Ash Wednesday

Publicly renouncing our sin testifies to our confidence in God’s mercy

dust running through closed hand
Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 14, 2024

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

The book of Joel is set amid the terrors of a plague of locusts, which, in the eyes of the prophet-poet, portends the imminent “day of the LORD.” The people are called together to turn back to God, so that God might intervene and stop the plague. Notably, the book of Joel does not name any specific sin that it thinks is responsible for this plague. Sin is not the topic of this poetry. Rather, most of Joel 1:1–2:17 laments in harrowing detail the decimation of the land and the food supply by the locusts. The locusts are not necessarily a punishment for something in particular; they are an all-consuming disaster, and the prophet knows that God has the power to end it.

The lectionary reading includes two portions of a longer poem. Joel 2:1–2 opens the poem with an announcement of the coming day of the LORD: a day of terrible power and catastrophic destruction—what we might refer to now as the “end of the world”—that the swarming bugs seem to be ushering in. Joel 2:3–11, omitted from the appointed text, describes in detail the horrors of the locusts, using metaphors of war horses, a devouring fire, and a rampaging army. God is depicted as the commander of this army. Consistent with much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Joel understands God as having control over the natural world, and thus the locusts would be under God’s authority, just as rain and wind and fire would be.

Joel 2:12–17 begins a call to repentance from God and the prophet to all the people, structured by a long list of plural imperatives: return, rend, return, blow, sanctify, call, gather, sanctify, assemble, gather. The first three verbs, which are voiced by God, call for repentance, a turning back to God. This turning is described as an inward reorientation, not just a performance in the sanctuary: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:13). The call for return implies that, whatever the particularities of their sins, the people have wandered away from God. They have put distance between themselves and the divine; they have turned their faces away from God’s holiness.

The next seven verbs, voiced by the prophet, all have to do with bringing the people together. In addition to the straightforward verbs call, gather, and assemble, “blow the trumpet” invites the sounding of the shofar to announce the assembly. This phrase echoes the opening imperative of the poem, where “blow the trumpet” had been a means to warn the people; now it is a means to call the people together. Sanctify carries the sense of being set apart for the sake of gathering, and specifically being made ready for a religious gathering. Everyone in the community is to come together, from infants to the elderly. Even a newly married couple is exhorted to interrupt their wedding night for the sake of this communal repentance (verse 16).

Between the sets of imperative verbs, the prophet offers a rationale for this penitential gathering. First, the prophet testifies to God’s forgiving nature: “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13). Versions of this description, which may be familiar to us from liturgical assurances of pardon or declarations of forgiveness, can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible, including Exodus 34:36, Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Jonah 4:2, and at least four times in the book of Psalms. 

In Christian preaching it can be important to remember that mercy is not a characteristic God suddenly takes on in the New Testament, nor is the “God of the Old Testament” different than the “God of the New Testament.” Rather, mercy is an ongoing feature of God’s nature throughout Scripture. 

After testifying to God’s mercy, the prophet says, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?” This turn of phrase—“Who knows?”—can be found in other depictions of repentance throughout the Hebrew Bible. When David and Bathsheba’s child dies in infancy, David says, “While the child was alive I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live’” (2 Samuel 12:22). In the book of Jonah, the king of Nineveh’s proclamation calling the people to repentance reads, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:9). 

The book of Esther also contains the phrase, which there is broadly related to the act of repentance, but more specifically is part of meaning-making in a book that refrains from directly mentioning God. As Mordecai tries to convince Esther to intervene with the king to counter Haman’s murderous edict against the Jews, Mordecai muses, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). 

In each of these cases, God’s deliverance from catastrophe is not described as a guarantee. It would require profound hubris for us, as it would for these biblical characters, to say that we know the mind of God or that we can ever be completely sure of what action God will take. Nevertheless, God’s merciful nature is known, and the prophet Joel boldly testifies to it. His hope is that God, too, will turn (verse 14), and that the relationship between God and the people can be made whole. 

Gathering together for personal and communal repentance on Ash Wednesday is an act of hope. The very act of coming together and publicly renouncing our sin testifies to our confidence in God’s mercy. One does not have to look far in this world to see great calamity. It often does seem that “the great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast” (Zephaniah 1:14). We live in a state of communal, systemic sinfulness that wreaks powerful consequences. We also know that God has the power to avert those disasters and to help us to change our ways, and so we come together to pray and to hope: Who knows?