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Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Today’s texts challenge us to enact self-examination, humility, and repentance. The passage from Psalm 51 emphasizes personal introspection and repentance while 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 spans both the corporate and the personal aspects in calling us to reconciliation with God. The passages from Matthew 6 encourage fasting in a way that does not draw attention to the practitioner. The passage from Joel is a call to the people of God to gather in communal fasting, lament, and repentance, recognizing that when the time of God’s judgment arrives, none will be exempt.

The imagery of Joel 2:1-2 echoes that found elsewhere in Scripture regarding the day of the Lord (for example, Zeph. 1:14-15). On the one hand, the day of the Lord was proclaimed as a time of deliverance for Israel, a day when their enemies would be defeated and they would be vindicated as the people of God (for example, Obadiah 1:8, 15, 17-20). On the other hand, the day of the Lord was depicted as a day of judgment and doom against Israel for their sin and rebellion (for example, Zephaniah 1: 4, 7, 14). Amos 5:18-20 indicates that while the people of Israel anticipated the day of the Lord as deliverance, doom and destruction would be the reality. In Joel, the day of the Lord is used in both ways, but clearly in 2:1 and 11, it will be one of judgment against the people of God.

In Joel 2:1, Yahweh issues a commend to the prophet to sound the alarm: “Blow the trumpet…. for the day of the Lord is coming” (NIV throughout unless otherwise noted). The blowing of the shophar (ram’s horn, or trumpet) was used in a variety of situations, including warning of impending disaster, a call to arms, or a signal to assemble for religious purposes. Though verses 3-11 are not included in today’s periscope, they are nonetheless important to understanding the context of the warning: sound the horn to warn of an advancing army. Scholars are divided on whether or not the advancing horde of chapter 2 is a swarm of locust, as in chapter 1, or a human army (Assyrians or Babylonians?); the imagery certainly corresponds to either. Regardless of interpretation, one fact is undeniable: this advancing army is led by none other than Yahweh (v. 11). Therefore, the trumpet blast of 2:1 cannot be a call to do battle; the people would be exceedingly foolish to wage war against Yahweh! Furthermore, verse 11 reiterates the warning of v. 1: the day of the Lord is coming; it “is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?”

The people have been warned of impending judgment, yet verse 12 extends a word of hope in the form of a plea: “Even now . . . return” (v. 12; emphasis added). It is not too late to avoid disaster, but urgency is required (compare with 2 Cor. 6:2, “…now is the time of salvation”). Although nowhere in the book of Joel are we told of specific sins, the plague of locust (ch. 1) draws on deuteronomic language which is a strong indicator of serious sin (see Deut. 28:38). Therefore, the community is called to self-examination and confession.

Verse 12 includes Joel’s only use of the oracle formula, “declares the Lord.” Thus the call to return is an invitation directly from Yahweh. The tone seems to indicate an impassioned plea from a loving God who longs for reconciled relations with a wayward covenant people. The call to return is much more than an opportunity to save themselves from calamity. Rather it is an invitation to restore covenant relations with “the Lord your God” (vv. 13, 14; emphasis added). The language indicates a previous relationship, one now broken, to which the people are urged to return.

The people are called to “return . . . with all your heart” (v. 12). The “heart” represents the will or mind; thus, the people are urged to make a willful, deliberate choice to return to God. The rituals of fasting, weeping, and mourning were well-established aspects of repentance and lament. These rituals included the tearing of garments and wearing of sackcloth; such acts are not disparaged here. Yet the rituals must be joined with heartfelt and genuine repentance which will issue in a change of disposition and behavior. Saying the words, “I’m sorry,” is generally easier than changing offensive behavior. Yet genuine repentance requires both.

