Joel – The Locust Plague

Still working on Chapter 10 of The Sky Below, hopefully next week. In the meantime I thought you might be interested in the text of my first sermon that I talked about yesterday. If you’d like to hear it instead, you can listen to the audio here. Comments welcome. Think this is something I should do again? All verses are from the NRSV (retrieved from the Bible Gateway).

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Introduction

Hear this, O Elders, give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

The Old Testament is fun isn’t it?

Today we continue in our summer series, exploring parts of the Bible we may not know very well. I hadn’t read Joel at all before three weeks ago, and I suspect I’m not the only one. But it’s an interesting book, one that can teach us about God’s forgiveness even when we repeatedly screw up. It forecasts Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon all of us, and it makes the day of the Lord both present and yet to come.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be a blessing to you and everyone here. Amen.

First some Joel 101; Joel is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. We don’t know a whole lot about his history or his exact position, though there’s reason to believe he was a temple functionary of some kind given his concern over the daily liturgy. The book is primarily concerned with a terrible locust plague that has befallen the country and Joel’s call for a national day of prayer and lamentation, appealing to the Lord’s sovereignty to restore the land. The day of the Lord, God’s return in judgment, is central to Joel’s interpretation of the locust plague and events yet to come.

When we talk about the Old Testament there are a couple of things we need to figure out. When did these events take place? And how literally should we take what’s happening?

Joel presents a bit of a challenge when it comes to pinning a precise date on the book. There are arguments for putting the book as early as 900 BC or as late as 180 BC, and just as many for somewhere in the middle. Almost every argument in favor of one date has a counter-argument.

Some of the things commentators and biblical scholars consider when trying to place the book are the quotations from other prophets (Ezekiel and Amos primarily), the list of enemies of Israel singled out (Tyre, Sidon and Philistia), astronomical events like eclipses, apocalyptic language, references to the wall of Jerusalem, the list goes on.

Personally, in the case of Joel, I think it doesn’t matter. The story is self-contained and yet it follows a pattern in which the people of God turn away from him, letting other gods or cultures seep into their traditions, and then God has to bring them back.

As for how literally we should take the story here we have to be careful. There’s a temptation as modern readers of prophets to project our knowledge of the New Testament and modern understanding of the Bible and God onto these texts. We think they are speaking to us as much as they were to the prophet’s contemporaries. And there is something to be learned from the text as modern readers, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point to my standing up here and talking about it. But we need to be careful how we read these books. The way things were understood by a person 2500 years ago (give or take a few centuries) are different than how we understand them today.

That being said, I’m pretty convinced a locust is a locust. More on this in a minute. I don’t have an outline, but if you’d like to follow along in the book, that’d be great.

The Locust Plague (Personal Level)

Chapters 1 and 2 of Joel follow a similar structure. Chapter 1 Verses 2-12 and Chapter 2 Verses 1-11 describe the devastation of the locust plague, and its particular impact on the people of God.

Joel wants his listeners to understand the magnitude of what is happening. He calls upon the Elders to affirm that this is the worst thing they’ve ever seen, something they’ll tell their grand-children and their great grand-children about. Believe it or not, attacks by plagues of locusts were not an uncommon occurrence. In fact locust swarms still devastate farmers in Africa today, and in 1954 a swarm of locusts flew from Northwest Africa to Great Britain.

Fun fact (from National Geographic): a desert locust swarm can be 460 square miles in size and pack 40 to 80 million locusts in every square mile. A locust eats its weight (about 2 grams) in plant vegetation in a day and eats much more when in a swarm. A swarm of the kind I’ve just described could eat 423 million pounds of vegetation in a day.

That sounds an awful lot like Biblical proportions to me.

And Joel’s locusts are very thorough. As we see in verse 4:

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.

There’s some debate about whether the types of locusts refer to species of insect or different stages of development. NIV goes with stages, NRSV goes with types, one of the reasons I’m using the NRSV text today. But Joel’s point is that the devastation is absolute. Everything on the vine, in the field, in the orchard, and in the storeroom is gone.

Joel highlights the specific impact of this devastation to three categories of people: drunkards, priests and farmers. Through each he takes the opportunity to further expand on the character of the locusts’ destruction.

For the drunkard, the sweet wine has been stolen from his lips. Wine at that time was made by pressing grapes and sweet wine was made from the first juices of that process after being fermented briefly in the sun. The drunkard’s depravation and sobriety would have been fairly immediate. If wine is a kind of God given joy, than its depravation might cause one to weep and wail.

Joel definitely had his thesaurus out when writing these passages. There is continued repetition of core ideas, things Joel wants to emphasize. He wants his audience to pay attention. In verse six the locusts have the teeth of a lion and the fangs of a lioness. In verse 7 they use those teeth and fangs to lay waste, splinter, strip and throw down the vines, fig trees and bark from branches.

In verses 8-10 he turns to the priests:

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.

This is a particularly devastating form of grief. Ancient marriages were preceded by a betrothal that formed a deeper connection than what we’d call an engagement. Effectively the man and woman were husband and wife, but would not consummate that relationship until after the wedding ceremony. If a young man died before they could marry and conceive a son, the woman would still be considered a widow, and would mourn her husband and unborn son.

I think this analogy is interesting for a couple of reasons.

The devastation of grain and oil meant that the daily rituals of the temple could not proceed. Effectively the church was cut off from its relationship with God. I think we have no modern equivalent of this. Certainly in this family of believers we don’t have a set liturgy that would affect our experience of God one way or another. We gather together in this place and in our life groups, but even if this building were to burn to the ground, we would still be able to talk to God. We would still to be able to gather together as one body.

But I believe Joel’s choice of the betrothed virgin is not accidental. In Ephesians 5:22-25 and 2 Corinthians 11:2 we get a clearer idea of Jesus as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. We are, as a body of believers, pledged to Christ in anticipation of his return, the day of the Lord. The temple in Joel’s time is cut off from God. Imagine if we were cut off from Christ, from our salvation and ultimate destiny with him. I think at a minimum sackcloth would be called for.

Here we also see how this tragedy has affected the land. The people mourn and the land mourns.

The fields are devastated, the ground mourns, for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.

The health of the land is bound up in the Israelites understanding of God’s covenant with them. The state of creation matters. Our care for creation is an affirmation of what God has done for us. I think some of us have a temptation to separate God and our responsibilities from the state of the world. There might have been a temptation to dismiss the locust plague as not spiritually driven at all, just a freak of nature. But Joel seems pretty clear in later verses that the locusts are God’s army, acting with his will, and action must be taken as a community to save themselves and their covenant with God.

The third group Joel calls out is the farmers. The wheat and barley harvests are gone. Wheat would have been valuable not only to the grain offering, but it was more difficult to grow and so it was a source of pride. Barley was a staple for the poor, and a daily food source. Pomegranates, palm trees and apples, are all symbols of joy and God’s plenty withdrawn. Indeed Joel compares the withering of these fruits to the withering of joy.

So why does Joel mention these groups in specific? One thing I’ll hope you have noticed so far, Joel hasn’t expressly talked about the sin of anyone. We can easily speculate as to the drunkards’ sin. And the priests and the farmers may have succumbed to the perennial practice of Baal worship. Farmers would often pray to fertility idols for the health of their crops. And the priests would bear responsibility not only for their own sins, but the spiritual well-being of the people.

But again, Joel isn’t really talking about the sin of these groups. Fundamentally the purpose of Joel’s words is to bring people into a spirit of lamentation, repentance, and national prayer. Again and again he details the ways in which the locust plague has devastated the land, and the affect this has had on the nation’s ability to communicate with God, and to simply survive.

Do we do this when things go wrong? Do we focus on what needs to be done rather than point the finger? I think it’s natural for us to want to find someone to blame, if nothing else so we know that we aren’t the one at fault. But while we might want Joel to do some real calling out, on the drunkards for lewd and lascivious behavior, on the priests for hypocrisy and lack of spiritual leadership, and on the farmers for growing things besides just wheat and barley, Joel does none of this.

