"Idols according to their understanding."—Hosea 13:2
"Ephraim shall say, what have I to do any more with idols? I have answered and will regard Him; I am like a green fir tree; from me is Thy fruit found."—Hosea 14:8
The first text is from the third address of Jehovah. After the second, the keynote of which was "Canaan," and a prophetic interpolation, describing Ephraim's sin, we come to this third speech of Jehovah. In its entirety it is a message of love, declaring the ultimate triumph of love, in spite of all the difficulties and sins of the people; ending with that great challenge, "I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from death"; and' then those great words which Paul quoted, "O death, where are thy plagues? O Sheol, where is thy destruction?" and this declaration, "Repentance shall be hid from Mine eyes," which does not mean He will pay no attention to repentant souls, but that He has determined on the restoration of the people as they return to Him, and will not repent.
In the beginning of this message the nature of their sin is declared, "Idols according to their own understanding." This is a revelation of the religious action which follows departure from God. In a previous meditation (Hosea 4:17) we dealt with the subject of idols, and now touch upon it briefly only, considering its cause, its course, and its curse.
The second text is taken from the final message of Jehovah to Israel. In his last utterance the prophet had foretold the inevitable judgments of God upon the sinning nation, and had appealed to the nation to return to Jehovah. Then resuming the Divine Message, his ministry ended on the high note of hope as he foretold a way and a day of restoration and realization. In that message there are two movements—the action of Jehovah, and the result.
Let us briefly then think first of idolatry its cause, its course, and its curse. What is the cause of idolatry? Why have men ever in the history of humanity made idols for themselves? Idolatry is a false answer to the religious call of human nature. The cause is to be found in the clouding of the vision of God. Both saved and unsaved create idols.
What does that mean? Why should that issue in idolatry? Why have men made idols? The answer is self-evident. Humanity is so created that it has an inherent necessity for God (spirit). Every man has his god. Every human being is devoting the force of life to something. Dr. Henry Van Dyke, in The Ruling Passion, says that in every life worth writing about there is a ruling passion. He goes on to suggest that it may be music or art, business, family, home. He declares that such ruling passion is the mainspring of the life, and that if we are going to study any personality, we are moving in a realm of mystery until we have found it. The ruling passion is the secret of a life. I have not quoted the exact words, but the spirit of the paragraph, which is a very arresting one. I would personally delete three words from the beginning of that quotation, "Worth writing about." In every life there is a ruling passion. No human being can any more live without that, than a watch can run if the mainspring be taken out. That is the cause of all idolatry.
Now mark the course of it. They make them, says this word, "according to their own understanding." When men have lost the vision of God, and have to construct a god, they do it according to their own understanding. They try to evolve within their own thinking an idea of God. Take the illustration found in the history of Israel that is the northern kingdom, to which Hosea was a messenger. What was the form of their idolatry? It had taken two forms from the disruption of the kingdom. When Solomon died the kingdom was rent in two. Jeroboam became king over the northern kingdom, and Rehoboam king of the southern. Jeroboam, for political purposes, set up a new center of worship. He did not deny Jehovah, but according to his understanding, made a likeness of Jehovah. That was the meaning of the calves. That was the first movement in Israel's idolatries, a false representation of God, according to their own understanding.
When we reach the days of Ahab, that incarnation of godlessness, we find that they were not worshipping things intended to represent God, but had substituted other gods for the one God. That was the second phase: "Idols according to their own understanding." Or to someone they trust that they feel would not mislead them.
The curse of idolatry is inherent in the process. When men make idols they make them like themselves, and the result is disastrous, This is set forth in Psalm 115 in which the Singer describes such idols, and shows the result of worshipping them:
"They have mouths, but they speak not;
Eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not;
Noses have they, but they smell not;
They have hands, but they handle not;
Feet have they, but they walk not;
Neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them shall be like unto them;
Yea, every one that trusts in them."
This reveals the vicious circle. Men make idols like themselves, imperfect, polluted, debased, and then become more and more like the idols so created. Such is the curse of idolatry.
Now let us turn to our other text, and the message of hope with which the prophecy ends. In it we turn from idols to God.
