The Potential Peril Of Prosperity

Hosea 10:1-8 Israel is a luxuriant vine
that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased,
the more altars he built;
as his country improved,
he improved his pillars.
2 Their heart is false;
now they must bear their guilt.
The LORD will break down their altars
and destroy their pillars.
3 For now they will say:
“We have no king,
for we do not fear the LORD;
and a king—what could he do for us?”
4 They utter mere words;
with empty oaths they make covenants;
so judgment springs up like poisonous weeds
in the furrows of the field.
5 The inhabitants of Samaria tremble
for the calf of Beth-aven.
Its people mourn for it, and so do its idolatrous priests—
those who rejoiced over it and over its glory—
for it has departed from them.
6 The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria
as tribute to the great king.
Ephraim shall be put to shame,
and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.
7 Samaria’s king shall perish
like a twig on the face of the waters.
8 The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel,
shall be destroyed.
Thorn and thistle shall grow up
on their altars,
and they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,”
and to the hills, “Fall on us.”

What do you fear the most? Worded another way, what is it that you would least like to see happen in your life? Worded another way still, what is the most dangerous thing you can imagine?

My guess is that the vast majority of your answers (maybe all of them) involve losing something (your home or job or finances or health or life or the life of a loved one, for instance). We tend to fear having the things we care about taken away from us. Likewise, we consider things especially dangerous when they put us or the things we value in vulnerable positions.

Of course, those are reasonable responses. It makes sense that we’d like to avoid losing the things and people we love—that’s part of what it means to love something. However, the bible (including our passage for this morning) speaks at least as much (and maybe more) about the danger of gaining things…good things. Prosperity is often more deadly than loss.

Grace, when is the last time you heard of someone living like that? When is the last time you found someone truly concerned about the temptation presented by their success? When is the last time you talked to someone who was genuinely as afraid of being promoted as they were of being fired; who was as afraid of being rich as they were of being poor; who was as afraid of being healed as they were of getting sick?

I’ve prayed with a lot of people—pleaded with God alongside more people than I can remember—as they contemplated a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one or the breaking up of a relationship. But I can only recall one time in 20 years of pastoral ministry that someone came to meet with me out of genuine fear out of what a more comfortable life might do to their soul; out of their understanding of the potential peril of prosperity.

Let’s pray that God would help us understand that the path of the will of God is always, only, and exclusively one of life and peace and satisfaction and joy (of prosperity). But let’s also pray that he would help us to understand that there is a deep, deadly ditch on both sides of the path—a ditch of poverty and a ditch of prosperity.

I wanted to take a minute to thank Pastor Mike and Kyle for serving me and serving you all while I was away. It was a great joy to listen to their sermons on Psalm 103. I especially appreciated Kyle helping us to see that the text forces us to reconcile God’s justice and mercy and it compels us to acknowledge that our understanding of God is the most important thing about us. And I truly appreciated Pastor Mike showing us from the Psalm that we must consider our legacy in light of God’s glory and our finitude. Both sermons made me slow down and consider areas of my life that result from a too small god.

With that, welcome back to Hosea. If you’re just joining us, we’re on the back half of Hosea—a book in the OT of the bible containing a collection of the prophecies of a man named Hosea. God called Hosea to prophecy to the northern (10) tribes of Israel concerning their faithlessness to God. The main message of the entire book concerns the jealous love of God for his adulterous people. That is, Hosea was charged to inform Israel of her failure to keep the terms of her covenant with God, the consequences of continued rebellion, and also the merciful and gracious rewards of repentance.

The fact is, however, Israel was showing no signs of returning to God and so, on God’s behalf, Hosea promised immanent destruction at the hands Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians. Within a few years after Hosea’s prophetic ministry, after Hosea uttered the words in our passage, Assyria would in fact entirely wipe out the northern tribes.

