Like Grapes In The Wilderness

Hosea 9:10-17 Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved. 11 Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird- no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! 12 Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! 13 Ephraim, as I have seen, was like a young palm planted in a meadow; but Ephraim must lead his children out to slaughter. 14 Give them, O LORD- what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts. 15 Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels. 16 Ephraim is stricken; their root is dried up; they shall bear no fruit. Even though they give birth, I will put their beloved children to death. 17 My God will reject them because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations.

This is a very interesting passage for several reasons. The (almost whimsical) language of the first half of v.10 is interesting. It’s straight out of a beautiful and powerful movie scene. The appeals to Israel’s history are interesting. They continue to draw from the most powerful seasons in the life of the people of God. The extremely thick irony is interesting. Israel forsook God for a god of fertility and the consequences for doing so were infertility. The grand principle at the end of v.10 is interesting. There we find the profound truth that the things we love have transforming power over us. And the overall flow of the prophecy is interesting. It traces God’s people from wilderness to Promised Land to wilderness.

Hosea meant all of that to provide a new light on an old point; namely, that Israel had been unfaithful to God and would therefore face the just, but steep consequences of God’s jealous love. All of the interesting aspects of the passage are really just different tools to help drive that home for Israel. In other words, Hosea took this new angle to help Israel know, deep in her heart and mind, the reality that was before her. From this we will see that sin is not just icky but evil. Obedience is not just a good idea, it is essential. God’s love is not just warm, it is severe. And God’s offer of grace is entirely sufficient, but not without expiration. It is my hope, then, that we would use the interesting parts of this passage as a mirror into our own lives and a spotlight on Christ’s.

Look again with me at the opening lines of this passage (10).

Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers.

These poetic words are meant to capture the time when God first chose a people for himself. The picture is one of unexpected excitement and blessing. Wilderness is by definition a hard, untamed place. To be in the wilderness, therefore, is to be in a place of difficulty and struggle. Grapes, a sweet, refreshing fruit do not generally grow in the wilderness. And so to find such an unlikely blessing in such a difficult place is the picture of surprised delight.

Likewise, at a time when sweet things only came from nature and only at certain times of the year, the first fruits of a fruit harvest marked an exciting time. And, because it takes several years for new fig trees to bear fruit, the first fruit in its first season represented an even more exciting time of sweetness and blessing. To compare anything to this, then, is to name that thing as wonderful and satisfying.

These are the ways God chose to describe His initial encounter with Abram, the man through whom His people, Israel, would come. Hear again the LORD’s description of this first meeting:

Genesis 12:1-4 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…

That, Hosea said, was like finding grapes in the wilderness and the first figs of the tree’s first season. That was a time of “unexpected” sweetness. That’s how God’s relationship with Abram and his descendents, the Israelites, began. It was a time of love and excitement and hope and faithfulness (“Abram went as the LORD had told him…”). It was a time when Abram lived in the wilderness, but God promised to lead him to a land of milk and honey, blessing and prosperity, safety and security.

Fast forward about 1200 years from God’s promise to Abram to Hosea’s day…

God had fulfilled his promise to Abram. He had led Abram’s descendents out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. They had become a great nation. They had received the blessing of God. Their enemies had been crushed. Their allies had shared in their blessing. In fact, the people to whom Hosea was charged to prophesy (the Israelites), were still eating the fruit of the fulfillment of God’s promises to their faithful fathers.

What follows in Hosea 9:10b-16 is two specific reasons for God’s changed disposition toward Israel. Hosea makes plain why God led his people from the wilderness to the Promised Land, and then back to the wilderness. That is, in the middle section of our passage we see why God moved from lovingly and joyfully rescuing his people from the wilderness to “rejecting them” and causing them to once again become “wanderers among the nations” (10:17).

Israel Forsook God by Going After Other Gods
The first reason for the dramatic and tragic shift in the relationship between God and Israel was the fact that Israel went after other gods. In spite of the overwhelming blessing of God and the unique power of God to bless, Israel wanted blessings that God did not give at times that God had not determined. Therefore, she decided to seek them in other (fake) gods. That’s what we find in v.10. In that verse Hosea reminded the Israelites that God loved them and remained entirely faithful to them…

But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame…

Numbers 25 provides the context we need to understand these words of Hosea.

