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Intro: Did God send Hurricane Sandy? That was the title to a recent article I read in the Washington Post, written by Brad Hirschfield, a prominent Jewish Rabbi. He scolds those who have attributed natural disasters to the wrath of God, and accounts that the number of such religious speculators has diminished over the years. He attributes this to the fact that society disdains such pronouncements about God’s judgment, and says “the trend line for those who claim not only to see God’s hand in all things, including the weather, is down. That does indicate that we are getting wiser.” I found that statement intriguing while considering the book of Joel. Is this a sign that we are wiser? Here is what I know…
- We cannot know if a particular meteorological event is a sign of God’s anger. There is no living prophet to tell us what God is doing, and any specific assignment of God’s wrath to a specific event today would be just speculation. We can only know what God decides to reveal to us.
- But I do know that God is in control of the weather. He can, and has expressed His anger in the natural disasters of our world. God has not only sent natural disasters to earth as an indication of His displeasure at sin in the past, but He also sent His prophets to tell the people what they meant.
- The question we need to answer is not if God is speaking (in a natural disaster), but if He was, would I respond? This is the question that Joel’s prophecy poses for us? How will we respond to God’s call to repent? Have you read Joel’s book?
- We will consider the book of Joel in at least two parts. Today I want to consider an overview of the book itself and the central message of the prophet.
I. Historical Background: What do we know about Joel and the original context of his prophecy?
A. The name Joel means “Jehovah is God”. Other than that, we know very little for certain about Joel, the prophet. He is described as the son of Pethuel. There are about a dozen men in the O.T. named Joel, but there is no reason to associate him with any of these.
B. The date of the book is also uncertain. Some place it as one of the earliest of the “literary prophets” (ca. 900 B.C.) Others believe it was written after the Exile into Babylonian captivity around 400 B.C.
1. I have presumed the early date of about 830 B.C. for our study. An earlier date is perhaps to be preferred because the enemies mentioned (Phoenician, Philistines, Egyptians and Edomites) fit that period better than a latter period.
2. It is likely that the prophet Joel’s message was given to the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of Athaliah and Joash. (2 Kings 11-12) Athaliah was an extremely wicked ruler who usurped the throne of Judah after the death of her husband, Jehoram, and subsequently killed all her grandsons, except one named Joash. Although Joash had a good start as king of Judah (repaired the Temple) he later turned to idolatry, setting the stage for Joel’s message.
C. The setting of his prophecy is an unprecedented natural disaster. Joel’s prophecy begins with the vivid description of a locust plague. This plague is unlike any of recent time, and Joel challenges the older folks to recollect anything worse in their lifetime. Joel 1:2 – Hear this, you elders, And give ear, all you inhabitants of the land! Has anything like this happened in your days, Or even in the days of your fathers? This was one to tell the grandchildren about – Joel 1:3-4 – 3 Tell your children about it, Let your children tell their children, And their children another generation. 4 What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; What the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; And what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten. Conditions were so bad that the destruction affected all facets of society.
1. The image of destruction is comprehensive: Joel 1:10-12 – The field is wasted, The land mourns; For the grain is ruined, The new wine is dried up, The oil fails. 11 Be ashamed, you farmers, Wail, you vinedressers, For the wheat and the barley; Because the harvest of the field has perished. 12 The vine has dried up, And the fig tree has withered; The pomegranate tree, The palm tree also, And the apple tree — All the trees of the field are withered; Surely joy has withered away from the sons of men. There is nothing to feel good about.
2. The prophet calls for even the priests to lament, mourn and fast because when the blessings of the land are gone, so is the ability to offer sacrifices and worship God (v. 13, 16 – Is not the food cut off before our eyes, Joy and gladness from the house of our God? .
3. Is Joel describing a literal ecological disaster of locusts in the land? Although it is possible that this plague is just a symbolic image, I see it as a literal plague of insects that Joel utilizes for his message. Verse 6-7 clearly indicates that the locust plague symbolizes a powerful army coming against Judah (My land) that will bring destruction just as these locusts have done.
4. This is the impending vision of Joel – God is coming in judgment against His people. Turn to Joel 2 in your bibles and read with me His words of doom: Joel 2:2-11 – A people come, great and strong, The like of whom has never been; Nor will there ever be any such after them, Even for many successive generations. 3 A fire devours before them, And behind them a flame burns; The land is like the Garden of Eden before them, And behind them a desolate wilderness; Surely nothing shall escape them. 4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like swift steeds, so they run. 5 With a noise like chariots Over mountaintops they leap, Like the noise of a flaming fire that devours the stubble, Like a strong people set in battle array. 6 Before them the people writhe in pain; All faces are drained of color. 7 They run like mighty men, They climb the wall like men of war; Every one marches in formation, And they do not break ranks. 8 They do not push one another; Every one marches in his own column. Though they lunge between the weapons, They are not cut down. 9 They run to and fro in the city, They run on the wall; They climb into the houses, They enter at the windows like a thief. 10 The earth quakes before them, The heavens tremble; The sun and moon grow dark, And the stars diminish their brightness. 11 The Lord gives voice before His army, For His camp is very great; For strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; Who can endure it?
