DAY OF THE LOCUST Joel 1–3
“What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten” (Joel 1:4).Natural disasters in Israel and Judah were typically viewed in the Old Testament as God’s judgments. Joel raised an important question for us to answer: what should our response to personal disasters be?
Throughout recorded history Africa and the Middle East have been plagued by swarms of these grasshopper—like flying insects. Even in the 1900s swarms so great that they blocked out the sun have been reported. When a flying swarm of millions upon millions of insects lands, they eat every green plant, leaving the land utterly desolate. Even worse, they often lay eggs before they move on, and just as new plants begin to sprout locust larvae attack the recovering vegetation. For a people like the ancient Israelites, whose livelihood depended on agriculture, a locust plague threatened existence itself. Just such an invasion of flying locusts, far worse than any in living memory (1:2–3), devastated Judah in Joel’s day. The prophet interpreted that event as a divine judgment, and called on the people of Judah to repent. But even more, the utter devastation caused by the locusts stimulated a prophetic vision of devastation to be caused by invading armies at history’s end, when the Day of the Lord finally comes.
A locust swarm that devastated Judah (1:1–12) moved Joel to utter a call for national repentance (vv. 13–20). The disaster prefigured the “Day of the Lord” (2:1–11), and made return to God urgent (vv. 12–17). Yet when that day comes God will save His people, and bless them afterward (vv. 18–32). God will judge hostile nations then (3:1–16), and Judah will know God’s pardon (vv. 17–21).
Understanding the Text
“Has anything like this happened in your days?” Joel 1:1–4 It’s typical of folks today to think that things “just happen.” A personal tragedy is only “bad luck” that “could have happened to anyone.” The same attitude was all too typical among some in ancient Judah. But when an enormous swarm of locusts devastated Judah, the Prophet Joel cried out, “Think!” This is the force of his question, “Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?” Sometimes things happen that are so terrible we can’t dismiss them as mere chance. Underlying Joel’s cry was the conviction that God is in control of events in this world. When disaster strikes, an appropriate response is not to shrug and say, “Bad luck,” but to examine our hearts, and to see if perhaps God is crying out for our attention. “Wake up, you drunkards, and weep!” Joel 1:5–12 There’s nothing so frustrating to a parent as indifference. You try to reach your kids, you confront, discipline, even yell. And rather than repentance, or even rebellion, there’s simply the shrug of a shoulder and a muttered, “Oh, well.” That’s what frustrated Joel and the Lord about Judah’s response to the locust plague. They didn’t cry out. They didn’t make a fuss. They just sat around drinking their wine, shrugging their shoulders, and saying, “Oh, well.” How does God want us to respond when we are disciplined? First of all we need to wake up and weep! (v. 5) Discipline is designed to get our attention and to turn us back to the Lord, not just to make us hurt. Waking up and weeping is often the first indication that we’ve begun to pay attention to God’s message. The prophet added more verbs to portray an appropriate reaction to divine discipline. We mourn (v. 8). We feel a sense of despair and grief (v. 11). These emotions are not pleasant, but they are profitable. They show that we’re taking events to heart. A godly sorrow, according to the New Testament, can lead us to repentance (2 Cor. 7:10). “Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn’ Joel 1:13–20. Joel called on the religious leaders of his day to serve as examples of how to respond to the national disaster. They were to first personally put on sackcloth—rough garments worn to indicate grief and sorrow—and spend the night in prayer (v. 13). Then they were to utter a call for a national day of prayer, when all would appeal to the Lord (v. 14). As terrible as the locust plague had been, it was only a preview of the terrors of the approaching Day of the Lord. Clearly the clergy of Joel’s day failed to interpret the locust plague correctly. They themselves did not repent and they called for no national return to the Lord. What happens when the clergy are insensitive to the Lord? Just after the locust plague, God raised up another messenger, Joel, who was sensitive to Him! You and I needn’t wait for clergy to take the lead when our own hearts are grieved, or when we feel a burden for our land. What we do need to do is take the situation to heart and express our own grief and sorrow to the Lord. Then, like Joel, we need to speak out! “For the Day of the Lord is coming” Joel 2:1–11. The phrase, “Day of the Lord,” is a technical term in biblical literature. It can be used to describe any time when God acts directly in history. But it’s primary reference in prophecy is to events destined to take place in the years just preceding history’s end. Those years are both dark and bright. They are dark in that they introduce a time of worldwide tribulation, and especially a devastating invasion of Israel that causes intense suffering for the Jewish people. They are bright because they end with the surviving remnant of Israel restored to intimate relationship with God, and endlessly blessed by Him. Here however Joel focuses our attention on the dark face of the Day of the Lord. He sees it as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (v. 2). An invading army, like the locust plague, would leave the land a waste and overrun every defense. Most awful of all, Joel pictured God on the side of the invaders (v. 11), using them as His instrument to punish His own people. No wonder Joel cried, “The Day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (v. 11) All