Before It Happens: “Judgments of the ‘Day of the Lord’” – Joel 2

minority-reportOn September 25, 2015 the Business Insider web report offered a fascinating article called “Predictive Policing.” In the article, the author referred to a Tom Cruise movie from 2002 called “Minority Report”. The article described the movie as an action mystery-thriller directed by Steven Spielberg, and noted the story was set in the Washington, D.C. area in the year 2054. At that time the so-called “PreCrime” police unit was tasked with apprehending criminals before they committed the crime, based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “precogs”. It sounded like a powerful thriller for those who like the science fiction genre. My chief interest, though, was in the information found in the article that described how police are, in fact, using stores of computer collected and analyzed data to suggest where police resources should be directed, (i.e. areas where crimes will likely occur) – as a computer “predicts” when and such help should be concentrated. I was fascinated with the notion that such “predictions” could actually one day be found a reliable aid in crime deterrence.

The fact is, though, that predicting coming trouble isn’t a new thing. God mercifully sent prophets centuries ago who did just that. In our last lesson, we began recalling some of the words of an ancient prophet in “The Book of Joel.”

As we look into Joel 2 in this lesson, it may be helpful if we recall that in our last lesson we made the point that it wasn’t a desire to punish that drove God to send prophets – it was a function of His grace to warn us. We made clear that these passages are sometimes cryptic, and often uncomfortable to wade through, but God was anxious that His people know what was to come. The passage begins:

2:1 “Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming…”

Does it sound like God desired to hide what was happening? Not at all! The truth is, that however hard, however uncomfortable, we need the message of a coming reckoning of our lives. We need to know that God is not aloof, and our sin is not private and easily forgotten. Israel needed that message too!

Go back the Book of Joel and you will recall that God used a graphic symbol to get the people’s attention. They saw a massive locust invasion described in vivid terms in Joel 1. The warning of God was made plain: this was to be an illustration of something larger that would devastate the children of Israel in the days ahead. The prophecy was horrid, messy and terrible… but that wasn’t the end of the story. Prophecy wasn’t designed to leave people in the “soup” of judgment. Let me explain…

Do you recall that Jesus used the scene of a woman in childbirth as His “go to” illustration concerning the prophecy of the end times of the human program? In Matthew 24, tucked into His warnings of “wars and rumors of wars” He offered these words: (Matthew 24:8 “But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”). He said that when the time of judgment drew near, the birth pangs would begin, but that pain was just the beginning of the end. It is particularly helpful, I think, at that moment of pain to recall that the end is not in pain – but in a new life. The pain will pass.

In the same way, some prophecies are revealed in very messy terms. Some of them are not linear prophecies – neatly unfolded in chronological order like the organized closing argument of a lawyer. Rather, as God unwinds the cosmos around us and replaces it with a new Heaven and earth, there is a painful and nasty process – but it is designed to bring forth something wonderful and exciting. This isn’t the only example of such pain-ridden processes in life.

• Think about the first morning the athlete begins training for a spot on the Olympic team. It is still dark out, and they get up and head out the door in their sweat pants and t-shirt – a body is about to begin to be altered. There will be much pain ahead, but the end may find them standing on a platform with the whole world watching them receive a medal.

• Think of the confused and distressed drug addict that checks into the clinic and begins the process of stripping from within the body the harmful and powerful drugs. The process will be disgusting, but it will restore the life that was ebbing away. If they follow the given instructions, they will likely exit new and different people.

• Closer to more of us, consider the person beginning the terrible process of losing many, many pounds on a necessary but agonizing diet. The end will be greater health, but the path to get there may not be very pretty.

All of these examples are arduous and painful processes that are designed to end well. So it is with God’s eventual and dramatic end to the history of human rebellion. Time will surrender to eternity, and mutiny will be replaced by worship!

Joel’s opening vision was stark, powerful and heartbreaking – but the locust devastation provided a picture to refocus Israel on coming judgment – and encourage them with the message that it would end well.

This prophecy is more than it appears on the surface. It is a story of the world God made, and what He is going to do with it. It is the story of what God did for His people, Israel – and what He will do to bring them to full surrender to Him. Like the intricate settings and battles of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, there is detail and drama. We must not become quickly impatient for the revealed ending and miss the weight of the struggle – because the prophets aren’t in a hurry to over skip the painful details.

