13 Gird yourselves and lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to my God; for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into 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 at hand; it shall come as destruction from the Almighty. 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, storehouses are in shambles; barns are broken down, for the grain has withered. 18 How the animals groan! The herds of cattle are restless, because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep suffer punishment. 19 O LORD, to You I cry out; for fire has devoured the open pastures, and a flame has burned all the trees of the field. 20 The beasts of the field also cry out to You, for the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the open pastures.
The locusts have come, they have devoured the fields and the vines. The Baals they had come to worship were useless. And they could not offer sacrifices to YHVH because the oil, the flour and the wine were gone. So what are the people to do now? They do what any nation would do when such terrible tragedies unfold. They turn to God. Is that a bad thing? No. But here’s the problem: the people would only turn to God when things went horribly wrong. When everything was going swimmingly, they gradually lost touch with God, they started lounging in their prosperity, and eventually they began whoring after other gods. Then what happened? Calamity. Catastrophe. Captivity. When the judgment of God came upon them for their forsaking of Him, the people were never slack in running back to Him and begging for forgiveness.
But this is not how God wants us to worship Him. He does not want to see this perpetual cycle of obedience, forsaking, judgment, repentance. God wants us to know that we belong to Him and Him alone. Exodus 20:4-5—4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” He is jealous over you, and will not share you with any other. Yet how many times do we grieve Him by serving the things of this world? We seek after money and stuff and acceptance and diversions. We fill our homes with shiny things. We almost make them our god. And if He wants to, God will take all that away. He took away the crops that these people in Judah had about come to worship. He sent an UNPRECEDENTED CATASTROPHE—four successive waves of locusts to devour the very last leaf. This caused an UNANTICIPATED CORRUPTION—not only were the plants and trees and vines stripped bare, but the people realized that the things they needed to bring with their sacrifices to YHVH were gone. They could not even return to the “husband of her youth” (verse 8). This was a situation that called for an UNCONDITIONAL CONSECRATION.
Verse 13. Gird yourselves and lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth… Before we go to the LORD in humble resignation we need to prepare not only our hearts but also our bodies. For who would go into a funeral without wearing the proper attire? Would a person walk into a viewing parlor wearing some outlandish outfit? No. They would attire themselves in clothing that would befit the occasion. It must be the same when we approach Almighty God in humble repentance. And what was the normal clothing for such an occasion at this time? Sackcloth. Now, what exactly is “sackcloth?” According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, it is “Cloth made of black goats' hair, coarse, rough, and thick, used for sacks, and also worn by mourners.” Many people today will go to a funeral wearing a suit made of cotton, or linen, or wool. But back in these times, they would wear this rough material made of goat’s hair.
This was an outward sign of what the person felt inside. When Jacob heard that Joseph was dead, Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days (Genesis 37:34). When the decree to kill all Jews went out from King Ahasuerus, in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:3). Whenever there was mourning on the inside, there was usually sackcloth on the outside. It was evidence that the pain and anguish was real. Here, the prophet was telling the people—especially the priests, to whom the people were to look to guide them in the things of God—Joel tells them to put on the clothes that show your mourning is real. Let what you feel on the inside show through on the outside.
…wail, you who minister before the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to my God; for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Even the priests—the ministers of the covenant—were not right before God. The priests were commanded here to lead the people back to God, and to do it in such a way that they would know that God is God and no one else is. The offerings were withheld from the people, the priests were not allowed to perform any ceremonies before they got right with God. And this is always the case. Before a people can return to God, those in positions of leadership in the church must be clean first. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest had to offer a young bullock for his own sins before he could cast lots for the scapegoat. Leviticus 16:6-8—6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. 8 Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat.” The writer of the book of Hebrews spoke of Christ when he told us, such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself (Hebrews 7:26-27). In order to bring the people before the LORD, the priests had to be sanctified. They were to seek to follow God's leading and God’s guidance. They were to influence the people—it was not supposed to be the other way around. Hosea 4:9—And it shall be: like people, like priest. So I will punish them for their ways, and reward them for their deeds. When those in positions of authority in the church are swayed more by the will of the people than by the will of God, it is never a good thing.
