Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

25 Mar 2024

When Society Collapses: Lessons from an Unlikely Prophet

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I’ve been teaching through the book of Hosea recently and have been struck by some fascinating parallels to modern American culture. Hosea prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel around 755–710 B.C., during the final decades of its existence. The northern kingdom had seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah during Rehoboam’s reign, which began around 932 B.C. Hosea is known for his marriage to Gomer as an illustration of Israel’s spiritual apostasy. Hosea’s unusual Hebrew dialect and his reference to the northern king as “our king” (7:5) hints at his northern Israelite origin. Given the full range of the dates for the kings mentioned in his introduction (793–687 B.C.), Hosea almost certainly witnessed the fall of Samaria and the northern kingdom to the Assyrians in 723 B.C.[1]

What’s fascinating for our present purposes is how Hosea’s comments about his own culture mirror trends that have been developing in Western culture over the last several decades. To be clear, I’m not equating ancient Israel to modern America. I’m not suggesting America enjoys divinely favored status or is a chosen people as ancient Israel was. What I am drawing attention to, rather, are the ways in which societies that collapse tend to exhibit similar features in their downward spirals. I’ve read such parallels regarding the collapse of the Roman empire in Augustine, but this more recent study in Hosea has provided some intriguing parallels.

These trends stood out especially in my study of Hosea 8. Here the prophet indicts his own people and culture for four sins that marked their spiritual apostasy, sending them on an accelerating course toward judgment and collapse.

1. The delusion of self-autonomy (8:1–4a). Hosea begins by indicting the Israelites for their smug self-reliance. Putting the trumpet to the lips is an alarm signal during battle but here heralds the approaching enemy. The Assyrians are swiftly streaming toward Israel as an eagle in flight. The Israelites claim to know God, but in reality, they are transgressing the covenant. In rejecting God, they’ve rejected the good. They’ve set up their own kings without the Lord’s approval. They think that they can orchestrate their own identity and destiny apart from God.

2. The folly of self-made gods (8:4b–6). Illusions of self-autonomy always spring from the worship of idols and false gods. It was no different for Israel. They had used their resources to fashion idols of their own making. The two golden calves set up in Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam I (1 Kgs 12:28) echoed the making of the original golden calf (Exod 32:4) as an act of spiritual apostasy. God had thoroughly rejected their self-made gods and announced that the calf would be shattered to pieces.

3. The futility of self-promotion (8:7–10). For all their striving and busyness, Israel had merely been sowing the wind and would soon reap the whirlwind. They were like crops of grain with no yield—anything they did produce would be swallowed up by outsiders. They had become as foolish as a lonely donkey hiring prostitutes (vv. 9–10). They thought that in promoting their own desires and interests no one could stop them, but they were foolishly wrong.

4. The pretense of self-styled worship (8:11–13). Renegade worshippers, rather than turning from their ways when things get hard, often double down. The Israelites thus became more zealous and religious, not less. Yet they channeled their energies into the wrong kinds of gods. They became strangers to God’s ways. They established their own rituals with empty spiritual value. They forgot the true God and turned aside to worship gods of their own making in the ways of their own choosing. All these missteps would lead to their soon demise.

I have noticed the same trends accelerating in modern Western culture, particularly in America, where I live. Many in our society are deluded into thinking they are autonomous and that they can dictate their own identity and destiny. Many have resorted to worshipping gods of their own making. Many promote themselves constantly as an end to themselves. Many ritualize the adoration of their own gods in their own way, according to the dictates of their own tastes.

Does such an indictment of our culture leave us hopeless? While there are grave challenges facing us in our cultural moment, we are not left without hope. Indeed, our Christian hope, grounded in the gospel, leads us to the recognition that, through Christ, we are citizens of two realms (Col 1:4; Phil 3:20). We long for the day of Christ’s return, when the world order will finally be set right. We long for the day when Christ shall establish his kingdom and with it when justice shall reign from the river to the ends of the earth (Ps 72:2–8). In the darkest of times, this hope lights our way.

[1] Conservative scholars have traditionally dated the fall of Samaria to 722 B.C., but I’ve been convinced by Rodger Young and Andrew Steinmann that this more likely occurred in 723 B.C.

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