"How Can I Give You Up, Ephraim?" (Hosea 11:1-11) March 9
Chapter 11 begins the description of Israel's restoration as a result of God's immense love for His people. God had specially chosen Israel as his son (Hosea 11:1; Exodus 4:22-23; Genesis 12:2-3). Hosea 11:1 also had a dual fulfillment, as it foretold Jesus, God's literal son, returning from a period of exile with his family in Egypt as a child (Matthew 2:13-15).
The first few verses of Hosea 11 show the sadness of Israel's behavior. It is God who has consistently taught them, been kind to them and fed them, but they were too blind to recognize His love.
Lifting the yoke off their neck is a reference to lifting the yoke "away from the face of an ox so that it might eat more comfortably…. 'Bent down to feed them' presents a beautiful picture of God's gracious condescension in his loving provision for his undeserving people" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 4).
Verse 5 appears to contain another mistranslation in the New King James Version. Rather than stating that Israel shall not return to Egypt, the verse, it seems, should be a question, since we see Israel returning from Assyria and Egypt in verse 11. Verse 5 is apparently correct in the New International Version: "Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?" (A number of other translations convey the same sense.) Thus, Israel's failure to respond to God's great love would result in their captivity by Assyria, with some of them going to Egypt. Therefore, their plans for survival wouldn't be of any benefit.
Yet, in His great love for Israel, God asks, "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?" He asks Himself if He can make Israel like Admah and Zeboiim (v. 8), cities overthrown with Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 10:19; 14:2, 8; Deuteronomy 29:23). The answer, as we saw also in Amos 9:8, is, thankfully, no (v. 9). Notice this from The Dictionary of Bible Imagery:
"Perhaps the most striking use of heart in the Bible is in reference to God (Gen 6:6; 8:21). The usage is similar to that applied to humankind and should be a reminder that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). God, after all, is a personal being who thinks, feels, desires and chooses. One of the most intriguing passages in this connection is found in Hosea 11. The prophet quotes God as saying that, while he will indeed punish Israel for their rebellion, he will not completely destroy them. The decision to refrain from their utter destruction was not easy; it was the result of God's inner turmoil: 'My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused; I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor devastate Ephraim again.' (Hos 11:8-9 NIV) In the verse that follows, God justifies his change of mind on the basis of his divinity. Humankind, when angered, is naturally inclined toward a course of destruction of those who offend. But God is divine, not human, so his grace wins out" ("Heart," p. 369).
Though God will tear them as a lion (Hosea 13:7-8), punishing them in order to bring them to their senses, His final roar will not be to destroy them. Rather, He, in the person of Jesus Christ, the "Lion of the tribe of Judah" (Revelation 5:5), will roar with an earthshaking sound to summon His people back to their land (Hosea 11:10). Included in their physical return is their spiritual return to their duty to God under His covenant. "These verses," says The Expositor's Bible Commentary, "are like a window into the heart of God. They show that his love for his people is a love that will never let them go. Like the beautiful final chapter of the book, these verses look forward, beyond the chastisement of the immediate future, to the time, still distant, when Israel will truly return to her God and he will bless her once more. Ultimately it must be the millennial kingdom that is finally in view here. No other period in Israel's history, past or prospective, fits the picture" (note on verse 8).
Then, notice: "His sons shall come trembling from the west… from Egypt… [and] Assyria" (verses 10-11). While Egypt is located to the southwest of the land of Israel, Assyria was located to the northeast. And yet Assyria is the primary place of captivity. How do we explain this? The answer must be that this is a reference to Israel's return from end-time captivity. Indeed, the northern kingdom of Israel never returned to dwell in the Holy Land in the past. Yet they will in the future—this time from the land of modern Assyria, which (as we will delve more into when we later read Isaiah 10) apparently lies in the heart of Europe, to the northwest of the land of Israel. The Israelites, then, will indeed return from the west, from both Europe and Egypt. Also, as explained in the next highlight on Hosea, modern Israelites may today be found in, among a few other places, North America and Northwest Europe, including the British Isles. And, putting Jeremiah 31:8 (KJV) together with other verses (see Isaiah 41:1, 8-9; 49:1, 3, 12), it appears that some Israelites will also return from these homelands at this time—i.e., those who will have managed to avoid deportation, yet will have nonetheless suffered along with the rest of the modern descendants of Israel under European invasion and occupation. These come from the west also. And, from all of these places, "trembling like a bird" following their horrendous ordeal (Hosea 11:11), the children of Israel will at last be humbled and ready to serve and obey their great God, finally able to experience the fullness of His graciousness, love and generosity.