K:JNWTS 31/1 (May 2016): 15-20
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so
This is a well-known line from a poem by the 17th century English poet, John Donne. In this poem, Donne mocks death. He accuses death of being unjustifiably smug in its alleged mastery over man. For death is merely the entrance into glory for those in Christ. Thus, finding no grounds for boasting, Donne exhorts death to "be not proud."
Hosea 13 also speaks of pride. It speaks of it as a spiritual poison that had virtually become the creed of the nation Israel. Israel was a proud and arrogant nation, prone to trust in her own strength and the strength of her political allies, rather than place her faith in the strength of God. Note the reference to Ephraim's self-exaltation in vs. 1 and to their pride in vs. 6. We read in vs. 1 that Ephraim exalted himself and died; for death and pride share an inexorable bond. Pride is the natural outgrowth of a soul under the curse of death.
Notice how death plays a central role in this passage. Death is present at the beginning (vs. 1); it is present in the middle (vss. 7-9); and it closes out the chapter at the end (vss. 14-16). It brackets and forms the framework for this passage. Death drapes over and enfolds this text like a dark cloud. Hosea 13 reads like a literary tomb.
Yet the centrality of death here is ironic, for Israel had worked so hard and skillfully to secure life. They carefully crafted idols of silver to worship Baal; Baal, who was the Canaanite god of fertility and life! Note how the chapter opens with such devotion to Baal, worshippers even kissing the idols in verse 2 (cf. 1 Kings 19:18). Surely Baal must be pleased with such obedience from their hands and heart. Surely this will be a chapter teeming with life—long life, new life. Surely the blessings of Baal will bring fertility to the womb, abundant produce from the land, and lives full of years and prosperity. Surely Ephraim (a name that means "fruitful") will find his cup overflowing.
Except that Baal is no god; Baal is no anything; Baal is a myth. So this chapter opening with worship to the Canaanite god of life is ultimately enshrouded in the darkness and hopelessness of death. Centuries later, the apostle Paul would say in Romans 10 that Israel had great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. Israel rejected a life of faith and trust in the one God for a life which hungered for the earthly, the tangible, the fleeting, the impotent. Again in the words of the apostle Paul from Romans 1:22-23, "Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures."
Do you see Israel's problem? It was not a lack of religious energy. It was not their failure to do enough. Rather they failed to believe. They sought to barter their own sullied righteousness for divine favors. They tried to manipulate God which resulted in a bountiful harvest of self-righteousness, pride, and spiritual aloofness. From their heart came no longing for the nearness of the Lord, no hunger for heaven, no appetite for Immanuel. Where their treasure was, there was their heart also (Matthew 6:21). Hosea clearly expressed this pattern back in chapter 7:
And they do not cry to Me from their heart when they wail on their beds; for the sake of grain and new wine they assemble themselves, they turn away from Me (Hosea 7:14).
God was viewed as giver, but not the gift. The blessing of Immanuel was effectively reduced to little more than the proximity of an impersonal power that could fill their bellies and satisfy their worldly wants upon their beck and call, as if he were nothing more than a genie in a bottle.
Israel's repeated unfaithfulness is dramatically captured in this chapter by a series of historical panoramas moving between past, present, and future.
Past Present Future vs. 1 vs. 2 vs. 3 vss. 4-6 vss. 7-8 vss. 9-10 vs. 11 vss. 12-13 vss. 14-16
It's as if our eyes are sweeping across a timeline, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Why is this? It is because God's future dealings with us are rooted in history—our own history and the history of those who represent us. Note the transitional words translated "therefore" (laken) and "so" (wa'ehi) in vss. 3 and 7 connecting God's future dealings with Israel to their past unfaithfulness.
Verse 4 looks retrospectively back to the giving of the law, echoing the language of the Decalogue's first commandment (Exodus 20:2-3). Israel was to have no other gods before the Lord. The relationship between God and his people was to be characterized by exclusivity; he was to be Israel's God and they were to be his people. This initial commandment was not to be a burdensome duty but a natural corollary to the heavenly reward. What God has prepared for his people in glory is an exultation of such an order and degree as can only be found in God himself. There is no treasure or delight in this place that can match what the Lord has made ready for those who love him. They are invited into union with God and participation in his life! They are drawn into a relationship that is profoundly and inherently intimate and devout. As such, the commandment steers Israel away from the spiritual adultery of earthly substitutes and orients her vision to the consummation of the Immanuel promise; embedded in the law is a foretaste of the eschatological goal. As God's glory is his own chief delight, so those he draws to himself will bear his likeness and revel in that divine glory, holding it as the object of their greatest interest and affection. The command to forsake all other gods is a call to participate in the fidelity of paradise; it is a call that both draws from and looks to the theocentric fulfillment of the covenant of grace in heaven itself.
