Summary: When Israel went "over the line," God had to pull back his protective "overwatch." We need to be certain that we are depending upon God instead of other answers.
Students of military tactics will have recognized the two terms in my title for today’s sermon. The first refers to a superior force finding a weak point in the enemy’s defenses and rolling right over and through the enemy without having to stop for a pitched engagement. The aggressor defeats the enemy force and keeps on moving, securing the area while moving through it. The second term comes from U.S. military doctrine. It means that prior to an advance, a smaller unit than the one advancing takes a position where soldiers can see the positions in front of the larger unit. In this way, the soldiers in “overwatch” can alert the advancing unit to possible ambushes and enemy points of strength, but the “overwatch” unit can also provide covering fire for the advancing units.
In a very sad way, both terms could be used in today’s text. Where verse 1’s second line is often translated, “because they have broken my covenant,” the verb for “have broken” is really the verb “crossed over.” Ironically, even though we suspect that the actual term “Hebrew” comes from a foreign word (“’apiru”) that means trouble-makers, rabble, or thieves, the closest root idea in Hebrew itself is the idea of “crossing over.” And it’s a nice idea since Abram crossed the Euphrates to get to the land of promise, Moses led the people across the Red or Reed Sea to escape from the Egyptians, and Joshua followed God’s instructions in crossing the Jordan to reach the land of promise, as well. Crossing over, as a verbal idea, should have a very positive force in Hebrew understanding. But here, the verb that usually has such a positive connotation has the idea of trespassing or violation. Instead of an act of faith (like crossing a river at flood stage) that affirmed the covenant relationship, Israel had “crossed over” the wrong direction.
As a result of this negative “crossing over” or reverse faith, we are told that Israel needs to sound the alarm. Israel is about to be overrun by an enemy that will strike as fiercely as an eagle (or even more negatively, as a vulture—an unclean bird of prey). Israel is vulnerable because God is no longer providing “overwatch” for them. Let’s see what the text has to say. [Once again, I’ll be using my translation, but I urge you to also read from your primary version.]
v. 1 To your mouth a trumpet, [one] like an eagle (or vulture) upon Yahweh’s house,
on account [of the fact] they have crossed (overrun?) my covenant
and they have rebelled against my torah (law, way, teaching, lifestyle).
v. 2 To me they have cried out for help;
Israel has cried, “My God! We know you.”
v. 3 Israel has rejected good (or the good or the Good One).
An adversary shall pursue him.
The first three verses of this chapter picture a time of alarm. A predator is preparing to dive upon the very household or people of God. We don’t know if that predator is an unclean carrion-eater like a vulture, circling over that “house of God,” or if that predator is an eagle looking for live prey. It’s the same word in Hebrew and both nouns describe birds with large wingspans that glide up in the high winds before diving down on their prey, but eagles have a symbolic role in the Old Testament. Although all of these examples come from later than the time of Hosea, let’s consider Habakkuk 1:8’s description of enemy horsemen flying like eagles swift to devour, Jeremiah 4:13’s depictions of horsemen sent by God Himself as being swifter than eagles, Jeremiah 48:40’s depiction of God spreading His wings against Moab prior to judgment, and Ezekiel 17 where God is pictured as an eagle planting Israel in the land of promise (verses 1-6) before Israel reached out to another authority, an eagle that wasn’t God (verses 7-10) that plants Israel where it can only wither and die.
Clearly, the eagle is usually a symbol of judgment in the Old Testament, and clearly Israel has invoked the presence of this eagle upon itself by going over the line of God’s covenant, violating the boundaries provided in God’s Torah instruction. Now, I know that some translations merely use “law” for “Torah,” but that isn’t the true Hebrew understanding of Torah. Torah is the divine mentor, God teaching us how to live. Torah is the divine lifestyle, living in harmony with God’s instruction. And when Israel (or even we ourselves) get unsynchronized with God’s Torah, we’re headed for disaster. Torah is intended to keep us out of the disaster zone, but Israel kept thinking (and too many times we keep thinking) that it was smarter than God (and that we are smarter than God). Israel wasn’t smarter than God and we aren’t smarter than God.