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

Divided Allegiance

1 Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the Lord and the wall around Jerusalem. The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place. Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 1 Kings 3:1-4 ESV

Chapter two ended with the words, “So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon” (1 Kings 2:36-46 ESV). He had successfully completed his purging of those who had played a part in the failed coup attempt that would have robbed him of his right to the throne. He had also kept his father’s dying wish and brought to justice a small list of individuals whom David had declared worthy of judgment.

But the opening verses of chapter 3 provide a change in tone and purpose to the historical narrative. David has died, and the reign of his son has begun. The last vestiges of David’s influence have been removed, and Solomon has the opportunity to begin his rule on his own terms. And it’s interesting to note that the author records as Solomon’s first official act as king an alliance he made with the Egyptians. The Pharaoh of Egypt sealed their agreement by giving Solomon the hand of his daughter in marriage.

The matter-of-fact manner in which this news is conveyed gives the impression that it was nothing more than an official act of business on the part of the royal administration. Making treaties and alliances were a necessary part of being a king. And marital alliances were commonplace among the nations of the world at that time. But there is something ominous and prophetic about the news of Solomon’s first official act as king. And any Jew who read this historical record would have recognized it.

Long before Israel had a king, God had provided His chosen people with a list of prohibitions concerning the behavior of any man who would rule over them. He knew that the kingly role would come with all kinds of temptations and snares. The power and prestige that accompanied the crown would prove to be addictive and dangerous. So, God provided His people with non-negotiable rules that were to govern and regulate the actions of the kings of Israel.

“You are about to enter the land the LORD your God is giving you. When you take it over and settle there, you may think, ‘We should select a king to rule over us like the other nations around us.’ If this happens, be sure to select as king the man the LORD your God chooses. You must appoint a fellow Israelite; he may not be a foreigner.

“The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the LORD has told you, ‘You must never return to Egypt.’ The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the LORD. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself.” – Deuteronomy 17:14-17 NLT

As a precautionary measure, God commanded that any man who ruled as king over Israel was to have a personal copy of the Mosaic Law, which he was to read from daily. “This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:21 NLT).

And notice that the king was prohibited from accumulating all the normal trappings of kingly success. All Israelite kings were to be different, refusing to model their administration on the nations around them. Stables filled with fine horses, treasuries overflowing with great wealth, and palaces full of wives and concubines were off-limits to the kings of Israel. And notice that God forbade His kings from doing any business with Egypt, even denying them the right to buy horses from their former enemies. And yet, one of the first decisions Solomon made as king was to make a deal with Pharoah that would set a dangerous precedence for his reign.

While the author provides no immediate commentary regarding Solomon’s actions, he will later reveal the sinister and infectious nature of this decision.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The Lord had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the Lord. – 1 Kings 11:1-3 NLT

There is something foreboding in the statement that Solomon “brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the Lord and the wall around Jerusalem” (1 Kings 3:1 ESV). One of his very first acts as king was to bring this foreign-born, pagan princess into the city of David, where her presence would have a profound impact on not only him but also on the entire kingdom. Solomon had not even taken the time to build a palace. He had not yet constructed the temple for Yahweh for which his father had provided the funding. And he had taken no action toward expanding and protecting the city of Jerusalem through the construction of defensive walls.

But the author clearly states that “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father” (1 Kings 3:3 ESV). Yet, it will become increasingly more obvious that Solomon suffered from divided allegiances. Notice the important contrast between 1 Kings 3:3 and 1 Kings 11: 1:

Solomon lived the Lord…

King Solomon loved many foreign wives…

God had warned that any king who accumulated many wives for himself would run the risk of having his heart turned away from the Lord. His love for God would be distracted and diminished. And because Solomon had put a higher priority on making an alliance with Egypt than building a house for God, he ended up having to make offerings and sacrifices on the high places (1 Kings 3:3). As will become evident, many of these high places were actually the former sites of pagan shrines to false gods. The Israelites had repurposed them for the worship of Yahweh, but God had given Solomon the responsibility and privilege of constructing a permanent temple where all worship and sacrifices were to be made. David had provided Solomon with everything he needed to build the temple, from the construction plans to the financial resources to pay for it. And David had warned Solomon to make this task a high priority.

So take this seriously. The Lord has chosen you to build a Temple as his sanctuary. Be strong, and do the work.”

Then David gave Solomon the plans for the Temple and its surroundings, including the entry room, the storerooms, the upstairs rooms, the inner rooms, and the inner sanctuary—which was the place of atonement. David also gave Solomon all the plans he had in mind for the courtyards of the Lord’s Temple, the outside rooms, the treasuries, and the rooms for the gifts dedicated to the Lord. The king also gave Solomon the instructions concerning the work of the various divisions of priests and Levites in the Temple of the Lord. And he gave specifications for the items in the Temple that were to be used for worship. – 1 Chronicles 28:10-13 NLT

But Solomon had established other priorities. He had chosen to align himself with Egypt, making what he believed would be an important treaty with a powerful foe. But in doing so, Solomon was placing his hope and trust in something other than God Almighty. Rather than building a house for God, Solomon went about building his kingdom – on his own terms and according to his own agenda.

The prophet Isaiah would later warn the people of Israel about their propensity to seek alliances with and assistance from Egypt.

“What sorrow awaits my rebellious children,”
    says the Lord.
“You make plans that are contrary to mine.
    You make alliances not directed by my Spirit,
    thus piling up your sins.
For without consulting me,
    you have gone down to Egypt for help.
You have put your trust in Pharaoh’s protection.
    You have tried to hide in his shade.” – Isaiah 30:1-2 NLT

Without even realizing it, Solomon was stepping outside the protective boundaries of God, and pursuing what he believed to be the best strategy for building his kingdom. But through it all, Solomon maintained a love and devotion for God, even offering thousands of sacrifices to Him on the high place in Gibeon. The book of 1 Chronicles provides us with the reason why Solomon chose Gibeon as the place to offer his sacrifices to God.

