Summary: The Book of Joel is a wake up call. God is good but he is not safe.

The challenge of national tragedy. In his poem, The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes,

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

People can only accept reality in very small doses—just as a small child accepts his medicine only on teaspoon. One musician writes, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real” (Tupac Shakur, American).

9/11 was a defining moment in the history of the world. The time when thousands of innocent people were murdered by terrorists. The Lindt Cafe siege. Two people lost their lives and thereafter our nation feels vulnerable. Another Indonesian tsunami. Lives literally washed away. The devastation of widespread drought.

Life is full of wake up calls. The near miss in the car that could have taken my life. The time I was almost killed on a pedestrian crossing. The people in Kenya shot down and those who barely escaped the terrorist’s gun. The passenger plane forced to land on the Hudson River. The reality of death thrust upon us at every funeral.

Life is full of wake up calls.

We cannot cope with very much reality. Where is God and how should we respond? What are we to make of the terrible things that fall upon us?

The Book of Joel teaches us how to respond to disaster. For Judah, in the south of Israel, experienced disaster like it had never known. An unprecedented national disaster of huge proportion. The type remembered for generations to come.

The prophet Joel is God’s voice in the midst of confusion and suffering. How are Judah to make sense of the locust plague that wiped them up? This was their 9/11. How do they pick themselves up and carry on? If God loves his people, why does he allow these things to happen?

Their questions are our questions. Like Judah, if we are to make sense of life, we must turn to the word of Lord for he alone brings us in touch with reality.

Now in the interest of reading the Book of Joel carefully, and with integrity, it is interesting to note that some interpret the locust plagues described in chapter 1 as symbolic of a foreign army of people. So big was the army that attacked Judah they were like a plague of locusts. In your Bible, you may see a footnote against the word “locust” which reads, “The precise meaning of the four Hebrew words used here for locusts is uncertain”.

In my view, the evidence favours an army of real locusts. But if we were to adopt the other view and say that the locusts were really people then the conclusions drawn wouldn’t substantially change.

So what is Joel saying to his people?

In the first part of the book—chapter 1 to 2:17—Joel argues that disaster is a summons by God to repentance and prayer. Disaster is a warning which we all must heed.

Ch.1. We must face the reality of disaster. We can’t be an ostrich carry on as though nothing has happened. The way we respond is important. 2:1–17. Further develops the theme of response. Heed the warning. Judgement day is approaching so sincerely repent, call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved.

That’s the first part of the book. Disaster is a call to repentance and prayer. The second part gives assurance to all who make the right choice and find their refuge and security in the Lord. Joel 2:18–3:21 shifts from earthly disaster to the bigger and final day of judgement and says that God’s people have nothing to fear when the world feels the full force of his wrath. And we know what Joel could not explain—that those “in Christ” are exempt from the wrath to come for Christ has satisfied God’s anger on the cross and on our behalf.

Describing the disaster. I encourage you to have your Bible open to Joel 1 in which we shall spend the remainder of our time. The invasion is described in verses 1 to 4:

The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel. Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers? Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation. What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten.

Then verses 6 and 7:

A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white.

It is no ordinary invasion. Several waves of locusts had destroyed the agricultural produce of the land. What one wave left uneaten, other locust waves ferociously destroyed. It was complete devastation. The four Hebrew words for “locust” that we mentioned earlier correspond to the four devastating waves: gnawing, swarming, creeping and stripping—as they devoured the vegetation.

The foreign nations around Judah may well have understood the plague in a purely natural way. They would say that it’s bad luck for Judah who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like its bad luck there were no pesticides in those days. They might even blame global warning. It’s bad luck for Judah whose food supply was wiped out.

But the people of God are not horizontal in their thinking.

Back in the Book of Deuteronomy God spoke to Moses. God spoke to Moses about his goodness and his anger. He spoke to Moses about the seriousness of being in relationship with him. In Dt 28, God threatens locust plagues as punishment if his people are unfaithful to him. “You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it … Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land” (Dt 28.38, 42).

God is good but he is not safe.

