What does your Bible look like inside? On careful inspection, if we checked the Bibles of many people who are active in the local church in America (I am speaking of those who study of God’s Word at least in their church services), we may observe a pattern others have noted before us. The text of many Jesus followers is well worn. Some parts are underlined and have scribbles in the margins. Some are filled with colored markings and symbols in an unintentional “code’ that no one but the owner and the Spirit of God may fully perceive. Yet, even in these cases, often there is a pristine portion of their Bible – a section somewhere between the books of Song of Solomon and the opening of Matthew – that appears cleaner. This section is often in near mint condition, with gilded edges still gleaming, despite the condition of the rest of the Bible in which they are found. Perhaps it is because there is so little preaching, as many pastors have openly admitted they struggle with how to bring the Hebrew prophets into the modern pulpit.
Part of the reason may be that we don’t understand the true function of the prophets and their writings. We may read their words and they strike us as vengeful or angry (with all that “God will bring fire and judgment” talk) – and that doesn’t match our understanding of God’s loving character and His general way of doing things. Some believers have made up their mind that the God of Israel was somehow transformed to a warmer and nicer version of Himself when Jesus came (as recorded in the record of the Gospels). Frankly, that is nonsense. God doesn’t change and doesn’t need to change. Perhaps the real issue is, that we haven’t taken enough time to carefully consider Who our God is, and make a true attempt to understand the truth of what the prophets provide as spokesmen of His grace. They weren’t angry – they were giving sharp warnings because people were haplessly but swiftly approaching a perilous cliff in their nation. The fact is that when you are trying to stop a tragedy, your words may often sound shrill and impatient. As we open to the beginning of the recorded words of the Prophet Joel for this lesson, I trust the Spirit of God will make clear this truth…
Key Principle: God’s prophetic warnings are a function of His grace. Those who snub warning eventually suffer judgment by their own choice.
If you are patient, that truth will show itself from our text. Before we begin to investigate the text, I want to remind you of how we got where we are in our churches regarding prophecy and its part of our Scripture diet. Honestly, there are several problems that naturally arise in the modern church when trying to preach or teach the prophets. In fact, I asked some friends who serve in pastoral roles why we don’t do more with the prophets from the pulpit, and they offered some helpful observations.
Honestly, it is hard to make the message of God’s eventual judgment all that helpful and practical to the struggling Christian. Today’s church is bent on practical life preaching and God-help strategies. I am not commenting on that truth here – just observing it. One pastor explained why he has largely skipped speaking on and teaching from the prophets. He noted (my paraphrase):
Sometimes I preach from a specific prophecy (say, concerning the coming of Messiah) and trace the promise to the eventual fulfillment in God’s story. To bring home some sort of personal application, I try to remind the congregation that prophecy shows the veracity of God’s Word and the faithfulness of God’s character.
My point is: You can trust God. He speaks; then He does exactly what He said He would do. Occasionally it is good, but it isn’t a very deep observation of the text.
He said, “I read over my notes, and if the text of my message seems dry in the study, I am sometimes honestly tempted to “spice up the story” and make it appear more relevant by offering some of my own thoughts on possible connections and even, on occasion (I admit) speculative end-times scenarios to help hearers see relevance for their lives today – because being relevant has become very prized in pulpit communication. This is a constant danger, because I want people to stay with me in the presentation and not sleep off the sermon! Because of these dangers, I spend less time preaching the prophets. When I DO, I tend to tell a story about the writer’s life and make parallels between a follower of God long ago and the hearers today. That helped me feel like I wasn’t skipping the prophets, but I mostly AM skipping them. I am not really explaining the message of the books themselves, and the congregation doesn’t appreciably grow in their knowledge of those books of the Bible.”
I suspect that anyone who teaches the Bible has at least a little sympathy for what that pastor authentically shared of his own experience.
I mention the lack of time spent in these sections, and the three different natural bends of teachers of the Word to encourage you as we move forward. This study will require something of you in patience. That isn’t a veiled warning of a “boredom zone” ahead, it is rather a recognition that we are on unfamiliar ground in many circles today. You may be a student of prophecy, but most people aren’t today. We need to deliberately stretch ourselves. We need to speak the whole counsel of God’s Word. Some of the parts of Scripture have easy individual application and offer deep encouragement. Prophetic portions offer something very different. Without the words of the prophets, some of the lofty view of the Awesome Majesty of the Heavens would be barely touched, and a powerful and resounding call for us to tremble at His voice would barely be heard.
