This Last week our study covered chapter 13 of Hosea, and it is a grim picture of how very far Israel has run from the Lord and the terrible consequences which will therefore follow. These are the portions of the Old Testament that nobody likes to read. We don’t slowly savor these passages or overlay the individual verses onto lovely photos of quiet meadows or still waters. And yet, even these reveal our God to us in ways that we must carefully consider.
Israel rose from nothing, a band of slaves wandering in the wilderness, to become a powerful nation. Then, just as fast as they rose, they fell into sin, and became prey to the more powerful nations around them. Why did they rise? Why did they fall? It’s apparent that they had forgotten the answers to these questions. They rose only by the grace of God, who plucked them out of obscurity, delivered them from slavery, and made them his own because of his great love for them. They fell because they turned their backs on this gracious and loving deliverer, took credit for their rise to power upon themselves, and worshipped the false gods of their pagan neighbors.
God is therefore righteous in sending judgement upon them: judgement that he promised to send if they broke the covenant which they promised to obey. God’s faithfulness to his covenant necessarily means that he will punish the unfaithful nation by sending all the covenant curses raining down upon them in his wrath. After their history of all that God had done for them and centuries of his true prophets pleading with them to repent, they can’t say they weren’t warned.
And yet. . . . Even in this grim picture we see a glimmer of hope.
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. — Hosea 13:13
In the ancient world, a woman in labor whose baby did not “present himself at the opening of the womb” was in great peril, and so was her baby. There is only one path to life for the child, and that path is through the birth canal. In verse 13 Hosea is presenting to Israel in terms of childbirth the life and death choice which the Lord had set before them from the beginning: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deut. 30:19).
God has given them his word, has demonstrated his love and power in acts of deliverance and mercy and even judgement, and has sent the prophets to urge them to turn from their wicked ways. But they have demonstrated their foolishness by refusing to return to God, their source of life, through the only means which he has set before them: repentance. In Keil & Delitzsch we read that, “Ephraim is an unwise son, inasmuch as even under the chastening judgement he still delays his conversion, and will not let himself be a newborn, like a child, that at the time of the labour-pains will not enter the opening of the womb and so come to the birth.” Jesus himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
But just as a child in the womb has no choice in the matter of being born, so also unbelieving Israel (indeed, any unbeliever) is unable to choose to be born again, because we are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1-3). Israel is refusing to present himself at the opening of the womb because he is a stillborn child. Even still, God won’t let his covenant go up in smoke just because the people can’t keep it. After all, this is the God whose steadfast love endures forever. So in the very next verse we find this precious gospel promise:
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? — Hosea 13:14
In this declaration Hosea speaks God’s promise that God himself will ransom and redeem his people from the power of the grave and the curse of death. Looking first at the second half of the verse, where God mockingly asks death and Sheol (the grave) where their plagues and sting are, we find in his taunting a breathtaking deliverance.
To redeem or ransom from the hand (or power) of hell, i.e., of the underworld, the realm of death, is equivalent to depriving hell of its prey, not only by not suffering the living to die, but by bringing back to life those who have fallen victims of hell, i.e., to the region of the dead.
God doesn’t merely prevent his people from dying, he brings to life those who are already dead. We see this most powerfully fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was verifiably dead and buried in the tomb for three days before he was gloriously and powerfully resurrected. Christ’s bodily resurrection signified not only the future physical resurrection of all who believe in him, but also the spiritual resurrection that occurs the moment one is newly born again. All unbelievers are dead in their sins and have therefore already fallen victim (spiritually) to the grave. Through Jesus Christ, God deprives death of its prey, in newness of life on this side of heaven, and in the final resurrection on the last day.
Hosea’s audience could not have imagined the fulfillment of his words in the bodily resurrection of the Messiah (nor, for that matter, did Jesus’ contemporaries understand it when he plainly told them). But there is more in view here than the resurrection of Christ or the resurrection of all believers on the final day when death will be annihilated and that which is corruptible will be changed into immortality (1 Cor. 15:54-55). Hosea has been preaching to Israel of their imminent national destruction. This promise that he now gives them assured his listeners that the Lord possessed the power to redeem them from death, and raise Israel from the destruction by the invading Assyrians into newness of life. God’s covenant promises would stand even though they, as a nation, would fall. The Assyrians might snuff out the nation, but God would still save for himself a people.
And how does he ransom and redeem his people from death, giving them birth into newness of life?
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. — James 1:18
God brings us forth—causes us to be born anew, spiritually—by the word of truth—the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is because of his love, grace, and mercy that he makes us alive in Christ, but it is through the means of his Spirit-breathed word that life is given to us. The gospel is, as it were, the midwife who gently guides us into life in the kingdom of God. Once we are born into newness of life, the word feeds and nourishes our newborn faith, and so Peter instructs us to:
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 1 Peter 2:2
The Israelites had lost the taste for God’s word as they feasted on and longed for the delicacies of death favored by their pagan neighbors. Therefore destruction was coming for their nation and death and the grave were imminent for them then, as it is now for all who reject his only path to salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way any of us may come to the Father. God is faithful in his steadfast love and he holds out to us one way to life. Therefore, choose life, hope in Jesus, that you may live, and long for the pure spiritual milk of the word, that you may grow up into salvation.
 C. F. Keil, Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 10 The Minor Prophets, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers 2006, reprinted from the English version originally published 1866-91), 103-104.
 Ibid., 104.