Indeed, Hosea is, in many ways, an inch wide and a mile deep. That is, most of Hosea’s prophetic words communicate particular charges against the people of God—specific ways in which the northern tribes had sinned against God. I’ve likened this to the many facets of a diamond. One of the remarkable things about a diamond is that something so small could have so many sides; so many different ways to reflect light. Similarly, one of the remarkable aspects of Hosea is its description of how many different ways Israel could rebel against God.

With that, in chapter 10 we come to another specific charge against Israel, another facet of her rebellion. Here we see that she had sinned against God by using his blessings to support her idolatry. Israel’s fruitfulness led to her fall. Her gifts had become the source of her grief. Her prosperity led to her peril.

Look with me once again at Hosea 10:1-2.

Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars. 2 Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.

From this passage, I want to help you see five aspects of Israel’s prosperity: it was remarkable, from God, misspent, destroyed, and it was eventually restored.

Remarkable Prosperity

Hosea begins this section with another metaphor. This time he describes Israel in terms of her impressive fruitfulness. She was a luxuriant vine. She not only produced fruit, but was truly flourishing. With this metaphor Hosea draws his hearers’ attention to the time when they excelled spiritually, socially, economically, militarily, and politically. Not that long ago, on every side the people of God knew only victory and success and growth.

Consider 1 Kings 4:20-25:

Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy. 21 Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. They brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life. 22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl. 24 For he had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates. And he had peace on all sides around him. 25 And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.

Indeed, Israel’s vine had been so luxuriant that generations later, at the time of Hosea’s prophecy, remnants of that prosperity still lingered.

Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.

Divine Prosperity
That leads to the second aspect Israel’s prosperity: its source. What was it that caused the vine to be luxuriant? What was the source of Israel’s prosperity? Although God’s people tended to forget, as we’ve seen throughout Hosea (and will continue to see), all genuine prosperity, all blessing, all fruitfulness, all luxury are from God.

Hosea 2:8 And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold…

Hosea 11:3-4 … it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 12:10 … it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables.

Hosea 13:4-5 … besides me there is no savior. 5 It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought

That all genuine prosperity comes from God means that prosperity itself isn’t a problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with prosperity. God prospers in all he does. Indeed, heaven is a place of perfect, limitless, and eternal prosperity. The problem comes, as we’re about to see, with the temptation prosperity brings. Prosperity itself isn’t the issue; it’s what we do with prosperity and what we allow it to do to us.

Grace, please slow down and consider this. Consider the fact that prosperity is only and always found in God. It is found nowhere else, and in God there is nothing else. This remarkable reality is what led the Apostle Paul to declare that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

But it is the failure to rightly appreciate and appropriate this remarkable reality that has led people (including the Israelites to whom Hosea was speaking, along with every one of us) to vainly chase after victory, fruitfulness, luxury, prosperity in other places. We quickly forget—to our peril—that God alone can bring true success. How much time and money and emotion has been invested in things that promise much but deliver only death?

Grace, as we look at the next aspect of prosperity for Hosea—misspent prosperity—let us learn from the Israelites and not forget the true and only and certain source of genuine prosperity. Let us consider what we are hoping in for fruitfulness.

Misspent Prosperity
Many years before Hosea’s prophecy, after the Exodus and prior to entering the Promised Land, God warned the Israelites, through Moses, to be careful of the vast blessings and previously unknown prosperity that was soon to come her way (the prosperity we read about earlier under King Solomon).

Deuteronomy 8:6-18 So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. 11 “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

But this is precisely what Israel did. This is precisely what Hosea was chastising his audience about. She had forgotten her God—that it was he who had rescued and blessed her. Israel had said in her heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.”

God blessed Israel in order to display his glory and in order that she would be a light to the nations. However, because Israel had forgotten this, because her heart was false, because she had begun to hope in herself and other gods, she misspent her blessing. Instead of using it for the glory of God and the good of the nations…

The more [Israel’s] fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars.

These were alters to false gods and the pillars were “standing stones erected in shrines” (Mays, 58) according to the traditions of pagan cults. Israel attributed God’s blessing to other gods and set up places of worship to them. Israel misused her prosperity. We find this same type of warning in the NT; for the Church today.

