THE SIN OF SYNCRETISM
Series: Hosea: Unbroken Love From A Broken Heart
by Doug Goins
As a father, one of the excuses that I hear most frequently from
my children for not having done something is, "I forgot."
Whether you're a child, a parent, a husband, or a wife, if your family has
a consistent pattern of ignoring your desires and disregarding what you
think is important, it can be more than just frustrating. You begin to sense
that maybe your family doesn't trust you, value your opinion, or respect
who you are. All of us know how it feels to be taken for granted or ignored.
But have you ever felt forgotten by your family? That would be the most
painful experience of all. I have had two conversations this past year in
which that phrase came up. First, I talked with a young single man. Recently
out of university, he was the last child to leave home, and he had just
moved to a new city and a new job. His parents were enjoying the empty nest
and the freedom to travel. This young man said with great pain, "I
feel like my folks have forgotten me."
I heard a similar comment from a retired widow. She and her husband, who
is now with the Lord, had raised four children who were now married. And
she said that it seemed as if the only time she heard from them was when
they needed her to baby-sit or they needed to borrow money. She used that
same painful phrase, "I feel as if they have forgotten who I am."
In Hosea 2:2-13 God himself makes that same heart-wrenching confession about
his relationship with Israel. God is the husband who has chosen Israel to
be his bride. "She went after her lovers and forgot me," he says
in 2:13. This agonized, climactic statement comes at the end of a section
that expresses the wounded heart of God. It is a mixture of grief, frustration,
and anger mingled with a yearning that reaches out to bring back his wayward
wife, Israel. Remember how our story began last week in chapter 1 verse
2 when the Lord called Hosea to take a wife of harlotry and have children
of harlotry, "for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the
LORD." The account of Hosea's marriage and family continues on in chapter
2, the vehicle for the pathos of God's great pain over the nation's spiritual
Reading between the lines of chapter 2, it seems that Gomer has now left
Hosea and the three children for other lovers, and has become totally immersed
in cult prostitution and Baal worship. Hosea is left to raise his children
alone. According to the levitical law Hosea would have been justified in
divorcing his wife. He could have called for her execution under the law
for adultery. But it really is his love that is at work throughout this
book; it is not the law that somehow has to deal with Gomer. Now the prophet
Hosea really feels his heart more and more beating at one with the Lord's
as the Lord responds to the spiritual adultery of the nation. So with the
pain of his relationship with Gomer piercing his own heart, once again Hosea
speaks the word of the Lord to Israel:
God's Pursuing Love
In this passage God is speaking out of a broken heart to the nation
he loves. As an abandoned husband he begins with a call to the children
to plead with their mother to come home. The passage spells out the charges
against the mother very clearly. Verse 2,
"Plead with your mother, plead---
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband---
that she put away her harlotry from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts;"
lest I strip her naked
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and set her like a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
This corresponds in form to verse 9 of chapter 1, speaking of the broken
covenant relationship. God said, "For you are not my people and I am
not your God." But this passage is not about the possibility of God's
divorcing his wife, or having her executed ultimately. Even though Israel
may want divorce in her heart and even though the marriage is no longer
functioning, God won't renounce his claim on her. Divorce is not an option
for either Hosea or God.
He asks his children to beg their mother to take the most basic first step
in turning her life around. He asks that she change her outward appearance
by removing the makeup and jewelry on her face and torso that a prostitute
would wear. They are embarrassing signs of complete abandonment of her husband.
In verse 4-5a he speaks as a husband who has been publicly disgraced in
the eyes of the community by his wife. He says,
"Upon her children also I will have no pity,
because they are children of harlotry.
For their mother has played the harlot;
she that conceived them has acted shamefully."
In spite of the fact that he talks about the children's sin and rebellion,
the primary focus here is on the outrageousness of what his wife has done.
She is primarily responsible.
The fact that the children are also called to account takes us back to chapter
1 verse 2, where he says that the children will follow in the way of their
mother. It seems that the mother's lifestyle will affect those children
as they grow up, and they will end up rebellious and rejecting their father
as well. Remember, in 1:6 God warned that he would not have mercy on the
rebellious children of Israel if they continued to reject him. So the mother
and the children as a family represent all the people of Israel who are
rebellious against God. And the prophet has lost his family just as God
has lost his spiritual family.
