[K:NWTS 12/2 (Sep 1997) 17-25]
The prophet Joel was an Old Covenant prophet who spoke like the blowing of a trumpet calling people to repentance; forcing them to face the truth about their difficulties as judgments from God; warning them that even greater hardships and judgments are on their way in the Day of the Lord. Thus the locust invasion that had razed the land was not an unfortunate event in history where Murphy's law prevails. No way! Joel is a prophet of the covenant. He writes to call the people to repentance and covenant faithfulness. So the waves of locust attacks were executions of covenant sanctions to drive the people back to whole-hearted faithfulness to God—to set themselves to seeking him through a clarion call to assemble, fast, weep and pray. Joel takes this locust invasion as a harbinger of a more profound visitation of God in judgment—the great and awful Day of the Lord.
I. Life in the Land
These waves of locust invasions are painted on a larger canvas. They are painted on the canvas of living in the land under God's covenant sanctions. The locusts were an expression of the sanction of cursing—of judgment and death. But what would life in the land be like under blessing? Rush Limbaugh wrote a book called The Way Things Ought to De. What would "life in the land" look like had they obeyed as they ought to have instead of straying on to "death in the land"? Here's the story had it been a sanction of covenant blessing.
God delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage and oppressive labor and brought her to Mt. Sinai. In Ezekiel 16 God tells us how he found her tossed into a field at birth and how he wiped off her blood and cared for her. When she reached age, God said "I covered your nakedness, spread My skirt over you and entered into a covenant with you and you became mine." God, by covenant, became Israel's husband on Sinai. He then brought her through the wilderness for forty years to a land flowing with milk and honey. Deuteronomy 8:1-10 chronicles this trek. Life in the land was meant to be long and prosperous with rain, grain, olive oil, wine, figs and fruit trees bearing fruit—where sheep and cattle are fat and happy. Most wonderful of all, there is joy in the presence of God in the temple in offering and sacrifice—in the fellowship of covenant life. God would defeat all their enemies; the king would rule wisely, being a student of the law; generation to generation would be taught the acts and words of their God in a full and abundant land. In this lush environment, God would dwell in their midst emanating his holiness in ripples from temple to city to land with waves of blessing right behind so that the land would be a proverbial Garden of Eden. This is the way things ought to be. This is life in the land under the covenant care of Yahweh who brings blessing for covenant faithfulness. Life in the land was to reflect back to a refurbished Garden of Eden and reflect forward to the heavenly kingdom of which it was an earthly picture. All of this hung upon one big IF—"if" they would keep his covenant and walk in his ways.
The great heavenly kingdom and eternal life this land anticipated emerged in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This life was poured out upon the church on the day of Pentecost in the Holy Spirit. We discover in the New Covenant the rich spiritual reality the Old Covenant anticipated by agricultural fullness and the joys of temple worship. We have become sapling vines engrafted into Jesus Christ to bring forth fruit. We are the palm trees growing in the temple of God under the hem of the high priest's garments. We receive the oil of Psalm 133 which flows down his robe. And we clap our hands in praise as fruit trees who have received the revelatory waters of rain and snow from the heavenly mountain as described in Isaiah 55.
But resplendent life in the Old Covenant land where every man happily sits under his own grapevine and fig tree was a picture that appeared only momentarily on the screen of an otherwise jaded history of apostasy and judgment. Israel proved to be generation upon generation of covenant breakers. Sin keep getting the upper hand from king to priest to peasant. This brings us specifically to Joel's burst of prophetic wail in the second point.
II. Locusts in the Land
The date of Joel's writing is an ambiguous topic. But when the locust attack occurred, we do know that the temple was in operation. Israel had never experienced anything like this before. Before the exodus, God had cursed Egypt with locusts. Verses 2 and 3 recall what Moses said to Pharoah before God flooded Egypt with their locust plague (Ex. 10). Wow! What a rough way to start a sermon. Israel was supposed to pass two things on to successive generations: (1) God's great deliverance when he judged the bad guys; and (2) God's covenant law for living. In other words, God's mighty acts and words! Now, Joel says, add a third item: the day you were judged the bad guys and what happened! There has never been anything like this! We have become the recipients of God's severe judgments. Let me just stop for a moment to make a related point here. We all sin in many ways, sometimes in isolated acts, some more frequent and some more habitual. As believers in Jesus Christ we suffer for those sins even though the grace of God covers them. Children! As you get older you will learn that your parents have feet of clay. That they have been imperfect. Most children upon making this discovery resent it or use it to justify their own indulgences. Listen to me! If you are a God-fearing child, learn from your parents' shortcomings. Avoid their pitfalls and raise your family tree upward in godliness in your generation. Obviously this did not happen in Joel's day. They had slid downward so that now they had qualified for the locust plague that hundreds of years ago God had delivered to his enemies in Egypt.
