When Disaster Strikes – Part 2: Covenant Loyalty

Joel 2:1-17

2 Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, 2a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before,

nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. 3Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them,

but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. 4Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. 5As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire

devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. 6 Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale. 7Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths. 8They do not jostle one another; each marches in his path; they burst through the weapons

and are not halted. 9They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. 10The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. 11The Lord utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [covenant loyalty]; and he relents over disaster. 14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? 15Blow the trumpet in Zion;

consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. 17Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” i

Back in my elementary school days, our country lived under the Cold War threat of attack by nuclear missiles. So schools held safety drills where we learned to cover our heads and duck under our desks. Sometimes we would all be ushered out into the hallways to “duck and cover” against the lockers.

These exercises were accompanied by the fire station disaster sirens sounding across town. I don’t know if ancient Middle Eastern cultures held disaster drills in their cities. Ancient walled cities like Jerusalem had watchtowers along the walls. Each manned watchtower was equipped with a trumpet (a shofar) made from a hollowed out animal horn (a goat’s horn in the case of the shofar). This was the ancient disaster siren to sound the approach of an enemy.

Joel begins his second prophetic poem with a call to turn on the air raid sirens in Jerusalem. In chapter one, he sang in very graphic terms of the total physical destruction of the countryside as swarms of locusts consumed all the grass, grain, vineyards, and orchards in their path. People and animals were starving. Jerusalem was like a bride mourning for her dead fiancé (Jer. 2:2; 7:34; Rev. 21:2).

He called the nation and the priests to repent of their indifference to God and of their trust into the daily blessings the locusts had devastated. It seems as if at least some people responded to Joel’s message of God’s judgment upon their sins by demonstrating outward signs of repentance. They were tearing their clothes, but not their hearts. So, now in his second poem, he sings of the locust plague in even more dramatic, urgent terms. He gives us a close-up of the locusts’ horse-like faces and speaks of their unstoppable power (the German word for locust, Heupferd, means “hay horse;” and in Italian calvaletta means “little horse”)ii.

He tells the people that the locust plague is an appearance of God (theophany) coming to them in judgment. This isn’t just any old swarm of locusts; this is God riding through the land at the head of his great locust cavalry to shake his people out of their self-loving and self-interested denial coma; they deny what sin is and how devastatingly deep it is buried in their lives.

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The Day of the Lord (2:1-16)

Joel sings in chapter 2 that this swarm of locusts is a small taste of the judgment God will ultimately pour out upon all sin. “This is a horrible disaster,” says Joel, “but something even more horrible is coming. The Day of YHWH is near!” Joel is God’s covenant prosecutor bringing charges. He is God’s diagnosing physician pointing people to their hopeless condition because sin is a condition. The people’s sinful acts are merely symptoms of their deep systemic disease. ALL the people are in “the basket of deplorables.”

Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near….iii Should they spy a hostile force appearing, it was the watchmen’s duty to sound an alarm:iv

Their sentry … sees the sword attacking the area and blows on the horn and warns the people. If anyone who hears the sound of the horn pays no attention to the warning and the sword comes and takes his life, the responsibility for his death will be his own (Ezek. 33:2-4).

The people were to flock to meet with God in Jerusalem’s temple in the time of dire need. The sound of the alarm horn would send a stab of fear into the hearts of the people:

Is a horn blown in a city without the people being scared?

Is a city victim of calamity and Yahweh not responsible?” (Amos 3:6)v

But down in 2:15, the trumpet is blown not from the watchtower but from the temple.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. vi

Sounding the disaster alarm is also the call to repentance and worship in the face of the terrible Day of the Lord.

Do you see what Joel says is happening? God is coming in terrible power against his own bride, Jerusalem (1:8). He brings with him the same plagues he poured out on Egypt: fire, locust (4-8), darkness, earthquakes, and death (10-11; Ps. 77:16-17; Isa. 13:10-13).