Prophets help us do more than satisfy ourselves that God knows where everything is going. They challenge us to bow before the One True Judge.
They call us to examine whether our outer practices are incongruent with our inner beliefs. They bring back a sense of the power and splendor of the God we serve.
There are examples of all the styles of preaching in the Word, if you look for them. When Paul stood on Mars Hill before philosophers, he carefully reasoned for the faith. When Jesus spoke of the Galilee hillsides, He pulled the minds of the people into the simplest imagery of daily life. When the Apostle Peter rose to defend God’s work in the men on the Day of Pentecost he launched into a full-throated support of the prophetic power of God before the crowd – and three thousand responded.
What the prophets of old offer is something more than mere learning about God. Think of the long, thin finger of Nathan the prophet stuck into the face of David as he uttered the words, “You are the man.” The value of the prophetic word is that it can be like an arrow to the heart in a way that few other portions can.
I am deliberately beginning slowly to introduce the prophets, because our next studies will have some unusual qualities as we work the text from a book of the Minor Prophets. Take a few moments with me to open our Bibles to the book of the Prophet Joel. The book is after Psalms in the middle of the Bible, and is the twenty-ninth book of thirty-nine in the common collection of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we turn for this prophet’s record, think with me about the painful process observed by a prophet of God, as they tell of the end times.
We must recognize that God made us emotional beings, and we gravitate toward positive emotion – but that isn’t the only kind we need to be able to reckon with.
We need to look at the painful parts of judgment to understand the glory of grace and rescue of redemption. As we open our reading, stand in front of a field that was stripped by the voracious appetite of locusts.
Joel offered his opening words in three parts:
• He called people to see what was happening as unique.
• He called specific kinds of people to respond to the scene.
• He called people to recognize the urgency of their time.
As you read his words, some will notice (because of their edition of the Bible) the way they are placed indented in paragraphs. The translator wanted you to know the words are lyrics. They were poetry. They were the record of a sad song written by a broken-hearted man who could barely believe what his eyes were seeing.
Look at the beginning of the three parts of his message from the first chapter…
First, he called the people to attention by telling them they have never seen anything like what was happening in front of them.
Joel 1:1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 2 Hear this, O elders, And listen, all inhabitants of the land. Has anything like this happened in your days Or in your fathers’ days? 3 Tell your sons about it, And let your sons tell their sons, And their sons the next generation.
If there was a word for what he was trying to say concerning the scene he was about to explain, it was: “Unbelievable!” He told the people and the elders who led them to stop moving and look at the picture God showed him. He went on to describe the scene.
Joel 1:4 What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.
Whether this was a vision in the realm of the spirit or an actual event on the landscape is not known. Whether the locusts were insects of a field or the imagery of an invading human army is not known. Whether this already happened or was about to take place is not known.
What is clear and certain is this: The man was overwhelmed by the scene of massive devastation – and he wanted them to see how obvious the marks of it were.
Some of us know exactly what he felt. We cannot believe that in a mere five years, our country has deliberately overhauled the most basic unit of mankind – the family. We have made perilous moves swiftly, based on the flimsiest testing of where that will lead our society. We are no longer drifting, we are swiftly moving with a furious current toward a rejection of one thing after another connected to Judeo-Christian practice. Left-over images of biblical texts on court rooms across the country are stark reminders of the violent lurching to the left.
In the Book of Joel, most scholars note that an invasion was approaching that would eventually devastate Judah – and this was a call to prepare and repent in hopes that God may withhold or reduce the judgment. Perhaps the locust invasion was a dramatic way for God to warn them of another kind of invasion just over their horizon view. Like the prophecy – the locusts were a symbolic warning given in GRACE.
Joel’s essential question was, “Have you ever known any invasion this severe?” (1:2)
That should have given them pause, instead of letting their eyes adjust to the dark setting. In fact, one of the common commands of the Law was for Israel to constantly rehearse her history before her children (cp. Dt. 4 and 6) in order to help them avoid the hand of God’s judgment.