Joel wants to solve the crisis, and to give the people a full understanding of what the crisis means as we’ll see in Chapter 2.

The Locust Plague (Spiritual Implications)

Chapter 2 begins in much the same way as Chapter 1, though the language and scope of Joel’s description has shifted in tone. Why does Joel talk about the Locusts again? There are some commentators who believe that in Chapter 2 Joel isn’t talking about the locusts at all, but rather an invading army. There are a lot of allusions to an invading force, the sounding of an alarm, the rumbling of chariots, charging warriors filing in an unstoppable wave of destruction. But I think as we’ll see what Joel is really doing is providing spiritual context for the physical destruction he detailed in Chapter 1.

Verses 1 and 11 bookend the first section of Chapter 2 and are preceded by the lament from Chapter 1 Verse 15:

Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

Chapter 2 Verse 1:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near…

And in Verse 11:

Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?

Joel’s doing something unusual here. Often in the Minor Prophets, the day of the Lord is talked about in the context of judgment of Israel’s enemies, and indeed we see this in Chapter 3. But Joel is also very clear that God’s people will be held to account as well, for their actions in this specific crisis and in the time yet to come.

There are many parallels to the verses in Chapter 1. Joel emphasizes again the extraordinary nature of these events in Chapter 2 verse 2, a great and powerful army descends upon them the like of which has never been seen. He compares the locusts to charging war-horses in verse 4 and crackling like flames of fires in verse 5, similar to his comparison to lions in Chapter 1.

In verse 9 we get the same progression of destruction we got from Chapter 1 verse 4:

They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the house, they enter through the windows like a thief.

There is no place to hide from this army. They will get in every door, every window, every crack. They will destroy everything.

Joel does repeatedly refer to the locusts as an army, and they do show martial behavior.

Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track; they burst through with weapons and are not halted.

I can certainly see how some commentators think this must refer to a human army and not an insect one. I think the weapons Joel is referring to here are those lions teeth and lionesses fangs, not insects carrying tiny spears, but what about the marching? Here’s the interesting thing: locusts do march when in swarms of higher density. They tend to keep to their own path, and don’t scuttle over top of one another, exactly as Joel describes.

No one’s quite sure how they do this, but there’s some thought it might have something to do with the same hormones that cause locusts to eat more in a swarm. It might defy conventional wisdom, but insects can move as an orderly army, and the moving of their millions of tiny wings might resemble the crackling of fire. Joel is certainly poetic at times, but I don’t think these descriptions are springing forth solely from his head without basis in what’s happening around him.

The same could be true in verse 10:

The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

Some scholars have taken this to mean an eclipse or astronomical event, placing Joel somewhere in the 300’s BC to line up with projected events. But there’s a simpler explanation. Swarms of locusts at high density can block out sunlight, even densities as low as 40-80 million per square mile. And there’s no reason to believe that God would have been limited to that number. Billions of locusts would have made it impossible to see the sun, the moon, or two feet in front of you.

But at the same time, it’s important to notice how Joel does want us to interpret these locusts. In verse 11:

The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command.

Joel is using apocalyptic language, correctly placing the locusts as an instrument of God’s judgment. Those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved, but for those who turn away from God there is darkness and gloom. I think Joel is speaking literally of the things they are seeing, and he’s placing them in a larger context.

I don’t know if the day of the Lord as Joel sees it would have played out to final judgment had the people not turned back to God. It’s apparent from verse 14 that he believes God will relent and bless them again if they turn back to him. The incident may have been a corrective, a way to shake up the complacency of a people who had turned away, and would turn away from God again.

What are the ways that we turn away from God? What idols do we worship? Money? Our jobs? Maybe just a fascination with things of the world? Do we place our faith in politics, in football teams, in King LeBron?

Sure it’s not Baal worship. We’re not actively praying to another god for one thing or another. We’re just relying on ourselves as the best judge of our time, our money, our work. God doesn’t tend to correct us with plagues of locusts any more, but maybe we need a kick in the shorts once in a while, something to force us to turn back to him, to rely on him like we know we should.

