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Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Studies in Hosea (11) (Hosea 10)

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Study Number 11

(Hosea 10)

In chapter 10 of Hosea's prophecy, the prophet continues to denounce Israel for her sins and announces God's judgments which will soon come upon them unless they repent. This time the people are charged with unfruitfulness and ingratitude, ever-increasing idolatry, false swearing, covenant breaking and injustice.

Hosea reminds them that their sins are especially heinous because God has blessed them so abundantly and shown great patience, chastening them in love, giving them good laws, sending His prophets to teach and exhort them to repentance--but all in vain. The Lord has no choice, therefore, but to punish them. He will remove their king, destroy their idols with their shrines and send the enemy to enslave the people.

God's case against His people is summed up in verses 1 and 2, where we read: Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images.

The Lord compares Israel to a vine. This is a familiar figure of the chosen nation. Who does not think here of Jesus' statement to His disciples recorded in John 15: I am the true Vine, you are the branches. When the Saviour said this, He was not using a new figure of speech; the disciples were well acquainted with the idea of Israel being the vine of Jehovah. Let me just mention a few passages from the Old Testament to illustrate how frequently this figure is used to describe the nation of Israel. For instance in Psalm 80 we have this prayer:

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it and didst cause it to take deep root, and filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river... Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vin. (Ps.80:1,8-11,14).

Asaph, the author of this psalm, probably wrote this song for temple use. It seems that his characterization of Israel as a vine brought from Egypt and planted in Canaan became a national symbol. In Jesus' time the great gate of the temple, the outer gate, had emblazoned upon it a golden vine. It was the symbol of national life. This fact makes Jesus' claim that He was the true vine all the more significant.

During the time of the prophets the figure of the vine as descriptive of Israel occurs time and again. Examples are Isaiah 5:1,2,7; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15; 19:10.

Also in Hosea 10 Israel is compared to this vine planted by the Lord. Notice that the prophet refers to her as an empty vine, suggesting that there was nothing growing on its branches. This is not what the original Hebrew means. Literally it says, Israel is a vine emptying the fruit which it produces. A better translation therefore would be, Israel is a luxuriant vine yielding plenty of fruit.

The vine which the Lord Himself had planted was not an empty vine. On the contrary, it had survived a long time and had grown large and strong. Especially in Hosea's day, during the reign of Jeroboam II, the vine had produced much fruit. The wine vats were full and there was plenty of reason to celebrate a harvest festival such as the one the prophet attended and where he preached such a stern sermon as we studied in the previous chapter.

It was, of course, the Lord Who had given this blessing to His people. He had filled these wine vats and caused Israel to prosper. Their prosperity came to expression in many ways, including the religious life of the nation. According to the multitude of his fruit he has increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly [or beautiful] images (vs.1).

What's wrong with that, you say? Does Hosea have to complain about everything? Is he never satisfied? Here the people are spending their money on erecting altars, and building images or sacred stones (monuments) and they still get criticized for it!

The Lord had blessed Israel and the result was, it seems, this outburst of religious activity. Surely, this was a good thing! People don't always do this. How often do you see a nation that is enjoying prosperity spending huge sums on religious things such as churches and chapels?

Hosea, show some appreciation, won't you? Things look very promising in the land. The worship centres are not being neglected, people are very religious--what more do you want?

Indeed, things looked good. The vine's appearance was promising. Yet things are not always what they seem. Luxuriant as the vine was, the kind of fruits it produced were disappointing, to say the least.

For what was the problem? The fruits Israel produced consisted of outward religion. They built their altars by the hundreds, obelisks and other sacred objects as well, but they did not do this to honour the Lord. Their religion was no expression of gratitude to God. They did not serve Him with their heart. It was all show. Actually, they did not serve the Lord at all. They served themselves. That's what Hosea means when he says that Israel brings forth fruit unto himself.

Apart from the fact that the calf-worship at Bethel was sinful, permeated as it was with heathen customs and practices, even if these altars and sacred stones had been dedicated to God, the Lord still would not have been pleased. The people did not approach these altars with a broken and repentant heart, crying for mercy.

