Darkest Before the Dawn (Hosea 13-14) March 11
The reference to Ephraim in Hosea 13:1 appears to refer specifically to the tribe of Ephraim rather than being representative of the whole nation. Even in modern times, Ephraim (the United Kingdom and the British-descended nations of the Commonwealth) has exerted a powerful influence over other nations, but Hosea prophesied that this would cease.
Mention is made of Israel's religious practices growing worse and worse (verse 2). Therefore, "God's judgment would sweep Ephraim away quickly, just as the sun dispels fog and dries up the dew, or as the wind blows away chaff and smoke" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 3).
Though God mercifully led and dealt with the Israelites, they forgot Him (verse 6), thus making an enemy of Him—a consequence He had warned them about so many times before (see Deuteronomy 8:19; Psalm 50:22; compare 1 Samuel 28:16). "The Lord's relationship with Israel would change drastically from caring Shepherd to ravaging Predator. Ironically and tragically, Israel's rebellion had turned its Helper into a Destroyer" (Nelson, note on Hosea 13:6-9). The imagery is terrifying—and intended to provoke fear. But even in this extreme to which the Israelites have driven Him, God's desire is for their good—to waken them out of their spiritual lethargy and rebellion. God is a Father to Israel, seeking not to punish for punishment's sake, but rather to steer His children through punishment to repentance and spiritual restoration.
Only with God as its King, not by any human ruler, would Israel be able to find deliverance from its enemies (verses 9-10). Hosea reminds them that the only reason they had a human king in the first place was because they rejected God's direct rule, for which He had been angry with them (see 1 Samuel 8). God gave them Saul when they wanted to be like the nations around them. But just as He gave them a king, He could take the king away. Indeed, Hosea 13:11 says, "I…took him away in My wrath." Since this is past tense, it may refer to God's removal of Saul. However, it may also refer to Israel's king of Hosea's time. If so, then this part of Hosea was either written after the Assyrian invasion or written before it with the past tense signifying that God saw it as already done. It could also refer to the end-time ruler over Ephraim, the reigning monarch of the British royal family (see "The Throne of Britain: It's Biblical Origin and Future" at www.ucg.org/brp/materials)—again describing an event as past even before it occurs. If so, perhaps the prophecy is specifically addressing Israelites in the Great Tribulation, when this will have already happened. Notice that verse 9 also uses the past tense: "O Israel, you are destroyed." Of course, this should serve as a dire warning to everyone who reads or hears this prophecy before the catastrophic events actually come to pass.
Verse 13 is another analogy that emphasizes God's final punishment for Israel. Mention is made of the pain of childbirth and then the pain of a son being born without "wisdom"—which seems to refer to the infant not being turned the right way to come out of the womb properly, especially given the next reference regarding the child remaining too long in the womb or birth canal (see NIV, NRSV, Living Bible). This makes delivery all the more difficult and painful—and all the more dangerous, perhaps even fatal. God's discipline, it might seem, had been to no avail. Yet once again (verse 14), we see God's intervention for Israel, His love for His people and His desire to not see them totally destroyed. God ransoms and redeems His people! This, we know, comes through the death of Jesus Christ for sin. Eventually, that ultimate sacrifice will be applied to Israel—and, indeed, to all mankind. In anticipation of that fact, God announces triumph over death and the grave: "Death has no power over God's redeemed. This great affirmation has many applications. In context, it is an encouragement to turn to God and live. In the N[ew] T[estament] it is a reminder [quoted by the apostle Paul] of God's final victory over physical death, won through Christ's resurrection, to be experienced by us at our own resurrection (1 Cor. 15:55)" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Hosea 13:14).
Yet before then, prior to Israel's repentance, there will be horrendous devastation from Assyrian forces invading from the east to induce the humility and dependence on God required for true repentance (verse 15). (It should be noted that modern Assyria, in the heart of Europe, is also located to the east of the Israelite nations of Northwest Europe and North America.) Then, just when things seem darkest, with Israel languishing under its severest punishment ever, we arrive at chapter 14.
Hosea 14, notes the Harper Study Bible, "is different from the rest of the book. All that precedes it contains rebukes for sins and threats of the outpouring of the wrath of God. Now God exhorted his people to repent, promising them mercy if they would do so. In judgment he would wound them so that when they repented he would be able to heal them. It contains a refrain found everywhere in the writings of the prophets: 'For the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them,' (v. 9)" (note on verse 1).
The prophecy thus turns to repentance. "The imagery of returning can also carry a profound spiritual meaning. To return is to repent from sin, thereby returning to a state of favor with God…. The imagery of returning is thus more than a physical motion. The Biblical authors, notably the prophets, use the imagery of return to expound further on the nature of turning of a human heart. It is the return of a wayward covenant people back to their covenant Lord (Is 44:22; Jer 3:10-11, 14; 4:1; 24:7; Lam 4:40; Hos 6:1). Repentance, therefore, is a very important aspect of the image of return. The connection between repentance and returning to God is well illustrated in Hosea 14:1-2. The return imagery implies a wholehearted turning from reliance on one's own strengths and virtues and firm resting on the covenant character and promises of God (see also Joel 2:12-13). It is a fundamental redirection away from the path of sin and self-reliance and a subsequent return to a place of restored fellowship and peace. The image therefore illustrates vividly the dual nature of biblical repentance: turning away from sin and returning to God" ("Return," Dictionary of Bible Imagery, p. 712).
Hosea tells Israel to "take words" with them and even gives them the words to say. We should heed the instructions here too. "God does not ask us to bring gifts or sacrifices. Rather He asks us to bring words when we come to Him. Three kinds of words are identified: words of confession ('forgive all our sins'), words of praise ('the fruit of our lips'), and words of commitment ('we will'). When [we]…come to God today, these three kinds of words [when they are truly heartfelt] are still the most important things we can bring to the Lord" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Hosea 14:2).
God promises to restore Israel. What magnificent love God has for His people. No matter how unfaithful they have been, He has not returned the same to them. What a wonderful example to Hosea himself, who had to experience the unfaithfulness of an adulterous wife in his own life—and yet gained strength to deal with her in love and mercy through the wonderful example of the God He served—of the God we all serve.
The people of Israel should not take God's mercy for granted. They still need to repent and the only way this will happen is through immense trial and punishment. But it is out of love for them and the desire to see them turn around that God deals out His discipline.
In the end, repentant and renewed, Israel will at last be restored and wonderfully blessed by God. "The new Israel will have the beauty of the lily (cf. Mt. 6:28, 29) and the noble strength and stability of the poplar (lit. 'Lebanon'). The olive was noted for its shade and its fruit and Lebanon for the aroma of its coniferous forests. Christians [likewise] are to be attractive, stable, useful" (New Bible Commentary: Revised, notes on Hosea 14:5-6).
The book concludes with a deeply profound statement that all Christians should heed today. Notice this paraphrase of verses 8-9 from the Contemporary English Version:
"Israel, give up your idols! I will answer your prayers and take care of you. I am that glorious tree, the source of your fruit. If you are wise, you will know and understand what I mean. I am the Lord, and I lead you along the right path. If you obey me, we will walk together, but if you are wicked, you will stumble."