Last week we saw in Hosea 12 how Yahweh called Israel to imitate their ancestor Jacob. Jacob, although in many ways a scoundrel, eventually began to trust God instead of his own schemes, and thus inherited the name Israel. Unfortunately, Hosea’s Israel was acting too much like the old Jacob rather than the new Israel. Thus, Yahweh calls them once again to repentance, in verse 6:
6 “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”
But, alas, this was not to be. Instead, Hosea paints a picture for us of the continued decadence and stubborn rebellion of the descendants of Jacob in his day…
7 A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. 8 Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.” 9 I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast. 10 I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. 11 If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps on the furrows of the field. 12 Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep. 13 By a prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded. 14 Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds.
These first few verses speak of a false sense of security that replaced a reliance upon the LORD. It is true that Israel lived at the height of affluence during the age of Jeroboam II and although they were living off the fumes of that, they still were living above average, refusing to acknowledge that any of this was a gift from the LORD.
Hosea designates Israel here as a “merchant,” engaging in fraud. They were cutting corners to get ahead “in the worst traditions of Israelite merchant’s ancestor Jacob” (Duane Garret, Hosea-Amos, p. 241). But Hosea indicates that Ephraim was even worse than that!
The actual Hebrew word there is kena’an, or Canaan. Most versions translate it “merchant,” “trader” or “trafficker” due to the context, but the King James Version and Jerusalem Bible translates “Canaan.” Of course, that speaks to their character in business dealings. They were “infected by the spirit of commercialism characteristic of the people whom he has supplanted” (JB, Hosea 12:7).
Clarke says, “Ephraim is as corrupt as those heathenish traffickers were.”
When the children of Israel entered the promised land, they were specifically told to separate themselves from the practices of the Canaanites, the people whom they were to destroy (Exod. 33:2; Deut. 7:1; 20:17; Joshua 34:10; 17:18). Rebelling against God’s plan, the Israelites chose to imbibe the spirit of the Canaanites (Joshua 16:10; 17:12; Judges 1:29-33).
This term has special reference to the Phoenician coast. The Phoenicians were famous for their trading empire, which stretched across the water of the Mediterranean Sea and even beyond (cf. Zeph. 1:11).
In a double entendre Canaan thus applies as well to the business class of Israelite society upon whose unscrupulous tactics the Northern Kingdom depended as a source of its wealth. As Stuart observes, “‘Canaan’ would appear to be a derogatory double entendre for Ephraim … Hosea declares Ephraim to be a greedy merchant, and at the same time no better than the Canaanites whose immoral culture deserved extinction (cf. Gen 15:16)” (Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, p. 192).
Deceitful weights and measures were a continuous problem in commercial Israel, suggested by the numerous demands for “righteous weights” (cf. Amos 8:5-6; Deut. 25:13ff; Prov. 20:10).
It was a travesty of the times. “In an economy that did not have standardized weights and measures, traders were often tempted to cheat by falsifying the balances and measurements, often by using improper weights and false bottoms and other ways to alter the sizes of vessels” ((Walton, Matthews & Chavalas, Bible Background Commentary, p. 759).
And through their deceitful practices, they oppressed people, taking their possessions, their land and eventually casting them into debtor’s prison.
Notice how Hosea emphasizes their heart attitude by saying that Ephraim “loves to oppress” (although Hubbard believes it should be translated “oppresses loved ones”). It wasn’t happening accidentally, nor was it simply an unavoidable consequence of doing business. This expression indicates that Ephraim did this intentionally and with delight.
Their riches were also a source of pride to them. Hosea rebukes them by saying…
8 Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.”
Verse 8 sounds a lot like the condemnable words of the church of Laodicea:
17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
In both of these verses, the fact of riches is attributed not to the blessing of God, but to their own efforts. Hosea says of Ephraim, “I have found wealth for myself” and John says of Laodicea “I have prospered.” Neither of them attributed their riches to the gracious hand of God.
And, of course, what Hosea is saying is that what they did in “finding wealth” is that it came dishonestly.
Nevertheless, they trusted in their possessions and their success. This led them to protest their own innocence: “in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.”
In reality, they may be able to escape the judgment of the courts (usually by buying their way out), but they cannot escape the judgment of Yahweh.
In some ways this statement sounds like the prosperity theology of our day. Wealth is believed to be something we deserve and whenever someone is wealthy we automatically think God is pleased with them and blessed them with wealth.
When things are good financially, it’s hard for people to believe that their society can be in deep trouble. Or, as H. Ronald Vandermey says, “Unfortunately, monetary success has never been an accurate barometer of one’s status before God” (Psalm 37:16; Prov. 11:4; 23:4; Eccles. 8:11-14; Matt. 5:45), something which should be kept in mind today by those Christians who have achieved ‘the blessings of God’ through the same ruthless business practices used by their unbelieving fellow merchants” (Hosea-Amos, p. 69).
But to protest innocence in the face of all the evidence adduced by Hosea only compounds their guilt, adding atop their evil deeds a callousness that precludes a recognition of their guilt, making repentance highly unlikely.