That is the fruit God was after and which He still looks for also with us. Israel just did not understand the simple truth that Paul taught the Romans, namely that the goodness of the Lord leads to or is intended to lead to repentance.

Another fruit the Lord was looking for and did not find was social justice. Although Hosea does not focus on that glaring omission, other prophets like Isaiah and Amos did. Isaiah for example, says in chapter 5 of his prophecy that when the Lord came looking for fruits on His vine He was very disappointed on that account as well. When He looked that it should bring forth grapes, it brought forth wild grapes (vs.4). The Lord looked for judgment or justice, but what He found was oppression. Instead of righteousness He heard the cry of the poor (vs.7). The sad thing, therefore, is that this image of a vine is more often mentioned as a symbol of Israel's degeneration than of her fruitfulness.

Hosea refers to Israel as a luxurious or spreading vine, but her fruit is not at all pleasing to God. It is the fruit of idolatrous religion. That is the meaning of the phrase, he brings forth fruit unto himself, that is to say, not for God's pleasure, but for his own enjoyment.

Israel's sin was not only that they worshipped God in forbidden ways--through calves and other sacred objects--but that they did it for their own enjoyment. They built these beautiful shrines to please their aesthetic taste and regarded them more as cultural centres than places of worship.

We have something similar today, where people build ornate church buildings with expensive organs, choir lofts, sound systems and other things deemed necessary to enhance the worship of God. In reality, however, it is not God but man who is pleased by it. Especially in times of prosperity this is a real danger. People who live in affluence still want to be religious in many cases, but what is often lacking is sacrifice and concern for others. It is a religion that caters to the flesh and which is therefore condemned by Scripture as will-worship.

What was the cause of all this self-centred religiosity in Israel? Hosea answers this question in verse 2, when he says: Their heart is divided. The Hebrew word may also be rendered "deceitful" or "smooth." Applied to a person's speech, we could translate it as "oily," "slick" or "double-tongued." The meaning is that the people went through the motions of doing one thing, when actually they were intent on doing something else. Israel came to the shrines of Jehovah and pretended to worship Him. They professed to believe in God, but in reality they were serving idols.

There are millions of so-called Christians today who do essentially the same thing. Professing to worship God, they come to church to be entertained and to be seen by others, or to make the right connections for business or other reasons.

What is this but idolatry--the worship of mammon or self? The sin of a divided heart! How prevalent it is everywhere! Do you have such a heart? To a certain extent it is a problem afflicting us all. Even God's real children have to pray with David many times: Unite my heart to fear thy name" (Psalm 86:11). By saying this, the implied confession is that the heart is not united but divided and deceitful.

Israel's divided heart not only affected their relationship with God, rendering their worship false and hypocritical, but it also had negative consequences for their relations with each other. As the prophet says in verse 4, They have spoken words, swearing falsely in making a covenant. People who deal hypocritically with God will deal the same way with their fellow men. They speak words, mere words, empty phrases without any truth or substance. Their promises are worthless; they will perjure themselves easily and any covenants or contracts they make will be worthless. They cannot be depended on.

Again, do we not see the same things today? But isn't this what one might expect? Whenever the first table of God's law is broken, the second will be broken too. Religion and morality are inseparably connected. Where the former breaks down, the latter will sooner or later break down as well.

We have seen that Israel's sin was not that they were an unfruitful vine, but that they produced the wrong kind of fruits. How then shall Israel and how shall we produce good fruits? Only in fellowship with Him Who alone can make us fruitful. As the Lord says in Hosea 14:8, From Me is thy fruit found. Only by faith in Me and by walking in My ways will you be able to produce fruits that glorify Me. Ultimately, these words point to Christ who says in John 15, I am the true Vine. He is the true Israel and as such the source of His people's fruitfulness.

Only as we by faith are united to Him and abide in Him can we bear fruit to the honour and glory of God. Without Me, Jesus says, you can do nothing. That is to say, left to yourself and your own resources you can only produce stinking fruits.

Let us then confess to God our terribly unfruitful lives, looking to Christ Whose blood alone can cleanse us from all our sins and Whose Spirit alone can make us fruitful unto God, for He works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.

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