Originally posted March 3, 2014. Video from Aug 1, 2018.
The image of grapes is used throughout the Bible as a symbol of both blessing and wrath. On one hand, the fullness of the winepress indicates the abundant blessings God has given and a call to share freely with those who have less. So, for example, the Israelites are commanded to provide for freed servants out of what God has provided them: “You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (Deu 15:14; see too Num 18:27, 30; unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the ESV). But when these blessings are abused, the winepress also serves as a useful analogy for judgment. Isaiah records for us the terrible significance of the symbol. When the Lord ascends from Edom and Moab in robes of crimson red, the people ask why he’s covered in grape juice. Jehovah’s response is terrifying: “I have trodden the winepress alone . . . I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments . . . . I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (Isa 63:3-6). Hosea, though, sees an even more troubling future, one in which God’s own people are grapes prepared not for drinking, but for crushing.
First, we incur wrath when we refuse our love. The Lord’s unrequited love is one of the major themes of Hosea’s work. But Israel had always had an “open relationship” with God, as Yahweh himself points out: “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” (Hos 9:10). Though the Lord had rejoiced in calling out a people for himself, his delight would soon turn to despair, finding out that his new bride had (literally!) prostituted herself to the god next door (see too 4:13-14; Num 25; Deu 7:14). But unrequited love can only last so long, even when your beloved is Love himself: “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” (Hos 9:15, emphasis added). The Lord’s house is not a house of sin.
Many today would like to separate the God of love, grace and mercy from the God of holiness, purity and justice. They’d like to have Jesus as their Savior, but reject him daily as their Lord. Often times this takes a more theological form, casting dichotomies like law versus gospel, grace/faith versus works, or love versus obedience. But as the Bible itself points out, each one is integrally connected to the other. So while the Father and Son are both identified as our Savior in the New Testament (24 times in the ESV), it is far more common for them to be referred to as Lord (657!). Likewise, the gospel is referred to as “the law of liberty” (Jam 1:25), grace is said to inspire works (Tit 2:11-14), and our love is measured by our obedience to him (John 14:15). Our relationship to God rightly depends, then, on a proper response to his loving kindness. We must listen to the voice of the Lord, letting his words sink into our ears and responding in heartfelt obedience (John 10:16, 27; Luke 9:44). Otherwise, we will fail to love, fail to listen, fail to follow, and therefore be cut off: “My God will reject them because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations” (Hos 9:17).
The second point follows the first: we invite wrath when we refuse our thanks. Israel had forgotten the source of her blessings: “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. Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will break down their altars and destroy their pillars” (Hos 10:1-2). The image of Israel as a vine is a common one throughout the Old Testament (see too Psa 80:8-16; Jer 2:20-21; Eze 15:1-8; 17:1-10). Here, Hosea uses the image to demonstrate the misuse of Israel’s blessings (a theme that recurs often in his work; see 4:7, 12:8 and 13:6). And Israel could not look to their false god to save them from Jehovah; in fact, he would go with them! “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. 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” (Hos 10:5-6).
God is the source of all blessings, as James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jam 1:17). But when we reject God as the Giver of these blessings, only idolatry and covetousness can come of it (see Eph 5:5). As Paul writes of first-century heathens, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). Paul warns Timothy of this problem as well, writing of the “many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction,” all because of their love of money and their unhealthy craving for more of it (1Ti 6:9-10; see Mat 19:23-24). Would, that we could pray with Solomon, “[Give] me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, 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” (Pro 30:8-9).
And finally, we experience wrath when God refuses his blessings. Like a good parent, the Lord knows just how to handle possessiveness and ingratitude among his children. By taking away his blessings, he intends to show them just how much they live in his grace in order to call them to live out his grace, reflecting his own divine character. As the prophet then says, “Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird — no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! Ephraim’s sons, as I have seen, are destined for a prey; Ephraim must lead forth his sons to slaughter” (Hos 9:11-13 RSV; compare the LXX, NET, 9:16; see our first post for Works Cited). This may at first seem harsh; after all, what good father kills his grandchildren to make a point!? But as before, Israel has chosen her own punishment. She chose to commit whoredom with Baal, she chose to bear illegitimate children; Yahweh merely recognizes what Israel has assumed all along: they are not his people (see Hos 1-2). Even Hosea now realizes the hopelessness of the situation. Though he had previously called the people to repentance in 6:1-3, the prophet now joins Jehovah’s tirade: “Give them, O LORD—what wilt thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts” (6:14 RSV).
There are two additional ironies in Israel’s situation. The first is that Israel’s purpose in conquering the Promised Land was to remove the presence of idolatry, including their high places and altars to false gods (Deu 12:2-3). But they not only failed to do this, they joined their neighbors in false worship! And because of this, the LORD himself will come to purify the land (see Lev 26:30-31; BKC). The second is that while it was political rebellion that caused their first problems, it is political rebellion and conquest that God will use to accomplish his ends: “Samaria’s king shall perish like a twig on the face of the waters. 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’” (Hos 10:7-8). Israel’s false prophets, false priests, false kings, and false god would not be able to save her. Instead, their persistent sin defined them as a rebellious nation that could only be gathered, bound and punished (Hos 10:9-10). Despising God and his blessings is the surest path to having those blessings removed.
As the church of our Lord, we as Christians are branches on the grapevine of Christ. While we remain faithful and grateful to him, we have absolutely everything we need or could ever want—he is everything to us. But apart from him we have nothing, can do nothing, and are good for nothing (John 15:1-11). But Jesus’ expectations for us are profoundly simple: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10, emphasis added). As members of the Lord’s covenant people, then, we are called to give ourselves completely to the Prophet promised long ago by Moses, saying, “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people” (Acts 3:22-23, quoting Deu 18:15-19; emphasis added).
Our Christian moment therefore reaches back before the giving of the first covenant and forward to culmination of the second. Just as we have been grafted into the grapevine of the Lord, we too will be judged by our faithfulness to the Root of Jesse (Rom 11:17-24; 15:12). For one day the Lord will command his angel, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe,” and the servant will heed his Captain’s charge: “So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia” (Rev 15:18-20). The choice is simple: will you be covered by the blood of Christ, or will he be covered in yours (Rev 7:14; 12:11)?