I can get stuck in shame for the things I failed to do as a mama–or did that I wish I hadn’t. But Athaliah comes along and sets the lowest mama bar I’ve ever seen. She was the wicked queen who murdered her own grandchildren to keep them from taking the throne she stole from them.
I’m not sure what contributions Athaliah made in her day to justify her brutal ambition, but for me, she is a relieving reality check. Now there’s a bad mama and grandmama. Next to her heartlessness, everybody else looks good.
My study Bible says the book of Joel isn’t linked to any historical events like the Babylonian Captivity or the reigns of kings, so there’s no way to be sure when it was written, but it’s thought it was written at the end of the time of Athaliah, the aforementioned queen-without-grands, which was before the falls of Israel and Judah. If the folks-in-the-know are right, Joel wrote around 835 BC, right in the middle of a locust plague from the apocalypse, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/joel-1).
I’m intrigued by Athaliah’s inability to love or to grieve, to feel remorse and regret, to repent and find forgiving relief. All of these were beyond her experience. And I wonder, did she think she’d never need? If there’s one thing aging teaches you, it’s that your time on earth ends. Best to keep short accounts. Make amends.
Athaliah did have one living grandson, unknown by her and hidden away. Joash was kept safe in the temple by the priest, Jehoiada. After Joel’s prophecy, it’s thought that Jehoiada decided it was time to act–to have Athaliah killed and to present Joash as the rightful, seven-year-old king. Maybe Jehoiada realized that justice required a clean slate, and there was no better time for cleaning it than today, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/joel-2/).
Joel’s message was to repent because of the plague, which might’ve been God’s judgment during Athaliah’s reign. But Joel also spoke of another judgment to come, as well as a day of judgment that none would escape. Joel makes it clear that a repentant heart was good for all times, in all seasons and weathers, both today, and on that last day, and everyday in between.
Joel begins his book with the locust plague, saying it’s so bad, people will tell their kids and grandkids about it, because nothing like it had ever been seen. The locusts have come along and stripped every leaf and piece of grass, consuming even the bark of trees. God says that with “the teeth of a lion” they have “laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees,” Joe 1:2-7.
Joel speaks to the drunkards and tells them to weep because they’re about to be cut off from their drink, “for it has been snatched from your lips.” But it’s not just the wine that’s gone. It’s everything from grain to oil, wheat and barley, all “the harvest of the field is destroyed.” Offerings of grain and drink are “cut off from the house of the Lord.” The priests mourn right along with the drunks, Joe 1:5, 9-12.
While the locusts’ devastation is complete, there’s something even worse. Nothing will grow back because there’s also a drought. The livestock and wild animals are affected, “How the cattle moan!…even the flocks of sheep are suffering…the wild animals pant…the streams of water have dried up.” And to make matters worse, wildfires burn open pastures, Joe 1:10-12, 18-20.
With all their crops failing and no rain in sight, “Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes–joy and gladness from the house of our God?” Joe 1:16.
What to do?
Joel tells them it’s time to repent, to put on sackcloth and mourn. He calls on the priests to declare a holy fast and to call the people together to cry out to the Lord at his house. And in case what’s happening isn’t scary enough, he says something much worse is coming that he calls “the day of the Lord,” Joe 1:14-15.
What is this day? From the text, it sounds like it’s a future day when enemies will devour like the locusts, only they will be warriors who make “every face turn pale.” An army will descend “like dawn spreading across the mountains…such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come,” Joe 2:1-2.
Commentators disagree about whether or not this is an army of people, or another description of the insect invasion, or if it’s a veiled reference to Judgment Day, but this much I understand: whatever it is, it’s part of God’s plan, “it will come like destruction from the Almighty.” God himself will lead the invaders, “The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command.” And it will be frightening, “The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” Joe 1:15; 2:11. (enduringword.com/bible-commentary/joel-2/).
Fasting and crying out for God’s help in the present is prudent–there’s no food coming and no water for today while wildfires rage. But there’s also the added incentive of avoiding what’s foretold in the news of a future “day of the Lord.” In fact, Joel mentions “the day of the Lord” five times in his short book of only four chapters. I’m guessing that this day is more his focus than those locusts, Joe 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 4:14.
Living in relationship with a holy God requires an ongoing repentance. Though the particular events are a little sketchy, Joel holds up repentance as the renewable, one-size-fits-all solution. Even babies, brides and grooms are included, Joe 2:16.
God doesn’t sit back and hope they figure out what to do about their troubles. He’s sent them his prophet, and he gives them detailed instructions for how to turn to him. “Even now…return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” Joe 2:12.
