The Vision Of Joel
4. The Cry of Faith
Exposition of the Book of Joel Chapters 2.1-27
"Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, 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 and repents of evil." (Joel 2.12-13 RSV). This is a wonderful invitation, wonderful because God has at this very moment allowed the heathen executors of His judgment to come in amongst the holy people to ravage them. God could have kept them at arm's length but He allowed them to come, as it were, into the city and right into the people's houses. It is then, when all hope seems at an end, that He invites the afflicted ones to turn to Him in sincerity and faith and He will deliver them. "Who knows" cries Joel "whether He will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him ?" Evidently Joel himself was one who did know that God would so do, for in the preceding verse he has stated his conviction, that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. Jonah, half a century later, used precisely the same words, when remonstrating with God over His clemency with the Ninevites. "I knew," he says, "that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and repents of the evil. Therefore now, 0 Lord, take my life away from me. I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4.3 RSV). Strange that one prophet should exhort His people to repentance because God is merciful and another should reproach God for His mercy to people who had repented. But we are just as inconsistent in our own profession and our walk before God in many ways. Both prophets really sought the same end; they both wanted to see righteousness exalted and evil destroyed, and to both of them evil and the Assyrians were one and the same thing. And even so late as this present day men have not learned that evil is not banished from the earth by the mere destruction of one nation which has practised evil things.
So Joel's exhortation here was one to repentance in the face of threatened and imminent disaster. As the chapter is followed down to verses 20 and 22 and onward, it is seen that the exhortation must have been heeded, for here, at last, is the evidence of Divine deliverance, full and complete. The northern invaders are driven into the wilderness and destroyed. The land recovers from the ravages that it has suffered and brings forth its harvests once again, there is a great restitution of all that was lost, and, most wonderful of all, Israel is converted and turns to the Lord in sincerity (v.27). And the question immediately springs to the mind, has this part of the prophecy had its fulfilment?
As the pages of history are scanned, the answer must be 'No!' Never yet has there been a time in Israel's history when by any stretch of the imagination such things as these could be said to have been true. When at any time has it been that "I will no more make you a reproach among the nations" (2.19)? From Joel's time to our own day they have been a reproach and derision. From Joel's time to our own day they have been the spoil of the nations. When was it true of any alien power that has ever invaded the Holy Land that God has revealed Himself to their destruction, led them into the barren wilderness of the Dead Sea and made them a wonder and an astonishment in their end? When has God ever restored to Israel the years that the great ravaging powers have taken from them, restored to them all that they have lost, and given them to eat in plenty and be satisfied? And when. above all things, has it been true that Israel has known and acknowledged that God is dwelling in her midst, and has put her trust in Him, and never again been ashamed (2.26)? The signs of such a wonderful national conversion have never been manifest. Today they are more lacking than ever. The only logical interpretation of this passage is that it refers to a time yet to come. When that fact is realised it is easy to see that these events are the immediate predecessors of the promised pouring out of the Spiritupon all flesh spoken of in vv 28-32.
At v.12. therefore, Joel's mind has passed completely out of touch with his own day and its dangers, and entered into the then far distant day of which his own was merely a picture in miniature. From v.18 the verbs are properly in the past tense. "Then the Lord was jealous for His land, and he had pity on His people ..." Joel was seeing, in vision, the result of the sincere repentance and pleading with God described in verses 15-17, when the priests, the ministers of the Lord, wept between the porch and the altar, calling upon God to deliver. Evidently, therefore, he saw something that represented to him the stirring events of the Time of the End, when the greatest invader of all time would be hammering at the portais of the Holy Land "to take a spoil and to take a prey".
It is significant that in v.20 the phrase is "1 will remove far offfrom you the northern army." Israel's enemies of Joel's own day — Assyrians, Scythians, Babylonians — came from the north, down the, great highway that ran from Carchemish on the Euphrates, through the Plain of Esdraelon, the literal 'Armageddon' of the Bible, down into Egypt. But after the Babylonians there were no more invaders from the north until the Time of the End! Greeks and Romans came from the West; Persians and Saracens from the South; Mongols from the East; Arabs from the South; and in more recent days, Britain from the West. It is not until that mysterious King of Daniel 11, the "King of the North", comes upon the scene, that Israel is again afflicted by a "northern army". That is still future.
If it is true, then, that by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Joel is now seeing in vision the events of the last great conflict in the end of this Age, we do well to stand by his side and endeavour to see the same things in the same way. There is a striking correspondence between this chapter and those of Ezekiel 3 8-39 and Daniel 11. In each of these passages the invader comes from the north and enters the Holy Land, attempts to ravage the land and its people, is met by the rising up of God Himself, and comes to an ignominious end. The fame of the happening goes out to all the world, and not only Israel, but all men know that Divine power is manifest and supreme at Jerusalem once more. In all three accounts the place of the invader's defeat and destruction is given as between the two seas, the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. "I will drive him into a parched and desolate land, his front into the eastern sea (Dead Sea) and rear into the western sea (the Mediterranean)" (Joel 2.20). "I will give to Gog a place for burial in Israel, the valley of the Travellers, east of the sea" (Ezek. 39.11). "He shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and glorious holy mountain, yet he shall come to his end." (Dan. 11.45).
What is the significance of this three-fold testimony? What are the associations connected with this district round the Dead Sea that it should be chosen by three prophets, each speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to symbolise the overthrow of the last great power to rear itself against the incoming Kingdom of God?