Numbers 25:1-5 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 4 And the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

Through His promise to Abram, God became Israel’s God and Israel became His people. But around 700 years later, in a city called Peor, there was another (fake) god, a god who promised unmatched fertility (of land and womb). This god was called Baal. Israel wanted desperately to be a fertile people in a fertile land. As I mentioned earlier, the Israelites did not believe God was making them fertile enough, fast enough though so they decided to break covenant with God and “consecrate themselves” to Baal, the fertility god of the Moabites. They did so by sacrificing, eating, bowing down, and yoking themselves to Baal.

The results, Hosea wrote, were absolutely tragic.

  1. Instead of rightly and increasingly loving God and bearing His image, Israel loved Baal and “became detestable like the thing they loved” (v.10). That is, Israel became like the imaginary god, Baal, in all his illusory power, false promises, and twisted priorities.
  2. Instead of becoming more fertile by yoking themselves to Baal, Israel became utterly barren. Hosea cried (in v.11), “Ephraim’s glory [her fertility] shall fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!” The very thing she abandoned God for would no longer be available to her.
  3. Worse yet, because Israel left God for fertility, not only would she become infertile, but the fruit of her past fertility would be wiped out as well. That’s Hosea’s message in vs.12 and 13, “Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. 13 Ephraim, as I have seen, was like a young palm planted in a meadow; but Ephraim must lead his children out to slaughter” (see also v.16).
  4. Worst of all, God would not only remove his blessing of fertility, he would remove his blessing of himself! “Woe to them when I depart from them!” Israel would soon realize the true consequences of abandoning the only source of blessing and prosperity—abandoning the Source of all goodness.

Grace, please understand that these things remain true for you and I today. It is just as tempting for us to want our blessings in our timing (rather than God’s blessings in God’s timing). And when we don’t get them immediately, it is just as tempting for us to look for those things elsewhere (rather than trust in God).

What’s more, not only do the temptations remain the same, the consequences remain the same as well. Every time we set our affection on something other than God, we will be transformed by that thing instead of God. We can’t truly love something without being changed by it. If you love watching sports, you will buy the gear and spend money to follow your team. If you love shopping, you will give your time to finding the fashions and deals. If you love to run, your diet and clothing and free time will be changed to accommodate. In fact, often, the best way to identify what you really love is by watching what most affects your life’s choices.

Likewise, every time we go after something only God can provide in something other than God, we will lose it entirely. God alone is the source of all that is true, beautiful, and good. To seek anything but those things is evil and to seek them in anything but God is futile.

And every time we determine, as the Israelites did, to forsake God to get what we want, we will not only lose that thing, but God himself. Eventually, if we refuse to humble ourselves long enough, God will give us over to our sins entirely.

I saw this up close just a few days ago. On Friday I spoke with a long-time friend who, in a number of ways, recently reached what he believed to be the pinnacle of success—academically, financially, and professionally. In order to get there he gave up nearly everything else, including any nurturing of his faith. His main message to me was one of surprise…surprise that his accomplishments didn’t deliver on their promises and surprise that his faith wasn’t easily recovered. He’d known the true joy of simple faith and genuine Christian-fellowship, but had (for many years) largely given those things up in pursuit of something greater. However, instead of greater gain, he lost it all. Not only had he abandoned his simple faith and fellowship among the saints, but his new position/profession left him with a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness.

The questions that you need to ask yourself, then, are: 1) What constitutes satisfaction for you? and 2) Where are you looking to find it? If your answers are anything other than 1) fellowship with God and 2) in God through Jesus Christ, then you are on the same deadly and foolish errand that Israel was on in this passage.

God’s disposition toward Israel changed dramatically because Israel’s disposition toward God changed dramatically. She forsook him for Baal and paid the steepest price for her treachery. But that wasn’t the only way she forsook God according to this passage.

Israel Forsook God by Abandoning Him as King
The second reason given by Hosea for the radical change in God’s disposition toward Israel was the fact that she not only abandoned God for the promise of greater blessing in other gods, but she also abandoned God for the promise of greater blessing in other kings. We’ve already seen this (in chapter 8), but Hosea felt it important enough to draw our attention to it again in v.15.

15 Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them.

Gilgal was the place where the Israelites rejected God as king in their desire to be like the pagan nations (1 Samuel 8:7). They demanded a human king to replace God, and in Gilgal God gave them their wish as an expression of his judgment. Having warned them over and over of the deadly folly of their desires, and having long-endured their grumbling and mistrust, God’s hate was kindled to the point that He gave them a king and allowed them to experience its consequences. Hosea proclaimed that this act of forsaking God was the heart of “every evil of theirs.” How so?