Now, imagine God tells you (like he did Joel) to go out among a group of people devastated by a plague of locusts. They are starving. Their livestock is dying and their crops are gone. They’re beginning to sense the hand of God in this tragedy. And Joel’s job is NOT to tell them, “Don’t worry; be happy. God will bring your dream destiny about.” No, Joel’s duty is to demand an even deeper work from them because they have become like Egypt, as wickedly hard-hearted as Pharaoh, in the eyes of their covenant God.

You may recall Matthew picks up on this theme in his gospel account of Jesus’ birth and early childhood. Herod, the king of Israel, slaughters the sons of Bethlehem like Pharaoh ordered the slaughter of Hebrew babies in the days Moses was hidden. Mary and Joseph flee into pagan Egypt for safety from an evil Israel. The very thing God is accusing Israel of being in Joel’s day is the thing they are in Jesus’ day – a people hostile to God, determined to kill Emmanuel (God with them).

Judah are God’s covenant people NOT because they think and act outside the “basket of deplorables,” but solely because God has set his sovereign love upon them. This is the message of the prophets constantly and consistently ignored by God’s people. We are so utterly blind to the thoughts and actions of our sin nature that we THINK we’re actually doing good when we’re doing evil.

Joel turns Judah’s perception of herself upside-down. Every year they celebrated the Passover and God’s judgment upon those deplorable Egyptians with their multitudes of demon gods. But, they think to themselves, “God loves us because Judah is a moral nation; God lives in our temple and protects his holy city.” In other words:

“‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’vii

The four final plagues upon Egypt, in Exodus 9-11 were fire (7th plague), locusts (8th plague), darkness (9th plague), and death (10th plague). Joel says YHWH’s Day will be a day of fire, locusts, darkness, earthquakes, and death. So, in 2:2,10 there is darkness; in 2:3,5 there is fire; in 2:10 there are earthquakes; at the end of 2:11 there is total death for none can endure the Day of the Lord. What was once a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3, etc.), “like the garden of Eden before them” turns into “a desolate wilderness” (2:3).viii

Joel probably echoes Isa. 13 (vv. 6, 9), as he often does in this chapter. Isaiah is promising dark judgment on Babylon! Joel (promising judgment on Judah) follows up the quotation with another, word for word from Zeph. 1:15. He sees Zephaniah’s words coming true; for it was Zephaniah who developed into a somber melody the motif of darkness which Amos had so inexorably attached to the Day (Amos 5:18–20).ix Listen to Zephaniah’s description in Zeph. 1:15-16:

15 A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. x

This is a remorseless, merciless judgment and nowhere is safe. The locusts are like a cavalry of brutal horsemen, and a disciplined army of foot-soldiers. They scale the city walls and invade every home because judgment cannot be resisted; it cannot be stopped. There is no hiding. It’s a picture of both national and personal unraveling (Isa. 6:5, “Woe is me! For I am unraveled…”). It is God as a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 33:14; Heb. 12:29). “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” (Mal. 3:2).xi

Jesus himself uses this imagery of cosmic disaster to describe his coming in final judgment (The Day of the Lord) upon the just and unjust in Matthew 24:29-31,

29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. xii

In Revelation, John the Revelator borrows Joel’s language to describe the final judgment of the Day of the Lord:

Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. …In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle… their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. …They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit.xiii

Disaster is an opportunity for us to see our idolatry and to rend our hearts before the great deconstructing, unraveling judgment of God. It is a recognition that my flesh loves to cry out, “God, I thank you that I am not in that basket of deplorables” when I ought to be crying out from a torn heart, “God, be propitiated, be mercy-seated to me, a deplorable sinner!

There was a glimmer of hope in John’s vision of YHWH’s Day. Did you hear it? The locust army was told to harm only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

In Joel’s darkest description of God’s judgment on the deplorables, there is a glimmer of hope as well. It’s found in the way God describes himself. Our hope is NOT in ourselves; our hope is in our covenant God.