Luke 8:14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

Luke 16:13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Luke 18:24-25 Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Proverbs 30:8-9 does not say that prosperity is inherently sinful, but it is the prayer of someone who recognizes the potential peril of prosperity (and poverty): “…give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, 9 lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”

God blessed Israel, but Israel misspent her blessing. Again, let us not scoff at her foolishness, but cry out to God for grace that we might not fall again into the same temptation, lest we fall again into Israel’s fate. And that leads to the fourth aspect of Hosea’s teaching on prosperity.

Destroyed Prosperity
Because of this, because of Israel’s unrelenting misuse of her prosperity, God promised to take away her prosperity and destroy all that she’d misspent it on.

2 Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.

We saw this same message earlier in chapter 4.

Hosea 4:7 The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame.

All the sinful alters and pillars that Israel had built with the blessing of God, God would break down and destroy. None of it would remain. God is a patient God, but he cannot and will not long tolerate mockery.

Again, Grace, such is the case today. We may get away with embezzling the gifts of God for a time, but in the end all that we do with his blessings will eventually be revealed (1 Corinthians 3:13).

But that’s not all. That’s not the worst part. As bad as it would be when Israel lost her blessings, it would be much worse when she finally lost her God. Again, we caught a glimpse of that back in chapter 4.

Hosea 4:5-6 You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. 6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

The real danger of misusing God’s physical blessings is not the removal of those things. The real danger is that those who persist in misusing the blessings of God will have both their blessings and souls destroyed. Let us be properly sobered in this knowledge. Let us consider our use of the blessings of God and the consequences of using them for sin.

If we gain the whole world but forfeit our souls we’ve lost everything. But if we lose the whole world but have God, we have gained everything. Grace, if we have God and nothing else we have prosperity beyond imagination. But if we have every physical thing, but not God, we have poverty beyond imagination—and that’s where Hosea’s audience found themselves.

Restored Prosperity
The good news for God’s people, however, is that this need not be the end of the story. Though Israel remained unfaithful to God, God remained faithful to Israel. The nation of Israel would soon be destroyed, but in chapter 14 God’s people—those who would turn back to God—were given the promise of mercy and forgiveness and restored prosperity. God promised that in the future…

Hosea 14:5-7 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.

Oh what joy this should have been to faithless Israel. What she did not understand, however, what she could not have understood, is that this forgiveness and healing and restoration and this limitless prosperity would come in the person Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God would rescue not through the blood of bulls and goats, not through another merely human king, but through the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth who would take upon himself the sins of the world.

What’s more, what Israel did not and could not yet understand, was that God would not allow his people to benefit from Jesus’ sacrificial death as a result of their own obedience—which the OT is meant to help us see is impossible—but by placing our faith in the obedience of Jesus.

What’s more amazing still is that in Jesus, God would not merely restore his people to the former glory of David and Solomon, he would expand his people to every tribe, tongue, and nation, his kingdom would transcend heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, and his blessing would infinitely and eternally surpass anything mankind had ever known.

This new, this final, this Christ-won prosperity will have no limits and know no end. It is, as Peter wrote (1 Peter 1:4), “Imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for” all who, like Abraham, believe God…that he “rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

True prosperity, Jesus taught, is not found in things. It is found in God. True prosperity is fellowship with God…being able to see God as he truly is such that we are able to glorify and enjoy him forever. The message of these two simple verses is that one of the greatest obstacles to this kind of prosperity is…prosperity.

Contrary to popular conception, prosperity has every bit of potential peril that loss has, and sometimes more. Be careful what you wish for, Grace. Be careful of longing and working for that which makes it harder to get into the Kingdom of heaven. Be careful of looking for that which only God can provide in places and things other than God. Be careful of believing that you deserve blessing or that blessing always looks like material excess. And then look to Jesus who is our only and certain hope, who is our prosperity, who is our luxurious vine, who is our reconciliation with the Father, who is the reason you and I can live in the promises of God.