When Ephraim spoke trembling, he exalted himself in Israel; but when he offended in Baal, he died.…
The first clause is better read, "When Ephraim spake, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel." The contrast is between what Ephraim once was, and what his offending in Baal had now brought him to. Once he was great in Israel. He had authority, influence, power to inspire terror. Now he was but the wreck of his former self. He would be swept away like chaff before the whirlwind.
I. THE FIRST FALSE STEP. (Ver. 1.) It is the first false step in sin which needs specially to be guarded against. Israel's first false step as a separate kingdom was the denial of God's spirituality, and the breach of his commandment, in the setting up of the worship of the calves. This was:
1. Trespass in a fundamental article. It was practically the denial of the Godhead. It made God like - not to corruptible man-but, worse, to four-footed beasts (Romans 1:23). They called their worship still Jehovah worship, but God repudiates it as in no sense his. It was really Baal-worship. God gives the sin its right name
2. The admission of a wrong principle. The principle was that of self-will in religion. Setting aside God's commandment, Ephraim claimed to organize his worship after his own heart. He would have no law but his own will. It was to gratify himself that he had set up an independent kingdom. It was to gratify himself that he now set up the golden calves. The adoption of a wrong principle by an individual or nation is the sowing of a seed out of which is sure to spring ulterior mischief. Israel reaped from this seed of self-will, sown in the heart of the constitution, an unforeseen harvest of evil and woe.
3. A fatal step. One false step is often decisive of a whole future, it was so with our first parents. Adam's sin determined the spiritual condition of the race. "In Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15:22). It was so with this first false step in Israel. "When he offended in Baal, he died." He died:
(1) Morally. We die morally the moment we determine to take our own will rather than God's as the law of our life. Self-wall is the seed-principle of sin. It is a seed of death.
(2) As a nation. That was the step which settled Ephraim's future. It determined the direction of his after-way. Looking back from the end, it could be seen that this was the time when the fatal course was entered on. Virtually, this step doomed him. As Adam, on the day of his transgression, became a dying man, though he did net actually die till long after, so Israel, in this early sin, wrote out their sentence of death as a people.
II. SIN'S PROGRESS. (Ver. 2.) Sin, like strife, is in its beginning as the letting in of water. Israel, having admitted into its midst a wrong principle, went on from bad to worse. Idolatry spread in the nation. In the practice of this idolatry the people were:
1. Extravagant. "They have made them molten images of their silver." They lavished their wealth upon their idols. People are generally willing to spend extravagantly upon their vices.
2. Ingenious. "Idols according to their understanding; all of it the work of the craftsmen." Not content with the gods of their neighbors, they invented new forms of idolatry for themselves. They were ingenious in forming, adorning, and diversifying their idols. Nothing they could do, however, could make the objects of their ingenuity aught else than idols. "All of it the work of the craftsmen" - this only. And to this product of their own crafts they bowed themselves down. Men whose hearts are too proud to bow to God are ready to bow clown to idols of their own making (Isaiah 2:9).
3. Intolerant. "They say of them, Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves." The world will brook no refusal to worship at its shrines. E.g. the tyranny of codes of fashion.
III. VANISHING PROSPERITY. (Ver. 3.) Four images are employed to set forth the swiftness, suddenness, and completeness with which Ephraim's once lordly prosperity would vanish. These are
(1) the morning cloud;
(2) the early dew;
(3) the chaff driven by the whirlwind;
(4) smoke escaping from a chimney (or window).
Some of these things are:
1. Beautiful at first. The cloud hangs gay and gilded in the morning sky, and the dewdrop sparkles with a heavenly beauty as it catches the sun's rays.
2. Unsubstantial. The cloud, though fair, is a mere mass of vapor. The dew but borrows its sparkle from the light. The chaff is husk without substance. The smoke, rising at first in a solid-looking column, or in thick, heavy folds, is bodiless and without coherence.
3. They rapidly vanish. All the four metaphors represent something that "appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away" (James 4:14). The cloud is gone while yet we gaze on it. The dew, drenching grass and flowers at dawn, soon dries up with the heat. The wind rapidly bears off the chaff. The smoke scatters, or is dispersed by the breeze, and vanishes. In combination, the figures point to different causes of vanishing. Internal lightness (chaff), dissipation of parts (vapor, smoke), external absorption (sun and air), strong forces of destruction (whirlwind). The whole show the short-lived nature of the sinner's prosperity. Its beauty is not abiding. It is substanceless. It is soon swept away.
IV. GOD, NOT BAAL. (Ver. 4.) The end of this judgment was, not utterly to destroy the people, but to drive them out of false confidences, and tend them to the right knowledge of God. It would bring them to see:
1. That God had been faithful to them, though not they to him. "Yet I am the Lord thy God from the land of Egypt."
2. That there was no God but himself. "Thou shalt know no God but me." They worshipped Baal as God, but experience only showed that he was none.
3. That God was the only Savior. "There is no Savior beside me." Yet be was a Savior. He had sought to be their Savior all through. He would save them still, if they would but turn to him. - J.O.
Parallel VersesKJV: When Ephraim spake trembling, he exalted himself in Israel; but when he offended in Baal, he died.