Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep. By a prophet the Lord brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded. Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds. – Hosea 12:12-14 ESV
Jacob, whom God later renamed Israel, had twelve sons. These sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. And tend of those 12 tribes made up the northern kingdom of Israel after the nation had been split apart by God after the reign of Solomon. Only Judah and Benjamin made up the southern kingdom of Judah. But long before the nation of Israel divided and even before they were a kingdom at all, Jacob had fled to the land of Aram in order to escape the wrath of his twin brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance. It was there that Jacob (Israel) had to serve Laban as a shepherd in order gain his daughter, Rachel’s hand in marriage. After seven years of service, Laban tricked Jacob by giving him his older daughter, Leah, instead. It would take another seven years of service as a shepherd for Jacob to earn the right to marry Rachel. This story was to serve as a reminder of the nation of Israel’s humble beginnings. They had started out in the land of Aram, as nothing but sheepherders. Then God providentially arranged for Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, to be betrayed by his own brothers and sold into slavery. He ended up in Egypt, but eventually, through the sovereign hand of God, would become the second-highest official in the land. And when a famine struck the land of Canaan, Jacob sent his 11 remaining sons to Egypt to seek aid. There they discovered their long-lost brother and were shown grace, forgiveness and love. Rather than punish them for their acts against him, Joseph provided them with a place to live. It was in Egypt that Jacob and his sons would live and work as shepherds, tending the flocks of the Pharaoh.
Over time, the lot of the descendants of Jacob changed dramatically. Their numbers increased remarkably and the Pharaoh, fearing they might one day rise up against him, ordered that they be enslaved. And they would remain slaves for 400 years. That is, until God sent His prophet, Moses, to lead them to freedom. With the help of God, Moses would guide and protect them, helping them not only escape the slavery of Egypt, but discover the freedom and blessing of their own land, promised by God to their ancestor, Abraham, many centuries earlier. As with Jacob in Aram and the Israelites in Egypt, the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom of Israel in Hosea’s day would know what it meant to live in a foreign land as little more than slaves. They would discover the humility of living under the control of another. They had chosen to reject God as their leader. And so Hosea announced, “But the people of Israel have bitterly provoked the Lord, so their Lord will now sentence them to death in payment for their sins” (Hosea 12:14 NLT).
Theirs would be a spiritual death, a forced removal from the land of promise and the subsequent separation from their God. They would find themselves living in exile in a foreign land, far from home and experiencing the feelings of loneliness and abandonment that so often accompany disobedience to God. Like King David, they would know what it means to cry out in desperation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1-2 ESV). Their lips, once accustomed to fine wine and the art of lying, would cry out:
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! – Psalm 44:23-26 ESV
From their perspective it would seem as if God was distant. But it was they who had abandoned God. They had walked away from Him. As Isaiah, the prophet so aptly described, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6a ESV). That statement, part of a Messianic prophecy, not only describes the sad state of the nation of Israel, but the condition of every human being who has ever lived. Isaiah went on to say, “and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 43:6b ESV). Jesus, the Messiah, would serve as the sacrificial substitute, bearing the punishment of God against mankind, paying the penalty for their transgressions.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV
Jacob’s years in Aram, the 400 years of slavery by his descendants in Egypt, and the captivity of the kingdom of Israel in Babylon are all examples of God’s punishment against the sins of man. But they also illustrate God’s grace and mercy. Jacob was ultimately restored to his family in Canaan. His descendants were set free from their bondage in Egypt. One day, God will return the people of Israel from their exile in foreign lands and restore them to a right relationship with Him. And through His Son, Jesus Christ, God has made it possible for all men to be made right with Him.
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors. – Isaiah 53:12b
Undeserved mercy and grace. Unmerited favor. Unearned forgiveness. Unfailing love. The story of Israel is the story of mankind. They had returned God’s blessings and bounty with ingratitude and unfaithfulness. But God continually conserved a remnant. He refused to destroy them completely. As Joseph told his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5b-8a ESV). As isaiah told the people of Israel, “I will preserve a remnant of the people of Israel and of Judah to possess my land. Those I choose will inherit it, and my servants will live there” (Isaiah 65:9 NLT). And as the apostle Paul wrote, “It is the same today, for a few of the people of Israel have remained faithful because of God’s grace—his undeserved kindness in choosing them” (Romans 11:5 NLT). Our God is merciful and patient. He provides a way where there was no way. He offers forgiveness where none is deserved. He gives grace when none is due. He provides salvation in place of condemnation. He is our gracious God.
The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever. He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. – Psalm 103:8-12 NLT