such Old Testament passages remind humankind that God has fixed a day for final judgment. And that judgment day is rapidly approaching. Yet no matter how vivid the images of its terrors, most humans remain indifferent. Most of us simply don’t want to deal with uncomfortable things until we have to. What Joel was telling Judah was that God’s time for them was just around the corner of tomorrow. And the moment to deal with that very real and present danger had come! This is what the Gospel tells us too. Each individual must face God the Judge, and the time to make peace with God is now, not then! Why wait to welcome Christ into our lives and receive His forgiveness? Tomorrow may be too late. “Even now . . . return to Me with all your heart” Joel 2:12–17. I don’t know how she got my Phoenix, Arizona phone number. But I began to receive calls from her, from Toronto, Canada. She was tormented with the fear that God wouldn’t accept her. What she had done seemed so terrible to her that she feared it was too late. Joel’s message to Judah was the same as Jesus Christ’s message to us today. It’s not too late. “Even now” reminds us that as long as it is called “today,” a person can turn to God and find pardon. Joel, however, warned Judah that God is not interested in any superficial religious experience. It’s not raising a hand, or walking down an aisle, or promising to give up drink. Joel said, “Rend your heart and not your garments” (v. 13). In biblical times people often tore their clothing to express grief or sorrow. Joel cried that any turning to the Lord must be heartfelt and real. What can we expect if we truly turn to God? We can expect Him to act in character! He will welcome us, “For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (v. 13). “The Lord will . . . take pity on His people” Joel 2:18–27. The generation that lives at history’s end will repent at last. What is destined for them is an illustration of what you and I can expect when we turn to the Lord. First, God will provide for us, meeting our basic needs (v. 19). Second, God will save us from our enemies (vv. 20–21). Third, He will pour out so many blessings that the hard times we have experienced will seem nothing in comparison—we will be fully repaid (v. 25). Seeing God’s hand in all this, we will praise and bless the Lord, for we will know by experience that God is present, and that He is our God (vv. 26–27). (See DEVOTIONAL.) “Afterward, I will pour out My Spirit” Joel 2:28–32. The primary focus of this promise is on the aftermath of the Day of the Lord. God will then bless all Israel, from child to adult, by pouring out His Spirit on everyone. In Old Testament times the Spirit was given to equip a believer for some specific task or ministry. Now Joel foresaw a time when the Spirit will be poured out on all Israel and Judah. That event, after the judgments of the Day of the Lord, will be linked at history’s end with various signs in the heavens and on earth. But how, if Joel viewed the outpouring of the Spirit as something destined for Israel, and located it at history’s end, could Peter explain events of the Day of Pentecost as “what was spoken by the Prophet Joel”? (Acts 2:16) In the same way that the locust plague foreshadowed the ultimate Day of the Lord, so events at Pentecost foreshadowed the ultimate outpouring of the Spirit. Today you and I possess, with Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit. With and in Him we have a rich taste of the ultimate blessing to be given all by our loving God. “I will gather all nations” Joel 3:1–16. The picture of the end given in Joel harmonizes with the picture found in other Old Testament prophets. God will stir up mankind’s natural hostility toward Him and His people. Those who have been enemies of the Lord’s chosen people will again invade. God will let them come, a great horde, and then, when they seem about to triumph, the Lord will judge the nations on every side. “The mountains will drip new wine” Joel 3:17–21. The little Book of Joel closes with the promise of blessedness. The enemies of Israel and Judah will be punished, the people of God will again be holy, and God’s pardoned people will live forever in His presence. The journey we are on may be long and hard. But our destination is glorious.
The Years the Locusts Have Eaten(Joel 2)
For months she cried every night. Lying alone, her tears soaking the pillow, she sobbed out her “why?” They’d been married for eight years, and she was three months pregnant with their daughter, when her husband just left. He couldn’t stand being tied down anymore, he told her. And so he left her, with a two-and-a-half-year-old son and pregnant. It was so hard, trying to deal with her loneliness, her doubts, her questions of, “What did I do?” and most terrible of all, “What will happen to me now?” She had to live with these questions not for days, or weeks, or even months, but for years. Joel’s warning to Judah of the coming Day of the Lord challenged God’s people to repent and turn to God for healing. The chapter presupposes a people who have turned away from God, and who need to “return to Me with all your heart” (v. 12). There had been years of devastation. But Joel promised even God’s rebellious people that the Lord has good in mind for them. Despite years of devastation, it is within the power of a loving God to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” Today the young woman who cried herself to sleep so many nights is married again, to a husband who loves her. She loves her job teaching, and delights in the times she shares with her daughter, who is now nine. Life is good, and she’s proven that God’s promise to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten” can be claimed even by those who never departed from Him, and whose suffering was something other than punishment for sin.
Hold on to God’s promise to repay, no matter however long your suffering lasts.