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Hosea, prophet of mercy—Chapter 19: Mizpah

Dec 14, 2016

The fifth chapter of Hosea begins a new (but related) message to the priests, to the House of Israel, to the king, and specifically to Israel’s leading tribe, Ephraim. After the division of the kingdom following the death of Solomon, Israel broke away from Judah and made Jeroboam their first king. Jeroboam was of the tribe of Ephraim (1 Kings 11:26).

Hosea mentions Ephraim for the first time in Hosea 4:17, stating the fact that “Ephraim is joined to idols.” While that states the problem, the prophet does not specifically address Ephraim fully until the next chapter.

The prophet begins his message in Hosea 5:1, 2, saying,

1 Hear this, O priests! Give heed, O house of Israel! Listen, O house of the king! For the judgment applies to you, for you have been a snare at Mizpah, and a net spread out on Tabor. 2 And the revolters have gone deep in depravity, but I will chastise all of them.

The prophet says that they “have been a snare at Mizpah.” What does he mean?

The Significance of Mizpah

There were at least five different places called Mizpah, the first being the place where Laban met Jacob in Genesis 31. Jacob was returning home after working for Laban for 20 years. Recall that Jacob’s wife, Rachel, had stolen her father’s household idols, and Laban came to look for them. Rachel was sitting on them during the search of the camp, so Laban did not find them.

So Jacob and Laban made a covenant of peace (Genesis 31:44), vowing not to cross that line in an unfriendly manner. They built a heap of stones as a witness and also to mark the boundary. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, the Aramaic word for “witness heap” (Genesis 31:47). Jacob called it by a Hebrew name that meant the same thing, Galeed (Genesis 31:48).

Laban also called it Mizpah. Genesis 31:49-54 says,

49 and Mizpah, for he said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent [sathar, “hidden”] one from the other. 50 If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me….” 52 And Laban said to Jacob, “Behold, this heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. 53 The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac.

Mizpah means “watch tower,” and its purpose was to call God as a witness, since He knows all of the hidden sins that are unknown or cannot be proven by the law of the double witness. This name, then, came in the context of the hidden sin of Rachel. Laban was quite sure that someone in Jacob’s camp had stolen the idols, but he was unable to prove it.

So essentially, he followed the divine law, appealing the case to the divine court. In Numbers 5:19 we read of this provision in the case of a jealous husband who cannot prove that his wife was unfaithful to him. She was to go to the divine court in the presence of the priest and take an oath of innocence, so that God could judge the case Himself.

This is what Laban did at Mizpah, so Mizpah was not only a boundary marker that separated Jacob from Laban (and Israel from Syria in general), but was also a symbol of the divine court, where men might appeal to God to judge cases of hidden sin or unsolved crimes. In the case of Laban, he appealed to God for justice, and in two years Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin.

Divine Judgment

Jacob spent about 18 months in the vicinity of Shechem after returning from Laban’s house. There Rachel became pregnant for the second time. Genesis 35:1-4 tells us when and where God rendered His verdict.

1 Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; 3 and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone.” 4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem.

Who in Jacob’s household were in possession of foreign gods? How did they get them? Why did Jacob tolerate them up to that point in time? All we really know is that Rachel had stolen her father’s idols, and it appears that Jacob had finally discovered them and knew that she was guilty of Laban’s charges. Jacob did not return the gods to Laban, but he buried them under an oak tree. While this partially resolved the problem, it really only brought Rachel’s sin to light, and this prepared the way for the divine judgment.

Jacob then went to Bethel, the “house of God,” where he lived for the next six months (according to Jasher 36:3). This was the appointed place of judgment, for as we read in 1 Peter 4:17 KJV, “judgment must begin at the house of God.”

First Deborah died. She had been Rebekah’s nurse in Laban’s household many years earlier, and she accompanied Rebekah when she was sent to marry Isaac (Genesis 24:59). Deborah had remained in Isaac’s household when Jacob had gone to Laban’s house, but apparently, when Jacob and his family returned, Deborah came either to visit them or to live with them. The reason given in Jasher 36:5 is that Rebekah had died in Hebron at the age of 133 (Jasher 36:6). Deborah was probably at least 20 years older than Rebekah, so she must have lived past the age of 150.

Jasher also tells us another significant detail that is not included in Scripture. Jasher 36:7 says,

7 And Laban the Syrian died in those days, for God smote him because he transgressed the covenant that existed between him and Jacob.

If that report is true, it is a good example of how God judges all parties of a dispute when an appeal is made to the divine court for justice. I learned many years ago, when I first appealed to the divine court for justice, that God first dealt with me before judging the one who had wronged me. This made me more careful in later years to search my own heart before filing an appeal in the divine court.