The Lord of Chesed (2:12-17)

Joel sounds the trumpets of disaster and worship because he understands that we are all by nature existing in the coma of denial. In our denial coma, the old Adam whispers to us, “You’re not THAT bad. You’ll be okay. Just tear your clothes and get on with life. You did something bad; do something good to make up for it. After all, you’re nothing like those Egyptians.

Joel cried, “13b Return to the Lord your God…xiv The call to return presupposes an existing covenant relationship with God. “To stray morally is to leave the place of blessing and stumble into the electrified fence of the covenant curse. But as yet there is still time to turn back. Yahweh’s voice rings out in tones of warning and concern.”xv

for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. This is a partial quote from Exodus 34:6-7 where God renewed his covenant on Sinai after Moses caught the people worshipping a golden calf. It is such a powerful promise in the midst of the people’s unfaithfulness (covenant DISloyalty) that it “is quoted as a credal statement in eight passages and echoed in a number of others. Joel takes up this familiar language to explain the surprising about-face from a depiction of Yahweh as a dire enemy of his people (2:1–11) to an invitation to repentance (2:12).”xvi

That word “steadfast love” (חֵסֵד chessed) appears throughout the OT as a description of God’s disposition to his covenant people. Sometimes it’s translated “loving-kindness,” at other times “mercy,” “loyalty love,” or “covenant love.” It is God’s constant refrain: He alone loves the unlovely. He alone is faithful to the faithless.

Return, is repentance – the recognition of God’s loyalty love to the unlovely and His faithfulness to the unfaithful. It is a change of mind from seeing one’s self as OUTSIDE the basket of deplorables to seeing oneself as right smack-dab in the deserving middle of the basket.

14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? God’s love will never let His people go. But the people have no sacrifices. The plague has left them without animals, without grain, without wine.

But for those who see their death-worthiness with a torn heart, YHWH makes a promise that HE will provide the sacrifice! The sacrifice he promises is the sacrifice of fellowship with him: grain offering and a drink offering. God promises he will dine with those of torn hearts who trust into his chessed.

Messiah Jesus says, “19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.xvii There is the grain and drink offering of fellowship with God in Christ Jesus alone.

What God demands in his earth-quaking, fiery, utterly deconstructing judgment, He alone provides. Not only at the climax of history will the earth quake and grow dark with God’s wrath against sin, also on the final day of Christ’s earthly ministry, the sun and sky were darkened (Mark 15: 33). God always and ONLY displays his steadfast love in and through the faithfulness, the covenant loyalty of the crucified and risen Messiah who lived the faithful life we cannot live and died the judgmental death we deserve.

Messiah Jesus died in the middle of history amid darkened skies so that we can know that our own personal darkened skies of disaster are not meant to punish us. Rather, such trainings are preparing us for that final day when Christ will come in glory to receive and finally release his people into eternal light and joy (Rev. 1: 5– 8).xviii

The Day of the Lord is a day of deliverance for those who have the seal of God on their foreheads, for those who are alone trusting into the fellowship sacrifice that God provided in darkness and with earthquakes when God the Son hung himself upon a cross as the Lamb of God, the full and final sacrifice for our deplorable rebellions. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have the seal of God on your forehead.

The words of John the Revelator bring such a beautiful light to the words of Joel:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” xix

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 2:1–17.

ii Vincent’s Word Studies, Rev. 9:7.

iii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 2:1.

iv Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 67.

v Id., 68.

vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 2:15–16.

vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:11.

viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 2:3.

ix Allen, 68.

x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Zep 1:15–16.

xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mal 3:2.

xii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 24:29–31.

xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 9:7–11.

xiv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 2:13–14. Emphasis added. See: Amos 5:4-6.

xv Allen, 78. See: Jer. 3:10.

xvi Allen, 80.

xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 3:19–20.

xviii ESV Bibles by Crossway (2013-09-30). ESV Gospel Transformation Bible (Kindle Locations 194840-194844). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

xix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 1:4–8.