I have always loved literature. Lit classes were usually my favorite, because reading for homework? That’s not work, that’s just fun. But in all of the enjoyment of literature, it was always poetry that tripped me up a little. I remember a poetry section in a college class. I struggled at the beginning, but then started to feel like I was getting it. It was making sense!
Until I turned to the next poem, and suddenly what I thought I had learned didn’t seem to help.
That’s how I felt when reading our Hosea passage this week! As we have worked through this book this winter, there have been chapters that have been harder than others. But as we work through them together, they start to make sense. This chapter was the toughest yet, in my opinion, for several reasons.
The first thing that caught me off guard was the translation issue in 11:12. So let’s just jump right in and get that out of the way, so that we can look at the overall message of our passage. When I first started preparing for this week, I opened up my ESV and read the passage a few times. I was having trouble understanding the flow, so I pulled out a commentary. The commentary was based on the NIV, so when I read its explanation for verse 12, I couldn’t figure out what it was talking about. It seemed to say the opposite of what the text said. I finally thought to look up the NIV translation. Lo and behold, they translate the second half of verse 12 exactly opposite!
ESV “but Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One.”
NIV “And Judah is unruly against God, even against the faithful Holy One.”
So how can two very good, reliable translations of the Bible translate this verse so different? It turns out the original Hebrew wording is vague. The verb that is used means “to roam about freely”. When used in a concrete sense, it refers to someone wandering restlessly and roaming back and forth.” In this verse, the verb is used more figuratively, which has led some to translate it in a positive sense and some in a negative sense. And this variation of translation has gone back as far as ancient manuscripts. So what is the best translation? No one really knows. But that’s ok, because it doesn’t change the overall message of the text. Honestly, both are true. Judah has been more faithful to God that Israel. They have had some good kings and have not fallen so far into idolatry and sin. However, they too have broken covenant with God and have not faithfully obeyed all that he commanded them to do.
Israel (both kingdoms) stands guilty before the Lord, but He still has their best interests in mind.
We will see this truth both in his accusation against Ephraim (or Israel) and against Judah.
Looking again at 11:12, God continues to lay out his case against Israel.
First, he calls out Israel as liars and deceivers. “Ephraim has surrounded me with lies.” Everywhere God looks, every direction he turns, he comes face to face with their lies and deceit. No wonder he’s had it with them.
And then we read a vivid description – “Ephraim feeds on the wind.” I picture a dog snapping at the wind. But that is humorous, and the picture here is far more disheartening. Israel is like a hungry animal who has forgotten how to get real sustenance. It’s as though this animal think that it can satisfy its desperate hunger by gulping up wind. It’s another reference to the futility of their existence apart from God. This is a theme we have seen throughout the book. Everything that they pursue leads them further away from Him. This is true for us today. We spend our lives pursuing things. These things lead us one of two ways – either nearer to Jesus or farther away from Him. We don’t have to spend our lives in futility. We can spend our lives living in obedience to God, growing in knowledge and love for Jesus, and carrying out the work that he has ordained for us to do.
Next, we come to a transition in the book. We again see courtroom language – “The Lord has an indictment” this time against Judah. Now, remember that Israel was intended to be one unified nation but they have broken into two. Israel is the Northern Kingdom, Judah the Southern. They have been broken apart for about 200 years at this time. Most of the book of Hosea has been specifically addressing the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But here God’s attention turns to Judah. They too are guilty and he will punish them according to their ways.
But the text gets a little weird here! Suddenly we move from Judah to Jacob, and this might leave us wondering what is the connection? Well, Hosea has used examples from the past many times to prove points or explain God’s indictment. Up to now, it has been mostly places. He has referred to Gilead, Gilgal, Bethel, Beth-aven, and we have looked up the significance of some of these places in our homework. Now we will see him using events more than places to build his case against them. That is what we see here.
Jacob was born Jacob but was renamed Israel by God. Jacob had twelve sons which became the twelve tribes of Israel. They were the beginning of the nation of Israel. So Hosea is sort of playing on words, or rather playing on events here. He is using Jacob’s life to explain Judah’s guilt.
Jacob was born striving and deceiving. In Genesis, we read that even in the womb Jacob and Esau struggled against one another. That must have been a fun pregnancy, huh? And when they were born, Jacob was holding onto his brother’s heel. This was no ordinary self-ambition. The early years of Jacob’s life were spent lying and deceiving to get ahead at all costs. This sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it? This is how Hosea has been describing Israel.
Verses 3 and 4 take us back to the night that Jacob wrestled with God. Looking back at my notes from a sermon that Pastor Michael preached at Hinson back in November on this story, I wrote “Wrestling was a means of trial by combat. Jacob is on trial for his life. He’s been struggling with man since the day he was born and he just couldn’t win. Now he finds himself wrestling with God himself. He can’t give up because wrestling is all he’s known. What he had to do all along was cling to God. He finally does it here, clinging to God until he received God’s blessing. And God changes his name to Israel. He’s no longer a deceiver. He’s wrestled with God and won a humble faith.”