The locust plague is not the worst thing that can happen to Judah. The worst thing that can happen to Judah is to stop loving God. That’s the worst thing that can happen to any person. Look back to Deuteronomy and then Joel invites us to look forward to the Book of Revelation. In verse 15, Joel speaks of another day of the Lord and its described in the Book of Revelation.

Rev 9:7–10. Here is picture language which describes the great and devastating last day of the Lord.

The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails and stings like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.

God is acting in history and we must face the reality. Every disaster is a public warning. Things are not right with this world and one day soon God will bring all things to account. As Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17, “God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.31).

Warnings against complacency. I like the African saying, “God is good—all the time; all the time—God is good”. And God is good because on this occasion he helps Judah make sense of their plight. And he helps us make sense of the terrible events which we see too often on the news.

The locust plague is both judgment and mercy. It’s meant to bring Judah to their senses. The people knew the Book of Deuteronomy. They knew the curses for covenant infidelity. Disobedience—invasion of locusts—repentance or judgement. Moses said in Dt 6.4ff, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”.

Come, Judah, come to your senses!

Only a fool ignores the significance of disasters in this world. The fool goes to a funeral asleep and the fool leaves a funeral asleep. Like in the days of Joel, a fool ignores reality and carries on like there is no tomorrow.

“Wake up, you drunkards, and weep! (verse 5) Wail, all you drinkers of wine; wail because of the new wine, for it has been snatched from your lips”. Then verse 8, “Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth, grieving for the betrothed of her youth”. Then verse 11, “Despair, you farmers, wail you vine growers”.

Joel's message is for everyone—from priest to drunkard, everyone needs to hear and understand that God treats sin seriously. Jesus also warns us against complacency (Matt 24.42-44):

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

God’s judgement is real and there is no room for complacency. The day of judgement is coming and only a fool ignores this reality.

What then is the right response?

Arise from your complacency and cry out to the Lord. Verse 14:

Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.

The right response is repentance and prayer which is an expression of trusting God. Verse 19, “To you, Lord, I call”. Through the disasters of life God is warning those left behind. A warning not only to God’s people to remain faithful to him—as we see in Joel—but, as we see in the New Testament, a warning to all people everywhere that the day of the Lord is coming.

The Apostle Peter speaks about the day of the Lord in 2 Pet 3. It’s far worse than a plague of locusts from which Judah did recover. Turn with me to 2 Pet 3.10, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare”.

The day of the Lord is coming. It is not to be taken lightly. Every disaster is like a mini “day of the Lord” which anticipates the big one to come. Every tragedy is like the small ripple of water that precedes the tsunami. The day of the Lord is coming and the ripples of disaster and pain anticipate its force.

Knowing the future gives a person a huge advantage. Imagine knowing the exam paper before the exam? Studying becomes a whole lot easier. Imagine knowing the share price of the Commonwealth Bank in two years’ time. It changes the way investors deal with money. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, “Groundhog Day”. A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Bill Murray knows what’s coming and this changes the way he lives each day. He keeps living the same day until he gets it right.

We know what’s coming and ought not this change our life?

Peter tells us how it should change our life. 2 Pet 3.11, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives”. This is not an unexpected answer but it’s one which is easily forgotten. You know the future. You know the day of the Lord is coming so live in a manner consistent with this reality.

The day of the Lord shapes the way we think about church and work and retirement. You belong to Christ and heaven is you home. So live a godly live and, by the way, Peter says, “God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own knowledge and goodness” (2 Pet 1.3)

Equipped by God for the present and blessed with hope for the future. For those in Christ need not fear the destruction which is coming. Indeed, Peter says in verse 11 that that we ought to look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. Verse 6, “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and earth, where righteousness dwells”.

No guilt in life, no fear in death, This is the power of Christ in me. From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Conclusion. National disaster—all disasters—are a wakeup call. Do not look at this world through unbelieving eyes. The day of the Lord is coming for all people. For those in Christ it is a time to look forward too. It is the time when the new heaven and the new earth become our reality. The time when God again walks with his people in the cool of day.

Every disaster reminds those outside Christ they are not in control. Every drought is a wakeup call. Every shooting is a wakeup call. Every funeral is a wakeup call. God is good and he gives people time to repent and put their trust in his Son.

Peter closes his letter with these words:

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.