Several years back, I was called for federal jury duty. The whole scene was pretty incredible. When a case is announced, two parties are included, the one bringing the charges and the one being charged. In a criminal case, the only one who can bring a charge is the one whose law has been violated. So, as we sat in the courtroom, we heard the following case announcement, “The United States of America versus Martha Shofner.” While I knew that the charges had to be proven with evidence and that such charges are announced as they are for technical reasons when I heard the name of the case, all I could think was, “This is not a great situation you’re in, Martha. It is literally the nation versus you.”
In Hosea 4, we find a similarly daunting court case. The chapter begins with the dramatic announcement of this case, “Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel, for the Lord has a controversy (which can be translated as a lawsuit) with the inhabitants of the land” (Hos 4:1a). Basically, Hosea, is saying, “This is the case of Yahweh, the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly just, and covenant-keeping God of all creation versus the folks living in the promised land.” Not a great situation to be in. What’s more, the way the case is announced seemingly foreshadows the outcome. The case is not “Yahweh versus his children” or “Yahweh versus his chosen people,” or even “Yahweh versus Israel.” The case is “Yahweh versus the inhabitants of the land.” They seem to have already been disowned.
All of Hosea 4 is taken up with this case, and it can be divided into three sections. Hosea 4:1-3 announces the case and the charges. Then the evidence is given in 4:4-14. This section can be divided into a case against the priests (4:4-10) and a case against the people (4:11-14). No defense is offered. No defense could be offered. Israel was guilty as charged. The legal demands of the law of God would have to be answered with divine justice. The priests had failed to give the people the Word of God, and the people had become exceedingly idolatrous. The people would be punished, but so would the priests. Hosea writes, “And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish him for his ways and repay him for his deeds” (Hos. 4:9). People and priest alike would suffer for their sins.
There is an important grammatical point to be made about Hosea 4:9. Most modern translations have plural pronouns in verse 9. For example, the ESV reads, “And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds” (emphasis added). However, the Hebrew, somewhat oddly, has singular pronouns at this point in the passage. The surrounding verses speak of the priest in the plural, as if the whole class had failed, and indeed they had. However, in verse 9, the verse announcing the punishment of the priest, the pronouns switch to singular, “I will punish him for his ways and repay him for his deeds.”
Finally, the chapter ends with a warning to Judah not to make the same mistakes as Israel (Hos. 4:15-19). Hosea prophesied long before either Israel or Judah would be exiled, and Israel would be exiled nearly 150 years before Judah. There was time for Judah to repent. Unfortunately, we find out in Jeremiah 3, Judah did not heed Hosea’s warning. They followed Israel in her sin. Actually, Jeremiah lets us know Judah’s sin was worse in some ways. He tells us Israel whored after other gods and didn’t turn back. Judah whored after other gods and pretentiously turned back. Jeremiah writes, “Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense. Declares the Lord” (Jer. 3:10). He then proclaims, “Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah” (Jer. 3:11). This surprising verdict is the Old Testament prophecy version of Jesus’ parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32, in which he compares the tax collectors and prostitutes with the chief priests and elders. The one who seems more defiant on the surface is presented as more righteous. Scandalous!
As scandalous as it is when we realize the truly defiant are the pretentiously religious, what Yahweh has Jeremiah say next is even more so. Beginning in 3:12, Jeremiah is sent to call both Israel and Judah back to God and to promise them the world. What’s more astounding is how he goes about this. God doesn’t say, “Stop it with all your sin. Do what’s right. Earn my trust, and it will go well with you.” NO! These are the words we read instead, “Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the Lord” (Jer. 3:12-13). He then goes on to talk about all the ways he will love and bless them. In essence, God sends Jeremiah to say, “Tell them, if they come to me as sinners, instead of in their pretentious pietism, I will welcome them in and restore everything that has been lost, and it will be better than it was before.” What’s more, Yahweh doesn’t say, “And when this happens, I will set the law back up with all its institutions and they can try again.” Rather, he says even the ark of the covenant won’t come to mind, be remembered, or be missed (Jer. 3:16). This is a rather dramatic way of saying the law with all of its blood and sacrifices and legal demands will be brought to an end. How in the world can this be?