History records two stirring events of which that district was the scene. One is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the days of Abraham and the other the miraculous deliverance of Jehoshaphat and his people from the Moabites in consequence of their faith in God. Are these the pointers for us? Is this a hint that the destruction of the hosts of Gog and Magog will come about, not by the people of God defending themselves with earthly weapons but in consequence of calm faith in God and His rising up to defend them? That seems to be the consistent testimony of Scripture. "At that time shall Michael stand up" says the revealing Angel to Daniel. This second chapter of Joel becomes eloquent in that case. The last great invasion, the last onslaught of the powers of evil against the regathered holy people and the Kingdom of which they are to be the nucleus, will he in the face of a people whose attitude of heart is depicted in 2.12-17.
This is a condition of repentance, supplication and faith that God can and will deliver. If this is so, that is the sign we must look for in the present unhappy so-called "Holy Land". The gathering of the northern host is to "enter the countries" and "overflow and pass over" as Daniel 11 tells us. This may be obvious enough but the "land of unwalled villages" of Ezekiel 38, where the people dwell in prosperity and security, is not yet discerned. Evidently there is more water to flow under the bridges before all is ready for the climax that is described in these prophecies. But time is marching on with great strides toward their fulfilment. We must take the lesson of Joel 2.12-17 to heart, and wait for its fulfilment in reality.
Now the prophecy passes on, beyond the great invasion, "Jacob's trouble", and the great deliverance, into those early years of the Kingdom when the Lord will "reign in Zion, and before His ancients, gloriously". "Fear not, 0 lan4 be glad and rejoice ... the pastures of the wilderness are green, the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and the vine give their full yield" (vv.21-22). These verses are reminiscent of Isaiah's "Millennial" passages for they refer to the beginning of that same blessed day. The Time of Trouble is over, the Kingdom has been set up, the presence of the King proclaimed to all and sundry and the law of the Lord is going forth from Zion. Appropriately enough Joel sees all this in terms of the restored and renovated earth for one of the first evidences of "restitution" will be the great fruitfulness of the earth itself providing food for the soon-to-return multitude of the dead.
Hence comes v.23 "Be glad 0 sons of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God; for He has given the early rain for your vindication. He has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain as before." (RSV). The Vulgate turns the first phrase "the early rain for your vindication" into "a teacher of righteousness" and on this basis some have found in this verse a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. In the century prior to the First Advent there was a movement or sect among the Jews that looked for such a "teacher of righteousness" to precede the "Last Day" and the pouring out of the Spirit. The expectation thus aroused did much to cause men to be "in expectation" as stated in the Gospels. But it is not likely that Joel did prophesy thus; his picture is one of the fields and crops, and in this verse he is likening God's treatment of Israel at the End Time to the regular succession of the seasons. The first expression really means "rain in just measure," and the three "rains" after that, the three stages into which the agricultural year was divided. First, in October, came the "'rain", the heavy downpour that softened the dry ground, and made ploughing and sowing possible. Then, from December to February, the "former rain , or as the Hebrews called it, "sprinkling rain", continuous light rain that encouraged steady growth. Lastly, in April and May, the "latter rain" that refreshed the ripening wheat and crops.
What a vivid picture of this trial and trouble upon Israel, and its outcome! First, the "heavy rain" of intense trouble that plougbed men's hearts and made possible the sowing of Divine seed; next, the "sprinkling rain" of Divine care and deliverance, and the early processes of Kingdom work calculated to bring Israel into conformity with the new laws and lead them to a condition of harmony with the Kingdom arrangements. Finally, the "latter rain" that finished the ripening work in their hearts and made them full citizens of the Millennial Kingdom. This is a finely-drawn picture of the providence of God descending upon men "like the gentle rain from heaven".
What was the result? "The floors shall be full of wheat, and the vats shall overflow with wine and oil" (v.24). Millennial abundance is to follow immediately, and the cry goes out to all the nations "Ho, everyone that thirsts, came ye to the waters come ye, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isa. 55.1). "And I will restore to you" — the precious promise — "the years that the locust have eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you" (verse 25). If this "great army" does in fact embrace all Israel's oppressors through the ages, there may be more than a coincidence in this selection of four out of the many species of locusts with which the country was so often afflicted. Moffatt gives the variants in clearest language; he renders "the lopping, the swarming, the leaping, the devouring locusts." The gazam, the "loppers", might very well picture the first great world power, Babylon, that "lopped" Israel from their land, and took them into captivity. The arbeh, the "swarmers" (cankerworm) could equally well picture the overspreading might of Persia, that, although it did restore Judea and Jerusalem, did so only as part of its campaign to subdue and cover all the nations of Western Asia. Quite appropriate is the application of yelek, the "leapers" (caterpillar) to Greece, the nation that is pictured in Daniel 8 as a tempestuous he-goat coming against the ram (Persia) with such fury as seemingly not even to touch the ground in his mad onward rush. Of course the epithet of "devourer" (the chasil, palmerworm) is very fitting of Rome, the fourth, and, in its derived successors, the greatest of Israel's oppressors. And God is going to restore to Israel all that these have devoured. No wonder that Peter at Pentecost associated this prophecy with the Times of Restitution of all things, spoken of by all the prophets from the beginning.
So Israel will be delivered at the last, and "eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of... God ... and never be ashamed." (vv 26-27). Joel in his haste has run a little too far forward; in the next verse he has to come back somewhat and talk of the Spirit that is to be poured out upon all flesh. For the present he is absorbed in his vision of the deliverance of Israel, and for a moment has forgotten the rest of the world. The rest of Joel's prophecy is taken up with what happens to them and Israel's mission of conversion, and in order adequately to deal with that aspect of his message, he has to go back and tell of the same time of trouble from the standpoint of the Gentile nations.
(To be continued)