09 June 2008

Verse-by verse through Joel (Joel 1:1-4, part 1)

Joel 1:1-4

1 The word of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel. 2 Hear this, you elders, and give ear, all you inhabitants of the land! Has anything like this happened in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? 3 Tell your children about it, let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. 4 What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten.

We begin our study with this dire warning from the prophet to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We do not have prophets in our day. That office was closed after the writing of God’s word to us. Now, there are people who can prophesy, and who can boldly stand upon the word of God and tell us what that Word means. But there has not been any inspired revelation since the writing of the book of…Revelation. God showed the apostle John what would happen in the last days of things, so there is no more need for any new “revelations.” Therefore, while the gift of prophecy may still be with us, the office of prophet is not.

In Joel’s day, prophets were not always held in high regard by men. That is, if they prophesied what God told them to prophesy. The people always wanted to hear smooth words and flattering speeches. They wanted the prophet to tell them what they wanted to hear. Isaiah would say as much some 100 years later, in Isaiah 30:8-118 Now go, write it before them on a tablet, and note it on a scroll, that it may be for time to come, forever and ever: 9 That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the LORD; 10 who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits. 11 Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.” And I dare say Joel did not get a very warm reception from the people when he gave them this word from the LORD.

1 The word of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel. So who was this Joel? As I mentioned last time, we know nothing more about him than these words from his pen. We know nothing about his father. But we can assume that Joel was probably one of the prophets who studied under Elisha. His office was for a short period of time, and he is lumped in with the other 11 of those we refer to as “Minor Prophets.” Not that what he said wasn’t important, but that his writings were not as expansive as men like Isaiah, Elisha, or Ezekiel. And what Joel has to say in these three little chapters is very important. Not only to the people of Judah at the time this was written, but also to us as a warning about failing to rely on God and remember that every good thing comes from Him (James 1:17).

What we see in these first seven verses is an UNPRECEDENTED CATASTROPHE. Verse 2Hear this, you elders, and give ear, all you inhabitants of the land! Has anything like this happened in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? When a prophet starts his message with the words, “Hear this!” the chances are pretty good that you should really listen to what he’s about to say. For one thing, when God gives a man a prophecy, He does not just send a word without a reason. But when he begins the message with “Hear this!” this is a call to attention. Much like in the Navy, when a captain comes up on deck, every one of his subordinates, no matter what they are doing, is to stop and come to attention. And when the prophet says “Hear this!” the people should have stopped everything they were doing, and heeded the word. And who does he say, specifically, need to hear this? The elders, and ALL the inhabitants of the land. He specifically calls out the older citizens, because he is about to ask them something that they would have a better knowledge of than the younger folks.

He asks the elders, Has anything like this happened in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? The form of this question has two purposes: One, to capture the attention of the older generation. If you want to get a good idea of what has happened throughout the course of the last fifty years, are you going to ask a fifth-grader? No. Why? Because their knowledge of history is limited. Extremely limited. For one thing, they're rather immature, so what little they do know they don’t really quite understand. Also, the only knowledge they have of history comes from books. And quite frankly, the American History textbooks kids have today are so lacking in factual information, and are instead filled with much anti-American propaganda that kids these days grow up without knowing half of what they should about the history of this nation. So the prophet is calling the elderly to remembrance about the things of not only their lifetimes, but those of the parents before them, and by extension their parents before them.

The form of the question has a second purpose: it is rhetorical. He phrases it in such a way that the hearer understands that the only answer the prophet is looking for is “No.” Paul uses the same technique in 1st Corinthians 12:29-3029 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? The writer of Hebrews uses it in the first chapter to differentiate Jesus from the angels (including Michael). Hebrews 1:5For to which of the angels did He ever say: “You are My Son, today I have begotten You?” And again: “I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son?” These are rhetorical questions. The person asking expects one specific answer. Has anything like this happened in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? And the answer is “No.” We see this in chapter 2, verse 2A people come, great and strong, the like of whom has never been; nor will there ever be any such after them, even for many successive generations.

So why does the prophet frame his question like this? It is to cause the hearers to reflect upon the subject. To cause the hearer to ponder in his mind what the prophet is about to announce to them. When you walk into the kitchen, and there’s milk all over the floor, and your child is standing their with an empty carton, and you ask them, “Did you do this?” Do you expect them to give you any answer but “Yes?” You know the answer, why do you ask? To make them consider what they have done. And this is why the prophet asks a rhetorical question, already knowing the answer. To cause them to have a “Selah” moment. Because he is about to give them another command from the LORD.