And this, my friends, is the basis for that famous passage at the beginning of Matthew 7, when Christ tells us, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5). Are we not priests? Are we not kings? That’s what it says in Revelation 1:5-6—Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. The problem is, there are many who don’t think there is anything wrong. They go about their lives as if they're OK. Is this a problem in their heart? Yes. But it says even more about those who “pastor” these people. Many times this kind of thinking and living points to a “pastor” that will not confront sin, will not preach repentance, and will not warn people of the judgment to come. Therefore, in order for the church today to come out of its Laodicean lukewarmness, the change must begin in the pulpit.
Verse 14. Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. In the passage from Esther mentioned above, the queen called for the people to “gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” (Esther 4:16). Fasting was a common practice for those who sought the LORD’s providence. It was another outward sign of inward mourning. David fasted during the days his son (who was conceived in his adultery with Bathsheba) died (see 2nd Samuel 2:15-18). Daniel fasted from the king’s meats (see Daniel 1:8). By denying oneself of such necessaries as food, a deeper dependence upon God is fostered. When we deny ourselves the things the world provides, we develop a greater appreciation for those things which God provides. This is what the prophet was calling for here.
Not only were the people to deny themselves, they were to gather together for the sole purpose of crying out to God for help. To strip themselves of all their earthly pride, and to confess that they were completely and totally at the mercy of Almighty God. But that’s not what we see today. Today, when things don’t go exactly the way we want them to, we blame God rather than cry out to Him and submit to Him. Instead of falling flat on our face and admitting that maybe, just maybe, the pickle we are in just may be of our own making, we would rather turn our back on the One who gives us everything we need, and who is ready at all times to provide for His children. But we would rather be a child of the world, and seek after the things we can see, and which fill our immediate needs than to submit to this God that we think doesn’t care, because we can't see ten seconds into the future to see that yes, He will provide for us.
Let’s look at a couple words here. First, there is the word “consecrate.” The Hebrew word קדּשׁוּיצוֹם (qawdash) is a root word that means “be clean.” This fast they were called to was meant to purify their bodies. If you read the Law of Moses, most of it was meant to draw attention to the fact that our bodies had to be pure just as our souls had to be pure. That is why there were so many regulations concerning lepers, and women who were going through their period, and the time after childbirth, and all the regulations about what they could and could not eat. A fast was a way of completely ridding the body of anything whose cleanness may have even been questionable. They were to cleanse themselves by this fast.
Then there is the phrase “sacred assembly” (KJV—solemn assembly). They were to call an עצר (awtsar) assembly—a gathering that is to be shut up from the outside world, that the people may focus exclusively on the LORD their God. They may have read from the Torah. There was, no doubt, much praying and self-examination. I doubt their was a lot of discussion about what kind of music they should play, or people asking each other, “What does that commandment mean to you?” They were to acknowledge, before God and each other, that the sin of the nation of Judah was not simply that nation’s sin—although it was. But each and every one of them was to acknowledge the part he himself had played in this apostasy, that God may hear the confession and forgive their sins. By coming into the house of the LORD, and shutting the doors, and separating themselves from the rest of the world, and by denying themselves the things they thought they needed most, they were to see what they really needed most—or, rather, who they needed most.
Verse 15. Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as destruction from the Almighty. Here the prophet introduces us to the concept of the “Day of the LORD.” If these people thought locusts were bad, the prophet tells them, “You ain't seen nothing yet!” There are many Scriptures that speak of a Day of the LORD. And we need to be careful when we come across such a passage, that we do not read it wrongly. For there is an immediate Day of the LORD and there is the eschatological Day of the LORD. There will be, indeed, a Day of the LORD at the end of the age that will see the beginning of the end of all things. This is not what the prophet is declaring here. This Day of the LORD was His imminent judgment upon the people, and their consumption by an army that would be led by God Himself.
And is there any declaration that could be more chilling than this? To hear that your nation will be invaded, overrun, conquered, and decimated by an abominable enemy—and that it was God Himself who would empower that abominable enemy to invade, overrun, conquer, and decimate? The apostle Paul said in Romans 8:31—If God is for us, who can be against us? But consider that verse in this light: If God is against us, who can be for us? Neither height, nor depth, nor death nor life, nor any created thing can separate us from His love. It stands to reason, then, that no created thing can save us from His wrath.
But we don’t like to think like that. We don’t like to talk about a God who is angry and who destroys. We like to talk about a God who is nice, and safe, and who just simply loves us just the way we are. Friends, if that is a God that someone claims to worship, then they must chop out a whole bunch of Scripture. Because there is a whole lot of it that talks about His anger, His wrath, His judgement—upon His own people! Knowing this, just stop to consider what He will do to His enemies! The prophet speaks much about that in the next chapter, so we will save any further discussion until then.
Verse 16. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? Joy and gladness cut off from the house of the LORD. When a gathering of people who claim to belong to God seeks the pleasures of this world, and turns their back on God, and is more ready to hear the thoughts and opinions of fallen, sinful men. When a group that calls itself a church is guided by the dictates of this fallen world, joy and gladness will leave that house. Now, follow me here. Before you say, “Well, look at some of these churches that affirm sinners. They seem happy.” First of all, they are not churches. Well, not churches of the Lord Jesus Christ anyway. These are simply groups of people that get together to try and tear apart the word of God in order to feel better about their sinful lifestyles. That is not a church, so we need to stop calling such places “churches.” That said, as an assembling of believers—those who hold fast to the word of God—begins to slide down the slope that Jonathan Edwards warned us about in his most famous sermon, then make no mistake about it—God will remove joy and gladness from that group. “But those people still have joy!” Maybe. But it is no longer a house of the LORD. And when that happens, true Christians are not joyful, or glad.
Finally, Verses 17-20. 17 The seed shrivels under the clods, storehouses are in shambles; barns are broken down, for the grain has withered. 18 How the animals groan! The herds of cattle are restless, because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep suffer punishment. 19 O LORD, to You I cry out; for fire has devoured the open pastures, and a flame has burned all the trees of the field. 20 The beasts of the field also cry out to You, for the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the open pastures. How often do we think about the fact that all of creation is affected by our sins? Did you know that all of creation is awaiting the day when God judges the wicked and casts them into Gehenna—the Lake of Fire—and does away with sin and corruption and wickedness once and for all? Romans 8:20-22—20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. In fact, because of Adam’s sin, God cursed the very ground you and I walk on. Genesis 3:17—Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” Because of Adam’s sin, the earth must go through death and rebirth, and death and rebirth—over and over and over again. It would have willingly yielded forth its fruit continually. But because Adam couldn’t keep his grubby mitts off of that tree, it too is subject to death.
And because of the sins of the nation Judah, vegetation was destroyed, water brooks were dried up, animals went hungry, the soil was useless. The beasts of the field may not have a soul, but they know Who made them. And in verse 20, they cry out to Him. Do you realize the implications of that fact? Think about it. The beasts of the field—brute beasts, crude animals, supposedly—even they have enough sense to call out to God when disaster strikes. So why don’t we? "The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider." Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger The Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward (Isaiah 1:3-4).
Could this be said of us? When calamity strikes, do we call upon the LORD? Or, better still, do we retain Him in our thoughts and in our hearts, that we would stay continually in His care? The animals know who their master is. They are always acknowledging Him. We know (supposedly) who our Master is, yet many times we act as if we are our own master. We keep Him in our thoughts just enough to keep the slimmest thread of communication with Him, so that when things go south we can pick up the line and have Him bail us out. But there will be times when He won’t bail us out. There will be times when He says, “No, you’ve been doing fine without Me. Surely you can get yourself out of this one.” God does not turn His back on us. His eyes are always upon us (see 1st Peter 3:12). But He will allow pain and suffering to come into our lives when we are disobedient to Him—and sometimes, He will bring it Himself. For whom the Lord loveth, He also chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth (Hebrews 12:6). An UNPRECEDENTED CATASTROPHE that brings an UNANTICIPATED CORRUPTION calls for an UNCONDITIONAL CONSECRATION.