Listen to the way in which Hosea expresses the tenderness of God in verses 4-5. "I am the Lord your (emphasis mine) God … I cared for you." In the wilderness, God shepherded them and loved them (yada, vs. 5). In the wilderness, that place of earthly emptiness, God cared for them. There in that wasteland they were to learn that he was their provision. As a Good Shepherd, he protected them and led them to pasture (vs. 6). In the giving of the Law, he opened himself up to them, not through arbitrary precepts, but through commandments that were a legal expression of his own character. The soul that embraced the Lord's justifying work by faith would find the law sweeter than honey (Ps. 119:103), while those who rejected righteousness through faith would be crushed under the weight of its demands (e.g., Rom. 2:1-13).
Yet, Israel did not respond to God's wilderness kindness in thanksgiving and worship but in an ever-increasing appetite for this world. Eternal union with God was rejected for the temporal embrace of a world alienated from the Lord. Such an embrace bore the spoiled fruit of pride and self-sufficiency. Note the stark contrast in vss. 5-6: "I cared for you … you forgot me." In their self-sufficiency, they forgot how God had loved them in the wilderness. They were overcome by horizontal desires and consequently ran after other gods when it appeared the world's treasures were withheld. It was the land and its earthly delights she desired, not God. God was a necessary means to acquire these treasures. He was something to be manipulated, not loved; he was to be appeased, not worshipped from the heart; and if someone or something else could satisfy their desires then God could be abandoned, cast out, even forsaken.
And so in vss. 7-8 we are given a brief, prophetic look into Israel's future. As they had rejected God's love, they would be exposed to the savagery of His wrath. The wilderness shepherd leading them to pasture would become the wild beasts who will tear them up! The proud hearts of verse 6 will be violently exposed in verse 8 ("I will tear open their chests and devour them like a lioness").
In verses 9-11, Hosea again revisits Israel's past. This time the retrospective view recalls the period when Israel demanded that Samuel appoint a king for them. God had revealed himself as Israel's help yet Israel wanted an earthly king like the other nations. They felt the strength of an earthly king would enable them to dwell in safety; with a strong king for them who could oppose them? Now they are to realize the terrifying reality that if God opposes them, no one can be for them!
The Israelites then suffered under periods of forced labor, high taxes, and foreign oppression because they rejected God as their king. This was an expression of God's displeasure and discipline; these divinely induced hardships should have driven them back to the Lord but still they rejected him. Consequently Hosea likened them to a child in the womb, enduring the distress of labor only to refuse entrance into the new life at the appointed time of birth (vs. 13). God's discipline was to lead to new life, but they foolishly refused.
Therefore God calls death and the grave forward to administer judgment. The east wind will destroy them (vs. 15, see also 12:1). That east wind will come from the wilderness (the place where God had cared for them). The Assyrians will come from the east; they will answer God's call to death and the northern kingdom will be no more. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered Israel's capital city of Samaria. The vast majority were taken into exile; they never returned. The Canaanite deity Baal was to bring them fertility and life, but our passage closes with slain children and the murder of those with child. This horrifying image demonstrates the absolute impotence of Baal and is to awaken hearers from their slumber. We do not close with a picture of new life and fertile lands and prosperity. The future flows out of the past and Israel's rejection of God results in her death. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31).
Hosea's prophecy is one of profound reversals. God who was Israel's faithful and loving shepherd pursued them as a savage beast (vs. 7). The wilderness, the place where God loved them and gave them his law, would become the place from which the east wind of judgment blew and destroyed them (vs. 15). Israel pursued earthly kings to save them from their enemies; they lost their earthly king and gained God as an enemy. The worship of Baal was to give them life and fertility, yet we close in barrenness and death (vss. 1, 3, 16).
These reversals emphasize their hopeless state. Their efforts to find comfort in this world apart from God result in their forfeiting everything in this world and, much worse, any place with God. So verse 3 tells us "they will be like the morning cloud, And like dew which soon disappears, like chaff which is blown away from the threshing floor, and like smoke from a chimney." They will be fleeting. Like the Baal myth they pursued, they too will amount to nothing.
