A Message on Plagues
Nov 20 2020
ON MARCH 22, 2020
The prophecy of Joel is about a coming disaster in Israel, the hope of repentance and reformation, and the promise of international justice. We do not know the full nature of the hardship we are facing, but we know that it is from the Lord. It is for our good, it is for His glory, and it is part of His plan to fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. But one of the great lessons of Joel is the centrality of worship to all of life. Joel confronts our national sin of thinking that worship is not related to plagues, politics, economics, and family life.
A Summary: The Locusts & the Acquittal
The book opens with the word of the Lord describing a locust plague of epic proportions (1:2-4), but by the end of the book the Lord is declaring the condemnation of Egypt and Edom and the acquittal of the bloodshed of Judah (3:19-21). So we need to know how Joel gets from locusts to the judgment of nations. A big clue is found in the canonical run up to Joel. It’s striking that Daniel foretells the coming of four kingdoms (Dan. 2: image dream, Dan. 7: four beasts). In the latter vision, Daniel sees a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a great beast representing four empires (Dan. 7:2-23ff). And Hosea follows also promising that God will be to Israel like a lion, a leopard, a bear, and a wild beast (Hos. 13:7-8). So when Joel tells us that four kinds of locusts are coming, we should take note (Joel 1:4, 2:25). On the one hand, locusts are one of the plagues of judgment that God promises to send on His people if they forget Him and break His covenant (Dt. 28:38-42). Foreign nations are also described as devouring locusts in various places (Jdg. 6:5, 7:12, Jer. 51:14, 27, Nah. 3:17). Putting this together, I take Joel to be describing an actual, literal locust plagues (past, present, or future), but he is also clearly using that to foretell the invasion of foreign nations (1:6, 2:2-11, 20). And this is confirmed by the resolution of Joel’s prophecy being the great judgment of the nations in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (3:2-12, 19). So the judgment of locusts is a sign of an international crisis facing Israel.
Whatever it is that we are facing in this moment – whether it is a plague of a virus or a plague of complete panic or both, biblically literate Christians should ask what is God saying to us? And for that answer, we must look to His word and not the newspaper and not our best guesses.
A Famine of What?
What is striking about the book of Joel is how he connects the judgment of God to the international political situation they are facing. And one way to see that is by noticing what’s missing. There are at least two major things missing in the book of Joel. There’s a great plague coming, and repeated calls to lament, wail, fast, sound the alarm, cry out, mourn, and return, but the prophet does not dwell on “what” they should cry out, mourn, return from. There are a few hints, but the sin of Judah is not described in much detail. So a great deal of the message of Joel is: you know what you need to do. Turn, cry out, repent. You know what you need to do. This is what true repentance and conviction looks like. When God is at work, you know exactly what needs to be done.
Second, the effects of the locust and invading nations are not what you’d expect. Yes, there’s “wasted land” and “food is cut off” (1:10, 16) and the earth has become a “desolate wilderness” (2:3), but that isn’t the worst of it.
“Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth. The grain offering and the drink offering have been cut off from the house of the Lord.” (1:9).
“Be ashamed, you farmers, wail you vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley… Gird yourselves and lament, you priests… for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God” (1:11-13).
“So rend your heart and not your garments return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him – a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” (2:13-14).
Or after the promise of returning the years devoured by the locusts, Joel says: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God…” (2:26).
The real crucial issue for Joel is not merely the sin itself, nor the material, economic, or political effects of plagues and invasions – the really crucial issue is the lack of worship in the temple, the lack of grain and drink offerings, the lack of praise from God’s people.
“The Lord also will roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem; the heavens and earth will shake; but the Lord will be a shelter for His people, and the strength of the children of Israel. So you shall know that I am the Lord your God, dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain… And it shall come to pass in that day that the mountains shall drip with new wine, the hills shall flow with milk… a fountain shall flow from the house of the Lord…” (3:16-17). Where does healing and fruitfulness flow from? The house of the Lord.
It slowly becomes clear that the real famine, the real tragedy caused by the locusts and invading armies is the lack of worship. It’s not hunger and drought first and foremost – the lack of harvest means a lack of worship. Other prophets dwell on the precise sins (e.g. greed, injustice, idolatry, sexual immorality, etc.).
It isn’t that Joel doesn’t care about those things, it’s just that he knows the root problem is the lack of true worship of the true God. Joel says that it’s lack of true worship that leaves them prey to the nations (2:19). It’s lack of satisfaction in God’s good gifts that leaves people vulnerable to sin. But when He sends the rain and the fruitful harvests, it is precisely so they will remember the Lord and rejoice in the Lord and so not be overrun by their enemies (2:21-27). The worship of God is their fortress.
The Spirit of God & Calling on the Lord
Joel’s description of God’s salvation is really quite striking. And what’s striking is the order of events recorded in chapter 2, leading up to the pouring out of the Spirit (2:28). There was a very clear historic fulfillment of that promise in Acts 2 as Peter noted – which incidentally means that the “wonders” of earth, blood, fire, and smoke are symbolic of the great cataclysm of the end of the Old Covenant era, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD (e.g. Is. 13).
But Paul quotes this same passage in Romans 10: “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved… For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Rom. 10:9-13)
This teaches us that Joel not only had a historic fulfillment at Pentecost, but Paul teaches us that Joel also gives us general description of Reformation and Revival. But what’s striking is that when the people mourn their sin and turn to the Lord, the joy of the Lord fills their hearts and it’s in that moment that they know that the Lord is their God – and then after that, the Spirit is poured out in power. First, the Spirit is poured out then people call on the name of the Lord to be delivered from their enemies (2:32). In other words, people don’t call on the name of the Lord in order to receive the Spirit; they call on the name of the Lord because they have received the Spirit. This is true in the moment of conversion and the whole process, but it is also true for Reformation and Revival – the cataclysmic cultural and political turning of nations back to God.
The order of reformation and revival according to Joel is this: Mourning/repentance — Joy — Worship — Knowledge — Spirit — Deliverance — Justice.
The Spirit is poured out because God’s people have turned to Him and rejoiced in Him and in His good gifts and come to know Him. Of course God’s Spirit is at work in every step of the way – we can do nothing apart from God, but there is the work of conversion and there is great deliverance from enemies.
The Spirit is not a genie that we summon up. The Spirit is poured out with power on those who seek God with all their hearts, who rejoice in Him, who study His word and His ways. Joel teaches us that when God’s people turn away from Him, the central thing they have turned away from is worship of Him. And so He removes His blessings from their midst, and the central sign of that judgment is the removal of public worship from their midst. If we were ever in any doubt about whether we are under the judgment of God, let there be no mistake: we are under the judgement of God because we are not worshipping God together this morning. He has taken away the grain offering and drink offering from the house of God.
But if we will call on the name of the Lord. If we will turn back to Him with all our heart, and seek His word and seek His ways, He will pour out His Spirit upon us once more and deliver us from all our enemies.