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4. "The Corruption that is through Lust."

Hosea ix. 10-17: cf. iv. 11-14.

Those who at the present time are enforcing among us the revival of a Paganism—without the Pagan conscience—and exalting licentiousness to the level of an art, forget how frequently the human race has attempted their experiment, with far more sincerity than they themselves can put into it, and how invariably the result has been recorded by history to be weariness, decay and death. On this occasion we have the story told to us by one who to the experience of the statesman adds the vision of the poet.

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The generation to which Hosea belonged practised a periodical unchastity under the alleged sanctions of nature and religion. And, although their prophet told them that—like our own apostates from Christianity—they could never do so with the abandon of the Pagans, for they carried within them the conscience and the memory of a higher faith, it appears that even the fathers of Israel resorted openly and without shame to the licentious rites of the sanctuaries. In an earlier passage of his book Hosea insists that all this must impair the people's intellect. Harlotry takes away the brains.569569   iv. 12. He has shown also how it confuses the family, and has exposed the old delusion that men may be impure and keep their womankind chaste.570570   iv. 13, 14. But now he diagnoses another of the inevitable results of this sin. After tracing the sin, and the theory of life which permitted it, to their historical beginnings at the entry of the people into Canaan, he describes how the long practice of it, no matter how pretentious its sanctions, inevitably leads not only to exterminating strifes, but to the decay of the vigour of the nation, to barrenness and a diminishing population.

Like grapes in the wilderness I found Israel, like the first fruit on a fig-tree in her first season I saw your fathers. So had the lusty nation appeared to God in its youth; in that dry wilderness all the sap and promise of spring were in its eyes, because it was still pure. But they—they came to Ba'al-Peor—the first of the shrines of Canaan which they touched—and dedicated themselves to the Shame, and became as abominable as the object of their love. Ephraim—the Fruitful name is emphasised—their glory is flown away like a bird. No283 more birth, no more motherhood, no more conception!571571   Here, between vv. 11 and 12, Wellhausen with justice proposes to insert ver. 16. Blasted is Ephraim, withered the root of them, fruit they produce not: yea, even when they beget children I slay the darlings of their womb. Yea, though they bring up their sons I bereave them, till they are poor in men. Yea, woe upon themselves also, when I look away from them! Ephraim—again the Fruitful name is dragged to the front—for prey, as I have seen, are his sons destined.572572   So Wellhausen, after LXX.; probably correct. Ephraim—he must lead his sons to the slaughter.

And the prophet interrupts with his chorus: Give them, O LORD—what wilt Thou give them? Give them a miscarrying womb and breasts that are dry!

All their mischief is in Gilgal—again the Divine voice strikes the connection between the national worship and the national sin—yea, there do I hate them: for the evil of their doings from My house I will drive them. I will love them no more: all their nobles are rebels.573573   So we may attempt to echo the play on the words.

And again the prophet responds: My God will cast them away, for they have not hearkened to Him, and they shall be vagabonds among the nations.

Some of the warnings which Hosea enforces with regard to this sin have been instinctively felt by mankind since the beginnings of civilisation, and are found expressed among the proverbs of nearly all the languages.574574   Cf., e.g., the Proverbs of Ptah-Hotep the Egyptian, circa 2500 b.c. "There is no prudence in taking part in it, and thousands of men destroy themselves in order to enjoy a moment, brief as a dream, while they gain death so as to know it. It is a villainous ... that of a man who excites himself (?); if he goes on to carry it out, his mind abandons him. For as for him who is without repugnance for such an [act], there is no good sense at all in him."—From the translation in Records of the Past, Second Series, Vol. III., p. 24. But I am unaware of any earlier moralist284 in any literature who traced the effects of national licentiousness in a diminishing population, or who exposed the persistent delusion of libertine men that they themselves may resort to vice, yet keep their womankind chaste. Hosea, so far as we know, was the first to do this. History in many periods has confirmed the justice of his observations, and by one strong voice after another enforced his terrible warnings. The experience of ancient Persia and Egypt; the languor of the Greek cities; the "deep weariness and sated lust" which in Imperial Rome "made human life a hell"; the decay which overtook Italy after the renascence of Paganism without the Pagan virtues; the strife and anarchy that have rent every court where, as in the case of Henri Quatre, the king set the example of libertinage; the incompetence, the poltroonery, the treachery, that have corrupted every camp where, as in French Metz in 1870, soldiers and officers gave way so openly to vice; the checks suffered by modern civilisation in face of barbarism because its pioneers mingled in vice with the savage races they were subduing; the number of great statesmen falling by their passion, and in their fall frustrating the hopes of nations; the great families worn out by indulgence; the homes broken up by infidelities; the tainting of the blood of a new generation by the poisonous practices of the old,—have not all these things been in every age, and do they not still happen near enough to ourselves to give us a great fear of the sin which causes them all? Alas! how slow men are to listen285 and to lay to heart! Is it possible that we can gild by the names of frivolity and piquancy habits the wages of which are death? Is it possible that we can enjoy comedies which make such things their jest? We have among us many who find their business in the theatre, or in some of the periodical literature of our time, in writing and speaking and exhibiting as closely as they dare to limits of public decency. When will they learn that it is not upon the easy edge of mere conventions that they are capering, but upon the brink of those eternal laws whose further side is death and hell—that it is not the tolerance of their fellow-men they are testing, but the patience of God Himself? As for those loud few who claim licence in the name of art and literature, let us not shrink from them as if they were strong or their high words true. They are not strong, they are only reckless; their claims are lies. All history, the poets and the prophets, whether Christian or Pagan, are against them. They are traitors alike to art, to love, and to every other high interest of mankind.

It may be said that a large part of the art of the day, which takes great licence in dealing with these subjects, is exercised only by the ambition to expose that ruin and decay which Hosea himself affirms. This is true. Some of the ablest and most popular writers of our time have pictured the facts, which Hosea describes, with so vivid a realism that we cannot but judge them to be inspired to confirm his ancient warnings, and to excite a disgust of vice in a generation which otherwise treats vice so lightly. But if so, their ministry is exceeding narrow, and it is by their side that we best estimate the greatness of the ancient prophet. Their transcript of human life may be true to286 the facts it selects, but we find in it no trace of facts which are greater and more essential to humanity. They have nothing to tell us of forgiveness and repentance, and yet these are as real as the things they describe. Their pessimism is unrelieved. They see the corruption that is in the world through lust; they forget that there is an escape from it.575575   2 Peter i. It is Hosea's greatness that, while he felt the vices of his day with all needed thoroughness and realism, he yet never allowed them to be inevitable or ultimate, but preached repentance and pardon, with the possibility of holiness even for his depraved generation. It is the littleness of the Art of our day that these great facts are forgotten by her, though once she was their interpreter to men. When she remembers them the greatness of her past will return.


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