Return is possible not on the basis of any good will the people might generate or particular actions they might take. Rather, return is possible due only to the very character and nature of God: “he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (v. 13). This formulaic or creedal description of God is found in several Old Testament passages, but the fullest form is in Exodus 34:6-7 (see also Ps. 86:15; Jonah 4:2; et al). By nature, Yahweh is merciful, compassionate, kind and deeply committed to the covenant (see Hosea 2:19); judgment is not the preferred option (see 2 Pet 3:9). Thus, the centrality of God’s mercy and grace is the basis for relationship with God.

Yet even with sincere repentance, God is under no obligation to relent. “Who knows? He [God] may turn and relent” (v. 14; emphasis added). We must never presume that rituals or words are all that are needed in order to elicit forgiveness from God. Certainly these are called for, but these in and of themselves are not the guarantors of a positive response from God. We recognize the sovereignty of God; God is God and we are not. Therefore, we cast ourselves on the mercy of God and leave the outcome in His hands. At times, we may be challenged to find the sweet spot of approaching “the throne of grace with boldness” (Heb. 4:16, NRSV) yet without presumption that God will forgive simply because we ask it of Him. But certainly the hope – based firmly in the very nature of God – is that God will turn, God will forgive.

In verse 15, again the command is given to blow shophar, this time to “declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.” The gathered assembly is to be consecrated, sanctified (v. 16); that is, set apart for the purposes of God. The sense of urgency highlighted in verse 12 is heightened in verse 16 by the identification of specific groups. In a general call to religious assembly, some groups legitimately may have opted out: the “aged” (NRSV; a better rendering than “elders” in the NIV), infants, and newlyweds. No group of people will escape the effects of the coming judgment; therefore, everyone is to gather as the priests lead the people in corporate fasting and lament. No one can say, “I’m too old” or “I’ve served my time!” Though children and infants may not yet have broken the covenant, they live among a sinful, rebellious people and will not be exempt from disaster; therefore, even they should be carried to the assembly. The importance of bearing children to continue the family line was so great that during the first year of marriage, men were exempt from military service (Deut. 24:5) and most other religious undertakings. But the situation is so acute that even the bride and groom are to come out of their wedding chambers. Procreation will have to wait! After all, should God’s judgment fall, “Who can endure it?” (v. 11)​

As the people assemble to the east of the Temple entrance, the priests are to stand before them and intercede on their behalf (v. 17). The prayer is for the people to be spared; but the purpose is so that the God of Israel will not be scorned among the nations. The ancient understanding was that when a people was defeated, so too was their god. Therefore, when God’s people are shamed, God is shamed. The repentance and subsequent deliverance of God’s people will bring honor and glory to God! (See also Psalm 79:9-10; Jer. 14:21; et al.)

Proclaiming a warning of judgment against the people of God generally is not only unpleasant but unpopular as well. In fact, while few may lament the infrequency or complete absence of sermons of hellfire and brimstone, we should question the extent to which we seem to have gone to the opposite extreme. For example, is the call to self-examination, genuine repentance, and active reconciliation with brothers and sisters in Christ still a vital part of the call to the Lord’s Table? Furthermore, as we enter the Lenten season, will we present Lenten practices simply as optional, individual activities in which some may wish to engage (or not)? Will we facilitate community-oriented Lenten practices which emphasize our solidarity as the people of God and invite our people to think more deeply about how our actions and attitudes affect the community as a whole; and how our actions and attitudes as a community of faith affect public perception of the God we serve? Or, most troubling of all, will a season of self-examination and repentance largely (or completely) be overlooked as we anticipate the glories of resurrection/Easter? This latter focus seems eerily similar to Israel’s anticipation of the day of the Lord only as a day of deliverance and vindication.

Certainly we do not live under the same socio-political realities as ancient Israel. We do not have a theocracy, and our individualistic society is very different than the collectivist society known by Israel. Furthermore, the “people of God” must not be understood as a national or political block of people (not that this was ever intended!). Nonetheless, calling our local congregations to a time of corporate fasting, repentance, and lament is appropriate and warranted as we consider the ways in which we have allowed our faith to be shaped more by cultural and political pressures rather than by the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. Through this passage, Joel invites us to undertake this journey.