A Useless Vessel

Israel is swallowed up;
    already they are among the nations
    as a useless vessel.
For they have gone up to Assyria,
    a wild donkey wandering alone;
    Ephraim has hired lovers.
10 Though they hire allies among the nations,
    I will soon gather them up.
And the king and princes shall soon writhe
    because of the tribute.

11 Because Ephraim has multiplied altars for sinning,
    they have become to him altars for sinning.
12 Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands,
    they would be regarded as a strange thing.
13 As for my sacrificial offerings,
    they sacrifice meat and eat it,
    but the Lord does not accept them.
Now he will remember their iniquity
    and punish their sins;
    they shall return to Egypt.
14 For Israel has forgotten his Maker
    and built palaces,
and Judah has multiplied fortified cities;
    so I will send a fire upon his cities,
    and it shall devour her strongholds. Hosea 8:8-14 ESV

With these seven verses, God issues some of His harshest words of criticism against the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He pulls no punches in delivering His well-deserved indictment against His chosen people because they stand before Him as condemned and worthy of all that is coming their way.

And God doesn’t mince words. He comes right out and predicts their coming defeat and does so by talking in the past tense – as if it has already taken place.

The people of Israel have been swallowed up;
    they lie among the nations like an old discarded pot. – Hosea 8:8 NLT

The English Standard Version translation renders that last phrase as “a useless vessel.” The Hebrew word for “useless” is ḥēp̄eṣ and it can mean “that in which one takes delight or pleasure.” The inference is that Israel was at one time a delight to God, but not longer holds that distinction. The people of Israel had been a valuable instrument in the hands of God but had now been rendered useless or undesirable because of their constant sin. Their constant rebellion against God had turned them from vessels of honor to vessels of dishonor. They were soiled beyond use. And the apostle Paul would later warn the believers in Rome to not repeat the same mistake.

Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:13 NLT

Paul, as a good Jew and a former Pharisee, would have known all these Old Testament passages concerning Israel’s loss of standing and usefulness in the eyes of God. That is why he used it as a constant illustration for followers of God in his day. He warned his young protégé Timothy:

In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use. If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:20-21 NLT

Israel and Judah had both forfeited their right to be used by God because they had failed to keep themselves pure. Their value was not to be found in who they were (gold, silver, clay, or wood), but in the One who had set them apart as His own. It was God who gave their lives worthy, whether they were vessels of gold or clay. He had chosen to sanctify or set them apart for His use and glory, but they had used their bodies for something other than what God had intended. And, in doing so, they had rendered themselves useless and worthy of being discarded.

Amazingly, the very nation God was going to use to deliver His judgment against the nation of Israel was the same nation they had turned to for help. Rather than seek the aid of God, they had thrown themselves at the Assyrians, in the hopes that they could deliver them from their enemies. God unflatteringly describes them as “a wild donkey looking for a mate” (Hosea 8:9 NLT). Like an animal in heat, they allowed their physical urges to override their natural instinct to avoid danger. They knew the Assyrians were wicked, cruel, idolatrous, and highly ambitious. They were the up-and-coming would-be world superpower that was throwing its weight around the region. The Assyrians had aspersions of greatness and Israel had been dumb enough to make an alliance with them. Now the Israelites would pay for turning their backs on God and turning to the pagan Assyrians instead.

But this was just one of many ill-conceived alliances that Israel had made. They had a long and abysmal track record for signing treaties with foreign powers. And God describes them as having “sold themselves to many lovers” (Hosea 8:9 NLT). They had become like a prostitute that just can’t say no. But no matter how many peace treaties they had made, they would soon discover that no one was going to be able to save them from the wrath of God Almighty.

I will now gather them together for judgment.
Then they will writhe
    under the burden of the great king. – Hosea 8:10 NLT

God was going to bring King Sennacherib and all the forces of Assyria against His rebellious people. Their former ally would become their destroyer. The prophet Isaiah described with great detail what would happen and why.

…the people will still not repent.
    They will not seek the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
Therefore, in a single day the Lord will destroy both the head and the tail,
    the noble palm branch and the lowly reed.
The leaders of Israel are the head,
    and the lying prophets are the tail.
For the leaders of the people have misled them.
    They have led them down the path of destruction. – Isaiah 8:13-16 NLT

It was not as if the people of Israel were irreligious. It was that they practiced the wrong religions and worshiped the wrong gods. They had altars all over Israel where they made sacrifices to their false gods in order to receive forgiveness for their sins. But God announces that every time the Israelites used these religious sites they were actually increasing their sin debt to Him.

Israel has built many altars to take away sin,
    but these very altars became places for sinning! – Hosea 8:11 NLT

They were only making matters worse. In worshiping other gods, they were actually breaking the law that God had given them. And God accuses them of acting “as if those laws don’t apply to them” (Hosea 8:12 NLT). In a sense, they had deemed themselves “above the law.”

What is amazing to consider is that the Israelites were still worshiping Yahweh all during this time. They had not completely abandoned Him but had simply added a whole litany of other gods to their religious activities. They had become syncretic, which simply means they had combined a variety of religious practices into one amalgamated concoction that was totally offensive to God.

Even when they offered sacrifices to God, they ended up violating His law to do so. They broke His command to abstain from eating meat that had been sacrificed. Instead, they consumed the meat with total disregard for God’s law. And God had had enough.

The people love to offer sacrifices to me,
    feasting on the meat,
    but I do not accept their sacrifices.
I will hold my people accountable for their sins,
    and I will punish them. – Hosea 8:13 NLT

God warns them that they are about to find themselves reliving the experience of their ancestors. He tells them that “They will return to Egypt” (Hosea 8:13 NLT). This was meant to recall the 400 years of slavery and oppression the Israelites had suffered in the land of Egypt. This generation would soon find themselves in their own “Egypt” but it would actually be the land of Assyria. God makes the clear in chapter 11.

“But since my people refuse to return to me,
    they will return to Egypt
    and will be forced to serve Assyria.” – Hosea 11:5 NLT

Because of their sin and rebellion, the formerly freed and redeemed people of God would become the enslaved people of God. They would reverse the journey of their ancestors, going from the land of promise to the land of captivity.

In the end, both Israel and Judah would be punished by God. They had acted as if God was unnecessary, building fine homes for themselves and constructing fortified cities to provide them with protection from their enemies. God points out these actions as evidence of their self-sufficiency and autonomy. They no longer needed Him. And now there were going to learn what life would be like without Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson