any new “insights” that would radically alter Christian belief and behaviour.



Come as you are, but don’t stay as you are.


“Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears…

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:4b, 6 NIV)


In amazing brevity and precision, these two verses from Hosea presents the whole comprehensive reality of mankind’s deepest spiritual problem.

First a little context.

The people of Israel had entered into a covenant relationship with God following his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and God has established them in the promised land.

Unfortunately they backslide.

They start to mix worship of the pagan deities of the surrounding nations in with their worship of Yahweh.

Yahweh does not accept this and so decides he will show them the powerlessness of these other gods and allows the nation to experience one disaster after another.

Finally the penny drops and the priests call the people to offer sacrifices to Yahweh.

But this merely exposes the root of their misunderstanding.

Yahweh doesn’t want their sacrifices. He wants their obedience.

This is the core of not only Israel’s but mankind’s deepest spiritual problem. All pagan religion, indeed all magic, has a mercantile basis.

People try to manipulate the gods into doing what they want by giving them stuff.

But the Bible tells us that,

Yahweh doesn’t want our stuff.

Indeed as C.S. Lewis powerfully made the point in his “Sixpence none the richer story”[1] – we have nothing to give God apart from that which he has first given us. God is never any better off for having been given back his own stuff!

The root spiritual problem we, as human beings, have is this,

We want to be saved without being changed.

But this is not how Yahweh works.


 ‘An acknowledgement of God’ means an acknowledge with heart and life of the lordship of the God of the Exodus and covenant[2].

Indeed, the whole history of Israel is the sphere of the struggle and dialogue between man and God. This is expressed in some of the possible meanings of the name Israel e.g. “God strives” or “Struggles with God”.

As Mays reminds us,

“Yahweh is the exclusive Lord of Israel and alone has the right to fix the conditions of their existence. One does not turn to a suzerain for help while ignoring his desire.”[3]

Israel’s problem (and ours) is the struggle to accept this in the reality of our daily lives. To give God his rightful place.

I was brought up in the Evangelical tradition and we liked to express spiritual truth in memorable aphorisms. One we used to quote regularly was,

“If Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he isn’t Lord at all”

There is a key moment of revelation in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” when the character of Aslan, the Jesus figure, is described,

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?

Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” …

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

In fact the human error is this folly of this search for a tame god.

We want a small, trivial god, that we can easily manipulate and turn to our ends. We are prepared to give God our stuff, but not ourselves. We can do once a week worship, or daily prayer, or even 10% of our income, but to give ourselves wholly to God, for him to control and  guide and use as he will. No way.

All of which is understandable. It’s just not possible. Well not if we want to be saved.

The God who is revealed in the Bible works differently.

The God who called out and set apart Israel to live in relationship with him did not intend to relate to his people in the same meaningless, mercantile, worship exchange of paganism.

“In his election of Israel Yahweh had not meant to found one more religion of ritual by which men might manage the divine; he intended to become absolute Lord of all life”[4]

When God called Israel it was to something far bigger than being their genie in a bottle; their “Get out of jail free” card in case of problems.

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.

Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a NIV)


It is in this context that we must understand Hosea’s critique of the people of Israel’s “love”. Their supposed “love” or “devotion” to God was wavering, changeable, inconstant. Whereas,

‘Devotion’ means the attitude and acts which loyally maintain and implement a given relationship[5]


The “acknowledgement of God” implies,

“A knowing which becomes a state of being.”[6]

Israel’s failure was in approaching Yahweh,

“… as though he was some Canaanite deity to whom the quality if their lives is irrelevant, as though there were no covenant and no revelation in the past of what it means ‘to be my people’”[7]

In fact this is the key failure which will be resumed a few verses further on,

“but they do not realise that I remember all their evil deeds.

Their sins engulf them; they are always before me.” (Hosea 7:2 NIV)

The real issue, the crucial issue, never enters their minds – that it is the evil in their lives that God hates.

We cannot encounter God in any meaningful way, in his majesty, his glory and his power and merely ‘bumble on’ as before.  Any time that something of God’s true wonder and holiness and glory begin to dawn on our consciousness, change will inevitably happen. Something that is made clear in the New Testament,

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV)

Indeed, to stay unchanged is to deny the reality of our encounter with God. To have met with God in a saving encounter always leads to transformation.

If we are in relationship with God it is always on HIS terms. God doesn’t invite us “to try our best”, or “to have a go” at living in a way that pleases him. He COMMANDS us to live holy lives.

Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.(Leviticus 19:2 NIV)

Much of the debate about Christian sexual ethics in the light of changing contemporary mores seems to me to be rooted in such a desire to avoid this radical call to holiness and the complete re-orientation of our lives. We want to be saved, but not to be changed. God please save me but leave me as I am.

However transformation into holiness, a re-orientation of our life in line with God’s standards, values, desires are the essential elements of a saving encounter with the awesome God of the Bible,

“Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” …

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”






[1] Lewis C.S. Mere Christianity – Book III-Christian Behaviour – Chapter 11-Faith, Glasgow: Fount, 1952, p124

[2] Mays, James Luther The Old Testament Library – Hosea, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969, p95

[3] ibid., p98

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p103

Call me Ishi, not Ba’ali


“And it shall be, in that day”, says the Lord, “That you will call Me ‘Ishi,’ And no longer call Me ‘Ba’ali’”. (Hosea 2:16)

Hosea is a strange and wonderful book. In it the relationship between Yahweh and his people is represented by the metaphor of a husband and an unfaithful wife.

The people of Israel’s going after the pagan gods – the baals – of the surrounding nations is represented as that of a wife’s whoring around with other men (the text is that explicit).

Rather than repudiate his wife in a divorce which publicly dishonours her, the husband goes after his wife to regain her love. He woos her again. He takes her back and, after a time of purification, re-engages with her in marital fidelity.

Such is the love of God for his people, even their unfaithfulness and rejection cannot make him turn his back on them. He is committed to regaining their love and faithfulness – they will need to be brought to their senses, and that will be a painful process – but his goal is to be once agin in loving intimacy with them.

The verse above expresses God’s heart.

Both the words can mean husband but they have different emphases.

“Ishi” was the word used for a husband, partner and counterpart of the woman. Whilst “Ba’ali” comes from a verb indicating ownership, having rights over someone or something.

Ishi speaks of a tender, loving, intimate relationship.

Ba’ali speaks of being bound by a legal commitment.

I wonder how much of contemporary Christian spirituality is Ba’ali-based and how much is Ishi-based?

Do we enjoy the kind of relationship expressed by Jesus when he said;

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:5)

Health, Wealth and Happiness … Are Not Enough

I’m studying Hosea at the moment.

A strange and wonderful book.

The people of God are portrayed as an unfaithful wife who goes whoring around. Her “lovers” are the pagan religions, with their gods of fertility, or wealth and economic success.

However her husband still loves her and he will do anything to get her back.

In order that she might return she needs to come to her senses, to see her “lovers” as merely exploitative abusers, in stark contrast with the deep loves her husband has for her.

In order to bring his estranged wife to her senses God must show her that these god, who promise wealth, are powerless – thus he needs to bring her to economic ruin.

In her ruin she will see the god for what they are, exploitative, powerless abusers, who have only succeeded in depriving her of the experience of the love of her rightful husband.

God calls on his people to,

Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unploughed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers righteousness on you. (Hosea 10:12, NIV)

The root problem is that the people of God have interpreted their calling too narrowly.

They have thought that economic flourishing was their only goal.

God shows them that their true calling goes far beyond mere economic wealth, it is to live in relationship with him. To love him, to know him, to demonstrate in their society the values he esteems – unselfishness, uprightness.

For the people of God health, wealth and happiness are not enough. They are trivial trifles in comparison with the great calling, the grand invitation, to live with God and in God and for God.

As the Westminster Catechism says,

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Nothing short of this can possibly be worthy of a human life.

The Lord is my shepherd, He leads me to hell – A liturgy of the lost

“For Israel is stubborn
Like a stubborn calf;
Now the Lord will let them forage
Like a lamb in open country.” (Hosea 4:16 RSV)

This is an interesting verse. It form a part (vv16-19) of what James L. Mays calls “The Liturgy of the Lost” (Hosea – A Commentary, OTL).

The Hebrew word “Merchab” which is translated “open country”, means “expanse” and is a synonym for the netherworld. Stuart insists that it is in this sense it should be understood in this passage (Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 31 Hosea-Jonah, p85), otherwise the verse makes little sense.

Interesting to make the comparison with Psalm 23. In that psalm of blessing, God the shepherd leads his flock to green pastures, by still waters etc. Here we have quite a reversal of image!

What has occasioned this change in Yahweh’s behaviour towards His people?

The answer is religious unfaithfulness, which has led to a moral and ethical debasement of society.

Israel has consistently refused to return to Yahweh, to follow the guidance of her Shepherd to a place of bounty and flourishing, therefore God will take them to a place of despair; to hell.

This is not that they might be forever lost, but rather that they should be led into an experience of lost-ness that they might come to their senses; that they should come to a right-mindedness. That they should perceive the awful spiritual reality of their condition and repent of it and return to God and the Covenant they had made with Him.

It seems that God’s people always have this choice – to be led by Him to a place of blessing through the practice of holy obedience to His will, or to be led by Him to a place of lost-ness and suffering through unholy disobedience.

We have two liturgies that describe these alternatives for us – Psalm 23 and Hosea 4:16-19.

Every day, we are making our choice.

Your Feasts, Not Mine

I was studying the book of Hosea and in chapter two I came across the verse,

“I will stop all her celebrations: her yearly festivals, her New Moons, her Sabbath days – all her appointed feasts.” (Hosea 2:11, NIV)

Which is interesting.

Israel was in terminal religious decline. She had embraced the pagan Baal worship of the surrounding nations in a syncretistic mish-mash with the worship of Yahweh.

The regular religious festivals which had been ordained by God were now an admixture of Baal worship (often licentious) and the true worship of Yahweh.

This unholy mix had got to the point that Yahweh disassociates Himself from them. Note that the verse describes the religious feasts as “her” celebrations, “her” festivals, “her” New Moons, “her” Sabbath days. That is to say, God says, these are no longer that which I ordained and intended – these are your creation, your affair, I have nothing to do with them.

I was struck by the parallelism with the contemporary situation. We still celebrate Christmas, Easter, All Hallows Eve but these celebrations have become paganised. Their religious content and meaning stripped away. They have been separated from any religious dimension or component.

I watched a recent political T.V. show in which someone commented that they had received many Christmas cards from MPs. They noted that only a single digit percentage of them had any religious reference.

We are now more likely to wish each other “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”. A bland, unspecific phrase, devoid of any vital meaning.

The festivals, once the high points of the religious year, celebrations of the transcendent, of the possibility of human salvation and flourishing, have now mutated into a mere frenzy of consumption.

Empty vessels. Hollow. Much noise, no meaning.

Hosea’s message was that God’s response would be to bring to an end these shambolic, syncretistic, shameful abominations of His holy festivals.

However, a society’s cultural calendar can only be stopped by bringing that society to its knees.

Which meant the military and economic destruction of the country. Which God brought to pass.

So that Israel could start again. Get back on the right track.

I wonder what God’s response will be to our paganisation of His ordained festivals…