In this chapter, God speaks to Israel and Judah using the language of marriage, infidelity, divorce and restoration. The marriage metaphor runs throughout the chapter, comparing God as a husband and Israel and Judah as his two faithless brides. The idea of God having two wives seems awkward, perhaps emphasizing that the splitting of God’s people into two groups (Israel—northern kingdom; Judah—southern kingdom) was never His will for them. In fact, God envisions a time (“At that time”—vs. 17; “In those days”—vs. 18) when the two nations come together as His one people (“In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your forefathers as an inheritance”—3:18).
The chapter opens with a statement that echoes Deuteronomy 24:1-4. God speaks of a man divorcing his wife who leaves and marries another. After this remarriage, a reunion of the original marriage would leave the land “completely defiled” (3:1). In verse 8 God speaks of giving “faithless Israel her certificate of divorce” and sending her away because of her adulteries. However, the chapter never speaks of either Israel or Judah being remarried to another god. Instead, the language God uses accuses both Israel and Judah of playing the prostitute (3:1-2, 13) and committing adultery (3:6, 8-9, 20). In this sense God could still take His unfaithful people back to himself without leaving the land “completely defiled.” He could institute a “new covenant” to replace the broken marriage covenant (Mosaic covenant).
The imagery of marriage, adultery, prostitution, lovers and “scattering your favours” (13) helps us understand the kind of relationship God envisions and desires to have with His people. He wants closeness, intimacy, exclusivity and fidelity. The breach of this marriage covenant is scandalous and embarrassing; God is the jilted, broken-hearted, wounded husband.
Both Israel and Judah are indicted for their spiritual adultery (3:6-10). Israel is pictured as having being “faithless” and wayward first. God dealt with her by giving Israel “her certificate of divorce” and sending her away (into exile). Amazingly, Judah watched this and still followed the same path. Only, to make matters more galling, Judah added hypocrisy to her adultery: “…Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense” (3:10). This may be a reference to what was happening in the time of good king Josiah (vs. 6). Josiah exerted his kingly influence to tear down the idols and gather the people to reconfirm the covenant. Sadly, this seems to have been more of an external show than an internal reality. Pretense, not heart. Leaders can only do so much for people!
A number of phrases are used to capture the spiritual immorality of God’s people.
“you do all the evil you can”(5)
“you have not obeyed me” (13, 25)
“you have been unfaithful to me” (20)
“[they] have forgotten the Lord their God”(21)
The most common, repeated descriptors of God’s people in this chapter are “faithless” (3, 8. 11, 12, 14, 22) and “unfaithful” (7, 8, 10, 11, 20). Those who are faithless become unfaithful. They lose their “fear” of the Lord (8) and “forget” him (21). The result is that the Lord “frowns” (12) on His people—a statement that is far more serious than it sounds. The Hebrew text literally reads: “cause (Hiphil) my face to fall upon you.” The verb (fall) usually carries the idea of something falling down, sometimes violently. Here God’s face falls—His smile turns to a frown or worse. This falling countenance is a metaphor for his displeasure and distress, which translates into His discipline.
All these indictments can, in a sense, be traced to one primary charge: God’s people had “no fear” of Him (8). No reverence. No sense of foreboding. No shaking at the thought of His power and authority. No sense of awe (“you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me”—2:19). Proverbs 8:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil.”
In addition to a deep love for God, which moves us not to sin and break His heart, we need a deep fear of God which moves us not to sin and come under His wrath. His covenantal love (pictured in the marriage covenant) is the basis for His tender mercies and His jealous anger.
Three times in this chapter God speaks of the people’s flagrant sin as “defiling the land” (1, 2, 9). The land God gave them was called the Holy Land as it was the place of God’s presence and His dwelling (“Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground). This is one reason for the exile—God’s land cannot contain or sustain a unfaithful, backslidden (3:22), brazen and shameless (3:3) people.
In spite of this grievous infidelity, God repeatedly invites the people of Israel to return to Him: “’Return, faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband’” (3:14). “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding (3:22).” He promises to provide them with leaders (shepherds) “after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (15). Here we see the enduring love of God reaching out to people who have wounded His heart and broken His covenant. How merciful and gracious He is towards us.