It is for this reason that I find Jasher’s account of the death of Laban to be very credible, for I known that this is typical of how God judges. The greater question is how Laban violated the covenant, which would warrant his death. Laban did not trespass the boundary at Mizpah, but Jasher 31:54-63 tells us that Laban sent his 17-year-old son, Beor, to inform Esau that his brother, Jacob, was returning to the land. Laban gave a slanderous account of Jacob in order to stoke Esau’s anger. That was why Esau came to kill Jacob, though the angels of God prevented him from carrying out his purpose.

The point is that Laban himself did not dare to cross the line at Mizpah, but he stirred up Esau to try to kill Jacob. Laban was a legalist, thinking he could remain innocent in the sight of God as long as he did not cross the line at Mizpah. But God judges heart matters, and He considered Laban’s actions to be a transgression of the covenant he had made with Jacob not to cross that line to do him harm.

So it appears that God judged Laban before judging Rachel. The household spent six months in Bethel, and then Jacob decided to go to Hebron to see his father, Isaac (Genesis 35:27). On the way to Hebron, as they approached Ephrath, near Bethlehem, Rachel gave birth to Benjamin and died in childbirth (Genesis 35:16, 19). Perhaps it is significant that divine judgment on Rachel was held back until Benjamin had been born, for the child was innocent.

Hidden Sin in Israel

The story of Jacob and Laban, the covenant between them, and the appeal to the divine court at Mizpah, was a factor in Hosea’s prophecy regarding Jacob’s descendants, the house of Israel. So often we see how a small incident in the life of one man sets the pattern for a much greater incident in the life of his descendants. Little sins of an individual repeat in larger ways down the road in his descendants.

This is how Hosea treats the story of Mizpah in his message to Israel, for we read in Hosea 5:3,

3 I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hidden from Me; for now, O Ephraim, you have played the harlot, Israel has defiled itself.

Hence, the sin of Ephraim and Israel was not hidden from God. Even as Rachel took the foreign gods from her Syrian father, so also had Ephraim and the whole House of Israel adopted foreign gods. Israel was defiled by these gods, and so the nation was soon to be judged by the divine court.

Hosea was called to expose the problem—that is, to expose the foreign gods in their midst—much like what happened when Jacob buried the false gods under the oak before going to Bethel to hear the full verdict from the Judge. Although these false gods were the household gods of the Syrians (and later the Assyrians), it was the violation of the Mizpah covenant on a broader scale that brought divine judgment upon Israel.

The covenant bound Jacob not to mistreat his wives (the daughters of Laban), or even to take other wives to himself, other than the two handmaids, who had already borne sons to Jacob. In Hosea’s time, Israel had indeed taken other “wives,” for they were joined to other gods. Whether we view Israel as a woman (Gomer) or as a man, either way, Israel was guilty of spiritual adultery, and this was a violation of the Mizpah covenant. Laban’s daughters, now the nation of Israel, had been harmed and mistreated through idolatry.

For this reason, God was soon to raise up the Assyrians, which included the territory of Haran, the home of Laban, the Syrian, to execute judgment upon Israel. This invasion and deportation did not violate the Mizpah covenant, because God was the one who commanded them to bring judgment upon Israel.

Keep in mind that Laban’s complaint against Jacob was that he had escaped from slavery and had returned to his home in Canaan. So we find that when God brought judgment upon Israel, He authorized “Laban” to take “Jacob” back into captivity into Assyria. This is one of the great underlying themes of Hosea (and also the book of Jonah). Israel’s deportation to Assyria is treated prophetically as an extension of Jacob’s slavery in Syria under Laban. In short, Jacob’s time under Laban was prophetic of Israel’s exile and slavery in later years.

So Hosea 5:4 concludes,

4 Their deeds will not allow them to return to their God. For a spirit of harlotry is within them, and they do not know the Lord.

Israel’s idolatry was evidence of “a spirit of harlotry,” and because of this, God was to judge them for “their deeds” and not allow them to return to the land. Whereas Jacob had indeed returned to the land, his descendants would not be allowed to return. Jacob himself (that is, Rachel) was judged for an overt act of sitting on foreign gods (Genesis 31:34), but Israel was being judged for the deeper heart problem, “a spirit of harlotry.”

The only way to “return” from captivity was to root out this spirit of harlotry. To do that would require far more than burying idols under a tree. It would require a heart change brought about the work of the Holy Spirit, which was to work within the hearts of those who had received by faith the seed of the gospel. Only those who had been begotten by the Spirit would be able to bring forth “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Political Zionism, then, is not the fulfillment of this promise to return to God. Anyone can move from one place to another, regardless of faith. But a true return involves faith in Jesus Christ, which alone is the way in which we are begotten by the seed of the gospel.


This is part 20 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Hosea." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Hosea


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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