What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten (Joel 1:4).
Though commentators have trouble categorizing the meaning of these four Hebrew words for "locust", most seem to think they are stages in locust growth from newborn through several moltings into adulthood. In such a case, the more tender and delicate leafy plants would be devoured first, followed by the consumption of the more bitter and tough foliage.
To give you an idea of how totally pervasive and discouraging a locust invasion can be, let me cite a paragraph from the National Geographic magazine which reported on the 1915 locust attack in Palestine and Syria. Here the first and last stages are reviewed. "Once entering a vineyard the sprawling vines would in the shortest time be nothing but bare bark. When the daintier morsels were gone, the bark was eaten off the young topmost branches, which, after exposure to the sun, were bleached snow-white. Then, seemingly out of malice, they would gnaw off small limbs, perhaps to get at the pith within." The author then goes to the last stage which completes the job in attacking the olive trees whose tough, bitter leaves had been previously passed over. "They stripped every leaf, berry, and even the tender bark. They ate layer after layer of the cactus plants, giving the leaves the effect of having been jackplaned. Even on the scarce and prized palms they had no pity, gnawing off the tenderer ends of the swordlike branches and, diving deep into the heart, they tunneled after the juicy pith." Joel's prophecy is quoted in the article and the author states: "We marvel how this ancient writer could have given so graphic and true a description of a devastation caused by locusts in so condensed a form." One more observation from the article is that when these locusts came, they were so thick and wide across the sky that they obscured the sun. That would be a terrifying sight indeed!
But why would Joel's contemporaries wait so long to repent? Their self-righteousness had apparently so blinded them that they must have thought that any serious plagues were reserved only for the other guys. Guess what, Joel told them, you've become the other guys, until you repent.
Now God had warned in Deuteronomy 28 that consuming locusts would be the execution of the curse-sanction in the land. This locust invasion and the withholding of rain were not unfortunate turns in the weather of those living in the promised land. They were nothing less than the sharp administration of the covenant curse demanding repentance, or further judgments would follow even the Day of the Lord.
When God put his finger on the agricultural life of the land, life itself became threatened. The wine, the figs, the wheat, the barley, the olive oil and the trees were stripped and reduced to splinters. Couple these shortages with the drought and the cattle, sheep and beasts of the field were faced with suffering and death. Not only would the livelihoods of farmers and vinedressers be reduced to dry dirt clods, but the nation's food supplies, indeed the whole culture would come under severe distress and impending extinction. They would be a weakened, helpless prey for any marauding army.
But we are yet to mention the greatest concern of all... the cessation of the temple services.
The grain offering and the libation are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. The field is ruined, the land mourns, for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails (Joel 1:9, 10).
This meant that fellowship with and blessing from God would cease. They would lose their unique identity and reason for existing. And the priests should have been the first to interpret the meaning of it all. But they had fallen into self-delusion and hypocrisy. Joel, the blazing prophet of God, was needed to slice through the wall of spiritual darkness and direct them to call for national repentance. Isaiah spoke in disgust of this idolatrous dead formalism when he said, "This people draw near with their words and honor me with their lipservice, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote" (29:13).
It is the same for us today. We too must receive this rebuke for empty-hearted temple worship which was devoid of reality. It was not for naming a false god that the Lord sent the locust waves. It was for the sin of formalism. A self-centered idolatry of the heart that loved the prosperity of creation above the Creator of prosperity. How easily we can become comfortable and switch love for the Creator to love for his creation and not even know it. God saw this inner idolatry of deadness despite the fulfilling of external temple duties. Listen to this vital approach to temple worship from Psalm 63: "O God, Thou art my God, I shall seek Thee earnestly. My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water." These are the words of a soul alive unto God. But priests and people didn't have a clue what this meant for them. It is no wonder that Joel specifies that the repentance he calls for in 2:13 is not a mere rending of the outer garments but a rending of the garments of the heart.