The second part of the opening prophecy was separated into calls of specific kinds of people to face what was coming in God’s judgment.
• God’s first call was for those who were dull-minded as one would be with wine overindulgence to awaken (1:5).
Joel 1:5 Awake, drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine drinkers, on account of the sweet wine that is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has invaded my land, mighty and without number; its teeth are the teeth of a lion, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has made my vine a waste and my fig tree splinters. It has stripped them bare and cast them away; their branches have become white.
The call came for Israel’s dullard drunkards to awake from their lulled, compromised and sinful state. They were to open their eyes to see that judgment was at hand.
One of the ways people deal with staying in a wrong state and not facing God is DIVERSION – they simply focus on something else.
There is a natural tendency in some of us when we are facing hard times to attempt to ignore the coming results or divert our attention to something that will help us cope with the pain of what we see. In fact, we have noted before the term for “turning off the mind” is called ‘AMUSEMENT’ and it has become for many a consuming passion.
This is a danger of a Christian population that focused more on how the church can meet their needs than how it can honor God’s call. We can end up with sermons that make us feel good about things when the actual call of God is to see how perilous they are becoming. ALL our teaching isn’t warning – but let’s admit that in some places the idea of warning NEVER rises to the pulpit.
• His second call was to those who were planning in ignorance of the impending doom.
Joel 1:8 Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.
Israel was to drape herself in the clothing of sadness and brokenness. The point was that while some could divert, amuse, or dull their minds, others made plans for celebrations and paid no attention to the impending troubles because they were unaware of them. They were the CLUELESS. When peril came, the power of judgment crushed them like the waves of mourning as their dreams were dashed against the rocks of reality.
We live in a time when people call, year after year, for every problem to be solved by their government – even when the truth is their government is up to its neck in debt. Freedoms are casually surrendered as we ask one new administrator after another to step in a help us solve some difficulty or injustice. It isn’t bad to have someone test the food in the packages we will consume or make sure the tires on the airplanes in which we travel have been made to certain specifications.
Government isn’t bad – it’s necessary. The problem is it neither CAN nor SHOULD be called on to feed, clothe and care for us in every situation. When we reward people for lack of preparation for difficulty, we discourage the next group from even trying to sacrifice and prepare.
Joel’s imagery of the bride, dressed and waiting for a groom that will not come because he has died – reminds us there is a process of mourning a severe loss that we are impatient in our culture to understand – but it has a purpose in the fallen world. We weren’t designed to face death, but God added “waves of grief” as a means of regaining equilibrium.
His point was this: Loss is most powerful in people who never truly considered it could happen to them.
The issue with the people was one of thorough forgetfulness that led them to clueless insensitivity. At one time, they knew evil, in principle, would be judged. By then, they knew their nation had plunged into evil. Yet they didn’t connect the problem with the result. They simply made plans for the next celebration and hoped for more years of good harvest – hoping against hope that things would go well.
The people hardest hit in the downturn of a market are those who have forgotten to consider the possibility.
The deepest despair comes from those who have honestly forgotten the risks of living in a broken world. In short, Israel was about to be walloped and some had never considered the possibility that God was actually going to judge as He repeatedly warned.
This is the danger of a church who has taught a generation of Christians that God’s chief interest is in their health, wealth, and happiness. They never considered the possibility the things that have happened to Iraqi or Syrian Christians could happen to them as well. Troubles, brutal martyrdom, and a tested faith are things they believe belong to another time and place.
• God’s third call was to priests and ministers (1:9) to lament the cutting off of the provisions for the spiritual life of the nation.
Joel 1:9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10 The field is ruined, the land mourns; for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails.
While some were DULL and others were CLUELESS, those who oversaw the spiritual life of the nation should have been able to see without blur that things were heading in a bad direction. Joel beckoned SPIRITUAL LEADERS (those with an “elder” view” of the community) to step up and recognize the signs. A community elder is one who acts as a father or patriarch over more than his own biological family – but becomes a protector and provider for that greater community.
Let’s say it this way: When you serve God by serving His people, you think differently about the effects of sin on the society.
