“God made man in His own image,” a philosopher once wrote. “And then man returned the favor.” If we’re honest, we want a God who fits our mold. We assume that God’s on our side, that each year of human progress only further reveals His character. The Bible says: “Be Holy as I am Holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45). But in our world—if we believe in God at all—we twist that to fit our own expectations. “Be open-minded as I am open-minded.” “Be casual as I am casual.” “Be tolerant as I am tolerant.” An angry God? A jealous God? Maybe that’s the portrait offered by the “Old Testament,” but surely we’ve outgrown such primitive, superstitious ideas.
If you grew up in evangelical Christianity it wasn’t much different. Our worship, our teachings, our books—so many of them stir the emotions, but often in a way that is absurdly one-dimensional. Think about it: how many songs can you name that emphasize God’s love? How many can you name that emphasize God’s anger? I daresay there’s an imbalance.
The gospel says that God’s love and God’s anger must be understood together. And this is what we find in what we might call “the gospel according to Joel.”
THE WRATH OF GOD (Joel 2:1-11)
Joel continues much of the thought from chapter 1. Now, Joel moves from the agricultural and financial devastation (the locust hordes) to actual military conquest. The following reads like something out of a Tolkien novel, where the very air of Mordor is “a poisonous fume:”
Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. 3 Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. 4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. 5 As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. 6 Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale. 7 Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths. 8 They do not jostle one another; each marches in his path; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. 9 They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. 10 The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. 11 The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? (Joel 2:1-11)
What is the “day of the Lord?” Even this simple phrase reminds us that God’s judgment cannot be divorced from God’s blessings. The phrase is used to describe God’s past deliverance from Egypt (Ezekiel 30:3). But the phrase also refers to Israel’s oppression from the Babylonians (Isaiah 13:6-13; Jeremiah 46:10), as well as a time of future judgment—a time of anguish and mourning (Isaiah 2:10-21; Amos 8:10).
An online entry from Bible.org presents this diagram that may be helpful. Do you see “The Church?” All that’s missing is a “You are here” sticker. See, we live between two examples of the “Day of the Lord.” It’s something that happened in the past when Israel was overcome by rival armies. But it’s something that happens in the future when Christ returns to set right everything that has gone so wrong.
This means that the “Day of the Lord” also conveys the idea of enormous blessings—at least ultimately. Because the Day of the Lord promises that those who trust in God will be delivered from God’s fierce wrath. That’s what the rest of Joel 2 is saying.
MAN’S REPENTANCE (Joel 2:12-17)
The next set of verses describe man’s response to God’s fierce anger.
12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 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. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'” (Joel 2:12-17)
It’s easy to get wrapped up in religious ceremony. People used to literally tear their clothing to reflect their inner anguish. But according to Joel, no outward expression is worth it if the heart isn’t in it. I love the Derek Webb song that says: “You can make your life look good. You can do what Jesus would. But you’d be surprised what you can do with a hard heart.” God’s not impressed with religious appearances. He desires a heart that’s tuned to His. And that’s what repentance truly is. It’s not about changing behavior—though it often (if not inevitably) leads to that. It starts with changing our attitude toward God and toward self.
Here’s the problem. If I’m focused on my behavior alone, then some sins will be so enslaving that true repentance seems impossible. It’s no wonder that Paul describes his own struggle in Romans 7. But if I ignore behavior entirely then repentance no longer seems impossible—it seems unnecessary. Why bother with personal holiness?
Our confusion shatters when we begin to understand the gospel and apply it to our lives. When we begin to understand that Christ’s performance—and not our own—is what gains God’s approval. When we begin to understand that Christian maturity isn’t marked by our perfection, but by gradually growing into Christ’s character. The ceremonies Joel describes are intended to be something of a marking post, maybe even a journal entry—that by following after God they might one day look back to realize how far they’ve come, though only through God’s provision.
THE MERCY OF GOD
The next section could easily be described as “the gospel according to Joel.” Before we saw God’s great anger. Now we see God’s great mercy. Jesus’ death satisfied the anger of God. Now we are the recipients of His mercy. How did this happen before Jesus came? It’s simple. God forgave the people of the Old Testament not because of what Jesus accomplished, but because of what Jesus would accomplish. It’s similar to a credit card. They received God’s mercy in their day, but the bill would later be paid on the cross.
So we can simply read this section and see the reaction of God toward His people:
- God’s character (Joel 2:18)
18 Then the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. (Joel 2:18)
- God’s blessings (Joel 2:19-27)
19 The LORD answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations. 20 “I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea; the stench and foul smell of him will rise, for he has done great things. 21 “Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! 22 Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 23 “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before. 24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. 26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:19-27)
- God’s deliverance (Joel 2:28-32)
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:28-32)
Do you see how powerful this message is? God’s anger can’t be divorced from God’s love. If I only see love, then God’s attitude toward me could only be a matter of polite indifference—and that’s not real love. If I see only anger, then God’s attitude toward me could only be of a judge, or some cosmic policeman. The gospel says that God is violently angry at me over my sin. But rather than demand my blood, He offers His own. That’s mercy. That’s grace. When I understand this, suddenly my “to-do” list of religious duties is transformed to a “get-to” list of delights.