You see, the spiritual, invisible locust plague had already occurred without the slightest whimper, not even a shallow groan. The fresh kiss of forgiveness on the broken heart of a worshipping priest was a buried memory. The fruit of inward zeal for holiness, or the hunger for God's presence, or the oil of gladness from a vigorous teaching session had all dried up and vanished. It was all religious rote now. They just went right on enjoying prosperous lives, deceiving themselves that all was well. The chosen had become frozen and God decided to turn up the heat of judgment to create a thaw. Sent from the throne room of the offended sovereign were locusts and drought to be followed with Joel's wail for national repentance led by the priests.
When locusts and drought had done their work the great reversal would have occurred. The lush land became the dead desert (2:3). Yet God's mighty grace can also reverse the curse from wilderness to garden as well. These themes of flip-flopping back and forth from garden to desert or wilderness to fertile field occur throughout the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah says "the Spirit is poured out from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fertile field" (32:15). Jeremiah speaks of the exact opposite direction"fruitful land to wilderness."
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord, before His fierce anger (Jer. 4:23-26).
Here Jeremiah connects the idea of reversing judgment of "fruitful land to wilderness" with reverting backwards from creation to the time when the world was "formless and void."
Out of this wilderness curse-setting emerged the last of the Old Testament prophets wearing camel hide and eating locusts (of all things!). This guy is stern and has judgment and curse sanctions tattooed all over him. He is calling for national repentance, to prepare a people to meet him who is the Lambthe one that can take away sins and refresh them with the waters of the Holy Spirit. Such a redemption he could only point to and prepare a people to receive. Out of this setting of curse sanctions, from a dusty wilderness and locusts, came John the Baptist to point them to the one who would bear the curse away and pour out waters of life upon the dry and thirsty soul.
In Jesus Christ the plagues are all exhausted as he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the living bridegroom of Cana of Galilee who brings wine in joyous abundance to the new marriage covenant, the wine of his shed blood. The land of the heavenly kingdom of life in Christ is refurbished, the wilderness becomes a pool from the Spirit poured out on high to a repentant people. His cross is the end of all plagues, cursing, death and drought. In his resurrection, we can find life abundant in his temple-land situated in the heavenlies. Yet the call to repentance has not been diminished. Now it is a call that issues not in earthly temporal fruit, but heavenly eternal fruit. This brings me to the third point.
III. Lamentation in the Land
Joel called for an urgent repentance because the locust plague is a harbinger of the Day of the Lord. Without repentance Israel would inexorably move from near destruction to utter extinction. He does not spell out for them from what to repent. He orders the priests in verse 13 to spend a night in sackcloth to think about it. This meant that weeping and heartsearching were to be combined. We too may need to block out some retreat time to earnestly cry out to God and to reflect, in order to break through to the refreshing streams of God's Spirit in rending the garments of the heart. But be sure, you don't want proceed from the day of locusts to the Day of the Lord! If the frying pan feels hot Joel warns us, then you don't want the fire!
Gird yourselves with sackcloth, and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the libation are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast, proclaim 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. Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty (Joel 1:13-15).
Since the day of the Lord is so near, Joel urges us to "Cry out to the Lord." In the Judges, this phrase is a desperate plea of the people under duress. In response to their cry, God would send a judge to deliver them. Joel uses this idiom to anticipate a favorable response from him who is not only severe but gracious to those afflicted and humble in heart—those who tremble at his Word.
I have presented to you three points. First, Life in the Land—the way covenant life ought to be. Second, Locust in the Land—the execution of the curse sanctions for covenant violations. Third, Lamentation in the Land—the repentant cry to God for deliverance and restoration to life in him.
The appearance of John the Baptist from the sandy wilderness eating locusts signals to us that Joel's call for repentance to find life in the land and the desert turned into a pool, was about to converge on the one John bore witness to as the Lamb of the New Covenant and the baptizer who would pour out his Spirit. The prophetic reversal from locust and drought to fruitful trees, the flow of sweet wine and covenant life is fulfilled not in Joel or even John the Baptist, but in Jesus Christ. In him the curse is laid to rest because he bore it and drank the cup on the cross, In him is the blessing of covenant life re- stored, the desert is made a pool and the vats overflow with wine and oil. In him the Glory-Spirit returns with new creation power. Yet the unbending call to repentance and brokenness has not moved an inch, but rather now can issue in powerful change. Each of us must search his conscience and shake himself from self-delusions and identify the areas the locusts have eaten. The revitalizing Spirit of Christ is here to respond to those who "Cry out to the Lord;" the Spirit of Christ is here to revive those who rend their hearts and not their garments.
Faith Orthodox Presbyterian Church