Then there is the final word that we opened with, at the end of verse 13.
God says that he has been totally forgotten. His wife is so absorbed with
her own adulterous affairs with other lovers that she can't even remember
that he is her husband. She is living as if he doesn't even exist.
All of this describes Israel's behavior toward God. Throughout her history
of living in the land of Canaan she abandoned God, disgraced him, and forgot
him. The lovers she pursued were the Canaanite gods of Baal mentioned in
verse 8 and in verse 13. From the time that Israel entered the promised
land of Canaan after the exodus, she flirted with those gods. Eventually
she added Baal worship to her belief in Yahweh. The sin of syncretism
is blending loyalties to several different gods, mixing and matching religions
in a sort of smorgasbord. From her early times Israel acknowledged that
Yahweh really was the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
the God who delivered Israel out of Egypt; and the God of Mount Sinai who
gave her the law. So she has no problem with God's historical relevance
to her, but she has lost her focus on his imminence, the fact that he is
the God of present provision. His importance in terms of day-to-day living
has diminished. She has forgotten that this is the promised land that he
gave to her and that his first commandment on Mount Sinai was, "You
shall have no other gods before me."
Bartered Devotion For Desired Provision
Perhaps we can feel a little sympathetic to Israel when we consider how
this could have happened, though. When the Israelites settled among the
Canaanite people, they were not good farmers. They were nomad herdsmen who
didn't plant crops, so they had to learn from the Canaanites. And in adopting
the Canaanite way of life, they observed that the people depended on their
gods, particularly the god Baal and his wife Asherah. Baal was the storm
god, the god of life-giving rain. They depended on Baal for produce from
the land and reproduction in the herds. So the Israelites began to ask,
"What harm could there be in worshiping Baal along with Yahweh,
to ensure prosperity and reproduction?" They began to build shrines
to Baal in each one of their fields as their neighbors did. And gradually
the people of Israel were drawn into the deeper mysteries of this sensual
fertility cult, with the hope that they could even manipulate the gods for
their own reproduction of healthy, strong babies. As the years went by Baal
worship became more and more entrenched. They depended more and more on
the Baals and less and less on Yahweh. This problem of syncretism
continued throughout Israel's history.
This passage stresses God's absolute condemnation of Baal worship. It also
stresses his absolute power over all the forces at work in nature and life.
In Psalm 147 God says that he has absolute, unchanging power to speak and
act. He responds to people who are willing to wait for him to act and not
look around for other sources of provision. There is a progression in our
passage of God's having to assert his rightful place in the life of the
nation, confront them with their syncretism, and take away things that they
take for granted and assume that they have a right to, physically and relationally,
before he is able to give back to them in blessing.
It would be helpful for us to consider some contemporary and personal examples
of what syncretism is all about. The church today is not exempt from it;
it is possible for us to add to the worship of the God of the Bible in some
very subtle ways and also in some blatant ways. Times really have not changed
The National/International Religion Report. had an article this week
about a church conference that was held in Minneapolis last November. It
was sponsored by five different main-line Protestant denominations. Twenty-one
hundred women and sixty men from twenty-seven countries attended. It was
called The Reimagining Conference, and it was designed to celebrate the
midpoint of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Decade of the Churches
in Solidarity with Women. Most of the speakers were feminist theologians,
and they led participants in reimagining a church where everyone shares
common visions of spirituality. Attendees borrowed from native American
and Eastern religions in what they called a syncretistic vision of spirituality.
There was an unscheduled rally in which about a hundred women joined to
celebrate the miracle of being "Christian Lesbians Out Together."
Especially noted was "an unorthodox liturgical blessing and communion-like
service using milk and honey. The ceremony invoked the wisdom spirit Sophia-Creator-God
in a celebration of women's sensuality and warm body fluids. Themes of goddess
worship and the invalidity of the concept of sin were pervasive throughout."