Joel’s Solution

So how does Joel suggest the nation regain God’s favor? In Chapter 1 Verses 13-14 Joel tells the people what they should do:

Pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God! … Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

The priests would probably already be wearing sackcloth, but to do so for an entire night signified an unusual level of grief. Sackcloth is made of black goat hair and would have been worn around the loins. It’s an outward symbol of sorrow and contrition, something it was probably unusually effective at producing as well as symbolizing.

He elaborates in Chapter 2 Verses 12-17, detailing more of the specific prayers and laments the people should offer to God, as well as highlighting a couple of particulars about the gathering. A couple of things we should notice about these verses.

In verse 13, Joel calls upon them to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Outward symbols of grief like the sackcloth and wailing were part of temple tradition at this time, but to Joel it was less important that they put on a good show, and more important that they cry out to God honestly and from their hearts.

Praying out loud to God in a group of people is something that has always been kind of difficult for me. I’m actually pretty comfortable coming up here and talking at you for 30 minutes, but the most awkward bits for me are the prayer at the start and the finish of the service. It’s why I had to write them. What Joel is calling for here is an extemporaneous expression of feeling, not a planned speech, though he does offer some guidance.

Again this assembly doesn’t concern itself with the guilt or sin of specific people. In verses 15-16 we see each group of people named, down to the children, babies, and recently married brides and bridegrooms who would traditionally be excused from temple services. The whole nation, the whole people of God, were to gather in the temple and appeal to the Lord, regardless of innocence.

And it’s in verse 17 where we might be tempted to wish Joel prescribed something different.

Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’

Here’s the part that sounds a little odd to the modern ear. The people are calling upon God to save them not because they’ve done something wrong, but to save his reputation amongst the other nations. To show his sovereignty and covenant care for his people.

Now it could be argued, somewhat correctly, that the wailing and rending of hearts did imply some amount of culpability, and understanding that God’s judgment in the form of the locust plague was deserved. But it still rings a little odd to not have some kind of direct repentance included in their appeal to God. We worshiped other Gods. We put the concerns of our daily lives ahead of what you want for us. We screwed up.

But this is where an ancient ear would hear this differently, and I actually think this has something to teach us moderns as well. If God did not deliver them from the plague it is very true that other nations would have interpreted this as a failure of their God, or even as reason to believe he does not exist. Again we would want them to see it at least in part as a failure of the people, but that’s our interpretation of events, not theirs.

And furthermore I think we shouldn’t dismiss the idea of God’s sovereignty, provision and glory. We’re very relational when it comes to God, and it is something that is encouraged by our accepting of Jesus Christ, and our New Testament understanding of salvation. But let’s not forget that God is Lord, and he still provides for us. We are as dependent on God for our daily bread as the people of Joel’s time.

God’s Response

After fasting, praying, lamenting and spending the night in sackcloth Joel conveys God’s response. In a nutshell God restores everything he has taken away and that Joel has taken the time to highlight. Grain, wine, and oil are being sent, the pastures are green, the trees and the vine bear fruit, and the rain restores the land. The years of plenty the locusts destroyed will be restored, and Israel shall no longer be a mockery among the nations.

Some things to notice about what God does. In verse 20 we see how he sweeps the locusts into the ocean, and fills the air with the stench of their rotting corpses. Don’t feel too bad for the locusts since they only live a few months anyway, and they got some really good eating along the way. Some commentators suggest that this is another way in which we see the Lord still holding things accountable for their actions even when those actions serve his purposes. Personally, I think it just wasn’t practical to keep a swarm of billions of locusts around. It’s a reassurance certainly that God won’t bring his army against them again, and God’s not shy about claiming responsibility for the locusts as we see in verse 25. But more than that I’m not sure is supported by the text.

God restores everything he has taken away, though not in an overly extravagant way. As we see in verse 23:

For he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.

