One of the things that repeatedly surprises us about God's Word is that it tells us such ordinary things. Often it seems superfluous to repeat those ordinary truths or remind each other of them.
In this respect, the preaching of the Word is often very different from the Word itself, for many preachers and Bible expositors outdo themselves in hauling the most extraordinary ideas out of the Scriptures and dressing up ordinary truths in the most startling, flashy garments. There's no reason for this sort of thing. Some scriptural truths have already become so well known that they are in danger of being lost entirely. They may well turn into meaningless formulas and clichés. Slowly but surely we're getting to the point where church members interested mainly in sensational preaching know nothing whatsoever of the basic biblical truths, which they regard as "old hat."
Take a statement like our text, where God says that he knows Ephraim. Isn't it unnecessary to make such a statement to a people schooled in doctrine and theology, a people well versed in dogmatics and well aware that God is omniscient, that he knows everything? It may be that God has some attributes beyond our comprehension, but it's nothing new or strange for us to hear that God knows everything, and that he knows Ephraim, that Israel has no secrets of which God is unaware. A man may be sly and cunning and may hide the various sides of his life and personality from others, but even a child can tell you that God knows us through and through. There's nothing that fills the soul of a child more than the awareness that God knows everything, and there is nothing more likely to give rise to cautious respect than the thought of that all-seeing eye.
We've all grown up with God's omniscience. And once we're adults, we learn to speak about it in a more sophisticated way. Those rare individuals who go on to become theology professors may write a chapter on God's omniscience in a doctrinal handbook. A few scholars may even write a dissertation on the subject. Thus all of us, whether we're amateur theologians or professional theologians, are so well versed in God's attributes that we know perfectly well that God knows everything, that he knows people, that he knows Ephraim. No one calls this truth into question. It has become so widely accepted and seems so ordinary that it no longer has any effect on our consciences.
"I know Ephraim!" Now, Ephraim (another name for Israel) was also well aware of this before Hosea came along to inform him of it in God's name. What did you think? Did you suppose that Israel's theologians were not aware of God's omniscience? What else is new? They could give you a whole series of proof texts to support that doctrine.
Come now, Hosea, don't give us a stale sermon with nothing new in it. Don't preach to us about things we've heard too often before. Do you think we haven't read the Psalms of David, where God's omniscience is mentioned repeatedly? As children, we already learned to recite the Psalms. We learned:
The Lord looks out from heaven,
he sees the whole race of men;
he surveys from his dwelling-place
all the inhabitants of earth.
It is he who fashions the hearts of all men alike,
who discerns all that they do.
(Ps. 33:13-15 NEB)
There you have it: He fashions the hearts of men and discerns everything. From another psalm of David we learned:
Yahweh, you examine me and know me,
you know if I am standing or sitting,
you read my thoughts from far away,
whether I walk or lie down, you are watching,
you know every detail of my conduct.
The word is not even on my tongue,
Yahweh, before you know all about it.
(Ps. 139:1-4 JB)
Thus, Hosea should not assume that he was telling Israel something new. Those Israelites schooled in doctrine knew all about God's omniscience!
But the omniscient God, who knows these theological Israelites better than they realize, declares simply: "They know not the Lord!" When it comes to theological knowledge of God, they deserve an A. But they get an F for their practical knowledge of him.
They're so totally lacking in practical knowledge that they weren't even aware that the Lord knows all about them. Before the altar they sang, "Lord, you have searched me and known me," but at the same time they thought they could use the altar and the smell of incense to hide things from God. They thought they were being cunning. They behaved just like children. Therefore God had to treat them like ignorant children and feed them milk. He had to keep on repeating a seemingly elementary truth well known to everyone until he was sick of saying it: "I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hid from me."
Why did God say that? Why this tiresome repetition of the most ordinary truth? God had to point this out because Israel did not live by its own doctrines. Everyone knew it so well in theory, but seemed to forget about it in practice. This truth was so well known that it had become unknown. It no longer stirred anyone's conscience.
The Lord had just given the Israelites an impressive demonstration of his omniscience and his knowledge of human affairs. Israel's rulers were told in no uncertain terms what God thought of their conduct. God was not fooled by the hidden snares they had set up in the stately halls of justice to trap the unwary. "I know Ephraim!" If that's the sort of thing that went on in the highest circles, then we hardly need wonder how far the moral decay had gone in the lower circles.
No doubt the Israelites thought they would continue to go unpunished for their sneaky misdeeds: no doubt they assumed that the Lord hadn't noticed anything amiss. They were so used to deceiving each other that they thought nothing of trying to deceive the Lord as well. They thought they could nicely mask cunning and deceit with an extra prayer. It was inconceivable to them that their pious fraud would be detected. Therefore the Lord warned them in advance to give up these illusions.
It's impossible to fool the One who knows everything. Hence the hope of escaping punishment was an idle dream. "I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hid from me."
