12 The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;
his sin is kept in store.
13 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.
14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
15 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.
16 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. – Hosea 13:12-16 ESV
The problem was not that Israel had sinned. God had fully expected them to do so and had made ample preparations for that inevitable prospect. The entire sacrificial system was based on the knowledge that God’s people would sin and was intended to provide them with a means of receiving atonement, forgiveness, and a restored relationship with Him. But the Israelites had become guilty of unrepentant sin. They had chosen to worship other gods, in direct violation of God’s commands. And they repeatedly refused to repent of their sin of spiritual adultery. Despite the warnings of God’s prophets, the Israelites continued to forsake Yahweh and offer their sacrifices, affections, and allegiance to false gods. This left them living in a state of unrepentant sin for which their many sacrifices provided no atonement or forgiveness.
God wanted to redeem, forgive, and restore them, but their unwillingness to repent made that impossible. He had promised to forgive their sins – if they would only repent.
“…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV
But God compares His stubborn people to an infant that refuses to go through childbirth. The mother goes through intense labor pains, attempting to bring her new baby into the world, but the child “resists being born” (Hosea 13:13 NLT). This fictitious scene is meant to expose the absurdity of Israel’s actions. Like a baby that chooses to remain in the comfortable and familiar environs of the womb, the Israelites had chosen to continue in their lifestyle of sin and apostasy.
The moment of birth has arrived,
but they stay in the womb! – Hosea 13:13 NLT
God had great things in store for them – if they would only repent. He wanted to bless them with abundant life and all the benefits that would come with living in obedience to His just and holy commands. But they refused to repent. And because they refused to repent, the number of their unforgiven sins had increased exponentially, leaving them with a growing debt that could only be paid through death and destruction.
Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live,
but he who pursues evil will die.
Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord,
but those of blameless ways are his delight. – Proverbs 11:19-20 ESV
For the wages of sin is death… – Romans 6:23 ESV
But despite God’s desire that His people repent and return to Him, He is determined to punish them for their wickedness. He cannot turn a blind eye to their sin and simply act as if they have done nothing wrong. And while He is a loving, gracious, and compassionate God, He is also just and holy, and obligated to punish the iniquities of men. So, He asks a series of rhetorical questions:
“Should I ransom them from the grave?
Should I redeem them from death?” – Hosea 13:14 NLT
And then God answers those questions with a clear declaration of Israel’s coming destruction.
“O death, bring on your terrors!
O grave, bring on your plagues!
For I will not take pity on them.” – Hosea 13:14 NLT
This time, they would receive no rescue from God. He would not intervene on their behalf and prevent the inevitable consequences for their sins. They would pay, and they would pay dearly. But they could have escaped the consequences of death and the grave if they would have only repented and returned to God in humble contrition. Had they only been willing to confess their sins, He would have been faithful and just to forgive them. The apostle John points out the reality of that divine response to man’s humble act of repentance.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV
It is interesting to note that, centuries later, Jesus Christ would appear on the scene in Israel, preaching the same message of repentance. Matthew records how Jesus began His earthly ministry by fulfilling the prophecy found in the book of Isaiah.
“…the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:16-17 ESV
Despite Israel’s continued transgressions and ongoing refusal to repent, God would send His own Son to earth preaching a message of repentance to all those who were willing to listen and obey. But like all the other prophets before Him, Jesus would find His Israelite audience to be resistant to His message. They would be attracted by His miracles and curious about His identity, but they could not bring themselves to believe that He could forgive their sins. In his gospel account, the apostle John reveals that the Jews refused to receive Jesus and His message of repentance.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV
And John goes on to reveal that Jesus was sent by God in order to offer sinful mankind a way of receiving forgiveness rather than condemnation. Jesus was the gracious gift sent by God the Father that could provide all those living under the condemnation of death with a means of atonement, forgiveness, and redemption.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:17-19 ESV
Even in Jesus’ day, things had not changed. The people of Israel still loved the darkness rather than the light. Like an infant clinging to the familiar darkness of the womb and refusing to be born into the light of day, the Israelites were stubbornly holding on to their lifestyle of sin and refusing to step into the light of God’s forgiveness.
God would punish the northern kingdom of Israel for its refusal to repent. He would send the Assyrian army to destroy the capital city of Samaria and take tens of thousands of its citizens into captivity.
“The people of Samaria
must bear the consequences of their guilt
because they rebelled against their God.
They will be killed by an invading army,
their little ones dashed to death against the ground,
their pregnant women ripped open by swords.” – Hosea 13:16 NLT
These words sound so harsh and barbaric to our modern sensibilities. They paint a portrait of God that we find unattractive and antithetical to our understanding of Him as a loving, gracious, and compassionate God. But we sometimes fail to understand that He is a holy and just God who cannot tolerate sin. His righteousness requires that He deal justly and decisively with all sin. But the truly amazing thing is that God had a plan in place that would deal with the deadly impact of sin and provide sinful mankind with a gracious and totally undeserved plan of escape. And it would be made possible through the gift of His Son. The apostle Paul reminds us of the wonderful secret regarding God’s plan of redemption.
But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 NLT
The Israelites would be punished for their sin. They would face the inevitable consequences of death and the grave. But God was not done. He would preserve a remnant of His people, and through that remnant, He would send His Son. Jesus, the Son of God, would be born into the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham, and as a descendant of David. He would be sent by God to be the Savior of the world, offering His life as an atonement for the sins of mankind and as a means of receiving a restored relationship with a holy and just God. As the apostle Paul so aptly put it:
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT
While Israel clung to the womb of sin and darkness, Jesus, the light of God’s glory, was born into the darkness of a sinful world in order to provide the gracious gift of God’s redemption and restoration.
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.