I love the way the British commentator Derek Kidner says it:
“In cold print, his bland assurance that his extorted riches carry no guilt—or none to speak of—even put him above the law, is patently absurd. Yet human attitudes, which venerate success and, at a safe distance, admire a clever rogue, still help to build up his cocksureness in the man who sells his soul to the present” (The Message of Hosea, p. 110).
Yahweh had told the generation which was about to enter the land how He had taken care of them, then warns them, in Deuteronomy 8:
6 So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. 11 “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.
Yahweh knew, and had warned them that a life of ease and affluence would be possible in the Promised Land, but it could very well cause them to think that they had done it by their own “power and might” (v. 17) and to forget the LORD and then go after other gods. Because He knew they would do that very thing, he warned them that they would “surely perish.”
Yahweh then pronounces his response to their deluded reliance upon their own efforts and lack of recognition of Yahweh’s work on their behalf:
9 I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast.
Once again Yahweh declares that He will undo the Exodus and return Israel to the status of no longer being a nation.
“The LORD your God” is the full covenant title of Israel’s God (Exodus 20:2), the one who delivered them from Egypt. He had not changed, but they had. Yahweh is asserting His sovereignty as the one who redeemed them, and thus has the right to stipulate the conditions of their relationship—obedience to His commands and loyal to Him alone.
Yahweh’s self-introduction is the logical response to Ephraim’s boast. It reminds them (and us) who is truly in charge.
Yahweh reminded His people that He had been their God since before the Exodus. The fact that He delivered them is the foundation of the stipulations He laid upon His people through what we call the “Ten Commandments.” Of course, they were avidly breaking these commandments right and left.
He was able to make them revert to a humble wilderness lifestyle again, which their yearly Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) reminded them about (cf. Lev. 23:33-43). Doing this would remind them once again how utterly dependent they had been upon God to provide even the basic necessities of food and water many times over, helping them to once again remember that Yahweh was the true source of every blessing.
Again, Derek Kidner so aptly says that these three verses have a double thrust:
First: “Was it for this that I redeemed you? To make you a bunch of Canaanites?” And secondly: “When you re-live the Exodus every year, camping out as your fathers did, is it only make-believe? Or is it to relearn the lessons of those days, that man does not live by bread alone?” (This Message of Hosea, p. 111).
What they had been doing for one week out of a year (and likely begrudgingly at that) Yahweh now says they would have to do permanently. They would become homeless as Assyria scattered them among the conquered nations.
This is clearly an allusion to the coming captivity of Israel. The LORD will make Israel a homeless people in the future as once they were in the past.
As David Hubbard says…
“The crucial events of the exodus and its subsequent wanderings have to be replayed, so that Ephraim may learn how dependent he is on Yahweh and how grateful he must be for such dependence” (Hosea, p. 219)
The announcement of captivity should come as no surprise to a people who had resolutely misplaced their trust. Not only were they rejecting a reliance upon God, they were also rejecting the revelation of God through His prophets.
Verse 10 says…
10 I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables.
God had done more than His part to keep Israel trusting and obeying Him. He not only gave them His blessings, but had given them oral instruction through the prophets—through a variety of means—through instruction, visions and parables. This indicates the certainty and clarity through which God had communicated to them.
The verb “I spoke” contains in it the noun “the word.” But as a verb it suggests the creative power of God, like that which created the universe and all creation in Genesis 1. It speaks of the power of God’s Word to accomplish what is spoken. Isaiah speaks to this in Isaiah 55:10-13:
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
When God speaks, things happen. No word of His is empty and unproductive.
Notice how powerful God’s Word is. Verse 13 indicates that it can even change the fundamental nature of something—a thorn bush will become a cypress and a stand of briers will become a myrtle.
Those of us who preach must believe that God’s Word is still powerful enough to change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.
Of course, speaking to the prophets describes an event, a time in history when God spoke. The prophets “met with” God and He spoke to them. Now, these prophets were speaking to the people, reminding them of God’s past revelation and making present proclamations of Israel’s guilt and Yahweh’s necessity in bringing the covenant judgments upon them.
The prophets’ role is thus God-given and unassailable. Ephraim ignores Hosea at their own peril. If you remember, back in Hosea 9:7 the people were saying that the prophets were “fools” and crazy. But the prophet’s visions and parables were “mere eccentricities” but the very word of God.
Nevertheless, in spite of so many exhortations to return to the Lord, the people had not responded.
Not only would they lose their homeless, but their once stately and tall idols would be leveled.
11 If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps on the furrows of the field.
The gods they now trusted in to save them would prove their impotency by being broken down into stone heaps. When God’s judgment comes, all those altars will be brought low, so the only altars will be the hills made by the furrows of the field.
We need to remember this—where are we putting our trust? In ourselves—our own strength and abilities, our own intellect and schemes, our own resources and bank accounts? If we misplace our trust, God will bring us up short in some way.
Are we listening to the revelation of God? How often do we read and heed what God has said in His Word? How frequently do we ignore it, or discount it? It is being planted deeply into our hearts so that it bears fruit?