Here is why. God’s faithful character is uniquely revealed in the depths of a painful struggle. His glory is best discovered in a commanding triumph over the rebels, and His vast wisdom most clear in the rich texture of the prophetic struggle.

In detail, chapter two is probably the weightier part of the message of this prophet’s record. The chapter turns on the words: “The Day of the Lord.” This phrase was used five times in Joel beginning with Joel 1:15 (see also: 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14). You cannot begin reading the second chapter for but a few words and the phrase appears yet again.

Because the prophet did not begin with a definition, we will need to discern the meaning of the phrase FROM the text. As we seek to do so, we will see this truth emerge…

Key Principle: The “Day of the Lord is an extended period of time in which God deals with Israel’s constant rejection of Him.

It begins with their veiling from the former profound relationship with Him, and end with their restoration beyond any further judgment at Messiah’s return and judgment of His people. We will be able to discern this by looking at the best passage in the Bible on the subject – Joel 2.

When the prophets use the term “day” they don’t always seem to mean a chronological 24-hour period.

Think with me about what we see in the prophetic literature. The term “day” always appears to refer to time, but some references appear to be more than a single calendar day:

1. There is the term “Day of man’s judgment” in 1 Corinthians 4:3 referencing the current economy, when men have control over human jurisprudence- i.e. where men “run the courts.”

2. The “Day of Christ” is mentioned six times in Scripture (1 Cor. 1: 8; 5: 5; 2 Cor. 1: 14; Phil. 1: 6, 10; 2: 16) and appears to refer to a time period when Christ will come to snatch away the church (as described in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13– 18) from the earth, bringing up the Christians of the church age to be with Him forever (Jn. 14: 1– 3).

3. Another term is the “Day of God” (cp. 2 Peter 3:12) seems to refer to the final disposition of heaven and earth (when they ‘pass away’) as God remakes things using devastation and fire.

4. With these, there is also the “Day or the Lord” which seems to include several profound kinds of judgment of God on His people Israel, and on the nations before, during and after the Tribulation.

Based on these uses of the term “day” in the context of judgment, the word doesn’t appear to be only used of 24-hour periods, but sometimes may be reckoned a protracted period of time.

What did the prophets mean by the “Day of the Lord” as best we can tell?

The specific phrase occurs nineteen times by name throughout the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, including once by the prophet Obadiah (1:15), five times in Joel (1:15; 2: 1, 11, 31; 3: 14), three times by Amos (Amos 5:18 twice and 5:20), three times by Isaiah (2:12; 13:6, 9), twice by Ezekiel (13:5; 30:3), three times by Zephaniah (1:7 and 1:14 twice), once by Zechariah (14:1) and once by Malachi (4:5). Add to that other occurrences of “that day” or “that great day” and you will pile on another seventy-five places where it was mentioned in at least a cursory way.

Rather than define the terms outright, I would like you to build with me a construct for the meaning of the “Day of the Lord” as we follow the record of Joel 2.

Our text offers descriptions of the “Day of the Lord”: beginning with the call to assemble because of its impending arrival.

After Joel called the people in 2:1 to: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the Lord is coming.” He went on to describe the event…

First, the “Day of the Lord” was swiftly approaching.

Joel 2:1b “…Surely it is near.”

From God’s perspective, Israel was running out of time before an event that was part of Divine judgment would come upon them. The importance of that phrase is simple: People always think they have more time in life to straighten out their walk with God. Part of the blessing of warning is it reminds us to pull against our natural inclination to believe we have more time.

If you are honest with yourself, can you admit that you often think you can accomplish more in the day ahead than you actually can? Are you a victim of your own unrealistic expectations? If you are, you need to listen carefully when the Lord calls you to repentance and renewal – because you will tend to think you have more time.

