The Vision of Joel
Exposition of the Book of Joel
2 - Call to Repentance
"Godů. commands all men everywhere to repent." (Acts. 17. 30 RSV). That challenging declaration was flung out to the world by Paul on Mars' Hill nearly a thousand years after Joel had spoken, but here in Joel's prophecy there is the seed of that later exhortation. In this first chapter the listeners to the prophet's impassioned words are being carefully led from the lower plane of dire lament at the troubles that are coming upon them to the higher one of repentance and dependence. Repentance was needed for the sin that has caused the trouble and dependence upon God for recovery from that trouble. In the first part of the chapter, up to verse 12, the lamentation is a purely self-centred one; there is no indication of any thought of appealing to God. In the latter part of the chapter the lament moves to a higher stage in that the cry of woe and despair is taken into the sanctuary of God and ascends up before him, even although there is still no hint of true repentance.
"Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth"(Joel 1 8). This picture of the betrothed maiden who loses her affianced husband before the actual marriage has taken place might very well be a subtle allusion to Israel's loss of her God ("your Maker is your husband" Isa. 54. 5) because of her unfaithfulness, before she had attained the full glory of her destiny. Israel had broken the covenant; that is why this trouble was coming upon her. That truth is further stressed in the succeeding verse (v.9) "The cereal offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord." Suspension of the Temple offerings was the gravest and most heart-searing of all the afflictions that could come upon the nation. It meant that the covenant had fallen into non-observance, and all the gracious promises of God were null and void. No wonder that, as Joel said, "the priests, the Lord's ministers, mourn". The ecclesiastical dignitaries of every age have been quick to bemoan the breakdown of their institutions and organizations and ritual even although they may have tolerated for far too long the social evils and religious abuses which may have led to that breakdown. The priests of Joel's day were no exception to the rule. Be if noted, however, that the prophet, even in the act of denouncing their unfaithfulness, acknowledges their Divine office; he still calls them "the Lord's ministers". It was like Jesus in after days who maintained that the scribes and Pharisees occupied Moses' seat although He reproved and denounced them, Joel honoured the Divine ordinance.
From the work of God that has broken down, the prophet turns his bitter gaze to the work of man which also has failed him. "The fields are laid waste, the ground mourns," he cries. "because the grain is destroyed and the wine fails, the oil languishes. Be confounded O tillers of the soil, wail, O vine-dressers, for the wheat and for the barley." He puts the blame where it rightfully belongs; all men are jointly responsible for the catastrophe. Men of the world, husbandmen and vine-dressers, have neglected their duty to their God just so surely as have the priests, and the work of their hands has failed them just as that of the priests has failed. The disaster is universal; the vine, the fig, the pomegranate, the palm tree, the apple (this is really the orange) all the trees of the field are withered,
Joel says (in v12) "gladness fails from the sons of men." That last phrase is the climax of his first message to the people. Disaster, utter and complete, is come upon them and there is a great, nation-wide, universal cry of distress and woe rising upon the air. Like Jeremiah in later days, witnessing the final calamitous scenes of the whole series of troubles which Joel in his day was only beginning to foresee, "I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking and all the hills moved to and fro, I looked, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked and the fruitful land was a desert, and all the cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger." (Jer. 4. 23-26 RSV). And so it was that Joel, in his masterly handling of this unfaithful people, showed them the utter ruin and desolation of all their world and their own impotence to remedy their undone condition, before he began to turn their minds to their true Healer and Saviour, God.
Is this a pointer to us for guidance in our own preaching to the world around? Do we tend to paint a rosy picture of the blessings God has in store for man before we have shown man how utterly he has ruined and destroyed the heritage God gave him at the first? Is it not right for us, as it evidently was with Joel, to lay proper stress at the first upon this fact, that man has proven unworthy of his privileges, unable to govern himself, and unfit to be allowed any longer to desecrate God's creation with the abominations of his inventing. Truly today, as in the land of Judah at that far-off time, the vine, the fig, the pomegranate, the palm, the apple, all the trees of the forest, are destroyed; and joy has fled away from the hearts of men. Surely at this point we, like Joel, should begin to turn men's minds, not only to the golden days of promise, but first of all to the need of repentance.
"Gird on sackcloth and lament, O priests, wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in and pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because cereal offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Sanctify 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 to the Lord" (vv 13,14.) Repentance is the first step toward Divine salvation, the gathering of the people, the elders, the priests. all together into the house of God to cry unto Him. The power of corporate worship to elevate the spirit and inspire the heart is well known. Consciousness of the Holy Spirit's presence in a prayer meeting of believers is an experience that many know. Who knows what power for cleansing and reformation may not reside in the gathering together of people, joined in the knowledge of a common distress or common danger, to cry to God in their trouble and so be led to prayer for relief and deliverance. It was when Israel, apostate and captive as they were time after time in the days of the Judges, "turned unto the Lord, and cried unto him in their trouble" that He "heard them and delivered them out of their distress". Joel knew that, and his first impulse was to bring his people face to face with their God and bring them to that condition of heart in which God could bless them.
Verse 15 to the end seems almost to represent the prophet's impassioned appeal to the people gathered within the precincts of the Temple. The injunction of verse 14 has been heeded. The countrymen have left their vain watching of their blasted fields and dying herds. The pleasure-seekers have left their wine, the priests their conning over the dead law and their interminable discussions of legal points, and all have come together to hear the voice of the prophet. The ringing tones echo through the building and pierce the ears of the people standing in the courts. "Alas; alas; alas, the day!" so the Septuagint has it. Woe, three times repeated. "The day of the Lord is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come." Later on in his message Joel has wonderful words of comfort and cheer for this people; he is going to paint at the last a gloriously sunlit picture of the time when God turns His face toward His people again, and pours out His Spirit upon all flesh. He will talk of new wine and milk in abundance, flowing waters and fertile valleys, and conclude with the heart-cheering promise "the Lord dwells in Zion". But not yet! Here at the first his message is like the one that came to Ezekiel, one of "mourning, and lamentation, and woe". The Day of the Lord is at hand, and it is to be a day of destruction.
Now that is not that Day of the Lord with which we are so familiar. That Day, God brings this world into judgment and causes it to pass away with a great noise, and the elements to melt with fervent heat, that He might build in its place a new heavens and a new earth (2 Pet. 3. 10). It is not the day of which Isaiah speaks in his 34th chapter, the day of the Lord's vengeance, and the year of recompense for the controversy of Zion (Isa. 34. 8). It is not the day that Joel asks about in his second chapter (Joel 2. 31), that great and terrible day which is to be heralded by great wonders and signs in the heavens. The prophetic vision that came to Joel later on has not yet shone through to him. He still sees no farther forward than the next century or so; and the day of the Lord, as a destruction from the Almighty. This he announces to the gathered people in chapter 1. 15. This is the day of judgment, of tribulation, of disaster, which began with Shalmaneser of Assyria and ended with Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. That is a day that witnessed the downfall of both the Houses of Israel, the captivity of all their people, and the extinction of David's line of kings, in obedience to the Divine decree. "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, and it shall be no more until he come whose right it is, and I will give it to him" (Ezekiel 27.27). For the moment, this is all that Joel sees, and this the burning message that he strives to impart to his listening people.
"Is not the meat (food) cut off before our eves," he pleaded "joy and gladness from the house of our God?" Mark how cleverly he allied the natural and the spiritual. How like the condition in our own land today! For several generations past our people have been steadily drifting away from God; His house in every place neglected and deserted; even our traditional regard and friendship for the 'people of the Book', the ancient people of promise, has suffered measurable eclipse on account of modern political rearrangements and developments. That is what is happening today, and in that we have a repetition of Joel's own experience. "The seed is rotten under their clods" he says "the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken, for the corn is withered" (v 17).
All this, because Israel has left the Lord her God, renounced His covenant, and taken every man his own way. What a sermon for to-day could be preached on these few verses; the language of the Holy Word so eloquent and so fitting to our present condition that it hardly needs expounding.
So Joel comes with a mighty sweep to that which was in his heart all the time. Perhaps by now he had got the people with him; perhaps it was as speaking for them, and on their behalf, that he, as it were, turns to the Almighty and pours out his heart before him, "O Lord, to you will I cry, for the fire has devoured the pastures. . . the beasts of the field cry also to you: for the rivers of waters are dried up...."
There he stops. There is no entreaty, no supplication, no request that the threatened doom be averted. Perhaps already he sensed that the canker had eaten too deep, that it could only be burned out with fire. Perhaps he distrusted himself too much to make request for a specific deliverance. He confessed his people's sins and cried unto God, not for deliverance, not for comfort, but that God might hear. Did he realise that if but God would bend to earth and listen, there would be no further need for distress; for the Judge of all the earth would surely do right? Like Isaiah, in the days of Sennacherib, he took the haughty invader's insolent message into the Temple and laid it before the Lord, and thereupon going out to await the Lord's good pleasure, so did Joel turn the people's faces to God, call His attention to them, tell Him of the sorry pass to which affairs on earth had come, and then quietly stand aside to await, in faith and confidence, the salvation of God.
If this book is a poem, this is the end of the first stanza. If it is a history, this is the end of the first episode, the gathering in the Lord's house. If it is a prophecy, and it is, surely this is the point at which Joel's vision ceased to be circumscribed by the time and space of his own day and his own people. Was it the intensity of his supplication that opened his heart and mind to greater things and showed him the re-enactment of these scenes on a grander and vaster scale in distant ages yet to be? Did thus his wondering eyes take in the dim and shadowy outlines of Armageddon itself? It would seem so, for the opening words of chapter 2 breathe a new spirit and a deeper intensity. In that chapter we are translated at once into a setting of deeper shadows and more intense colours, a movement much more rapid, hastening onward at increasing pace until it merges into the maelstrom of trouble with which the world shall end, and ending, find its destiny.
So chapter 1 of Joel's prophecy is a picture in miniature of the greater trouble. It had its fulfilment in Joel's own day and the times immediately following: but it served to quicken his mind and draw for him the outlines of things that must one day come to pass, and the Kingdom of peace that is to succeed that last trouble of all. And because that is so, the principles enshrined in this first chapter are applicable to the nations today as surely as they were applicable to Israel in the days of Joel.
It is in chapter 2, to be discussed in the next issue that we are taken in great strides out of the day of Joel and brought into our own day, the focal point of prophecy, when the Lord rises up to fight for his people as when He fought in times of old.