That repentance starts with a kind of giving up shouldn’t surprise us.
Returning to the parable of the two sons, we begin to find the answer. The distinction Jesus makes between the tax collectors and prostitutes on the one hand and the chief priests and elders on the other is that the former believed John the Baptist’s message and the latter didn’t. So, what was John’s message? Matthew answers that question when he writes, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 3:1-2). A few verses later, John, seeing the Pharisees and Sadducees coming in their religious pretense, tells them not to bother but instead they should “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
What does bearing fruit in keeping with repentance mean? Some have made this statement out to mean that the Pharisees and Sadducees were to go get some things right to prove their repentance and then come to John for baptism. However, when we think in terms of Jeremiah’s call to repentance and the promises of righteousness that follow, we see that bearing fruit in keeping with repentance means coming to God as a sinner in need of a Savior. This is the very action the Pharisees and Sadducees repeatedly refused to do (cf. Luke 18:9-14). That repentance starts with a kind of giving up shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Jesus tells us, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13).
Israel’s and Judah’s problem was that the law had a legal demand against them. They had violated God’s law and were guilty as charged. Hosea made clear this was an issue for priests and people alike. Truly, all had sinned. This is our problem as well. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came for those against whom the law has every legal demand. It is in these exact terms that Paul writes to the Colossians, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14). The legal record of debt for our sin was canceled because Jesus satisfied the legal demands for us by his life, death, and resurrection. John uses similarly legal language in his first letter when he writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2). Jesus is both our advocate, that is, our lawyer who represents us before God, and the propitiation for our sins, that is, the offering who has satisfied God’s wrath and canceled the legal debt, by his life, death, and resurrection.
Like the priests of old, Jesus made a sacrifice on behalf of the people. However, there is a key distinction in Jesus and the priests of old. The author of Hebrews explains the priests of old offered sacrifices not only for the sin of the people but also for their own sin—like people, like priest—but Jesus was a priest without sin (Heb. 4:14-5:9). He then goes on to state, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…” (Heb. 10:11–12). The priests, who were sinners themselves, could only offer a sacrifice for the people after they had offered one for themselves, and these sacrifices had to be offered repeatedly. Jesus, who is the sinless high priest, offered himself as a sacrifice for sinners and rose in victory over sin and death so that nothing needs to be offered again, ever.
Hosea wrote, “And it shall be like people, like priest” (Hos. 4:9), because the legal demands stood against both. Read in light of Jesus’ incarnation and work as our High Priest, Hosea’s words burst with meaning. Jesus is the singular priest who would suffer with and for his people. Christ humbled himself, becoming a man (John 1:14, Phil. 2:7-11). Like people, like Priest. Christ was born under the law (Gal. 4:4). Like people, like priest. He who knew no sin was made to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Like people, like priest. He bore the punishment due for our sin. Like people, like priest. Because Christ heard the words of Hosea, “like people, like priest,” now, in Christ, we hear the word of the gospel, “like priest, like people.” God’s wrath was fully satisfied by Christ, so it is fully satisfied for us. Like priest, like people. His righteousness is imputed to us, so we are declared righteous in him. Like priest, like people. He rose in victory over sin and death and we, too, will rise to life. Like priest, like people.
In Hosea 4, Yahweh brought a case against his people. The law had a legal demand against them. We stand in the same place, guilty of violating God’s law. The inhabitants of the land didn’t just need a warning not to stray. They didn’t need a new law. Judah was given this, and, as we saw in Jeremiah 3, it didn’t really help. What they needed, and what we need, is the record of debt with its legal demands to be somehow canceled. We need God’s just wrath against our sin to be satisfied, which is precisely what we have in Christ Jesus. In Christ, Yahweh has no case against us. Because of the finished work of Christ, the announcement of the case didn’t actually foreshadow the outcome; rather, as Paul reminds us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).