Don’t forget, when you read “near” in the Bible, that when we talk in terms of time with God, we have to be careful, since He dwells outside of the dimension of time. There is a Scripture connecting events of the “Day of the Lord”, mentioned some time later in the words of Peter in Acts 2:16

“…but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams; 18 Even on My bond slaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit And they shall prophesy. 19 ‘And I will grant wonders in the sky above And signs on the earth below, Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. 20 ‘The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood, Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. 21 ‘And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

That quote from Joel was made as Peter defended the men who were speaking in tongues in Acts 2. In my view, Peter carefully noted that with the coming of the Spirit to begin indwelling the believers, the “Day of the Lord” judgments were commencing. Something at Pentecost appeared to be acting as the beginning point of the “Day of the Lord.” If my analysis of his reference is true, the “Day of the Lord” is a period of judgment beginning with the celebration of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the Spirit of God fell upon the church. The effect that event had on Israel will become clear as we study.

In any case, don’t miss the point: People overestimate the amount of time they have to get their life straightened out – so we all need reminders that life is short and judgment is certain.

Second, the “Day of the Lord” would bring a darkening veil over the discerning eyes of God’s people.

Critical to the understanding of the nature of the “Day of the Lord” is the sentence that included the nature of the judgment – it was a “darkening” or “veiling.” The writer continued:

Joel 2:2 A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. As the dawn is spread over the mountains, So there is a great and mighty people;

The words evoke the image of the blanket of locusts that blocked out the sky. In the same way, the people of God would experience a darkening and a gloom. It may be the reference was to natural disturbances – and clearly that was part of the issue. At the same time, it appears that a veil descending over their hearts would also arrive, and it would make a clear walk with God a distant, vague, and darkened pursuit. Paul appears to have spoken of this “veiling” as a “hardening” in Romans 11:25:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 27 “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.”

If the “Day of the Lord” includes a judgment that placed a curtain of darkness between the Jewish people and God for a time, one form of Divine judgment seems to be God placing a distance from Himself in the heart of someone that expresses (in word or deed) their desire for Him to “leave them alone.” Don’t miss that: God may politely withdraw from you when your life message to Him is that you don’t want Him bugging you. It is ONLY His grace that keeps needling you with embarrassing guilt. Your feeling of guilt isn’t your problem; your stubborn and rebellious spirit is! Part of God’s mercy can be seen in His uninvited conviction.

In the case of Israel, the veiling or hardening was neither total nor final, but it was part of the whole judgment.

Third, the “Day of the Lord” (though offering some resemblance of other judgments) was unique in the prophetic scheme.

This was both am exceptional and distinctive time…

Joel 2:2b “…There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations.

In the Bible, the “time of Jacob’s Trouble” (called by Jesus the “Great Tribulation”) was described in Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 exactly that way – as a time unlike any other. The description in those places are clearly of judgment so heavy on the earth that the world would have been decimated were it not for God putting a stop to those days.

Unique judgment requires special attention. The fact that God clearly marked out a coming time that was unlike any other was an “historical highlighter” marking something very important. To God, the time of purifying His people wasn’t a WASTE of resources. The destruction of the landscape was “entirely worthwhile” as God drew people back.

It is worth remembering that even the hard times that calls us and draw us back to God are precious times in His sight. In some cases, those severe moments of discipline are the moments He marks as the most important in our lives. So it was with Israel in the “Day of the Lord.”

Fourth, the “Day of the Lord” includes severe destruction of the landscape through Divine judgment as a main feature.

Obviously, if you are a Bible student, the description here fits well with the later description of the Great Tribulation…

Joel 2:3 A fire consumes before them And behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them But a desolate wilderness behind them, And nothing at all escapes them.

Parts of the Great Tribulation are described in those exact terms, as in Revelation 8:6

And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them. 7 The first sounded, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. 8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood, 9 and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.”

It appears the “Day of the Lord” includes the Tribulation Period revealed most completely in Revelation 6-19, with the seven seal judgments (Rev.6), the seven trumpet judgments (Rev. 8) and the seven bowl or vial judgments (Rev. 16).

Here is the truth: when we are rebellious, it is nearly impossible to get our attention until we face catastrophic failure. Anything short of destruction of our dreams will easily be explained away and ignored. In the case of Israel, the whole earth will appear to turn against them because they won’t run to God until there isn’t anywhere else to run! Are you really any different? Most of us can readily admit that we aren’t good at repentance, and we aren’t quick at picking up on the signs of judgment.

It will take a near decimation of the world to bring Israel to her knees. She won’t realize she needs God until there is literally no stone left unturned in her attempt to find her way without Him.

