2 Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? 3Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation. 4What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten. 5 Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white. 8 Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. 9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10 The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes. 11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. 12 The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man.
13 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. 15Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. 16 Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer. 19To you, O Lord, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field.
20 Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness. i
Every modern disaster – whether hurricane, tornado, earthquake or terrorist attack – seems to bring out modern-day prophets proclaiming God’s judgment for a particular nation’s sins. Whatever moral or political sins the modern would-be prophet deems the most egregious become the reasons this or that country has experienced some disaster.
A couple of years ago I heard a sermon by a Mormon talk radio celebrity preached in a Dallas Southern Baptist Church on July 4th. In his sermon, he recounted how the “Father of Our Country”, George Washington, made a covenant with god (presumably the god who lives near the star Kolob and is the physical father of both Jesus and his brother Satan). God would bless America if it performed enough good works and remained moral. Conversely, god would curse the nation if it crossed the acceptable number of bad works.ii
The talk show host didn’t say whether or not General Washington cut a Bald Eagle and/or a turkey into halves and walked through them to seal his covenant with the god who lives near the star Kolob and physically fathered both Jesus and his brother Satan. But the audience stomped and cheered and shouted “Amen” nonetheless as this modern-day false prophet warned that all America’s troubles are a direct result of not keeping its covenant of works, so national judgment is coming. Only national repentance can stop it.
But isn’t that what Joel is saying in his prophecy? “If you want food on the table, stop sinning; start doing good.” Or is there something deeper and richer at work in Joel’s prophecy to God’s covenant people? (And America is NOT God’s covenant people – except in the Book of Mormon.)
We know very little about the Prophet Joel. We know his father’s name. That’s all Joel tells us. He gives no names of kings to help us date his ministry. He makes no specific historical references. He preached sometime between the 9th and 5th centuries before Christ – anytime from hundreds of years before the Babylonian captivity to sometime after the return to Jerusalem. Many scholarly theories abound as to Joel’s time and place. But for every theory, there are opposite theories. “But as there is no certainty, it is better to leave the time in which he taught undecided; and, as we shall see, this is of no great importance.” iii
What we do know is that Joel preached in a time of great need. Locusts had swarmed across the land and devastated all the produce – grapes, grain, grass, fruit and nut trees. No wine. No fruit. No nuts. No bread. No hay or animal feed. There’s nothing on the shelves at the local HEB. The fridge and freezer are empty. People and animals were starving. The land dried up. The stubble in the fields burned. The country was a dust bowl.
To people in OT times, there was nothing particularly symbolic or special about locusts. They were common, so common the Hebrew language has nine different words for locusts. Joel uses 4 of those words in 1:4 to describe different stages of their growth. Normally, locusts are solitary creatures. But when conditions are right (usually a heavy rain followed by a period of drought), they begin to congregate, breed and swarm.iv
One female can lay 100 eggs at a time. During a swarm, as many as 65-75,000 eggs can occupy a single square meter of land. The eggs hatch within a few weeks and the young crawling locusts begin eating everything within their reach, covering four to six hundred feet a day until they molt and grow wings. v Joel describes the swarm he witnessed as an army (1:6-7) and a destructive power that makes the ground mourn (1:10) and gladness dry up (1:12).
Lesson in the Lacking
Joel is concerned that God’s covenant people learn from this disaster. He asks people to consider how this plague is so particularly devastating that nothing like it has happened within the memory of the elderly or their forefathers. He instructs parents to tell their children and to make sure their grandchildren and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren learn from these events.
No devastation like this has happened for over a hundred years and the survivors are to ensure it is known about for hundreds of years in the future. But for Joel it’s not so much about the level of the disaster; it’s about what God intends to teach his covenant people in their time of need when their resources are gone when the fridge is empty.
Maybe, like so many of the Psalms, we don’t know when this prophecy was written because it’s intended to have a universal application for people who find themselves having an identical experience – their wealth destroyed, their table bare, their resources used up, their hope gone because some dark disaster has fallen on them.
Joel’s concern was that the Children of Israel, with whom God had pledged a special relationship, were so wrapped up in their day-to-day struggles they ignored even the possibility that God had sent the locusts. Joel preaches that God not only sent the locusts as his invading army but that God has an even greater Day planned – The Day of the Lord (1:15), a time of both judgment and blessing.
The disaster of the drought and locust swarms, says Joel, is a divine warning that God’s people should live their lives in the light of the coming judgment and blessing of the Day of the Lord. In this sense, Joel’s message is the same as Jesus’ judgment parables. They both ask, “In what, or whom, do you trust?” In that sense, Joel is preaching, that these days of darkness are God’s severe mercy, meant to orient His people to what is truly important.
God comes to his covenant people and lays waste to all those day-to-day things in which they have trusted: wine, bread, fruit, nuts, milk, meat. Those were the currency of the day. There was no long-haul refrigerated produce shipping in the ancient world. If you didn’t grow it locally, you didn’t have it. If you couldn’t plant it, ranch it or raise it then you starved when the drought and locusts came. Without feed and water your chickens stopped laying and started dying. Without pasture grass and streams your sheep and goats and cattle shriveled up and died. There was nothing to hunt because the wild animals moved on.
In the midst of this darkness – these bleak days God brings – comes an invitation to trust into the great covenant God of Israel – not only for our daily provision but for eternal provision. Joel wants the suffering people to see that when we grip tightly to the daily blessings and forget the One who provides them, then the daily blessings become idols. They might as well dry up and blow away, or be eaten by locust and burned by fire.
What to Do
Joel is not about Israelites achieving their “Dream Destiny Thingy” of storehouses full of grain and pastures full of livestock (the OT equivalent of health and wealth). He appears on the scene (perhaps as a priest in the Jerusalem temple) with a series of imperatives, commands.
5 Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine … vi 8 Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. vii …11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers….viii 13Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth….ix 14 Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. x
These are God’s commands of conviction given to point us to the question, “In what are you trusting for now and for eternity?” The first thing God commands is to “Awake.” And He addresses this to two groups: drunkards and drinkers of wine, those enslaved to wine and all those who drink wine (which would be almost everyone in that culture). This is a poetic means of including everything by stating two opposites: the addict and the causal user. Everyone who drinks wine (all God’s people) have lost out.
There is no new wine (sweet wine, the first press and the least fermented) for dinner, for wedding feasts, or even for drink offerings in the temple. Wine is a symbol of pleasure. God has destroyed the daily pleasure of His people because they have not been seeking their pleasure in Him.
Next, in vv. 8-10, Joel commands the people to wake up and lament, grieve like a young bride for her dead fiancé. What a tragic, poignant picture the prophet paints here of a young marriage full of the promise of a long life and a growing family destroyed even before the wedding can take place. She is forced to wear a black veil in place of white. Bitter tears replace joyful tears because the man she loves is struck down by death.
It’s likely Joel was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem and he prophesies in the temple inside the great city that hasn’t yet been as deeply impacted by the plagues as the countryside. Perhaps there’s still some food in the shops; there’s still some grain in the city storehouse and jars of last year’s wine stashed away. So the people in the city don’t yet feel the full brunt of this devastation because they still have a measure of trust in their resources. xi
In what are we trusting, asks Joel. The economy is bad but thank God I still have MY job. I’m sorry that poor young bride lost her husband before the wedding day, but I still have MY spouse and MY family. “Wake up!” shouts Joel. “Wail. Lament.”
The third imperative in vv. 11-12 is addressed to the working people, the laborers. “Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley,
because the harvest of the field has perished.” xii These people have lost their jobs. There is no planting, no pruning, no harvesting to be done. Before, there was no time to think about the stuff that went on in the temple. No time for YHWH because there was always work to be done in the fields. But God has shown up now and sent a drought and an army of locusts in waves of destruction. These agricultural workers are ashamed and embarrassed because there is nothing they can do to produce a crop.
In vv. 5-6 he sings of people whose security is in pleasure. In vv. 8-10 he sings of a young girl whose whole sense security has been about family. Now in vv. 11-12 he sings of people whose security is in their jobs. Imagine a world in which an electromagnetic pulse destroys all things electronic, and you are a software engineer. Someone asks, “What do you do?” And you reply, “I’m software engineer.” “Well,” says your examiner, “that’s a useless thing to be now. Isn’t it?”
Where does your security rest? Is your life built on shifting sand or upon the rock? Is there anything underneath what I enjoy? Is there anything underneath my family identity? Is there anything solid underneath my job? Is Christ there? Do we REALLY stand on him?
Joel’s fourth imperative, in vv. 13-18, is for the priests of the temple. He tells them, “Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar.” xiii Why? Because joy and gladness have been cut off from God’s house (1:16).
The daily sacrifices at the temple gave rhythm to life in Jerusalem. Every morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed as a burnt offering. Along with daily burnt offerings, priests made an offering of meal moistened with oil and a cup of wine. The locusts, however, had so devastated the land that the temple worship had been interrupted.
The grain is gone. The wine is gone. The olive oil for the temple lamps is gone. Their livestock is dying. The priests could no longer perform the required rituals. Priests also lived on their portion of the daily offerings. So the priests mourned for themselves, as well as for all those who wished to reach out to God through the sacrificial system (1:9).xiv
The inability to carry out sacrifices was part of God’s judgment. God sent the locusts as His army. God has shut down temple sacrifices with this plague. This is a hint of what the Lord Jesus will do when he judges the temple and shuts down Passover sacrifices because HE is the full and final sacrifice to come.
The REAL famine is not what’s taking place in the fields, or even the lack of sacrificial animals, grain, and wine in the temple. The real famine is that joy and gladness in the people’s covenant relationship to the great Creator God has been cut off. There is no enthusiasm for worship. The ministers and the people have been going through the motions and now they were starving spiritually.
Notice what Joel does in vv. 19-20. “19 To you, O Lord, I call.” xv Joel acts out his imperative. He cries out to God. Joel is the Prophet of Pentecost. Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy of blessing and judgment in his great gospel sermon on Pentecost. Like Joel, Peter was pointing out Israel’s spiritual starvation. And thousands who heard Peter and were convicted.
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”xvi
Joel has offered a temporary solution of general repentance and crying out to the Lord. But ultimately, as Peter preached, the REAL solution to the REAL famine is the promise of unwavering and eternal forgiveness and the presence of the Holy Spirit that comes only from receiving Christ and all his benefits. If you are trusting into Christ, you have Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
The only hope for our wavering trust and fickle hearts is Christ and all his benefits. For, ultimately, it’s not our trust nor our spirituality that saves us; it is Christ alone. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).
Joel proclaims in 2:32, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”xvii
Isn’t that what we need to do when disaster strikes us? When the locusts overtake us; when we’re stripped of all possible hope into ourselves and our circumstances; when the illusion of our control of our lives and circumstances is completely shattered we are to repent of trusting into daily blessings and flee back to the God who promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 1:35).
i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joel 1:2–20.
iii John Calvin, Joel, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998).
iv Steve Connor, “Solved: The Mystery of Why Locusts Swarm.” Accessed 9/7/16 at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/solved-the-mystery-of-why-locusts-swarm-1520409.html
v James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 122.
vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:5.
vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:8.
viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:11.
ix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:13.
x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:14.
xi “The third group which Joel addresses is left unidentified except that the verbs are feminine singular. This suggests that Jerusalem is in view. The citizens of the city collectively are here regarded as a virgin daughter.” James E. Smith, The Minor Prophets, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1994), Joe 1:8–10.
xii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:11.
xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:13.
xiv Smith, op. cit.
xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 1:19.
xvi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 2:37–39.
xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Joe 2:32.