First, God gives good news–it’s not too late to return. He says, “Even now...return to me…,” Joe 2:12. In the context of the passage, Joel’s just described the coming invaders and how “before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine.” And while this sounds very like the description of the end times, God says, “even now…return to me.” Could he be saying that even in a day as late as that, it’s not too late to return? I don’t know, so don’t quote me, but it sure would be consistent with what we read yesterday. (See Mt 24:29; Ac 2:20).
Yesterday the last few chapters of Hosea were about how God kept bringing his judgment to his people while at the same time telling them it’s not too late to repent and turn to him. God’s judgment is for the express purpose of turning people’s hearts to him, not to punish them for the sake of his own satisfaction. That’s not who God is. Being merciful is who God is. God longs to pour out mercy and forgiveness, not punishment, (for the story of God’s continual offer of mercy despite sin, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/12/08/december-8/).
I’m reminded of a woman who once came to King David and spoke to him about what God is like. She said, “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him,” 2 Sam 14:14. This is what God did in Jesus–devised a way so that the human race can be saved, “does not remain banished from him.”
Will a person be able to repent in that last day? I’m guessing only a fool would wait to find out. The Bible urges us to “choose this day who you will serve,” and says that “now is the day of salvation.” Who knows whether a person can repent tomorrow? The point is, to do it even now. Jos 24:15; 1 Co 6:2.
Second, God says to return “…with all your heart.” Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength is what Jesus said was the greatest commandment. It makes sense that turning to God would include these same “with everything we’ve got” words, Mk 12:30.
God often compares himself to a husband, a bridegroom, a lover. This is strong language. In that role, it’s not hard to understand that his desire in relationship is the same as any husband’s, bridegroom’s, or lover’s: it’s to have his beloved full of love and passion for him.
Just like us, God’s not content to be tolerated or “put up with” or worse–set aside. He’s “the lover of my soul.” His idea of worship isn’t just an acknowledgement of his existence. It’s passionate love from a heart on fire for him. Because living in relationship with God is to be like this, turning to him requires no less. (See Ps 42:1; 84:2; Is 26:9; 61:10; 62:5; Je 31:32; Ez 16:32; Re 19:7; 21:2).
Third, God says to return “…with fasting and weeping and mourning.” We are to empty ourselves of food and tears, letting ourselves feel what we’ve done and mourn. Our returning or turning to God isn’t simply an intellectual exercise, though our minds are surely engaged. It also involves our appetites, our wills, our emotions. Again, we turn to God “with everything we’ve got.”
We aren’t making God more likely to receive us with our fasting and tears. He’s been primed for that since creation. We’re making ourselves empty in order to make room for him. Repenting and turning to God includes celebrating afterwards with him and being filled with him in the person of his Spirit, Joe 2:28; Lk 15.
After God’s 1-2-3 about returning to him, Joel advises God’s people, too. He tells them to tear their hearts to come to God, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents for sending calamity,” Joe 2:13.
Tearing one’s clothes was a common expression of grief in ancient times, but here Joel says not to tear their clothes, but to tear their hearts. I’m guessing that tearing clothes would have been easy to do. It might have been tempting to do it for show as a kind of performance of repentance rather than as a sincere, heartfelt and true repentance. Joel advises them to skip the show and shred their hearts.
Joel says to return to God because he’s gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love. My pastor, Corby Shields, frequently says that “God is far more willing to forgive you than you are to ask for it.” This is the same sense Joel has of God’s heart, I think. He tells them they can return to God with hearts torn by sorrow and tears because he holds those hearts dear.
Joel also says they can turn to God because God relents.
God relents? This is amazing news: the calamity he intended for their sin can be relented for their repentance. God doesn’t bring what’s ahead because of heartfelt turning to him, because of prayers, grief, tears. God doesn’t delight in “getting us” and bringing disaster. His delight is in filling us, rejoicing over us, and celebrating our return. Joel says, “Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing…” Joe 2:13-14.
With the people fasting, repenting, and weeping, Joel coaches the priests about what to pray. He tells them to say, “Spare your people, O Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”Joe 2:17.
Joel’s last point has to do with praying for what they want once they’re repenting. Of course they want their food restored and for the rain to fall. They want the coming disaster to be canceled. They want God’s blessing and protection. Joel says for the priests to remind God that others are watching, too. How God treats his people is a reflection on him since he’s known to be their God.
This sounds a little like extortion to me, and I’ve felt uncomfortable with it in the past, but after reading through Ezekiel this fall, I realize how important it is to God that other nations are drawn to him. Their perception of who he is matters to him. Joel says to remind God of what he wants–for others to know him and to see his glory–when we ask him to come through for us.
Right on cue, the very next verse says what God does: he says he’s sending grain, wine, and oil, “enough to satisfy you fully.” He says he’ll “never again” make them an object of scorn to other nations. He’ll push the invaders he’d planned “into a parched and barren land” and then shove them into the sea, “its stench will go up; its smell will rise,” Jo 2:19-20.
Joel tells the land and wild animals to rejoice and not be afraid, “for the open pastures are becoming green.” He tells the people to rejoice because the rains are coming, “abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains.” Their pantries will be full, their wine cellars stocked, Joe 2:21-24.
And God promises to pay them back for what they lost, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten…You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you…Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed,” 2:25-27.
God promises to bring in a harvest so big, that all their losses are returned, so that they will know it is God who has done it. In the face of today’s challenges, this would be an extraordinary promise to hold God to. It would mean taking him at his word and believing what he says.
What God wants from us is simple: our turning to him in wholehearted love. What he gives us back is everything we need, even a hand out of shame. Mom guilt can sneak up and suck me under, but God says, I’m forgiven, I’m covered. Does this sound too good to be true to anyone besides me?
There are some of us, myself included, who take quite a lot of locust disasters before we’re willing to turn–or return–to God. If I could find true life and true love apart from God, I would. The truth is, I’ve already tried, and I’ve learned the hard way, it just can’t be had. There is no life or love apart from God. He created them, after all.
He’s got the market cornered.
“Blessed are the ones who read the words of this prophecy,
and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it
because the time is near,” Re 1:3.
Already there’s good news here–if we read and hear and take to heart the words of this book, we’ll be blessed. I’m thinking this is true of any book of the Bible, but Revelation is the only book I know of that actually says it.
The “because the time is near” part feels, well, like a stretch. Like, I’ll spot that to you, God. Your idea of time and mine aren’t in the same millennium. And really, I wonder why you didn’t write the Bible from our time-perspective. Don’t you want to be clear? Since one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day to you, I’m not sure what to make of “the time is near.”
Unless of course you aren’t really talking about time like I’m thinking about it. Maybe you’re meaning it like, “Hey, these words are calling today. Respond. Don’t put them off or think, “I’ve got plenty of time to think about things like heaven and hell and faith and hope later. No need to get serious NOW. I want to live a little. I’ll get back to this.”
Maybe John is saying we won’t get back to it. The offer’s open today. Who can say what will happen tomorrow? Maybe feeling a nudge to listen won’t be followed by stronger nudges later. Maybe we only get so many nudges? Who knows how it works?
Maybe John is saying this, “This offer I’m giving you to bless you, it’s on the table today, and it expires sooner than you think, maybe when you close this book. The heart hardens when it closes. You might want it even less tomorrow. Don’t put off faith. You never know when it’s your last chance to believe.”
When I think about that interpretation vs the one that says that ‘the time is near” referring to Jesus’ return, it seems to make more sense. It would also fit the context of personal faith that John started with, as in “read…hear…and take to heart,” like an admonition to get off they duff and believe, for goodness sake. The time to believe is right here.
What does John tells us to believe? Among many things, the one that jumps out at me is this,
“To [Jesus Christ] who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father–to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” Re 1:5-6.
“To him who loves us and has freed us.” There is plenty right here to marvel about.
Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.
You will eat the fruit of your labor;
blessings and prosperity will be yours.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your sons will be like olive shoots around your table.
Thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord.
Maybe the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life;
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem,
and may you live to see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel.
Here’s the Blessed Family’s Life, the Norman Rockwell painting in the psalmist’s words. These folks fear God and live his way, and this is how they’re blessed:
–They enjoy the benefits of their work
–They have blessings and prosperity
–The wife is productive and thrives
–The children are full of promise and are present
And there is more blessing ahead:
–May you be blessed all the days of your life
–May you continue to be prosperous
–May you live to see your children’s children
–May you have peace
I love that living to see grandchildren is part of a blessed life. Thank you for letting me live to know them, too.
My take away today is the “all your heart” part that God wants from me. Joel’s words to “rend your heart and not your clothing” resonate. I’m always tempted to go down a performance trail with you, God, but you keep calling me to the “let’s party” trail, the trail of loving you with all my heart.
Thank you for reminding me that repenting, like every other part of faith, isn’t about doing the outward things. It’s about coming to you with all my heart. I’d so much rather have a praise party from my heart with you than get lost, nit-pickin’ myself to death over showy, religious things.
Thank you for the love and freedom Jesus died to give me, for my rescue outta that swamp, and for the little ones you bring.
One thought on “December 9–Rending Hearts”
“Here’s the Blessed Family’s Life, the Norman Rockwell painting in the psalmist’s words.”
Made me smile. 🙂
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