3 Tell your children about it, let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.Has anything ever happened like this? No. So make sure that all the generations after you know it. So they remember it. So perhaps the same thing won’t happen to them.” The people have been called to remembrance, they have been commanded to pass along this warning to all their generations. When you get a warning to remember the message before you actually receive the message, you can pretty well guess that it’s not going to be good. When the doctor tells you to sit down before he will tell you the results of your tests—it’s probably not good. When your boss calls you into his office and asks you to shut the door—it’s probably not good. When your spouse sits you on the couch and says, “There’s something I need to tell you”—it’s probably not good. And so the fact that Joel is preparing the people to brace themselves for the message he’s about to deliver—it ain't gonna be sunshine and puppies.

What he is about to tell them is a message that the church in America would do well to heed. We are so secure in our stuff. We think we have it all. We surround ourselves with cars and houses and toys. There is enough money in our church parking lots to feed a thousand missionaries for a hundred years. We do not think of the future. We do not consider who gave us the ability to afford all these things. Because the money’s never gonna run out, right? We’re always going to be secure, we’re always going to have enough. Right?

4 What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten. Has anything like this ever happened? Has any nation—especially the people of God—ever been visited by such a catastrophe as this? Has any nation ever seen the chewing locust immediately followed by the swarming locust, followed immediately by the crawling locust followed immediately by the consuming locust? No. Never. It had never happened in the days of the elders whom Joel prophesied to. It had never happened to their fathers. It had never happened to their fathers’ fathers. This was a catastrophe like no one had ever seen before.

We have four different creatures here—the chewing (gnawing) locust, the swarming (multiplying) locust, the crawling (licking) locust, and the consuming (devouring) locust. What exactly each one of these is we are not exactly sure. But we do know this: This is not describing invasions over successive years. That is, it’s not a case of one locust one year, another one the next, and so on. Keil & Delitzsch—an Old Testament commentary that gives some of the more technical information on the Hebrew language used by the writers—has this to say about the four different locusts employed here—“The four names given to the locusts…are not the names applied in natural history to four distinct species, or four different generations of locusts; nor does Joel describe the swarms of two successive years…” This is wave upon wave of creatures that tore through their crops like butter. Who flew in, descended upon the fields, laid their eggs, ate everything in sight, left nothing and showed no mercy.

Was this an invasion sanctioned and commanded by God? Yes it was. In Joel 2:25, God says that these waves were “My great army which I sent among you.” This was not some random appearance of these creatures. God sent them as a plague, much like He sent the locusts upon Egypt as a plague—but worse. You see, when God sent the locusts on Egypt, it was a one-time thing. They came in, raided the crops, and left—leaving the crops tattered and torn as a reminder to Pharaoh of just Who he was up against. And it was also a picture of impending invasions by foreign powers. But this army of locusts that God would send upon the people of His land made those look pale. This would not just be one wave that would damage and decimate. This would be four waves that would totally annihilate any and every living green thing that grew in the land. If you ever use Round-Up® weed killer, you know what I’m talking about. Spray it on anything that is green and it will be dead before the next morning. That’s what these creatures did.

Some believe the pictures to be of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Macedonians (Greeks under Alexander) and Rome. Others ascribe the traits to other foreign powers. But we can agree to disagree on this point. The fact is God had sent these locusts as a call to repentance. For if the people would have repented and returned to the LORD their God, He might well have stopped these invading hordes.

But that’s not what we do. When many of us receive a warning from the LORD, we bow up our backs and stiffen our necks and say, “I’m gonna do what I want to do!” And God says, “Fine. That’s what you want, you got it!” In the case of Old Testament Israel (and/or Judah), this would mean that God would remove His hand of protection and allow the heathen armies to enter the land, and—on more than one occasion—enter into even the temple and desecrate the Most Holy Place. In the New Testament, as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting…who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:28, 32). So let’s look at these little creatures and what they symbolize.