There’s not an implication here that everything was magically restored. The storehouses that were falling into disrepair would probably still need to be fixed. The grain would still have to be harvested; the grass would need to regrow. God brought more rain than normal, but he didn’t snap his fingers and set everything right in one fell swoop. I’d imagine things were restored pretty quickly, as just watching the effect of good rain on my own garden can be quite astonishing. A tiny zucchini plant can grow leaves as wide as sails in just a few weeks. A good rain could very well restore their harvests to full yield. It’s still heavenly provision, but not outside the realm of the possible.

And God shows his promise for the future, both in the restoration of Israel’s reputation, but in its eventual salvation in the final day of the Lord. He also signals the outpouring of his holy spirit in Verses 28-29:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Not only does this provide a foreshadowing of the events of Acts, we also get a signal of God’s all-encompassing love for his people and for all who believe, regardless of age or station. This verse gives me the ability to share God’s word with all of you, and for all of us to understand scripture.

There’s a lot more about God’s provision and the final Day of Judgment in Chapter 3, more than we’ll have time for today. One thing I would caution for those of you who heard the beginning of Joel and wanted to see how it ends, remember Old Testament context. The enemies named in Chapter 3 were the enemies of Israel at that time, and could be more broadly understood as those who did not believe in the God of the Israelites. And some of these peoples did come to specific destruction, Sidon and Philistia, in the times of the Old Testament. While some of what Joel is talking about may refer to the Day of the Lord yet to come, many things he details have already occurred (as is the case with many things in Revelation by the way).

That said I don’t want you to dismiss these verses either. Chapter 3 Verse 21 (the end of the book) states:

I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.

I think it is hard living in this nation, in this time, to think about people other than ourselves who might be guilty. We see other Christians who say that God hates Gays, or that Muslims are going to hell, and we think those guys are jerks. And they are. God is a God of love, even the God of Joel. He wanted the people to reach out to him. But what about those who don’t, or who even actively work against God? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I don’t think it’s a helpful attitude to say “well those people are going to hell.” Joel didn’t play the blame game, and neither should you. Rather we should think about the things we can do to bring people to God. God is patient, and so should we be. He wants to save everyone. The Day of the Lord is great and terrible, and it is near, but God still gives us a chance to do something about it.

What should we take away?

Some things I want to leave you with today. I think there’s a tendency to see the Old Testament in almost supernatural terms. God did speak directly with the people in columns of fire, but he also spoke through people. He brought a locust plague like none ever seen, and he restored it with early rainfall. The poetic verse Joel uses here is designed to evoke an emotional and spiritual response, to put the heart in a position toward repentance, but it is rooted in the physical, in the way things are actually happening. There is a wider spiritual context for the things that happen in the world, both in Joel’s time and today, and we shouldn’t see those old biblical times as completely separate from our own. Our experience of God can be just as direct as it was in those days. It isn’t just mysticism for people too simple to fully understand God without the Holy Spirit.

I also want us to remember that God is Lord, appropriate since Joel’s name means Yahweh is Lord. The relational approach to God is certainly appropriate, and healthy, both for our spiritual growth, and for illustrating the time we need to spend working on our relationship. But we should remember that God isn’t just our buddy. I think he is our buddy, but he’s also the awesome creator who made the world and provides us with everything, and who has the right to judge.

Finally I think we can see Joel as an example of God’s continuing capacity for forgiveness. Again we can see the God of the Old Testament as kinda judgy. He destroys sinful towns, floods the world, and throws a swarm of locusts at his people. But with Joel and all these Minor Prophets we see the ways in which the Lord wants to help to bring his people back to him. And when we turn back to him, everything is restored, and more.

We shouldn’t be complacent, our idol worship may not involve little statues any more, but there are still things in our lives that pull us away from God. But we can ask for forgiveness. It takes more than an outward display of theatrics, but a real change in our hearts. But if we believe that God is Lord, if we turn back to him, he will forgive us.

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1 Comment

Filed under Faith + Life, Writing

One response to “Joel – The Locust Plague

  1. I listened to the audio of your sermon just now. Good stuff. I hope you get to do more preaching in the future. 🙂

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