Canaanite religious influences still threaten the purity of Biblical faith,
but each one of us also struggles with syncretism personally and privately.
We have our own seductive false gods. A false god for us that would correspond
to Israel's syncretistic worship of Baal is anything or anyone besides God
that we depend on for our meaning as a person. It is whatever we add to
God and say, "I have to have this for my life to be complete."
We can believe in God and at the same time add worship at any number of
other shrines---vocation, marriage and family, prosperity, health and fitness,
pleasure, prestige, or relationships. It is possible to need people so much
that we seek to draw from them the assurance and security that only God
can give us. Our concern for status, success, and the trophies for our accomplishments
can also expose competing gods. There is nothing wrong with any of these
things in themselves. But if they become our passion, then they rob us of
total dependence on God.
The essence of Baal worship was bartered devotion for desired provision,
whether it was prosperity or fertility. Another problem today isn't just
worshiping false gods, but treating the God of the Bible the same way that
Israel related to the Baals, so that he becomes a means of accomplishing
our ends. We barter for blessings while we maintain control of our own lives.
In reality we are the false gods of our own lives, so our wills stubbornly
resist surrender and our own brand of spiritual adultery begins in hardened
hearts that refuse to be a throne for the absolute reign of God. But whatever
our false god is, whether it is blatant and obvious or very secret and subtle,
the Lord is a jealous God, and with decisive judgment he must expose our
distorted allegiances that stand in the way of his sovereignty.
Our passage takes the form of a painful conversation that God has with the
adulterous Israel as he tries to expose the syncretism that drives her.
The passage may seem harsh and severe, but we must understand that Israel's
primary relationship with God is at stake. We must also remember the depths
of degradation to which Israel has fallen. God's patience has been tried
and his exasperation is acute. But he will not go back on his marriage vows
to be Israel's God and to keep her as his bride. Again, the judgment is
meant to lead to reconciliation.
The Judgment That Leads to Repentance
Consider the frightening word of judgment in verse 3. He warns that he will
strip her naked, make her as in the day she was born, make her like a wilderness,
set her like a parched land, and slay her with thirst. It is severe. She
will be stripped naked, publicly humiliated. Her husband has a responsibility
to clothe her, but now he will abandon that responsibility. She will be
made helpless and vulnerable like a newborn baby. Then he says that there
will be death, not execution by stoning as a prostitute would deserve, but
death by starvation in the wilderness. This is probably a picture of the
nation's forced march across the desert as they were taken into exile. A
lot of them would never make it to Assyria; they would die in the wilderness.
But the plea in verse 2 was to put away adultery in order to avoid that
judgment described in verse 3.
The second half of verse 5 shows one of the rationalizations at work in
Israel for the way she lives:
"For she said, 'I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.'"
She says, "There is a payoff if I pray to the Baals; I get the basic
necessities of life---clothing and food and water---and I also get luxuries---the
oil and beverages that I like." Israel has come to believe that she
can't trust God to meet her needs, so she looks for those needs to be met
As the dialogue continues in verses 6 and 7, in response to this God says,
"Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns;
and I will build a wall against her,
so that she cannot find her paths.
She shall pursue her lovers,
but not overtake them;
and she shall seek them,
but shall not find them.
Then she shall say, 'I will go
and return to my first husband,
for it was better with me then than now.'"
God is going to impose a discipline of limitation and confinement. He says
it will be like growing a hedge around fields as the farmers did to keep
animals from going between the fields and to keep wild animals out. There
will be barriers that she will crash into. This idea of discipline by restriction
will be developed more fully when we get to chapter 3 in a couple of weeks,
in terms of how God views it both in the life of Hosea and Gomer and in
the life of the nation.
At the beginning of verse 7 it says that she shall seek her lovers, but
she will not find them. That combination of words, seeking and finding,
is always used in the Old Testament to denote worship or wanting to find
God. It says that there is a religious desire driving the nation to find
reality, to understand the way God created things to be; but she is looking
in the wrong places, pursuing the wrong gods, and she won't find anything.
