Expect the best, and you’ll get the best. Expect the worst, and you’ll get the worst. In social science, it’s called the Rosenthal effect—also known as the Pygmalion effect. In the workplace, employees adjust their performance to the expectations of their employer. In the classroom, teachers will rate their performance by their students’ reactions to them—the more attentive the students are, the more highly the teacher will rate his or her abilities. It’s the sort of thing we might call a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
But what about God? What does He expect from us? Maybe a better question to ask is: What do we assume God expects from us? For instance, if you believe in an angry God of judgment, then you might assume that you’re destined to fail. You can no more meet His standards then a demanding parent. Why bother trying? If instead you believe in a God who shrugs His shoulders, then you might assume your only task is to practice the same tolerance toward others. Why pursue holiness?
The book of Joel deals with God’s expectations of humanity. Joel offers us a fierce God, a wild God, a God unconstrained by human expectation. Joel’s purpose is this: apart from God, humanity is destined for destined for destruction. Our only hope is repentance. The locust plague, the judgments—these aren’t just isolated events in Israel’s history. They represent the fierce wrath of a ferociously holy God.
ABOUT JOEL (1:1)
“The word of the LORD that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1)
Trying to piece together the prophets is often like assembling a puzzle without knowing what the picture is supposed to be. The name “Joel” literally means “Yahweh is God.” Don’t dismiss this as a “Sunday School” lesson—this was a bold statement in a world that believed in many rival gods.
We know literally no other information about Joel, apart from the name of his father. When did he write? Where did he live? There is much scholarly debate on this, yet nothing is conclusive. He may have written before Israel was exiled by the Babylonians, he may have written during their years of exile, or he may have written after their return. We’re addressing Joel here primarily because that’s where his book fits in the original Hebrew Bible. It was John Calvin who said: “it is better to leave the time in which [Joel] taught undecided; and, as we shall see, this is of no great importance.” (John Calvin, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 2:xv).
2 Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? 3 Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation. 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. 5 Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7 It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white. (Joel 1:2-7)
Joel pulls no punches. He speaks of a locust infestation that represented the very wrath of God. In a culture that depended on agriculture to thrive and flourish, this would have been more than a nuisance. In 1991, Iraq set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells to retaliate after being repelled during the Persian Gulf War. Estimates indicate that the fires—which burned for months—caused billions of dollars of damage, not counting the environmental impact. Imagine if the fires had been more massive, or had continued for much longer. Now we have something close to what the Israelites were experiencing.
Recall that to be a “prophet” was to speak to the people on God’s behalf. In today’s world, we don’t always know whether a tragic experience is an example of God’s anger. But God—speaking through Joel—used the locust horde as an object lesson: repent or die.
Does this sound harsh? Think about how that impacts your view of God. If we picture God as a cosmic Mr. Rogers, it’s hard to fathom this level of anger. But if God is eternally and indescribably holy, then anything that falls short of this perfect standard is vile—worthy only to feed the locusts. The problem? You and I fall short of God’s magnificent standard (Romans 3:23). What do you think that tells us about our own worth in comparison to God?
PEOPLE’S RESPONSE (1:8-20)
The next set of verses describe three specific reactions/consequences of this powerful display of anger:
- Mourning (1:8-12)
8 Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. 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 fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes. 11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. 12 The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man. (Joel 1:8-12)
- Fasting (1:13-15)
13 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate 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. 15 Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. (Joel 1:13-15)
- Suffering (1:16-20)
16 Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17 The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up. 18 How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer. 19 To you, O LORD, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. 20 Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness. (Joel 1:16-20)
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis observed that “pain is God’s megaphone to the world.” Does that mean that suffering is a result of God’s anger? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is this: it’s easy to feel sovereign. To feel in control. I only need to swipe my finger across a screen, and I’m in control. My Amazon.com app easily feeds my lust for possessions. My Facebook app lets me feed on the emotions of others. My Netflix app lets me indulge my senses whenever and wherever I want. Who needs God? I practically am God.
But what if I were to lose it all? What if the things I use to fill my heart were stripped away—maybe not with locusts, but with tragedy, with the unexpected and undesired footfalls of destiny? That’s what happened to Israel. The mourning, the fasting, the suffering—these are all forms of repentance that take all of you. It’s easy to take God lightly. It’s easy to suck the wildness from our worship. But what would happen if we were confronted by how small we truly are? What if we were challenged to face our own powerlessness, and to realize our own helplessness. On that day repentance would leap from our Sunday-school vocabulary and become a vital lifeline to which we can only cling.
But there’s good news. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther said that “all of life is repentance.” Every new day is another chance to repent—that is, to change our attitude toward self, and to ascribe our ultimate worship to God.