For the tabernacle of the Lord, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt offering were at that time in the high place at Gibeon. – 1 Chronicles 21:29 ESV

This location had been designated by God. Formerly the site of a threshing floor, David had purchased it and transformed it into the primary worship center for the nation of Israel. And it would be at this important location that Solomon would receive a gracious and undeserved gift from God. Despite his impulsiveness and blatant disobedience to God’s commands, he would be given the one thing that would set his reign apart from all those who would come after him. And it would become the defining characteristic of his life. Solomon didn’t need more horses, wives, wealth, or treaties with his enemies. What he really needed was something only God could provide: Wisdom.

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

One Bad Decision Leads to Another.

16 At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. 17 And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. 18 But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. 19 But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. 20 This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” 21 And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them.

22 Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? 23 Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” 24 They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” 26 So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. 27 But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose.  Joshua 9:16-27 ESV

Had there been an Academy Awards ceremony in those days, the entire nation of Gibeon would have not only have been nominated for a Best Actor award, they would have taken home the Oscar. Their portrayal of a poor, disheveled people who had traveled many miles in order to secure a peace treaty with Israel was so convincing that Joshua and the elders of Israel had been duped into believing them. And not only did they make a treaty of non-aggression with the Gibeonites, they swore an oath before God.

“We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them.” – Joshua 9:19 ESV

 

By invoking the name of God, Joshua and the leaders of Israel had bound themselves to Him, not the Gibeonites. They were now obligated to God. If they broke their commitment, they would answer to God. And it is important to note that this vow or oath was in direct violation of God’s command that they completely destroy and eliminate all the nations living in the land of Canaan. They had made a vow to God obligating themselves to disobey the command of God. We can attempt to excuse their behavior by pointing out that they had been deceived by the Gibeonites. But their real sin was that they had failed to seek the counsel of God (vs 14).

One of the things that stands out in this chapter is the seeming incongruity of the opening verses. It opens with a rather ominous announcement that when the nations west of the Jordan heard about Israel’s conquests and the building of their altar at Mount Ebal, they formed alliances against Israel.

As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. – Joshua 9:1-2 ESV

Perhaps news of these military alliances had reached Joshua and the elders of Israel and had played a role in their decision to make a treaty with the Gibeonites. The temptation would have been great to form an alliance with another nation in the hopes of avoiding yet another conflict and of having someone to come to their aid should they need it. But God had clearly forbidden the making of alliances. He wanted the Israelites to depend upon Him. And the fact that the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites were joining forces against the Israelites was no concern to God. And it should have been no concern to Joshua. God had promised to give them ALL the land and ALL the nations living in the land.

But the oath was made and the treaty sealed. The Israelites were committed to sparing the lives of the Gibeonites. And when they discovered that they had been lied to and that the Gibeonites were actually inhabitants of the land of Canaan and not foreigners from a distant nation, all the Israelites could do was get angry. The people of Israel turned their anger against Joshua and the elders, questioning their leadership and the wisdom behind their decision. This passage forms a turning point in the corporate history of Israel. The defeats of the cities of Jericho and Ai should have been an example of how things were going to go from that point forward. Those two victories were to have been the first of many God-ordained battles. But with the swearing of the oath to spare the people of Gibeon, Israel set a new standard of partial obedience and dangerous compromise that would haunt them for years to come. In fact, when Saul became the first king of Israel, he had violated the oath made by Joshua and put some of the Gibeonites to death. And as a result, God was forced to bring a famine on the nation of Israel for their breaking of the alliance and of their oath to God.

1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. – 2 Samuel 21:1-2 ESV

The fateful decision made by Joshua and the elders of Israel had long-term ramifications. And once they had made their choice to spare the people of Gibeon, they were forced to make yet another decision: What to do with them. And once again, it appears that Joshua did not seek the counsel of God, but made a unilateral decision to turn the Gibeonites into servants, humiliating them for their deception by forcing them into a life-long role of subjugation and servitude. He made them “cutters of wood and drawers of water.” But look closely at what Joshua decided to do and the exact nature of the role he assigned to these pagan idol-worshipers.

Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose. – Joshua 9:27 ESV

While these people had feigned a fear of God, they had no love for God. They had only hoped to escape annihilation at the hands of Israelites. When Joshua had questioned them about the motive behind their deception, they had responded:

“Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing.” – Joshua 9:24 ESV

They had feared for their lives, but they had no fear of or love for God. And yet, Joshua was giving them access to the altar of God. He was making a decision to allow these pagan foreigners to play a part in the worship of God even though, as idol worshipers, they were unholy and unacceptable to God. On top of that, Joshua was contaminating the people of God by allowing the inhabitants of Gibeon and the surrounding cities to remain alive, risking the influence of their idolatrous habits and setting up the potential for intermarriage. Joshua had compromised the integrity of his own people by refusing to seek the counsel of God. He and the elders of Israel had made a decision without God that could only lead to future decisions that violated the will of God.

The people of God have always faced the temptation to compromise with the world. Even today, we find ourselves living in a land that is hostile to our faith and our God. And while some oppose us, others seek to make alliances with us. They call on us to compromise our convictions in order that we might all “just get along.” They challenge our beliefs and tempt us to question the validity of God’s commands regarding everything from the sanctity of life to His ban on same-sex marriage. They ask us to join them in their effort to create a more loving and tolerant society. But we must seek God’s will. We must ask what He would have us do. Our decisions will have long-lasting and far-reaching ramifications. The little compromises we make today will cost us dearly tomorrow.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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