They will not hear her at all; her efforts will be futile. God will not
allow her to find what she wants anywhere but in him.
At the end of verse 7 there is an encouraging word about the purpose of
the discipline: She will come to her senses and say, "I've got to turn
around and go back to the place of innocence where I started." That
word "return" or "turn" is the Hebrew word to repent,
to have a change of heart. It indicates making a 180-degree turn and going
the opposite direction. Judgment will drive us to that decision; that is
why God allows it in our lives. Throughout Hosea we're going to see that
word used over and over as God tries to turn people back to him from their
headlong plunge toward greater and greater destruction.
In verse 8 we see God's response to Israel's rationalization:
"And she did not know
that it was I who gave her
the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished upon her silver
and gold which they used for Baal."
It is ironic that God has provided all Israel's resources, and yet Israel
doesn't acknowledge him as the source of everything. She uses his gifts
as tools of resistance against him. She didn't know it was he, and yet this
wasn't an innocent ignorance, because this statement is an accusation that
triggers terrible consequences in the verses that follow. Israel is willfully
turning from what she should have known. Yahweh has given her everything
in great abundance, but she has made two tragic errors in judgment: She
considers the Baals, not Yahweh, to be the source of fertility and
the basic necessities of life; and she fails to recognize that God owns
everything. Israel has no understanding of the spiritual reality that God
really is the Creator and the Sustainer, the very source of life.
Now the threats of judgment come faster and stronger as this passage builds.
In verse 9 God says,
"Therefore I will take back
my grain in its time,
and my wine in its season;
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
which were to cover her nakedness."
Over and over God says, "I will...." He is saying that it is his
responsibility; nothing that happens will be accidental or coincidental.
He will repeatedly be an active force of judgment.
"Now I will uncover her lewdness
in the sight of her lovers,
and no one shall rescue her out of my hand."
Again she is threatened with public shame or exposure. And nobody can save
her from it, because God has determined that it will be part of his judgment.
It speaks of God's power to do what he wants and Baal's powerlessness to
save her. God promises the same thing in our lives. Sin will be exposed
and flushed out. Remember Jesus' word, "...Whatever you have whispered
in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops." We won't
get away with anything, for the sake of our own health and survival. God
will bring it to light and reveal it.
In verse 11 he talks about the corporate worship life of Israel:
"And I will put an end to all her mirth,
her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths,
and all her appointed feasts."
God is judging the temple worship in the regular Sabbath services in the
life of the nation. The appointed feasts that are mentioned were all the
activities of worship that God himself had ordained for the nation in the
law, such as the three annual feasts of Passover and Pentecost and Tabernacles.
The new moons that are mentioned were monthly gatherings for worship, when
no business was to be transacted at all. The Sabbath was the seventh day
of rest that God built into the rhythm of every single week. The tragedy
is that all these God-ordained opportunities for worship and community life
had been co-opted by Israel as she blended together the worship of the Baals
with worship of God.
We, at Peninsula Bible Church, can just as easily subvert true biblical
worship by adding our own cultural devotion to a certain heritage, or what
Jesus called "the traditions of men." Emphasis on attendance figures
or growth in numbers is a dangerous addition to Jesus' promise that he will
build his kingdom. Inordinate concern for buildings and programs and public
popularity can distract us from the central calling we have as the church
to meet the spiritual needs of individual people. And God will judge apostate
worship today just as he did then.
The last two verses in the passage indicate how God is going to end this
"And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
of which she said,
'These are my hire,
which my lovers have given me.'
I will make them a forest,
and the beasts of the field shall devour them.
And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals
when she burned incense to them
and decked herself with her ring and jewelry,
and went after her lovers,
and forgot me, says the LORD."
He says he is going to cut off the annual harvest by bringing drought on
the land so that the fig trees and grape vines will dry up. All the beautifully
cultivated land will go back to a wild state. It will turn into a place
where wild animals will devour people. That is what happened during the
exile---the land went back to its natural state.
All of this punishment from God will happen because of Israel's misplaced
affection and worship, the festivals of the Baals and her lovers---much
religious activity, yet with God left out.
God Is Our Strength and Hope
This entire passage is a challenging confrontation for each one of us personally.
It examines the tragic transition in our lives from adoration to apostasy,
the abandonment of former loyalties. The stages are painfully clear. The
transition begins with ingratitude, with the loss of praise and thanksgiving
to God alone as the source of sustenance and everything we have. It is very
dangerous for us to get confused about what should be our basic conviction,
that everything we have, everything we are, and everything we desire for
ourselves in the future, are all gifts from God.
The Bible says that when we start thinking in terms of what we have accomplished,
that is sinful pride. And yet it's easy to use a gift from God such as our
intelligence and somehow believe that we are responsible for the understanding
we gain with it. We can become proud of some unique talent or ability that
God has given us, thinking that somehow we have acquired it ourselves. The
same applies to the privileges, special opportunities, and accumulation
of material possessions that God allows into our life. We start using the
words I, me, and my a lot.
It is also misplaced praise to think of any person, group, or institution
as the ultimate source of our blessings. We should be grateful to other
people, but remember that it was God who provided those people in our lives
and decided to use them as agents for our benefit. When I say to one of
you, "Thank you for all that you mean to me," there should be
the deeper implication that I thank God for using you so effectively in
my life. We should be thankful for our church, our family, our small fellowship
group, our place of employment, and even our nation; every one of those
is a channel of blessing that God uses. But it is not the primary source
of blessing in our lives and is not to be given our supreme loyalty as Lord.
When I was a youth pastor in southern California, one of our elders was
Jan Erdezak. He and his wife Olga were Czech refugees who came to this country
after World War II. They started a business in southern California that
became Olga of California, a women's apparel company. Jan and Olga are very
godly, people; and I learned much from them in the couple of years that
I worked under him in our church. One time he gave a message to a group
of Christian businessmen in which he made a statement about his own greatest
difficulty in living out his faith as a Christian. I expected him to talk
about pressure, priorities, people problems, or something like that. But
here is what he said:
No question about it, my greatest difficulty is remembering
that I could not breathe a breath, think a thought, envision a plan, earn
a dollar, maintain strength, or remain faithful to what I believe if it
were not for the moment-by-moment blessing of God. When I forget that, I'm
When we lose our grip on that kind of assurance, we begin to place our dependence
on our own ability or on someone else's capacity to provide what we need.
We end up making diminutive gods in our lives in competition with Yahweh.
In an effort to ensure a steady flow of provision from them we forget God,
and apostasy sets in even though it may be covered with a great veneer of
religious activity, and our time, devotion, energy, and commitment ends
up being given to a lesser god.
Our passage communicates clearly how God jars us with judgment because he
won't tolerate other gods before him. We need to maintain a vivid awareness
that God is our ultimate strength and hope. We need to do this through consistent
repentance, turning back to him over and over as we realize we have become
distracted and our focus is wrong, in the awesome realization of God's unwillingness
to divorce us and his people Israel even when we have committed spiritual
adultery by syncretizing our commitment to him with false gods.
George Matheson was one of Scotland's greatest nineteenth-century Bible
teachers, preachers, and scholars. As a young man he was a prodigy in Greek
and Hebrew and loved to study the Scriptures. He had to face several false
gods in his own life when in his early twenties he discovered he was going
blind. There were two things he confessed that he wrestled with. First,
he didn't want to give up his biblical scholarship and his study of languages,
and he feared that he wouldn't be as effective in ministry. And second,
he confessed that he was angry because his identity as a Bible scholar and
preacher was so important to him. But then, if that weren't enough, his
fiancée broke her engagement to him when she found out he was going
blind. (Both vocational ministry and marriage are legitimate sources of
secondary blessing, of course.) Once again he raged at God. Then he wrote
words of repentance and renewed commitment to God, confessing that he had
forgotten God as the sovereign, the ultimate source of meaning and significance
in his life. Sung for decades, these are the opening lines of the hymn O
Love That Will Not Let Me Go:
O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
Catalog No. 4390
January 16, 1994
Copyright © 1994 Discovery
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