Fifth, the “Day of the Lord” includes the appearance of a massive army, just as the locusts graphically pictured.

The story of “The Great Tribulation” in Revelation 16 and 19 ends with a massive military buildup on the earth that prepares to destroy Israel – but meets doom in the coming of Messiah and His forces from Heaven. Note how the “Day of the Lord” in Joel 2 appears to include this time…

It includes the movement of a swift army: Joel 2:4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; And like war horses, so they run.

That massive army moved with great noise: Joel 2:5 With a noise as of chariots They leap on the tops of the mountains, Like the crackling of a flame of fire consuming the stubble, Like a mighty people arranged for battle.

The army that struck terror into hearts as it advanced: Joel 2:6 Before them the people are in anguish; All faces turn pale.

It appeared as a well-trained, overwhelming force on the earth: Joel 2:7 They run like mighty men, They climb the wall like soldiers; And they each march in line, Nor do they deviate from their paths. 8 They do not crowd each other, They march everyone in his path; When they burst through the defenses, They do not break ranks. 9 They rush on the city, They run on the wall; They climb into the houses, They enter through the windows like a thief.

The militia seemed unstoppable, and blocked out even the stars (dust cloud or aircraft?) above in their overwhelming power and might: Joel 2:10: Before them the earth quakes, The heavens tremble, The sun and the moon grow dark And the stars lose their brightness.

The gathering of an army that would surely destroy them without God’s intervention was foretold in detail in Zechariah 12:12-14:5:

The burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. … 2 “Behold, I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that causes reeling to all the peoples around; and when the siege is against Jerusalem, it will also be against Judah… 7 The Lord also will save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David… 10 “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. 11 In that day there will be great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, every family by itself…14: 2 For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. 3 Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. 4 In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east… 5 You will flee by the valley of My mountains … Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him!

In the end, Israel won’t save herself. They will finally see God’s Son, their Messiah, and He will bring them rescue – just as He did for many of us.

Salvation isn’t about our ability to find God – it is about our response to Him when He stands right in front of our messed up lives and calls us to take His hand and follow Him. God isn’t interested in people “getting their lives together” so they can meet Him. We can’t do it. He is interested in us recognizing we have no one who loves us like He does.

Israel will see their long lost Son. They will recognize Him for His past sacrifice for them. They will weep – but they will reach out for His hand. That is the only thing for which God waits.

Sixth, God’s rescuing army also arrives.

Mid-way through the description of the advance of the army, the prophet appears to have changed his description from the opponents of God, to the army God sent in response:

Joel 2:11 The Lord utters His voice before His army; Surely His camp is very great, For strong is he who carries out His word. The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, And who can endure it?

Isn’t this just like the description of the assembly called from Heaven for the defeat of the armies defiant against God found in Revelation 19: 17?

“…Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in mid heaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” 19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army.

The “Day of the Lord” doesn’t only include the Tribulation Period, but also the end of that time with the coming of the Lord. The gathering of the nations was organized to attempt to destroy Israel and remove any memory of the God of the Bible – but then God showed up.

Never count God out in the fight… Never! When the darkness descends and you look in every direction but find no alternatives – look UP! God isn’t aloof. He knows where you are, who you are, what you’ve been doing, and where you are headed.

Many in Israel may have rejected the Messiah today, but He hasn’t rejected them. When the time is right, He will show Himself. At the same time, He is removing any doubt that there is another way for them to be reconciled to God and find peace on this planet. It isn’t until God removes the other options that we see the truth – He is all we have – but He is all was need.

Seventh, when God’s army appears, His people will again be called to repent.

A message was passed to the Jewish people to get serious with God yet again, as their time had run out. Even though God called for generations, yet He called again. Long after they had forgotten His love… His patience called them back to Him:

The message of repentance will be offered to His people: Joel 2:12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.

The opening to return to God’s arms will be offered to His people: Joel 2:13b “…Now return to the Lord your God,

Is that true of YOU today? Have you been on the run trying to make it without God, but you sense Him calling you today? Don’t ignore Him. In fact, listen to the way the prophet, the SAME GUY who described the decimation of things all over the world, described the character of God…

Joel 2:13 b “…For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness And relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a drink offering For the Lord your God?