(Hubbard notes, 177), “Kings established the Baal cult [which we saw in 10-13; cf. 1 Kings 12:28-30], kings promulgated the foreign policy which resulted in the slaughter (v.13), and princes (7:3, 5, 16; 8:4) are specifically mentioned as the leaders of rebellion (v.15).” Of course, all of those things (and countless other sins initiated by Israel’s kings) were ultimately the natural result of rejecting God as King (1 Samuel 8:7). When God is not our functional King, someone or something else will be.

Again, then, the consequences for this would be severe Hosea cried! By rejecting God as King, “because of the wickedness of their deeds,” and because “all their princes are rebels”…

  1. Instead of receiving the security and protection she sought (under a human king), Israel would be thrown out from the one place those things are found. In no uncertain terms God promised, “I will drive them out of my house” (15).
  2. Instead of finding greater love and intimacy (under a human king), both would be striped entirely from Israel. Oh that Israel would have been properly terrified to hear, “I will love them no more” (15)
  3. Instead of increasing in fruitfulness and productivity (under a human king), Israel would be “stricken”. Her root would dry up. She would “bear no fruit”. Indeed, as we saw earlier, the horrific consequences of generationally forsaking of God as king (and God) meant that “even though they give birth, [God] will put their beloved children to death” (16).
  4. And ultimately, bringing everything full circle, instead of remaining in the Promised Land and all of its blessings (under a human king), Israel would be driven back to the wilderness. To this effect Hosea issued the dire proclamation, “My God will reject them because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations” (17).

Again, Grace, so it is for you and I today. The temptation to want to be like the world, to find our identities in things other than God, to look for security and provision in things other than God, and to view certain authorities as higher than God, are every bit as much of a reality for us as they were for the Israelites.

For that reason (among many), Hosea is a gift. It allows you and me to see things—if we look in faith—in our hearts and minds that would otherwise be invisible to us. This book and this passage, though they are harsh, are a significant means of grace. They are God’s kind warning to us to refuse to walk in Israel’s path in order that we might avoid Israel’s fate. We cannot have any allegiance above God and not be thrown to the wilderness, away from the love and blessing and protection of God.

The harshest punishments stood in front of Israel because she forsook God by going after other gods and abandoning God as King.

Before my conclusion, I want to draw your attention to one more thing in this text, v.14. In the middle of all of this, Hosea cried out to God. He was distraught at the reality of the sin of his people and its consequences. He was overwhelmed, but didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say or how to pray. We can see this in the beginning of v.14 as Hosea started to pray and then stoped.

14 Give them, O LORD- what will you give?

Again, it’s as if Hosea had something in mind to ask of God on behalf of his people (maybe some sort of blessing) and then caught himself. He knew what Israel had done, he knew of God’s promised judgment, and it seems that he had a hard time bearing the thought of what all of that meant. It seems as if Hosea was about to cry out for mercy but then, in mid-sentence, realized the need to pray instead, “not my will, but yours be done, oh God.”

Thus, whatever Hosea was going to pray, instead he prayed: “Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” That is, he prayed that God would do to them what God had promised he would do: destroy Israel for her sin.

This is a significant lesson for us as well. We too must guard against the notion that we know better than God. It is right to be honest with God and ourselves about our heart’s desires. But that must always be mastered by an even greater desire for God’s will to be done (however mysterious or uncomfortable or even dangerous it may be). God’s wisdom and ways are always higher than ours. And God’s wisdom and ways (alone and always) lead to limitless blessing for those who love and obey him.

Another chapter in Hosea, another set of charges and judgments against Israel. As we just saw (and as we’ve seen many times before, therefore), things were about to get very bad for Israel. But they were about to get bad in order that she might see the error of her ways and return to God. As long as we have breath, God’s discipline is not for our destruction, but to lead us to repentance. For that reason, embedded in all of Hosea’s prophesies of judgment, is a longing for and hope that Israel would repent. In spite of her certain, immediate judgment, Hosea continued to plead, “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity (Hosea 14:1).

Hosea continued to believe this because he knew that if they would…

Hosea 14:4-7 I [God] will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 6 his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. 7 They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

In Hosea we see the story of wilderness to Promised Land to wilderness. But that’s not the whole story. For those who hope in God, the story will not end in wilderness. For (because) Jesus, the Son of God, would go into the wilderness and in the wilderness sacrifice himself to rescue the people of God. Hosea certainly did not know the specifics of the redemption that God had planned, but he did know) that the judgment he prayed for in v.14 was not going to be the end. Let us look to Jesus, therefore, for the forgiveness of our sins and the power to walk in newness of life. Let us look to Jesus in order that God would be our God and King. Amen.