Week of June 26

Heed God’s Warning Signs

Read: Joel 1-3; 2 Timothy 1

“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster”
Joel 2:12–13, ESV


John Flavel has said, “Christ is not sweet ’til sin be made bitter to us.” The key word in Joel’s short prophecy is judgment—namely, God’s judgment! Joel employs a locust plague that had recently occurred in Judah to warn of God’s coming judgment when He will intervene in history to vindicate His righteousness. Israel would experience the terrible nature of His wrath (2:1-11), as would the entire nation (3:1-17). Like a ray of sunshine that bursts forth from thick, dark clouds, this time will culminate in great blessing for those who have placed their trust in the Lord (2:18-32; 3:18-21). Indeed, all who call on the Lord’s name will be saved (2:32)!

Understanding the Bible Context

Who is Joel and what is his message?
Joel’s name means “Yahweh is God,” and his prophetic message to Judah certainly makes this clear. Little is known about this man, but he identifies himself as the son of Pethuel, whose name means “persuaded of God.” The nature of the prophecy and the references to Zion and the Lord’s house may indicate that he lived near Jerusalem.

We may not know much about Joel, but his message to our hearts is clear (cf. 2:1; 3:1). His writing style is unlike many other Old Testament prophecies because he does not synchronize it with a king or any other datable person or event (HCBC). Joel also does not tell his audience what behaviors needed to be changed, which is quite unusual for Old Testament prophets. Furthermore, his prophecies are more formal than ethical/moral exhortations (HCBC). However, Joel saw God’s action through a devastating locust plague, and he declared that it was a symbol of God’s judgment. Let’s pursue our own application of the passage through the lens of catastrophe and God’s purpose in it.
The critical need for repentance amid calamity
Part of the beauty of the book is the fact that the prophet writes to comfort a people who have already experienced great calamity (NAC). The people were on the verge of starvation (e.g., 1:11-12, 16-17), and they also are a prime target for an attack from the north (2:1-11). Yet, in this assault from Gentiles, he sees with understanding the redemptive plan of God in history. One may sense the pressure mounting against a dam that is about to burst.

Joel wants the people not to attempt to hold back and only perform external signs of repentance. He wants them to burst forth and pour out their cries to God for His forgiveness and to do so with their whole hearts (2:12). The prophet does not want them to despair, but to reach out to God with faith (cf. Habakkuk 2:4). In other places God’s people are encouraged to: “incline your heart unto the Lord your God (Joshua 24:23), “circumcise yourselves to the Lord” (Jeremiah 4:4), “wash your heart from wickedness” (Jeremiah 4:14), and “break up your fallow ground” (Hosea 10:12; NAC). This usage calls for the entire nation as one to renounce and disown their sin. By returning to God, a sinner can change the arc of his or her destiny.

Repentance leads to redemption. Joel did not direct the people to despair; instead, he called them to renewed faith (cf. Habakkuk 2:4). A call to “return” meant that God had not given up on them. The Bible is filled with similar calls to return/repent (see Joshua 24:23; Jeremiah 4:4, Hosea 10:12). Duane Garrett teaches us that all of these ideas are subsumed and summarized by one verb (šûb; NAC). The word may denote a physical return to a place, but the term also has a critical theological meaning. Joel called the “covenant community” to return to God in the sense of repentance. They did this by wholly renouncing sin. This sums up the complete message of biblical ethics. Our ritual acts of worship will be useless without a sincere return to God (2:12, 13, “with all your heart,” and “rend your hearts”). So what must we do?
Steps toward our own forgiveness and healing
The way to do this includes repenting with the wholeness of one’s being (heart). The sinner is to feel the weight of his or her sin and not engage in repentance flippantly. Israelites were known to rend their garments to indicate outwardly some deeply held inner feeling. Here, Joel calls upon the people to “rend their hearts” and not their garments! He captured the very essence of biblical ethics when he demands genuine repentance, without which the people will suffer a terrible fate. As Matthew Henry once said, “If we be ruled by sin, we shall inevitably be ruined by it.” Joel expected them to follow through with right behavior that came from true submission to God.

Applying the Passage to Our Lives

Newer automobiles are equipped with all sort of warnings sounds and signals as well as notifications when service is due. My truck begins notifying me that a regular service interval is forthcoming by a printed announcement that vanishes when I start the engine. If I delay with the needed service, the announcement stays on the screen until I dismiss it. If I delay longer, then the notification stays on the screen and cannot be dismissed until the service is complete! I suppose that I could ignore the warning until the vehicle ceases to function, but that would be costly. In Ashlock speak: warnings are for my benefit, not my detriment. Hmm. There is a spiritual application to the anecdote. God’s warnings are for our benefit, and He ultimately may fulfill His redemptive purposes in our lives through some calamity.

Here is a thought for our response to national calamity. There will be no feeling quite like seeing our nation experience doom because we have been unwilling to repent of our sin and return to God. It has been said, “dangers are most fatal when least feared.” Joel offers us hope in the midst of despair when he writes that God will feed (2:24-26), pour out His Spirit (2:28), judge the nations (3:2), and deliver and restore the fortunes of His repentant people (2:32-3:1)! The call to us today is to be such a people who long for God’s forgiveness and blessing.

Reflecting Upon and Discussing the Passage

1. Consider the occurrences of national calamity in recent years: widespread natural disasters, market crashes, health care crises, terror attacks, and massive social unrest. We do well to seek God’s face in these times and to turn to Him with all our hearts, seeking His healing and help. Ask God to point out ways to you that He may be calling for repentance in these events.

2. For Families: Our children face trauma daily, or so it seems. It is important for parents to actively shield their children from overexposure to much of what they see on television news and are exposed to on social media. It is also important to guide their moral development and teach them how to respond to God’s voice in a crisis. Here is a simple learning activity.

Have the children stand next to you as the parent calls out a warning. It may be something like, “The hot summer sun will burn your skin without protection!” Ask them what they heard you say. Then have them stand in the next room while you call out another warning (e.g., “Make sure you wear proper clothing when the outside temperature is below freezing”). Ask them if they can hear it. Then have them turn on their favorite television show or video game and announce another warning. Ask them if they hear it. Gather them in your arms and remind them how important it is to draw close to God in order to hear His messages clearly. They are always for our benefit.

May your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock