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The prophecy of Joel is anomalous on several grounds. Most canonical Old Testament prophecies are introduced by prophets who identify the period of their ministry with reference to the reigns of kings (e.g., Hos. 1:1). Joel does nothing of the kind. Nor do we have any idea who his father Pethuel is. Estimates of the date of composition of the book vary from the ninth century B.C. to the second century B.C. Clearly the temple is in operation (e.g., Joel 1:13), but it is uncertain whether this is the first temple (built in Solomon’s reign) or the temple built after the exile.
In some ways this open-endedness is an advantage. While we lose the specificity that characterizes much Old Testament prophetic writing, we gain in a kind of timeless feel that perhaps makes application easier. Almost certainly what precipitated the crisis was a plague of locusts (though some think of the locusts as symbols for a mighty army). That experience has become the template the prophet uses to call the people to repentance in the light of judgment both past and portending. It is also the background for some of the most stirring prophecies of the future, fulfilled in the coming of the Gospel, found in all of the Old Testament canon (see especially tomorrow’s meditation).
The locust plague pictured in Joel 1 is a phenomenon well known in some parts of the world today. Once locusts have swarmed, they are almost impossible to stop. Really terrible plagues of locusts were recognized for what they were: the judgment of God. That is why Solomon in his prayer at the dedication of the temple includes the possibility that God would chasten his people with locusts—and he prescribes what to do about it (1 Kings 8:37). Joel is doing it. He invites the priests especially (“you who minister before the altar,” Joel 1:13) to put on sackcloth, mourn, and declare a holy fast, calling a sacred assembly, summoning the elders to the temple to cry out to the Lord (Joel 1:13–14). Joel himself ends the chapter with the cry, “To you, O LORD, I call” (Joel 1:19).
This is a good place to reflect for a moment on how we should think about disasters. We should not adopt the stance of fatalists. If we can stop locusts today (satellites can sometimes spot incipient swarms that are then stopped by trucks with pesticides), then we should do so—in exactly the same way that we should try to stop war, plague, AIDS, famine, and other disasters. But in a theistic world where God is sovereign, we must also hear the summoning judgment of God calling his image-bearers to renounce sin’s selfism and cry to him for mercy.
The last serious attempt at moral and theological reformation in the kingdom of Judah is reported in 2 Kings 22. After that, there is only the final slide into exile.
King Hezekiah, the effect of whose reign was so largely good, was succeeded by his son Manasseh. He reigned a long time, fifty-five years, but his reign was notorious for its “evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites” (2 Kings 21:2). There was no form of current idolatry he did not adopt. According to 2 Chronicles 33, Manasseh repented toward the end of his life, but the religious and institutional damage could not easily be undone. He was succeeded by his wicked son Amon, who lasted only two years before he was assassinated (2 Kings 21:19–26).
Then came Josiah, a boy of eight when he came to the throne (2 Kings 22:1). He reigned thirty-one years—which means, of course, he died a premature death at the age of thirty-nine. Initially he would have been under the guidance and control of others. But in the eighteenth year of his reign, Josiah, then in his mid-twenties, initiated temple cleanup and repair—and the “Book of the Law” was rediscovered. Probably this refers to the book of Deuteronomy. (Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars of skeptical bent contend that this was in fact when Deuteronomy and other parts of the Pentateuch were actually written, so that this story of “rediscovering” the law was made up to justify these new developments. This theory is increasingly being dismissed; its foundation is little more than raw speculation.)
The reforms instituted by Josiah were sweeping. On every front, wherever he could effect change, Josiah brought the nation into line with the Law of God. He fully recognized the terrible threat of wrath that hung over the covenant people, and he resolved to do what was right, leaving the outcome with God. If the day of reckoning could not finally be removed, at least it could be delayed.
Of the important lessons to be learned here, I shall focus on one. Some people find it difficult to believe that the nation could descend into complete biblical ignorance so quickly. After all, Hezekiah was Josiah’s great-grandfather: the reformation he led was not that long ago. True—but long enough. The intervening three-quarters of a century had begun with the long and wicked reign of Manasseh. The history of the twentieth century testifies to how quickly a people can become ignorant of Scripture—and we live this side of the printing press, not to mention the Internet. The church is never more than a generation or two from apostasy and oblivion. Only grace is a sufficient hedge.
22:1 Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Jedidah the daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. 2 And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.
3 In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the LORD, saying, 4 “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may count the money that has been brought into the house of the LORD, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people. 5 And let it be given into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD, and let them give it to the workmen who are at the house of the LORD, repairing the house 6 (that is, to the carpenters, and to the builders, and to the masons), and let them use it for buying timber and quarried stone to repair the house. 7 But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”
8 And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. 9 And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.” 10 Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.
11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. 12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king's servant, saying, 13 “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”
14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter), and they talked with her. 15 And she said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’” And they brought back word to the king.
4:1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.1 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God2 would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
1:1 The word of the LORD that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel:
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.
8 Lament like a virgin1 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,2 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.
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 Almighty3 it comes.
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;4
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.5
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.
140:1 Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men,
2 who plan evil things in their heart
and stir up wars continually.
3 They make their tongue sharp as a serpent's,
and under their lips is the venom of asps. Selah
4 Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
preserve me from violent men,
who have planned to trip up my feet.
5 The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;1
beside the way they have set snares for me. Selah
6 I say to the LORD, You are my God;
give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O LORD!
7 O LORD, my Lord, the strength of my salvation,
you have covered my head in the day of battle.
8 Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;
do not further their2 evil plot, or they will be exalted! Selah
9 As for the head of those who surround me,
let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
10 Let burning coals fall upon them!
Let them be cast into fire,
into miry pits, no more to rise!
11 Let not the slanderer be established in the land;
let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!
12 I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
13 Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.
141:1 O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
3 Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth;
keep watch over the door of my lips!
4 Do not let my heart incline to any evil,
to busy myself with wicked deeds
in company with men who work iniquity,
and let me not eat of their delicacies!
5 Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.
Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds.
6 When their judges are thrown over the cliff,3
then they shall hear my words, for they are pleasant.
7 As when one plows and breaks up the earth,
so shall our bones be scattered at the mouth of Sheol.4
8 But my eyes are toward you, O GOD, my Lord;
in you I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless!5
9 Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me
and from the snares of evildoers!
10 Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
while I pass by safely.