Thank you for joining me this morning in the book of Hosea. Sadly, this book written to the northern kingdom of Israel, records the continuing rebellion of Israel and their determined judgment. Yahweh had redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt and taken them as a bride to himself. He had cared for them, providing for them and protecting them. They showed such promise in the beginning. But very quickly their true colors began to show. Even before Moses could descend from the mountain with the tablets of the law, Israel was dancing around a golden calf. Calvin said that the human heart is an idol factory and even from the beginning Israel would prove unfaithful to Yahweh, choosing to worship other gods.
Because of that, judgment was coming. By the time Hosea is writing in chapter 13 of his prophecy, judgment was surely no more than a decade away. Yet no one sees their destruction until it is too late, even those who are warned about it.
So, starting in Hosea 13:12 we read…
12 The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is kept in store. 13 The pang of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son, for at the right time he does not present himself at the opening of the womb. 14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes. 15 Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind, the wind of the LORD, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing. 16 Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
Verses 12 and 13 give us a double picture of Israel’s complacency: first, by picturing all their unforgiven sin as a well-kept store of trouble for the future; then, by the analogy of a birth that goes terribly wrong. Where there had been signs of early promise in Israel, it had all gone horribly wrong, like a still birth.
The first metaphor in v. 12, with the verbs for binding and keeping, or hiding, suggest how firmly and intentionally Ephraim cherishes her sinful behavior. In the words of Jesus in John, she “loved darkness.” She bundled it up and stored it like a precious family heirloom.
This idea of the sin of Ephraim being unforgiven (and by this point, unforgiveable), was first introduced to us back in chapter 10, verse 2, where Yahweh had proclaimed, “now they must bear their guilt.”
The worst words we could ever hear is that we must bear our own guilt. The Father has provided His Son to bear our guilt, to take our curse upon Himself. Yet, when we reject that sacrifice and try to satisfy God with our own righteousness, we end up bearing our own guilt.
I said a moment ago that Ephraim’s sin would be unforgiven and by this point unforgivable.
Listen to me, there will come a point when, if we continue to reject God’s provision for the forgiveness of our sin, instead trusting in our own goodness and righteousness, then we will be bound to our sin and have to bear it ourselves.
God’s wrath is against sinners. Only those who by faith in Jesus Christ have their sin and guilt transferred to Him have any chance at forgiveness. The reason hell is eternal torment for sins is that there is only one thing that can satisfy God’s wrath against sins and that is the death of His Son.
Like Israel, we may start out with early signs of promise, yet tragically find that it all comes to nothing. All our righteousness is “like filthy rags” says Isaiah (64:6). To get an idea of a modern equivalent, would you take used toilet paper, frame it, and hang it in a prominent place in your home? Yet that is what we do with our righteousness. “Look at me, look at how good I am (especially when compared to that guy).”
But God says, “No, the only thing that matters is my son. He alone lived a righteous life. Unless you rely upon His righteousness to become your righteousness you will die in your sins.”
Thomas Constable says…
Israel was like a baby that refused to come out of its mother’s womb, in the sense that it refused to leave its comfortable sin. Despite the mother’s (God’s) strenuous efforts to bring the child into freedom, Israel refused to repent. This was evidence that Israel was a foolish child. She would sooner die, rather than leave her sins, apparently feeling that the proper time for repenting was not yet.
Oestreich sees in the metaphor of the unwilling baby “a strange and absurd idea.” He goes on to give several reasons why such imagery “can be called absurd. First, naturally the unborn son has no way of deciding whether he will be born or not… . Second, the son that does not want to be born denies his own existence” and … “the birth of a son is normally an occasion of great joy.”
Interestingly, Hezekiah, when Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against the city of Jerusalem, clothed himself in sackcloth and sent two emissaries in sackcloth to Isaiah the prophet, saying, “This day is a day of distress, or rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth” (2 Kings 19:3). This is certainly a figure of speech relaying the fact that at a time when strength is needed (against the Assyrian army), none is to be found.
“The time of his birth—his rejection of his haughty independence and the declaration of his total commitment to Yahweh—was being strongly and regularly signaled [like a mother’s contractions] both by historic events and prophetic proclamation. But he was not moving–a stubbornness that endangered the life of both mother and child” (Hosea, p. 232).
Hezekiah went on to suggest that maybe God had heard Rabshekah, the spokesman for Shalmaneser mocking God and that God Himself would rebuke those words. Hezekiah was not an “unwise son” like Israel at this moment, but had wisely put His trust in Yahweh’s help.
Remember that Israel had put their trust in their own political leaders and alliances with other nations, but that was all for naught. Their own kings were weak and the other nations had become deceptive.
So the real issue was not the strength to come to birth, but the wisdom to trust in the right strength. The absence of wisdom was well documented in Hosea. They were “without sense” in 7:11, engaged in practices “which take away the understanding” (4:12) and thus became “a people without understanding” (4:14).
It was in particular the inability to make the wise decision to trust God and return to him—that stands at the core of Israel’s folly. This need for wisdom will be sounded again at the very end of Hosea’s prophecy, in the words “whoever is wise…” (14:9).
We should see some irony in this verse. The worship of Baal in particular was an attempt to control fertility, both personally and agriculturally. Yahweh here declares that their cult will be cut down and their hope in Baal was futile, indeed self-destructive.
Indeed, Israel is foolish. It has chosen to ignore the fact that its accumulated and stored-up sins would surely one day come in for judgment. Although in this very late hour there yet might be hope for divine forgiveness based upon genuine repentance and return to the Lord, God’s people nevertheless go on in their own stubborn ways. They are like the unwise son who delayed or refused to submit to the birthing process.
