“THEN THE LORD BECAME PASSIONATE ABOUT THE LAND, AND HAD PITY ON HIS PEOPLE.”
Joel 2:18 CEB
Background of Joel
Joel is an interesting book. It is one of what we call the minor prophets. They are “minor” because the book is short (3 chapters), not because they aren’t important. You can find the minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament, after the major (long) prophets and Daniel. Usually, these books deal with Israel or Judah either about to be exiled by Assyria or Babylon or already in exile. They typically explain why they are facing hardship and what promises to expect in the future.
Joel is different. It appears to be a story about an actual locust plague eating up crops. It’s possible the locusts are metaphors for an invading army like Babylon, or Assyria, or even Persia or Greece, but Joel is unique in not mentioning those empires by name. Joel is also unique in that he says nothing about blaming Judah/Israel for their situation (though he does recommend fasting and repenting in passages leading up to today’s passage). Like other prophetic books, their present situation leads to some bold promises about the future of the kingdom of God, some of which Peter will use in Acts 2 to describe Pentecost.
Joel chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 describe the locust plague situation. Then, Joel recommends crying out to God. Our passage today is God’s response. He will care about the land and take pity on his people.
Our God is a God who takes pity on us. God sees our pain, hears our groaning, feels our circumstances more deeply than we do. God also responds to our prayers. We have the hope that whatever we are going through, we can turn to God to find comfort.
If you’ve ever been through a trial like Joel is describing, you probably know that the wait is painful. If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God fix things immediately? In fact, why doesn’t God stop them from happening in the first place? I learned a large and probably unhelpful word in seminary to describe these questions, Theodicy—the question of why a good and all-powerful God lets evil exist and bad things happen. I can’t say I have all the answers here, and a lot of the answers I do have are beyond the scope of this entry.
But what I do see in this passage is an unbelievable promise: in 2:25, God not only promises to fix Israel’s problem, God promises to restore the years that the locusts ate. That’s right. Our God can heal old wounds. He can give us back what we lost. I see this play out time and time again in people’s lives. Rather than being grateful that God fixed a problem but wishing God hadn’t waited so long, I’ve seen God fix a problem and then use the pain to make something beautiful. An adult with a troubled childhood can offer hope to others with the same testimony and feel more intensely the joy of their freedom from it. A family that lost someone can comfort others while drawing closer together and experiencing community in a way they could never have dreamed of. Our God may be mysterious. God may wait longer than we want. But no matter how long we suffer under a blanket of locusts, God can bring a healing that not only stops the problem but brings flowers from the mud and the rain.
Shuffled thought (off-topic and not that inspiring)
I once heard a pastor say that the locusts in Joel were a metaphor for modern-day helicopters and it was all reference to whatever war we were facing at the time. You know, because locust plagues make a loud buzzing noise, and because this book that has been inspiring hundreds of generations is probably only written to reference our current geopolitical situation. Please hear and heed my sarcasm here.
We often try to take the apocalyptic books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation and try to make all the mystical language be metaphors for geopolitical stuff in our world (i.e. whoever is president at the time must be the anti-christ or great prophet). While you might be right, chances are you are not. Every time there has been a major upheaval in world politics or events (every eclipse, Reformation, American Civil War, French Revolution, WWI, WW2, Y2K, even the advent of Walmart’s inventory system) there’s been someone who amassed a following on the idea that we lived in the end times…..and they all turned out to be wrong.
Instead of reading prophetic and apocalyptic literature in an attempt to predict the near future, let’s remember that only God knows when Armageddon is coming (Matthew 24:36, not even Jesus or the angels know). Let’s seek to encounter the Word in the Word and live our lives by the principles of the kingdom of heaven. Then, whatever happens, we’re ready.