Just as Zechariah 12:10 reminded us of the coming response of the people of Israel, so Joel cites the turning of the hearts of the people to the Lord in the face of the battle between God and the nations. The appearance of the army of God will be a new opportunity to bow before the Lord. The people will recognize the day and nothing will be more important!

In Joel 2:15 they are called to “Blow a trumpet”… to “Consecrate a fast” … 16 Gather the people… Assemble the elders…

Even the long resistant spiritual leaders of Israel will call the people to repentance and recognize their own sins:

Joel 2:17 Let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, And let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, And do not make Your inheritance a reproach, A byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?’”

Clearly this will be a day when Israel will understand the choice they have to finally see the Lord clearly once again.

Here is the simple truth: God rescues when He is invited to do so. He saves when we recognize we need saving. As long as we think we can run our lives without Him, He lets us try. Here is what Scripture makes plain: It won’t work for Israel, and it won’t work for you.

The “Day of the Lord” includes God’s heavy hand of judgment to get His people to stop running.

In our next lesson, we will finish the chapter with God’s wonderful rescue – but don’t leave the conviction of this moment…

The penalty for constant neglect of God and their invitation of evil while distancing themselves from God was this: God withdrew. Intimate knowledge of God became veiled. For dark generations the Jewish people suffered. Many invented marvelous things, and some achieved notoriety and wealth. Yet, through it all they were living in turmoil under the “fog” of a spiritual life largely darkened. The prophet explained it.

When we push away from God, He politely lets us walk in the peril of our own arrogance.

God’s judgment in His withdrawal is always palpable. They KNEW something shattered their identity. Even after the State of Israel has attempted to offer stability and identity to world Jewry, still they know the world waits for their destruction and they don’t know why. It hurts. It is lonely. It feels wrong and isn’t clear why these things are happening.

Yet, God’s promise didn’t stop at pain and rejection. There is coming an END to the pain. Significant to the narrative was this record of its end:

Joel 2:25 “Then I will make up to you for the years That the swarming locust has eaten, … 26 … Then My people will never be put to shame. 27 “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, And that I am the Lord your God, And there is no other; And My people will never be put to shame.

Look at that. Grab the import of a nation redeemed, lives restored. Think about many people who have lived apart from God for much of their lives, only to find peace in the Savior late in life.

In a mobile home backed up to the church property lived a man who came to Grace Church years ago, walking in the back door and looking at the ceiling as though it might fall upon his entrance. I noticed him immediately because His skin was a pale yellow. He was apparently a sickly man with an advanced and serious illness. He decided to walk across his back yard one morning and walk into the church. At the invitation, he came forward, and we talked for a time after the service. He told me that he came to Jesus in his youth, many years before. He recounted God’s call to send him into a mission field, and how he told God “No!” in a church service, because he had things he wanted to accomplish in his life. He didn’t think God understood how hard the mission field would be for him. No one knew how much he was wrestling with God, but in a matter of weeks he left the church, never to return until he walked in our door. Then he made the remark that I will never forget. He said: “I am old and I am very sick. My time here is short. I know what the Lord wanted for me, and what a WASTE I made of my life!” We prayed together, and he sobbed as he asked Jesus to take him back after years of wandering. I opened to Joel 2 and asked God to follow His own nature and “give back” for the years eaten away by the locusts of self-centered thinking. In the next months, I had the chance to visit the man a number of times, and each one surprised me, more and more. I would walk in, and he would be smiling, excited about his study of the Word. “I missed God through my life. I knew He was watching, but He knew I wasn’t listening! How glad I am that He restored me!” He didn’t live long, but he died happy.

You have the opportunity to ask for God’s rescue TODAY. That is God’s mercy to YOU. Won’t you respond before the locusts eat your life?

God waits to be asked.

Randy Alcorn reminds us that when we listen to the vocabulary of the Bible, it reveals something powerful with its language of God’s heart for struggling and wayward people. He noted: God often uses words like reconcile, redeem, restore, recover, return, renew, regenerate, and resurrect. God wants to put back the relationship that rebellion and mutiny is trying to keep at arm’s length. (My paraphrase from a note he made in Fifty Days in Heaven).