Beginning at the fourth verse we hear the voice of God Himself; and in the message there are two movements, one describing the action of Jehovah, and the other telling the results of that action. The first is revealed in the recurrence of the words "I will," and the second in the recurrence of the words "He shall" or "They shall."
Thus the action of God:
"I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for Mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel."
Thus the results:
"He shall blossom as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and his smell as Lebanon. They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the grain, and blossom as the vine; the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon. Ephraim shall say, what have I to do any more with idols? I have answered, and will regard Him; I am like a green fir-tree; from me is Thy fruit found."
Let us then survey the whole message, and then consider this final statement of what Ephraim has to say. The first matter in the statement is that of the "I wills" of Jehovah. "I will heal their backsliding." In other words, I will cure them of their apostasy. Not, I will heal the wounds resulting from their backsliding. That is quite true, but it is secondary. I will cure the malady of their apostasy.
The question as to how God can do this is answered in the next affirmation: "I will love them freely." Freely means of My own will and My own heart, quite independently of them or of their deserts. I will not love them in response to their love. I will love them in spite of their rebellion. Reverently let me put it: I will love them because I cannot help loving them. That is God. And it is because of that deep thing in the nature of God that He first said, "I will heal their backsliding," I will cure the malady of their apostasy.
And then follows this arresting word: "I will be as the dew unto Israel." That is the third time the figure of the dew has been employed by the prophet in the course of his prophesying. God, speaking to the same people, had said: "O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the dew that goeth early away." God's complaint against them was that their goodness was fleeting, was vanishing as the early dew. God had also employed it as a symbol of judgment: "Therefore they shall be as the morning cloud, and as the dew that passes early away."
Now the word is used again. "I will be as the dew unto Israel." Here we must interpret the figure by the personality. In the earlier uses of the figure there were qualifying words; "the early dew"; "the dew that passes early away." There is no qualifying word here. Here the figure must be interpreted by the timeless eternity of God. With Him it is always morning, or if not, then with Him there is dew at noontide, and dew in the evening. "I will be as the dew."
Then we turn to the description of results. Because God is as the dew to him, he shall blossom as the lily. The lily stands for beauty and purity. The nation under the fertilizing power of love created by the dew of the Divine presence shall become characterized by the beauty and the purity of the lily.
Then with a fine and swift poetic movement, as though this figure of the lily breaks down a little, for the lily has little root; it soon passes away; "and cast forth his roots as Lebanon." Not only beauty, not only purity, but stability. Lebanon is the synonym for the cedar. The poetry runs on perfectly. The prophet saw the lily with its beauty and its purity. Ephraim shall blossom like that. Yes, but that is not all. Ephraim's roots shall be as the cedars of Lebanon.
Again the figure changes, "His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree." The lily, the cedar, the olive; the lily for beauty and purity; the cedar for roots that spread far beneath, and touch the underground rivers; and therefore with branches that spread out in magnificence; and the olive, evergreen.
Mark the symbolism of it all. Beauty, purity, strength, fidelity; and then look at the nation as it was, ugly, impure, and deformed, weak and vacillating, and withered with heat, and bearing no fruit. Jehovah said: "I will be as the dew unto Israel"; and therefore there shall be the fulfillment of all the highest and the noblest. My original purpose for choosing you shall be finally true for you.
Follow on. "They"—it is not "he" now; it is not the instrument, it is not Israel, but "they that dwell under his shadow," they that pass under the influence of this restored nation, "shall return, they shall revive as the grain, and blossom as the vine"; and then it is, that the "scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon."
The fulfillment of all this is coming through Christ. This nation as an earthly people was rejected when Jesus said in Temple courts, "The Kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." Almost immediately afterwards, the Lord was alone with His own disciples, and He said, "I am the Vine, ye are the branches." Everything of beauty and of glory and of strength and of fruitfulness is to be produced through Him, and those associated with Him as branches in the Vine.
All this leads us in proper sequence to the words of our second text. It records the words of Ephraim consequent upon the activity of God in love. "Ephraim shall say," Ephraim healed of backsliding, because of God's love; and, because God is becoming the dew, Ephraim blossoming as the lily, casting out its roots like the cedar of Lebanon, like the olive tree, Ephraim is now speaking. "What have I to do any more with idols?"—Ephraim has broken with idols. What brought it about? What does bring about the break with idols whenever it takes place? What is it that brings Dagon crashing to the ground? What is it that sweeps idolatry out of the soul of a man, or of a nation, so that it says, or he says, "What have I to do any more with idols?" Ephraim replies to our questions. "I have answered and will regard Him." That is the secret. I have responded to Him. I have seen and yielded.
But there is more; "And will regard Him." That means continuous contemplation. Ephraim has broken with idols, because somehow he has seen God anew; and seeing Him, has responded to Him, has yielded to Him, and has come to the point in life when he says, Hence forth this is to be my attitude; I will regard Him. Because Ephraim has come to the time when he has answered, and has now assumed the attitude of perpetual and continuous watching of God, he says, what have I to do with idols? Dr. Chalmers, of Scotland, coined the phrase, "The expulsive power of a new affection." What a phrase it is. "I have answered Him, and will regard Him." "What have I to do with idols?" The cure of idolatry is the restored vision of God.
And yet there is something else to say, "I am like a green fir tree." Ephraim is using a figure of speech. It is a new one. He does not use the lily; he does not use the cedar of Lebanon, or the olive tree. Perhaps we should say that nobody knows certainly what tree is meant by that fir tree. Personally I think it was the cypress tree. At any rate, it was a tree the chief characteristics of which were permanent freshness, and fruitfulness.
And so the concluding and inclusive word. "From me is Thy fruit found." We recall the words of a previous article: "Israel is a luxuriant vine that putts forth his fruit." That was the complaint against Israel; a luxuriant vine, but not bringing forth the fruit God was looking for. Or as Isaiah had it, "I looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes." The condemnation of the nation was that it was a luxuriant vine, but not bringing forth the fruit God was seeking, but bringing forth its own fruit. Now at last the nation says: "From me is Thy fruit found." Thus is revealed the contrast between the self-centered, the God-forgetting, and the idolatry-blasted people; and the God-centered, the God-remembering, and the God-honoring people.
The prophecy of Hosea ends on a note of challenge:
"Who is wise, that he may understand these things? Prudent, that he may know them? For the ways of Jehovah are right, and the just shall walk in them; but transgressors shall fall therein."
Idols once they won thee, charmed thee,
Lovely things of time and sense;
Gilded thus does sin disarm thee,
Honeyed lest thou turn thee thence.
What has stript the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth? Not a sense of right or duty,
But the sight of peerless worth.
Not the crushing of those idols,
With its bitter void and smart;
But the beaming of His beauty,
But the beaming of His beauty,
The unveiling of His heart.
Who extinguishes their taper
Till they hail the rising sun? Who discards the garb of winter
Till the summer has begun?
'Tis that look that melted Peter,
'Tis that face that Stephen saw,
'Tis that heart that wept with Mary,
'Tis that heart that wept with Mary,
Can alone from idols draw.
Draw and win and fill completely,
Till the cup o'erflow the brim; What have we to do with idols
Who have companied with Him?"
Note the two words "wise" and "prudent." The Hebrew word translated "wise" means intelligent. But intelligence is not enough. Who is prudent? Prudent means acting according to intelligence. Prudent means squaring conduct with conviction.
The man intelligent and prudent will come to certain convictions. Of these the first is that "the ways of Jehovah are right." That summarizes everything. That being so, it follows that the righteous walk in them; and the wicked fall in them.
God's ways are straight and true, and we walk, or fall according to our relationship with those ways.
We may summarize our understanding of the teachings of Hosea. It declares that sin separates from God, and blinds us, so that we lose the vision of Him. It shows that idolatry results from the loss of the vision of God. It most clearly reveals the Heart and the Holiness of God. His love is eternal, but is never divorced from moral requirement.
We are living in fuller light than Hosea had. We see God as Hosea never saw Him. We see Him in Jesus. There seeing Him, we know, as never before, that He can make no terms with sin; but we know that He stays at no sacrifice in order that He may heal our backsliding.
If we are guilty of idolatry, what will cure us? The vision of Him, as He was seen in Jesus Christ.
"Hast thou heard Him, seen Him, known Him? Is not thine a captured heart?
Chief among ten thousand own Him,
Joyful choose the better part.”