Those who sit in the counseling room, work at equipping of Jesus followers, and craft instruction for God’s people from His Word, are often “early adopters” of the message of the effects of bad decisions. There are some in our society who STILL don’t connect the dots between our decisions and their outcome as a people.
When we opened “no fault divorce,” we removed both legal roadblocks and public stigma to the decoupling of a marriage. Today, people are even insulted if you use terms like a “failed marriage” because they feel that is judgmental toward their situation – as if one of the natural options of people coming to the altar and declaring their commitment was an escape hatch.
Here is what I know. In the history of marriage, there have always been troubled people and difficult pairings. The profound difference in our time is that it is easy to get out of the problem without working it out – and the world around you will help you deflect any sense of responsibility for that event. Out of compassion for people in difficult marriages, we legislated our way into the mess of meaninglessness at the altar. The children torn up by these broken homes now fill our schools as a broken and bitter reminder that we made it easy on one person often by devastating another. They live together, because they don’t see the point of the commitment we call marriage, and we shouldn’t wonder why.
When our courts decided the people needed protection from the state invading their privacy so much that a woman had the unrestrained right to end the life in her womb, many didn’t connect that decision to the brutishness that has now become part of the modern American voice.
• They didn’t recognize with equal fervor the child within her to be also that of her partner – his rights were effectively muzzled in that termination of life.
• They didn’t calculate the loss of 57 million Americans in a single generation to the economy.
• They didn’t think through how human life itself, no longer sacrosanct, would diminish clarity of honored values of our society.
In a new way, motherhood was separated from fatherhood, and unborn children became throwaway dolls, removed in bags and treated like refuse. We no longer argue about if it is human life, but argue today whether we have a right to have tax dollars rid me of an inconvenient child in the womb. Politicians call for this without pausing to observe how far we have fallen from the image of tenderness that was once associated with the womb.
Some claim our pulpits shouldn’t address things like divorce, so called “same sex marriage” or abortion. They look at those social issues as merely political and judicial. They don’t get it – because they don’t understand the elder view. Those of us who know God’s Word and teach it, carry a special wound in the society for the self-mutilation that comes from our collective mutiny against God. We deal with the broken-hearted children, and we try to train those whose thinking has been so skewed that “right” and “wrong” are no longer clear.
The Bible is unequivocal and clear – morality is not a social construct.
Man didn’t crawl out of primordial ooze, invent a God, and then promptly NOT follow Him so they could invent guilt. That doesn’t make sense because it didn’t happen. Men didn’t invent God. He created us. Exacting design doesn’t flow haplessly from random happenings. You know it, and so does every observant person who isn’t bent on doing life according to their own rules.
Closer to home, we need to remember our own history in days like these as well. Our country simply wasn’t founded without a profound connection between a specific faith view of the world and human responsibility. It isn’t by happenstance that our Congress had a chaplain and our buildings were built across the land with Bible verses etched into them. The Bible men and women were sworn into office with wasn’t just a décor statement. We come from a long and detailed history of men who knew that our rights and responsibilities were based on the fact that all of us have the same Creator. They wrote carefully that none of us is more important than the other because they reckoned that we all will eventually kneel to the same God. That story may be ignored in our halls of learning, but our history is literary and stubbornly stained on parchments with ink. The only hope of those who desire to mute the voices of our fathers is to fill the heads of the young with nonsense and hope they don’t grow up and get wise by doing things like reading the documents for themselves.
• A fourth call was for farmers to recognize the shame of losing everything in an act of God’s disfavor (1:11).
Joel 1:11 Be ashamed, O farmers…
The FARMERS were presented as those who knew deep disappointment. Perhaps no one truly understands the sense of hopefulness for the crops like the farmer; conversely, no one feels the depth of the disappointment in the stripping of the land. People attached to the land become more sensitive to their impact on it. They who worked the land and saw it destroyed weren’t to be MAD, as though God has abandoned them – but ASHAMED as if THEY had abandoned God.
When we see judgment clearly, it will not be a mark against God, but a mark against us. Our modern jails aren’t a statement about our contemporary judges as much as they are statement about our growing contention to live inside the boundaries of the law.