So, verses 12-13 leave us with the picture that Israel would die in a still birth due to their folly.
Yet, Yahweh’s grace is never far away. Verse 14 says…
14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?
Whereas v. 13 indicates coming death, verse 14 promises coming rescue, or at least potential rescue. I think Hubbard is right in saying that “verse 14a [is] an expression of his compassionate intent which has been frustrated by Ephraim’s foolish stubbornness” (Hosea, p. 233). Thus, he translates these verbs, “I wanted to ransom…I wanted to redeem.”
Certainly Yahweh can rescue them even from the very precipice of death. Rescuing beyond death will have to await the resurrection of Jesus. The Psalms are filled with David’s expressions of confidence that Yahweh would rescue him from Sheol or death.
“This combination of sovereignty over the powers of death and the frustration at Ephraim’s failure to avail himself of this power—which failure turned his mother’s womb into his grave—lies at the heart of the divine complaint (cf. 11:1-9) and issues in the sharp commands implied in the rhetorical questions with which verse 14 closes” (Hubbard, Hosea, p. 234).
The Lord asked, rhetorically, if He would buy the Israelites back out of Death’s hand. Would He pay a price for their redemption? No, compassion would be hidden from His sight; He would have no pity on them. He appealed for Death (like a thorn bush) to torment the Israelites, like thorns tearing their flesh. He called on the Grave (as a hornet) to sting them fatally.
Later in history, God would provide a ransom for His people from the power of the grave, and He redeemed them from death. He did this when Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again. God’s future redemptive work for His people meant that death would not be the end for Israel, even though judgment in the near future was inevitable.
The Apostle Paul quoted the famous couplet in this verse in 1 Corinthians 15:55, and applied it to the resulting effect of Christ’s redemption on all of God’s people. I love this declaration of the victory of the resurrection over death:
51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here are words not of judgment and death, but salvation and victory—a reminder of the difference Jesus has made.
Death and the grave are not the final judgment and home of the believer, because God did provide a ransom and redeemed His people. God has a glorious future, beyond His punishment for sin—for His own people—both for national Israel and for Christians.
In the long term, Israel will see the glory of God’s redemption and His power over sin and death. In the near term, Israel will be chastened for their rebellion against God.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.
–John Donne (1572-1631)
Once again (v. 15), Yahweh indicates how Israel had once showed supremacy. He “flourishes” or “thrives” among his brothers. You might remember that the name Ephraim means “flourishing” or “fruitful.” In fact, Ephraim was a fertile area and, up until recently, had experienced great economic prosperity.
The imagery of Ephraim being compared to a fruit plant is in keeping with Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim’s father Joseph: “Joseph is a fruitful bough near a spring whose branches climb over the wall” (Gen. 49:22).
This statement hearkens back to the promise that was once there, as we saw in verse 1 of this chapter:
1 When Ephraim spoke, people trembled; he was exalted in Israel. But he became guilty of Baal worship and died.
Israel had once flourished in such a fertile setting (13:5-6). But that greatness would soon be destroyed. Ephraim’s wealth was vulnerable like an orchard to the east wind.
That “east wind” was Assyria, who invaded from the east and north. Assyrians from the east were already on the move. When that happens, all of Israel’s goods and treasures will be plundered and carried off.
Notice that this wind is also “the wind of the LORD.” In all events, God is sovereign. Assyria did not act or become victorious just because they decided and were stronger. This wind blew and overcame Israel because Yahweh determined that they would. This should be obvious from all the predictions of judgment Hosea has been leveling against Israel.
This wind of judgment “shall come,” a strong indication that what Yahweh predicted would definitely happen.
Then, in picturesque language Hosea said, “and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched.” The figure of the “east wind” naturally fits with drying up the source of life. Without water, one dies.
Like a sirocco, Assyria would sweep over Israel from the east and cause the nation of Israel to wither. The Assyrians would plunder everything valuable in the land.
Then, speaking very literally, Hosea says…
it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing. 16 Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
For years Israel had prospered, now “every precious thing” would be stripped from them.
Again, v. 16 emphasizes how Israel (in this case “Samaria” likely stands for the only part of Israel still independent), “shall bear her guilt.” We’ve seen several times how Israel has come to the place where there is no hope of forgiveness.
I believe this is what the unpardonable sin is in the Gospels. It is not a particular sin, or even one sin done many times, but is the sin of rejecting the provision for salvation God has given. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day attributed the works of Jesus to Satan and just proved their stubborn refusal of the grace that is found in Jesus. In other words, the only truly unpardonable sin is just stubborn unbelief.
That is evident on ancient Israel’s part by the inclusion of the words “she has rebelled.”
In a very literal, and gruesome description, Hosea foretells that Assyria would slaughter Israel’s soldiers in battle (cf. Lev. 26:25), unmercifully execute Israel’s children (cf. Deut. 28:52-57; 32:25) and even cut open her pregnant women with their swords (cf. Hosea 10:14; 13:8; 2 Kings 15:16; Isaiah 13:16; Amos 1:13). Thus, because of Israel’s foolishness, the child would not be born.
This gruesome form of execution killed both the mother and the unborn child, making it impossible for the coming generation to rise up eventually and rebel against the conqueror. These were curses that the Lord warned would follow rebellion against the terms of His covenant (cf. Lev. 26:25; Deut. 28:21; 32:24-25; Amos 4:10).
The final outcome of the fertility cult is the carnage of babies and pregnant mothers throughout the country. The metaphor of Lady Israel and her three children, Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, and Lo-Ammi, has reached its denouement in a slaughter that is anything but literary and symbolic (Hosea-Joel, p. 268).