This indeed is a picture of Judah. Jacob hadn’t turned completely away from God. But he was always going his own way. He thought he needed to deceive and connive and struggle to come out ahead. He hadn’t abandoned God, but he certainly wasn’t submitted to God. Judah also hadn’t abandoned God but they certainly weren’t submitted to him. They needed to stop struggling against God and come to a humble faith.
They needed to be reminded of who God is and why he is trustworthy. So God reminds them. “The Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name. So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice and wait continually for your God.”
And what about us today? Are you struggling with God? Do you find that you can’t stop wrestling with him because wrestling is all you have every known? Do you truly trust God’s sovereignty and faithfulness or do you feel like you need to kind of hedge your bets and make things happen for yourself? Friends, it’s exhausting to struggle and wrestle all of the time. We have a better answer laid out for us right here in these verses – “By the help of you God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”
Did you note that first phrase? “By the help of your God.” This is not an act of your will. There is nothing you can do but submit to him. We simply trust in the all-sufficient work that Jesus did on the cross. The way has been paved for us to hold fast to love and justice. We can never do it on our own. But because Jesus died in our place and offers us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God, we find ourselves able to stop struggling and fighting. We can place our humble faith in him.
Now, at this point in our chapter, the lens moves back to Ephraim. The Lord is not done with his accusations against them. Because speaking of lying and deceiving…
Israel has lied and manipulated to accumulate wealth. They have schemed and cheated. And they have so deceived themselves that they don’t even think they are guilty. This is so frustrating on several accounts. First, God promised that if Israel would just follow him he would bless them with overflowing material blessing. God keeps his promises. But he promised that if they turned away from him, they would lose his blessing. Now here they are, trying to make themselves rich while working against this curse that God had promised, and all the while if they would just turn back to him they would have overflowing blessing again. Talk about futility!
And second, this is just more proof that Israel has fallen deep into the trap of sin. Sin has so blinded them that they can’t even see their dishonesty. They think that the best way to accumulate wealth is through dishonest gain. And they have justified their actions, convincing themselves that they are free from guilt.
How often we, like Israel, take matters into our own hands. How easy it is to forget or reject God’s promises. How tempting to justify ourselves, to convince ourselves that we are in the right. We have said it over and over during this study, but it can’t be stressed enough. Sin blinds us to truth. There is no such thing as a little sin, or an innocent sin. All sin is transgression against God deserving death. All sin separates us from him. Praise be to God for sending Jesus, so that we do not have to stay in this wretched position. We can trust Jesus for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God.
Now, as we look at verses 10-14, it feels like they jump around all over the place. But they are continuing the theme of this chapter. Israel deceives. Hosea has referred to Gilead and Gilgal before. In Hosea 6:8 he condemns Gilead as a city of evildoers. And Gilgal is a shrine, a place of false worship that was a circle of stones. Here we find a pun in the Hebrew text. Gal means a “rubble heap.” This place that was sacred to them was in reality just a heap of rubble. Earlier in the book, Judah was warned not to go to Gilgal. This would cause them to be like Israel, and they were not to follow Israel’s example. God also says that Gilgal is the place where he began to hate them because every evil is there. These places represent the desperate state of Israel. They deceive themselves and lie to God.
And when Jacob deceived and lied to his father to steal his brother’s birthright, he had to flee the land. Israel is being warned that this will happen to them also.
We read in verse 14 that “Ephraim has given bitter provocation” and will reap the consequences. They have provoked the Lord with their lies and deceit, their arrogance and self-reliance. But he hasn’t written them off yet. He still has their best interests in mind.
There are little glimpses of hope in this section.
Verse 9 – God pronounces “I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt.” This was a very familiar phrase for Israel. It was the opening line from the 10 Commandments. Just as he led them out of physical slavery to Egypt, he can lead them out of spiritual slavery.
And therefore he will cause them to dwell once again in tents. He will strip away everything from them if it will cause them to depend on him again. Their prosperity is a distraction, so he will take them back to the wilderness where they will feel their need of him. Israel will be reduced to poverty, but God will restore their dependence on him.
They will once again celebrate “as in the days of the appointed feasts.” Here again is hope. The appointed feasts here include the Feast of Booths. This feast was a reminder that all that they had came from the Lord. It was a time of worship, celebration and thanksgiving. Though Israel would be stripped bare, they would once again come to him in worship. Because though he was angry at their lies and deceit, and though they faced judgment, God hadn’t given up on them.
Just as God didn’t give up on Jacob in all of his self-reliance and sin, God didn’t give up on Israel in their self-reliance and sin. And he hasn’t given up on us in our self-reliance and sin either.
Our God holds tightly to his people. And you’d better believe that he will not allow the sacrifice of his Son to be for naught. The Lord is endlessly faithful and we have the assurance of the Cross, the guarantee of the Spirit, and the hope of eternity to prove it.
But let’s take heed from this book of Hosea. God will accomplish his work in his people through whatever means necessary. Don’t wait until he must strip all from you to worship and obey. Rather, grow in love and faith today and take sin seriously. It is well worth it, and it will go well with you.