Ash Wednesday

There are many reasons why the Bible is such a fascinating read.

Matthew 6:21
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 26, 2020

First Reading
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Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

There are many reasons why the Bible is such a fascinating read.

Use of vivid, unforgettable imagery, especially in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, surely is one reason. Joel’s use of locust imagery is a perfect example. When I read and see pictures of recent news reports that the Horn of Africa, especially Kenya, is experiencing its worst invasion of desert locusts in 70 years, I can understand why Joel used vivid locust imagery to warn Israel of impending danger.

Today’s texts are from one of the shortest books in the Bible. Taken from the second of its three chapters, Joel speaks of the blessing that is possible for Israel, if only they would repent. Considering the blessings that come with repentance, one might think that people would eagerly, without hesitation, run to God’s open invitation to penitence. Despite its potential for blessing, unfortunately, people, including ancient Israel, resist repentance with every ounce of their being.

The lack of response leads one to ask, “Why? Why are people so reluctant to repent even when they know that blessings are waiting?” Repentance necessitates recognition and admission of guilt, of having done wrong, of being sorry for the hurt one caused another. Individually or collectively, propped up by a false sense of self, people would rather live in denial than have a contrite spirit, admit they were mistaken, and say “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

Joel is among the biblical prophets who repeatedly, to no avail, entreated Israel to turn to God and leave its faults and failures, its sins, behind. Scholars debate the time when Joel lived. If he lived before or during the exile, he warns Israel that war with Assyria or Babylon, a war that the reader knows Israel will lose, is on the horizon. If he lived during the time of the Second Temple, his imagery is a reminder of Israel’s covenant with God. Either way, Joel writes to warn Israel that communal sin has consequences.

Joel uses the image of an invading army of locusts to get the attention of a nation whose short-term perspective made it oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. To get the full impact of this imagery, one needs to recall Joel’s words in chapter 1:

“What the cutting locust left,
    the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
    the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
    the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4).

The image is one that all is lost and that there is no hope for restoration. The situation is so hopeless that even the animals groan and cry out to God (Joel 1:18, 20). This description of the “day of the Lord” is not what Israel expects or wants to hear. Founded by Abraham, to whom God promised blessing so he could be a blessing to others, Joel’s description of the “day of the Lord” would be impossible for Israel to imagine, let alone accept. This depiction of total loss was unfathomable.

In chapter two, Joel leaves no doubt as to the reality of devastation, for the locusts of chapter one have turned into the relentless army of chapter two. Fearless, this numberless army stays the course and is worse than any armies that have gone before or might come afterwards.

In 2:12-17, Joel returns to the call to repentance issued in chapter one (1:13-20). However, this time the sense of hopelessness is replaced by a glimmer of hope in God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13b). There is, however, a catch. Reprieve is a contingent blessing, one that depends on how Israel responds to God’s call to return. Joel makes it plain that a change of heart and a commitment to follow God is the requirement for the reprieve. With a cry of desperation that one more appeal could make a difference, God pleads: “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (2:12-13a).

With a strong sense of urgency, Joel calls on Israel to, in the words of an old gospel song, “Give God a Try.” There’s no guarantee, but “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him …” (2:14a, b)? Or as the NLT puts it in 2:14a, b, “Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse.”

Joel calls for the entire community to gather, suckling infants, children, and aged alike, to fast, weep, and plead for God’s mercy. This appeal to God is accompanied by a reminder to God that Israel is God’s heritage. The reminder is an impetuous plea since Israel has not followed God’s commandments and can only hope that God will respond with an undeserved kindness—a kindness based on God’s grace and character—the same character presented to Moses so many years ago (Exodus 34:6).

The good news is that later in chapter two and in Joel 3:17-21, the vision of restoration matches and surpasses the vision of devastation. In fact, Joel will use the same locust imagery to describe the blessings that are to come. In chapter 2, Joel writes:

“I will repay you for the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent against you” (Joel 2:25).

What a powerful confirmation that our worst days contain the seed for our best days. For this reason we can always find hope in God.

In this season of Lent, is not Israel’s plea our plea too? Should not we also fast and cry out to God? Should we not recognize that any reprieve God gives is neither earned entitlement nor priceless privilege? Rather, God’s forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s grace, of God’s love and care for humanity. Without a doubt, Joel would agree.