Comparing different translations of the Bible, readers may notice a contrast at Hosea 13:14. Some Bible translations, such as the NIV, say that God will deliver Israel from death:
“I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?”
Other translations, such as the NET, say that God will not deliver Israel:
“Will I deliver them from the power of Sheol? No, I will not!
Will I redeem them from death? No, I will not!
O Death, bring on your plagues!
O Sheol, bring on your destruction!
My eyes will not show any compassion!”
Are the first two sentences declarative (“I will”), or are they interrogative (“Will I?”)? As declarative sentences, the text implies a promise that God will rescue the people; as interrogative sentences, God is stating He will not. Compounding the issue is Paul’s use, in 1 Corinthians 15:55, of part of the Hosea passage. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” is often recited as a Christian victory cry.
The root cause of the uncertainty is the structure of ancient language. In Ancient Hebrew, which has no punctuation, questions are identified in various ways. Some use explicit question words, translated as “who” or “why,” as in the first half of Genesis 4:9. Other questions add the Hebrew letter he (ה) before the statement, as in the second half of Genesis 4:9. In other cases, the question is identified purely by context: where a declaration seems out of place, it may be that it was meant as a rhetorical question, especially if that approach better fits the message of the surrounding passage. Hosea 13:14 seems to be one of those instances. The process feels unnatural to most English speakers but was instinctive for native Hebrew readers.
Close examination suggests the rhetorical “will I?” interpretation is more accurate. A promise of deliverance doesn’t fit with the rest of the text. Everything in the passage involves God’s judgment against Ephraim. In fact, threat builds throughout the chapter. In Hosea 13:14, God rhetorically asks about sparing Ephraim, and then He answers His own question by calling for the plagues of death and the sting of Sheol, declaring His eyes will not show compassion. This would be like a judge saying, “Shall I let this prisoner go? Executioner, where is your axe? I will not have pity.”
This raises the question of Paul’s reference to this verse, seen in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Paul begins in verse 54 by quoting Isaiah 25:8, declaring the defeat of death. His next quotation is from Hosea 13:14—the references to the powers of death. In the original Old Testament text, God is calling on those forces to bring judgment against Ephraim. Paul, in citing the same text, is using the words as a taunt against death—exclaiming how law and sin bring us doom, but Christ brings us salvation (1 Corinthians 15:56–57). Using the same analogy as above, a person rescued from execution might celebrate by repeating the judge’s question “Executioner, where is your axe?” as a way to highlight his victory.
Why, then, do some translations choose to phrase Hosea 13:14 as a promise, not a threat? Individual translation teams will have their own reasons. It may be that the connection to 1 Corinthians 15:55 and tradition weigh heavily on their decision. Others may disagree that the context suggests a question, noting that Hosea does have a habit of abruptly switching tone and topic.
It’s also important to note that the two choices—promise or threat—don’t present any doctrinal conflict. In other words, the difference between the two options is practically irrelevant. Hosea chapter 13 clearly means Ephraim will be judged. The only question is whether verse 14 is an uninterrupted part of that prophecy or one of many Old Testament references to the coming Messiah (see Daniel 9:25–26; Psalm 132:11; Isaiah 35:5–6).