Saturday, August 13, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (40)

As a child, my eldest son hated knowing the proverbial sword of Damocles was hanging over his head. He had a tendency to get into trouble, and he astutely observed that it was better to get the inevitable punishment over with speedily than spend all his time obsessing about when it might be coming.

Or maybe he just took note that, with his father at least, a sin confessed earned a lighter punishment than a sin hidden and untimely revealed by a sibling.

Judgment is inevitable both in this life and the next. Even a family relationship doesn’t earn anyone a pass; in fact, we Christians get ours before the world gets theirs. Peter says, “It begins with us”, and so it does.

But both the purpose and the intensity of God’s judgment very much depend on the attitude of the recipient. Sin still has its consequences even for the repentant, but there is no need for a disciplinarian to teach a lesson already learned, and we have a very gracious Father. He takes no pleasure in making our lives miserable.

Unfortunately for Israel, this was a lesson they have yet to internalize.

Hosea 13:9-11 — The Missing Monarch

“He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper. Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers — those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.”

Israel demanded a king, and God gave them what they asked for even though he knew they would pay a price for their desire to be like all the other nations around them. Samuel understood this and was deeply displeased, but God responded, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Accordingly, Samuel told the people, “your wickedness is great”. Here Hosea tells us God was even more displeased than Samuel; he gave them a king in his anger.

He would also take this king away in fulfillment of the words of Samuel, who told Israel, “If you will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king.” A king’s responsibility is to restrain his people. Fail to do that, and judgment is inevitable. Hoshea the last king of Israel was literally taken away, imprisoned by the king of Assyria for the latter part of his reign, in the penultimate expression of God’s righteous wrath against Israel.

Israel demanded a king to fight its battles for it. In the end, when Samaria finally fell to the Assyrian army, their king was nowhere to be found. They were sheep without a shepherd.

Hosea 13:12-13 — The Unwise Son

“The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is kept in store. The pangs 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.”

Interestingly, the word translated “bound up” with reference to Ephraim’s iniquity may also be translated “besieged”, continuing a long string of prophetic puns in Hosea that don’t scan in English with the same subtlety as in Hebrew. Ephraim’s iniquity demanded God respond. God could no longer overlook his guilt lest onlookers question his justice and ridicule his word.

The comparison to a child unwilling to leave the womb is particularly apt when we consider a three year siege. God designed the womb to be a comfortable place. He also designed it to be temporary. The transition of birth is the only sensible conclusion to a 40 week pregnancy; the alternative is the death of both mother and child. Yet child experts say some babies simply refuse to leave the womb despite the fact that their departure is both urgent and necessary. Others accept the inevitable.

The book of Jeremiah contains appeal after appeal for the king of Judah to accept the judgment of God and surrender to the Babylonian army. Like their Judean brothers a century and a half later, the northern tribes would refuse to surrender to Assyria, making their lot far worse than it might have been. Many of the horrors that took place during the fall of Samaria might have been averted if Ephraim had “presented himself” at the right time, set aside his pride, acknowledged his guilt before God, accepted Assyria’s terms and become its vassal voluntarily rather than holing up behind the walls of Samaria and making himself into a cautionary tale.

Hosea 13:14 — The Great Reversal

“Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.”

The first two lines of verse 14 may legitimately be read either as questions (“Shall I?”) or as affirmations (“I shall”). Many commentators come at this passage from a New Testament perspective, where the words “O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?” are repurposed as a triumphant declaration of immortality for those who have faith in Christ. It’s a wonderful passage and a wonderful way to read these words.

However, as a result, the tendency of commentators is to want very much for Hosea to be saying precisely the same thing as Paul is saying to the Corinthians. But as we have already seen in our studies of how the New Testament writers make use of the prophetic scriptures, insisting that the OT text means what the NT writers say it means is not fair to the prophets, and it is not even necessary. That is not the way prophetic scripture works; it often has multiple layers of meaning and can admit of multiple interpretations.

In this case, I firmly believe Hosea’s first two statements should be read as rhetorical questions: “Shall I ransom them? Shall I redeem them?” The intended answer is “Of course not!” God has already stated that the iniquity of Ephraim is bound up. God cannot show mercy to him at this moment in history. It is not possible. This is in fact the way the verse ends: “Compassion is hidden from my eyes.” Death and the grave are where this generation of Ephraimites is headed; there can be no escape for them.

This being the case, in the context of Hosea’s prophecy the two familiar statements quoted in Corinthians (“O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?”) should be read not as a victorious declaration of immortality for Christians, but as a wrathful God calling for death to claim those in Israel whose conduct demonstrates they deserve it, and for the grave to swallow up its rightful prey. The Lord is saying, in effect, “Bring it on!” Any other interpretation has the effect of making nonsense of Hosea’s final statement: “Compassion is hidden from my eyes.”

The fact that the death and resurrection of Christ gloriously inverts the meaning of these statements for each of us does not mean we have to impose the same interpretation on the original text in Hosea. I am convinced a little insight into the way the NT writers use the OT enables us to understand both verses in the spirit of their individual contexts.

Hosea 13:15-16 — Doing It the Hard Way

“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. 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.”

God’s judgment of sin is inevitable, but it is better to meet one’s punishment in an attitude of humility than in pride and obduracy. Samaria closed her gates to the Assyrians and refused to accept the judgment of God on centuries of evil behavior, making it necessary for God to break her. Thus the east wind, which in scripture is always calamitous (and in this case symbolizes Assyria), is said to be “the wind of the Lord”. The Assyrians may have surrounded Samaria, but it was God who ultimately stood in judgment on that city and its nation.

Those who refuse God’s discipline only make their situation worse. In the case of a swift and humble surrender, even the savage Assyrians would have spared women and children. All Israel’s resistance accomplished was to increase the brutality with which Samaria would eventually be taken.

And that was neither God’s fault nor his heart’s desire.

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