…the chewing locust… The Hebrew word is םזגּ (gazam). It refers to a flying locust (KJV—palmerworm), which comes in, gnaws on leaves and stems and “which leave the vine, fig-tree, and olive, perfectly bare” (K&D). This is the first wave. This is the one which will come in and strip everything off the trees for the next wave. This is the wake-up call. When a nation is too proud and too self-sufficient, if that nation has become too great for their own good, God will send them some message to get them up off their duffs and on their knees in repentance. By sending the palmerworm, or “chewing locust,” first, God says, “I’m going to cut off your supply that I have supplied you with. But I will leave the trunk and the true vine, so if you do repent, you will not have been utterly devastated.”

This is a warning to us as well. Have you noticed what has happened to gas prices? How high they have gone? Here we are, this nation of consumers, always having to have a bigger and brighter and shinier SUV, and Hummers, and so forth. Not flinching when we had to pay $50 to fill up that tank (or however much it cost. I don’t own one, don’t want to, never will.). Now how much does it cost to fill it up? $75? $100? What is happening to the big truck plants? GM has just announced they are closing 4 of them. Sales of Hummers is down—waaay down. The chewing locust is starting to chew. And if the chewing locust leaves anything…

…the swarming locust will devour that. This is the ארבּה (arbeh, locust—KJV). This is the common locust. The one you see in movies, and the one most people think of when they think of locusts. This is the cloud that farmers the world over dread seeing. This is the one that descends like rain, and is an unstoppable foe. While the gazam eats the leaves and stems, the arbeh attacks the fruit itself. This is the one that attacked Pharaoh. Which brings us to an interesting paradox. In Exodus 10:13-14, Moses writes, 13 So Moses stretched out his rod over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind on the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. 14 And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt and rested on all the territory of Egypt. They were very severe; previously there had been no such locusts as they, nor shall there be such after them. Now, the skeptic sees that and says, “That is a…” what? “A contradiction!” Now, before you get flustered, let me just say this: This IS NOT a contradiction. “How can you say it’s not a contradiction??” Because there are no contradictions in the Bible. “But it says in Exodus that there would never be any locusts like the ones that devoured Egypt!” Exactly. Obviously, these locusts that Joel told about were not the same as the ones that covered Egypt. Just like the “great fish” that swallowed Jonah (Jonah 1:17). It was prepared specifically for Jonah by the LORD. I dare say, there was never another fish like that one. But there have been other fish, yes?

Considering the numbers they usually flew in, and their size, they must have appeared as an incredibly unsettling sight. The sound? Have you ever heard the noise of helicopter rotors? That can be heard for miles on a clear day across flat land? Imagine tending your field one day, and you heard the sound of millions of wings. For they probably heard them before they saw them. You knew—you KNEW—what was happening. And you knew there was nothing you could do to stop it. Not only have you been invaded by creatures that stripped the stems and leaves off of your trees and vines—now an animal was going to come in and devour the fruit of your labors.

Now, what does this “locust” represent? That whatever one invading army (most likely the Assyrians) had not taken, the people who came after them (Chaldeans) would take away. Beck then there was not a great system for plundering nations. Just go for the good stuff, find the gold and silver—and maybe some women—and get out. Basically, it was “smash and grab.” So what one nation left behind, the next wave would be more than happy to make off with.

Likewise, today, since we do live in such a consumer-driven society, there are more and more attempts by more and more companies to drain the money from your wallet. Never in this country’s history have there been more ways to separate people from their money. And what the taxes—that are taken from our paycheck before we even get it—what they do not devour, and what the cost of fuel does not devour, the cost of those things that we just “have to have” will start munching on our “disposable income.” But why? Why is it that the more money we make, the more stuff we have to have? I believe King Solomon answered that question better than anybody. Ecclesiastes 5:10He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity.

The more we get, the more we want to have. Then after that it isn't long before the want for more becomes a need for more, and the more we want to have, the more we need to have. We have a nice car, it’s a few years old. It looks decent enough. It runs well. But you know, that new Nissan looks real nice. Maybe we should trade up. Yeah, the car we have is all paid off, and to buy this new one we’ll have to go back into debt. But you know, we need that new car. Or the car we have isn't big enough. We can still fit it into the parking space at the mall, where we have to have those $75 jeans. And it isn't long before What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.

Next time, we’ll look at the crawling locust and the chewing locust. We may study some more on the immediate fulfillment of the invasions pictured by the locusts. The various armies that invaded from different directions, carrying off what had become so precious to the people. And how some day, we just might find our goods carried away by foreign powers.

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