Reversals are a powerful and prevalent theme in the Bible. As seen here, the righteous justice of God profoundly reverses the prideful position of man. Indeed, he who exalts himself will be humbled. But there is another reversal in this chapter. It is a reversal fed by God's grace and mercy. It has been hinted at already in this book.
COME, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day that we may live before Him (Hosea 6:1-2).
In this chapter of death, in this lifeless tomb of a chapter, one of our historical panoramas exposes a ray of hope. Looking at it from Israel's perspective, it was not to be found in their past, not in their present, but in the future—in verse 14. In verse 14, "death" and "Sheol" are emphasized through repetition. The specific focus of this verse is not the brutality in which death will be administered as elsewhere in this chapter, but whether death will continue to have abiding dominance. That such a question could even be raised here is unexpected, for this chapter has presented nothing in Israel's history that would anticipate any such expression of God's kindness. There is nothing in the resume of Israel's past that would lead to such a future.
This puzzle aggravates an already challenging problem in translation. The Hebrew in vs. 14 is written with a curious degree of provocative ambiguity. More specifically, the first two lines of verse 14 present a grammatical puzzle of sorts. Are the first two lines posing a question or stating a fact? The Hebrew can be taken either way. This is evidenced in translations like the LXX and NKJV where it is treated as stating a fact, while translations like the NASB and ESV render it a question.
Two separate images are produced depending on the choice made. If it is posing a question as to whether God will redeem them, then verses 15-16 provide the answer. God will not ransom or redeem, but rather send the Assyrian east wind of judgment. The reference to death and Sheol in verse 14 is then a call to the deserved punishment. However, if it is stating the fact that God will ransom them from the grave, then Hosea is prophetically projecting the Israelite reader into the distant future, well beyond the time of the Assyrians to the Messianic age. In that case, the repeated use of death and Sheol is understood as mocking death for its inability to ever sting again. These two options leave us with the question as to whether death is being called forth as executioner or the object of mockery. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional leaving us with two overlapping images—the one image suggesting a temporal judgment may come in the form of Assyria, but the second image declaring that God will ultimately ransom them from that power of the grave by grace.
The coming of the Messiah raises the second image to prominence. The Son of God came into this world, not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom. The threatened judgments of Hosea 13 fell on Jesus Christ in his suffering and death on the cross. On the cross, the darkness of death and Sheol draped over and enfolded Christ. But on the third day, death was plundered of its trophy. The resurrection of Jesus was a public declaration that Christ had defeated death; and though there may be a temporal encounter with death remaining for us, this great enemy will have to release us, the redeemed, just as it did our Savior.
Our eternal future is forged from real history, but not our history; rather our future is borne out of the completed work of Christ. The object of Paul's contemplation in 1 Cor 15 is our glorious hope of resurrection. With the resurrection in the forefront of his mind, Paul remembers Hosea 13. His mind is drawn to one more reversal in Hosea's chapter of reversals; death gives way to life!
1 Cor 15:52, 54, 55—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet … the dead will be raised imperishable … then will come about the saying that is written, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
No longer under the curse of death, no longer in bondage to sin, we have been enveloped in the glory of the Son of God to forever enjoy him and be enjoyed by him. This tender, intimate, eternal union is called life—eternal life! For you who believe in the gospel of this Christ, your sins are forgiven and you possess the Spirit of that risen Son even now. You are being evermore enfolded into the joy of that heavenly union with your Savior.
Our Christian striving here is a journey of progressively pushing aside the realm of death and sin. It is an outstretched arm straining to grab hold of that fullness of joy that awaits us in glory. We have already been spiritually raised by the Spirit and are now called, in Lazarus-like fashion, to "come forth" and walk in newness of life. This striving of sanctification is not our attempt to earn God's favor, but is a real participation by the grace of God in that favor which is the fullness of life in Christ.
The brilliant light of resurrection glory transforms this chapter filled with corpses. It is perhaps the last place we would expect to find such abundant hope; for who looks for life in a tomb? Yet did not two angels in dazzling apparel say to the women, "Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen" (Luke 24:5f.)? In anticipation of that day, this chapter was emptied of death's sting much like Christ's tomb was emptied of his body and the place of death becomes a striking testimony to everlasting life. What a reversal—what a glorious reversal!
Death, be not proud, though some have called theeMighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrowDie not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
… One short sleep past, we wake eternallyAnd death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.