II. The Message: What was message of the locusts to Judah (and to us)?
A. God keeps His promises. Joel was sent by God to announce to Judah the reason behind these calamities. Centuries before the Lord told Israel through the voice of Moses about the consequences of disobedience. (curses and blessings of the law) Deut 28:15 – 15 “But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:… vs. 21-23– 21 The Lord will make the plague cling to you until He has consumed you from the land which you are going to possess. 22 The Lord will strike you with consumption, with fever, with inflammation, with severe burning fever, with the sword, with scorching, and with mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And your heavens which are over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you shall be iron. Vs. 38 – “You shall carry much seed out to the field but gather little in, for the locust shall consume it. The Lord’s patience had run out and the people of Joel’s day were seeing the beginnings of Divine judgment. Although the promises of blessings and curses found in Duet 28 were specifically made to Israel as God’s elect nation, do the principles of morality and judgment still ring true? God continues to judge nations and peoples on the basis of His words.
B. “The Day of the Lord is at hand”. Joel introduces the phrase “the day of the Lord” in 1:15. We noticed these same words used by Obadiah (1:15) to describe God’s judgment against Edom. It will used later by the prophets to describe God’s various judgments against those who oppose Him (Isa. 13, Jer. 46, Mal. 4:5) Peter used it in 2 Peter 3:10 to refer to the final day of judgment.
1. In Joel 2:1 he calls on them to blow the trumpet in warning, because “the Day of the Lord is coming, for it is at hand”. This shows that the phrase “the Day of the Lord” is about both an immediate and remote fulfillment.
a. “at hand…” This day was immediately upon them in God’s use of the locusts to destroy the land, and even in the coming army of men to defeat the nation of Judah in Joel’s own time (Syrians?) There was an opportunity for them to respond to the trumpet call and repent.
b. “…is coming” This points to future times when God would judge His people (as pictured by the prophets later on). Joel looks far beyond his own time to the time of the Messiah, Jesus. There is a day of the Lord ahead for us as well.
2. This prophetic terminology may include at least three elements in its use in the bible:
a. It is a day when God’s power to judge is displayed for all to see. Jehovah is the one bringing the events described. (darkness, thunder, earthquake, etc.) It is an awesome day – when men will stand in awe. (2:31)
b. It is a day of absolute defeat of God’s enemies. There is not escape for those on whom His judgment comes. In Joel 2:11, the prophet uses the word terrible to describe the day of the Lord. It will be a terrible day for those who oppose God.
c. It is a day of deliverance or salvation for God’s faithful people. Joel’s description of that awesome day of the Lord ends in 2:32 with, “And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the Lord Shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, As the Lord has said, Among the remnant whom the Lord calls.” Thus the Day of the Lord prophesied in Joel 2 equated the Day of the Lord with a day of salvation.
C. A Call to Repentance: How helpless the people must have felt as the locusts consumed their land. What could they do? How could they stop the destruction? Matthew Henry comments on these locusts mentioned in Joel 1 – “which a man might easily crush with his foot or with his finger; but when they came in vast swarms, or shoals, they were very formidable and ate up all before them. Note, God is Lord of hosts, has all creatures at his command, and, when he pleases, can humble and mortify a proud and rebellious people by the weakest and most contemptible creatures.” (from Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible). He can humble us with a little bug. We are helpless before Him. This is at the heart of the remedy He provides. We are not in dominion over the world we live in. We must trust Him. How should Judah respond to this impending judgment?
1. Joel 2:12-13 – 12 “Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” 13 So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm. Even now it was not too late for Judah. The message of Joel was a call to repent in the fullest sense of the word. It was not a time for lip service or crocodile tears. Empty ritual was not enough. It was time for a genuine return unto God.
a. “rend your heart and not your garments.” The rending of a garment was done to show sorrow or repentance. But doing so just for symbolism is not enough. We will take a closer look at repentance in a future lesson.
Conclusion: As you may recognize, the words of Joel 2 are found again in Acts 2, in the first gospel sermon. (Joel is often called the Pentecost prophet) Acts 2:14-21 – But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. 15 For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. 18 And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. 20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. 21 And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the Lord Shall be saved.’
a. It is significant to notice that the words of Peter in Acts 2 correspond well with the message of Joel.
- God is at work, He is in the process of judging sin and redeeming those who will serve Him. He has judged sin and its fruits in the death and resurrection of Christ.
- He will keep His promises. There is both a curse and a blessing ahead.
- The day of the Lord cannot be avoided. We are helpless before His judgment.
- The only remedy is genuine repentance – Turn to the Lord.
Acts 2:38-39 – 38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
Are you ready for the day of the Lord?