Of course he knows Ephraim! The Lord had called him out of Egypt when he was still a little boy and had kept a close eye on him ever since. The Lord had seen him cry out to God in his hour of need and turn away from God when things went well. He had helped Ephraim along and put up with his wiles for a long time.
But there is an end to God's patience. Precisely because I know you so well, Ephraim, because I know how hard your heart is, my judgment is completely just. In God's name, the prophet Amos had cried out to Israel:
For you alone have I cared
among all the nations of the world;
therefore will I punish you
for all your iniquities.
Do two men travel together
unless they have agreed?
(Amos 3:2-3 NEB)
It is certainly no waste of time to remind today's Ephraim that the Lord knows him through and through. Today's Ephraim is bursting at the seams with theological knowledge. With great relish, all sorts of theological topics are dealt with and disposed of. Yet all the motives and intentions of this Ephraim are known to the Lord. It's easy enough for us to convince each other of something, but we'll never fool God. He sits on his throne in heaven and laughs at us.
This also applies to the comical scenes played out in churches and other seemingly serious locales. One person may say that he fights on the side of the truth. A second declares that Jerusalem's peace and security is his only concern. A third maintains that the real issue is God's honor. All three may be fully convinced of their own sincerity, but the Lord knows Ephraim. He observes what's happening behind the stage on which this comedy is presented. His eye penetrates to the depths of the heart. All things are laid bare before the eyes of the One who watches us. He sees through all our pious words immediately.
Scholars and uneducated people, preachers and elders, writers and muckrakers, young men and women, remember that the Lord knows Ephraim! The Lord knows you and me. If we carefully considered the consequences of this truth for only one day of the year, what a silence there would be! We would then learn to be much more careful about what we say and write.
What an overwhelming truth! Think about it. What do you really know about your neighbors? You know what they look like, but what are they like inside? Do you know what goes on in their minds and hearts? Of course not.
But we don't devote much effort to finding out either. We live in a busy and superficial era in which people no longer have time to tell each other about their ultimate concerns and hopes. Thousands upon thousands of people wander lonely and alone, not just through the busy world, but also through the streets of our ecclesiastical Jerusalem. Many parents know virtually nothing about their children, and many children show no interest in their parents. Many a husband is a mystery to his wife, and vice versa.
When you get right down to it, what do we really know about ourselves? The psalmists were accustomed to speaking with their souls: "Why are you cast down, O my soul?" (Ps. 42:5 RSV). But this sort of thing went out of style long ago. Modern man (and even the modern churchgoer) is becoming more and more afraid to be alone with himself.
We don't know our neighbors. We don't know the members of our own family. We don't even know ourselves. But the all-knowing God knows me and everyone else as well. He knows everything about me, including the base and shameful motives on which I often act. He knows just what I've said and what I've considered in the inner recesses of my mind.
Yet this truth is also a comfort. What a joy it is to realize that the Lord knows not only my name and address but also all my problems. The fact that he knows does not mean that there will be an immediate change in my situation, but knowing that he knows already makes me feel better. In a way, it's an answer to prayer. Because he knows, we can let him shoulder all our burdens.
But this truth is also very unsettling. Now my godliness will have to survive the test of God's flaming eyes upon it. We can lie through our pious words. We can even lie by conforming to "Christian" customs. It's easy enough to deceive people that way. But the Lord looks into the heart. He sees through every disguise. "I know Ephraim!"
The Lord knows us. He knows each and every one of us. He knows all about our personal life, our family life, our church life. Therefore there's no point in pretending to be better than we really are. There's no point in trying to keep up "appearances." We're wasting our time when we try to use our standing as church members to fool God. There's simply no way to fool the Lord--not even through the most immaculate church credentials, not even by zealously defending our principles and all the decisions of the General Assembly. "I know Ephraim."
Do we know the Lord? Of course we know a great deal about him. We even seem to be making remarkable progress in our knowledge about God. We're outdistancing earlier generations in that respect. But is this knowledge paired with true piety? Do we know the Lord in a deeper and more personal way, or do we only know about him? Is it apparent from how we live that the Lord knows us through and through?
Is it possible that our theologically learned generation, which takes up the most complex theological issues and holds meetings and conferences to discuss them, which devours church papers and theological journals by the dozen, is like Israel? Will God say of us that we don't know the Lord?
If we know all about the Lord, but don't know the Lord himself, we're in serious trouble indeed! Remember, there is an omniscient God who knows all the theologians, while there are theologians who do not know the Lord. That's a painful and difficult puzzle, and we can solve it only if we keep our gaze fixed on the cross of Christ.
The late author was a minister in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. This article is excerpted and slightly adapted (with permission) from the author's book, Hosea: Love's Complaint, which was published by Premier in 1980. That book can now be obtained from Inheritance Publications, 800-563-3594. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2002.