• A fifth call was for the vinedressers to wail (1:11) for the loss of the vines, fig trees and other fruit trees. They were to see their joy withered as the trees melted away (1:12).
Joel 1:11b “…Wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. 12 The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men.
VINE DRESSERS were a subset of farmers who acted more as attendants. They didn’t plant the vines as much as tend them. They were to grapes what daycare workers are to children. People who tend and care for the fruit cultivation have a very specific “parenting” view of the vines and trees they attend.
The third (last) part of Joel’s opening urgently called people to stop acting like the time was far off and get serious with God right away.
The call starts with the clergy and warns on them to get serious before they expect the nation to get on board.
Joel 1:13 Gird yourselves with sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, proclaim 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.
God’s worship leaders were told to change what they are wearing, and put on the symbols of mourning so all could see them. They were told to pay attention to the provisions of God being diverted from the temple. They were called to publicly call the people to fasting, public repentance, and mourning. The warning of judgment connected to public acceptance of egregious errors started with God’s leaders. Also note that God didn’t just tell them to “get sad” and look somber before the masses. He gave them their message: God will not let what we are doing go on forever – His day is coming. He isn’t playing around, and He is right on schedule to do what He promised.
Judgment cannot be avoided by ignoring it.
Joel 1:15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.
God intended the people to notice the time of judgment was getting close:
• First, they were to see their prosperity evaporating.
Joel 1:16 Has not food been cut off before our eyes…
• Second, they were to notice the sobriety of those who studied God’s Word and taught them from it.
Joel 1:16b “…Gladness and joy from the house of our God…
They were to reckon the natural disruptions in the earth as part of the tremors of coming judgment.
Joel 1:17 The seeds shrivel under their clods; the storehouses are desolate, the barns are torn down, for the grain is dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle wander aimlessly because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.
They weren’t supposed to call for a new legislature so much as drop to their knees. They weren’t supposed to look for help from the king as much as from the King of all Kings!
Joel 1:19 To You, O Lord, I cry; for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and the flame has burned up all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for You; for the water brooks are dried up and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.
It wasn’t enough for the temple to keep the schedule as usual. The people were to be awakened to the voice of the Lord concerning the days ahead. They should be clear, pronounced and deliberate. God said:
Joel 2:1 Blow a trumpet in Zion …
Why? Were they to be depressed while the world was rejoicing? The point was they were to show the warning before the world around them connected the dots between their sinful violations and God’s coming of judgment.
God’s leaders were, and are, to make clear the hour is late and the warning is becoming more and more obvious.
God’s prophetic warnings aren’t as much a function of His judgment as they are of His grace.
He didn’t tell us what was coming because He savors judgment, but in order that we might step out individually and stand with Him against the normative trend of our day. When God called believers to be HOLY as He is HOLY – the call was to be distinct as He is not like any other.
If you blend well in the company of lost men and women – something is wrong with your distinctiveness.
If people note the difference in you and it makes them uncomfortable, you may be the warning sign they most need to turn before they plunge into the broken road ahead. Don’t forget…
Those who close their ears to the pronouncement will eventually suffer God’s judgment by their own choice.
If you took the time to read the last three chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you would surely note four powerful truths that emerge from looking closely at the final judgment scene called the “Great White Throne” Judgment. You would note:
• THE IDENTITY OF THE JUDGE: the offended Son of God
• THE ABSENCE OF AN ADVOCATE: sinners stand fearfully alone
• THE FINALITY OF THE VERDICT: no appeal is possible
• THE SEVERITY OF THE SENTENCE: Eternal separation from God into torment becomes real for countless people
Looking over the edge into that prophecy of the future, we have a responsibility to articulate the warning to those who do not know Christ as their Savior – and will only know Him as their judge. It need not happen. The peril is both clear and obvious.
The warning is a function of God’s GRACE.
• When you work hard for a day’s pay- we call that a wage.
• When you compete well for a trophy – we call that a prize.
• When you achieve recognition for a high level of service – we call that an award.
When you didn’t work for it, didn’t compete for it, didn’t accomplish it and never could even if you tried – we call that a gift of grace. Come to Him today, receive His forgiveness, and avert standing in judgment for your sin.
A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2)