We all know people who wouldn't read a book if it didn't have pictures. Those of us caught up in intellectual snobbery have at one point or another sniffed at their simple view of *sigh* literature. I admit, I've laughed at a lot of people for enjoying what I call "airport books". The great thing about most snobs, myself included, is that we typically commit the same sins for which we condemn others. Our own sins most certainly find us out.
In the book of Joel, the prophet doesn't tell any story to give his prophecy context. It's the only occasion the Bible ever mentions him. No appearances in Chronicles or Ezra or anything. His book lays out straight prophecy. Three intense chapters and fini. As I read and re-read this book, I found myself wishing Joel wrote about the things happening in history around his prophecies. You know, zazz it up a little. Hosea marries a hooker, Isaiah walks around naked for a while, Ezekiel eats poop. That stuff'll keep you turning pages. Joel stands up to spout out some heavy doom then returns to his seat nearly invisible among the other prophets.
I wanted the book to have pictures.
After my last reading of his book, I finally understood that Joel didn't need to give historical context to his prophecy. God's words can apply to nearly every generation. Imagine the people are proud of their prosperity, and as Proverbs 3:34 and 1 Peter 5:5 says, God opposes the proud. Joel 1 tells of an agricultural disaster brought on by swarms of locusts and other bugs. This is the equivalent of our economy suffering from, say, a stock market crash or lack of natural resources. Like everything we built to make money and keep us safe failed in the end. Everything devoured and traumatized. The people suffer disasters meant to shock the coming generations.
In chapter 2, the picture takes the form of something much different and yet equally horrific. Instead of bugs, the picture becomes that of an ruthless, invading army. Then in verse 2:11, Joel shocks the reader by attributing the suffering to the One they'd least expect. "The Lord shouts orders to His forces - His army is immense, mighty, and it does what He says. For great is the Day of the Lord, fearsome, terrifying! Who can endure it?" God sent the affliction. God devastated the land. God leads the army of judgment.
I think a great number of people would readily agree with this. When troubles come, how often do you hear people blame God? "How could a good God allow something like this to happen?" I heard it after nearly every national calamity. Bombings, school massacres, hurricanes. Everyone was willing to blame God as if we were the good guys, as if our everyday sins didn't deserve condemnation and death. It doesn't matter how good of a person, or a Christian, you are. You could suffer from Younger Brother Syndrome or belong to the Older Brother Club and still have the same response. Affliction can cause you to wonder about God's justice and goodness.
The next few verses give a little hope to the reader. A little. Joel 2:12-14, "'Yet even now,' says the Lord, 'turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and lamenting.' Tear your heart, not your garments (that is, an authentic act of repentance instead of a mere outward show); and turn to the Lord your God. For He is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in grace, and willing to change His mind about disaster. Who knows? He may turn, change His mind and leave a blessing behind Him, enough for grain offerings and drink offerings to present before the Lord your God."
How unsettling is this concept? Maybe God will show mercy and give you "enough". Think about this. If God saved the people from death but didn't restore their fortune, would that make Him unjust? I think not. If I deserve to die and spend eternity in Hell, I should be happy with the idea of having "enough". If God spared my life and instantly give me all the riches and comfort of the world, wouldn't I run the risk of turning back to my old idols of prosperity, worshiping the blessing instead of the One who blesses?
Just after verse 2:23, where Joel tells the people to praise God for giving them the "right amount" of rainfall, he says in verse 2:24-27, "Then the floors will be full of grain and the vats overflow with wine and olive oil. 'I will restore to you the years the locusts ate, the grasshoppers, shearer-worms and cutter-worms, my great army that I sent against you. You will eat until you are satisfied and will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has done with you such wonders. Then my people will never again be shamed. You will know that I am with Israel and that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other" (emphasis mine).
Listen to this, I firmly believe that God can use affliction to teach us how to truly worship Him. I'm not saying that God wants us to become gluttons for suffering and so compare Him to an abusive dad. But look at what God wanted the suffering to produce. He wanted to teach them how to seek Him in all circumstances so they would still worship Him as God, Him and nothing else, when He did restore their prosperity.
The outstanding picture of Jesus I see in this book happens in the Valley of Y'hoshafat (The Lord Judges). Verse 3:14 also calls this place the Valley of Decision. After God restores the fortunes of Israel, He calls the nations into this valley for final judgment. In Romans 2, when Paul describes God's coming judgment, he says in verse 16, "This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares" (NASB). Yes, Jesus came to save the world. Yes, God loves the whole world. But God also hates sin and must eventually execute perfect justice. Joel's "Day of the Lord" will come when God judges men through Jesus. Revelation 19 talks of Jesus returning with a sword, wearing clothes soaked in blood, striking down those who remain in the rebellion of sin. What an awesome picture. Like the cover of some brutal metal record.
But Justice isn't exactly synonymous with "punishment". Those who have accepted Jesus as Lord are justified. Joel 3 talks of God judging the nations for their wickedness and vindicating His people, calling Himself our refuge. God makes this promise in 3:21, "I will cleanse them of their bloodguilt which I have not yet cleansed." In other words, Joel tells the people "Don't freak out. God will cleanse you of your sin one day." That day came when Jesus died on the cross. When we accept this truth, it doesn't mean we haven't sinned, but rather it should remind us how Jesus cleansed us of our guilt. If Jesus will judge me as righteous because of His righteousness, then I look forward to the Day of the Lord in the Valley of Decision knowing exactly what I have decided.