“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55 ESV)
Most of you probably recognize this verse from Paul's letters. It's part of Paul's larger argument for the Resurrection (on which all our hope rests). It comes across as a poetic taunt against death as it is defeated through the work of Yeshua.
Curiously, though the question sounds rhetorical, Paul actually supplies an answer to it in the next verse: "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law." Where is this from? Let's go back to Hosea, the original context for this jab at death's lack of power over Yeshua.
The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;
his sin is kept in store.
The pangs of childbirth come for him,
but he is an unwise son,
for at the right time he does not present himself
at the opening of the womb. (Hosea 13:12-13)
The previous chapter up until this point has been an indictment against Ephraim for his idolatry. Ephraim glories in his riches and, feeling secure in his own efforts, casts off the God of his youth. The LORD reminds Israel that it was He who brought them out of Egyptian slavery. They would not be where they are were it not for their God. Indeed, just as God brought blessing through His own hand, so too does He have the power to take it away. Over and over again, we see this contrast: God is Israel's helper, yet He is against them because they have turned their backs on Him. And so, Ephraim's sin is stored up against the day of judgment. Tribulation comes, but he does not repent.
I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;I shall redeem them from Death. (verse 14a)
Suddenly, the tone changes. God has been declaring to Ephraim His past deeds of redemption and contrasting them with Ephraim's sin, setting this up as justification for God's wrath against Ephraim. But, here, the tense changes. Here, we have future redemption. Yes, Ephraim has sinned. Yes, they refuse to repent despite discipline. But, beneath all of this we see a deeper theme--a concern for the Name of God (a theme made much more explicit in Ezekiel, esp. chapter 20, and the latter half of Isaiah). God refers to Himself with the pronoun "I" no less than 11 times in chapter 13 of Hosea and 6 times in chapter 14: "I am...," "I will...," "It was I...." The emphasis here is, I believe, not on the act of redemption itself but on the fact that it is God who performs the redemption. It is in this vein that God takes up His taunt against death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
Though he may flourish among his brothers,
the east wind, the wind of the LORD, shall come,
rising from the wilderness,
and his fountain shall dry up;
his spring shall be parched;
it shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God....
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. (verses 13:14b-14:1)
I've arranged this a bit differently than you may be used to, removing the chapter break and changing the paragraph breaks. This is admittedly a difficult passage in which you'll find significant divergence not just in the commentaries, but in the translations. What I offer here is only one possible solution.
The tone of future redemption appears short-lived, as the text quickly transitions back to punishment. But, notice this next section on God's wrath is also short-lived before we're right back to a call of mercy and repentance. There is a point here, one which Paul seems to reflect in his quotation from this passage. The question of death's sting does indeed have an answer and it is found in verse 1 of chapter 14. It is in our own iniquity. As Paul said, "the sting of death is sin."
Continue on in chapter 14, and you'll see this theme of redemption more fully taken up again as God declares, "I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them." This parallels Hosea 13:14 so well as God again emphatically declares His intentions of good toward Israel. But, notice how this section is encased. Before we have,
Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” (verses 14:2-3)
O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. (verse 8)
Again, we see this theme of concern for fidelity to the one true God. There is no life in idols, only in our Creator who led us forth from Egypt. Only in our Redeemer who died for our iniquity and conquered death in His resurrection.
In our modern culture, it sometimes seems that the themes of goodness and mercy and redemption and restoration are stripped away from the God in whom these things originate. We think we can enjoy the blessing without acknowledging the person of our Creator. The Gospel is not simply everything will be made right or good. The Gospel is Yeshua reigns! It is from this fact that all goodness and mercy and redemption and restoration follows.