The phrase “senseless tragedy” is often employed when describing some crime or calamity. But as Christians, no tragedy is senseless. How are we to understand national tragedy? Can we call COVID-19 a judgement? If so, what are we to make of it? Joel gives us the pattern for how to respond to such tragedy, by his response to a swarm of locust.
The word of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel. Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten. Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine; for it is cut off from your mouth. […]
Summary of the Text
After the brief personal introduction (v1), Joel invites the old men to give their assent to the uncommon magnitude of the tragedy that has befallen Judah, and then commands them to tell of this tragedy to future generations (vv2-3). Typically this command to tell future generations is in regard to great deliverances by the Lord’s hand (Cf. Ex. 10:1-2, Deu. 6:7, Josh. 4:6, Ps. 44:1), but here the devastating tragedy is to be retold to children’s children. The plague is then described in vibrant simplicity: the land has been devastated by wave after wave of locust (v4). A plague which had once been part of their deliverance, was now a plague come upon them for their chastisement.12
The drunkards are implored to weep, for their source of pleasure is cut off, and now must face the world (v5). The locust are likened to a foreign nation, fierce as lions (a theme then developed in 2:1-11 and then employed by St. John’s Apocalyptic vision); and the ruination the locust swarms brought was total (vv6-7).
The nation of Judah (often likened to a virgin, Cf. Amos 5:2) is to lament like a bereaved virgin (v8). The reason for the lamentation is that the locust swarms have utterly consumed the elements of the meat and drink offerings (vv9-10). The farmers and the priests are both exhorted to mourn, for the livelihood of the one and the ministry of the other are cut off (vs11-13).
The response to the tragedy should not be passivity. Rather, in the midst of the mourning, the priests should gather the elders and call a fast (v14). Joel provides a prayer for the nation to pray (vs15-18). The locust plague heralds that the Day of the Lord is soon at hand, and that Day will bring an even more severe judgement (v15), the rites of worship are unable to be performed, and joy and gladness along with it (v16), the Promised Land, which ought to be a land of rest, is laid desolate (v17), the flocks groan in the pangs of starvation and drought, and winnowing must follow (v18). Joel then speaks for himself (v19), demonstrating the spirit of true contrition. While the devastation was total––even the wild beasts who receive their meat and drink from the Lord (Cf. Ps 42:1, 104:21) were touched by this devastation (v20)––from the Lord alone could there be restoration (Cf. 2 Chr. 20:12).
Meat & Drink Offerings
Leviticus 2 gives the prescriptions for the meat offerings. For the grain/meat offering, the worshipper would bring fine flour, oil, and frankincense. The priest would take a portion of these elements and burn them, while the rest would be a portion for the priests.
The drink offering (Lev. 23:16, Num 15:6-7) varied in amount (between a quarter to half a hin––which is a little more than our modern gallon). It was never offered on its own, but always accompanied other offerings, and was explicitly only to be performed once Israel entered the land (Lev. 23:10). The wine could only be enjoyed once Israel entered her rest.
When examining the Mosaic offerings, the propitiatory nature of the sacrifices is often prominent. However, what ends up in our peripheral vision is that because our sin has been covered we’re enabled to meet with God (Ex. 29:42). So to, Christ’s sacrifice––which cleanses us from sin & guilt––enables our fellowship with God, and with God’s people (Cf. Heb. 10:18-25, 1 Jn. 1:3 & 2:1-2).
Invitation to Mourn
The locust swarm, and subsequent famine, directly impacted this important symbol of faithful worship. In light of this devastation, Joel invites all the people of the land to mourn and lament. While the mourning over the fact that the sign of communion with God was cut off, Joel is eager that they not neglect what the sign pointed to: their covenantal union with God by His free grace. Whether it be in the sacraments, or in our corporate or individual worship & piety, we can often perform all the external duties without having done so out of true faith. This is how we can make sense of what blind unbelief calls “senseless tragedy”; tragedy comes in to waken, disturb, and rattle us.
National lamentation is a bitter pill that only God can prescribe, and which we desperately need in our own time, in order to heal our cancer of proud self-sufficiency. Edward Topsell put it this way, “Oh how stubborn is the conceit of our hard hearts, which will not be taught till they smart, nor yet be instructed till they be corrected.” Tough cuts of meat often need to endure a salty brine to make them tender. While specific sins are noticeably unmentioned, the sin which Joel seems to be confronting throughout this book is that of heartless worship. As Calvin put it, “[Joel is] reproving the hardness of the people, because they do not feel their plagues.” They have become like Pharaoh. Stubborn nations and sinners often need a salty brine of suffering in order to soften their hearts. But national tragedies should bring about national lamentation and thus, in the end, national repentance and reformation.
But the plague of locust isn’t merely an event that happened and that Joel is simply responding to. He’s not using the locust swarms as a helpful sermon illustration. Rather, Joel wants us to see that the tragedy transpired at Yahweh’s command and according to His purpose, and, as such, are revelation. Swarms of locust are Divine revelations. God was saying something to Judah through clouds of insects.
When God Shuts the Temple
So what was God saying? We get a main clue by what Joel highlights as worthy of great mourning. The wheat, oil, and new wine were cut off. As a direct result, the rites of worship in the temple would also be unable to be performed. God is the one who sent the swarms, and so it was by His hand that the meat and drink offerings were suspended. God, who commanded Israel to commune with Him and meet with Him by these offerings, put His foot in the side of these offerings. The God of the offerings cancelled the offerings.
When man is in rebellion to God, the primary symptom is various attempts to invert the Gospel. Man tries to make God palatable to man, instead of making man acceptable to God through Christ. We have churches ordaining women to offices which scripture explicitly state are reserved for men. We have churches repenting for sins conjured up by the woke-craft of Marxist mobs. We have churches providing cover for sodomy and all other varieties of sexual pollution. They do it all in an attempt to make God palatable to man, instead of bringing man to God.
But closer to home, many “Bible-believing” churches have an orderly worship service, a liturgy based on biblical principles, they have bread and wine on the table, and water in the baptistry, and yet they are tombs. God has seen fit, this year, to empty many such churches. God shut the temple. God shut the church. God cancelled the meat and drink offerings.
Faithful mourning, as Joel demonstrates, can only come from loving what God loves and hating what He hates (Cf. 2 Cor. 7:10-11). This pandemic we face should bring us up short. God hates false religion so much that He cancelled church. God hates pretentious and presumptuous worshippers, and so he sent them to cover their faces and hide in their houses. God hates faithless worship, and our confessional standards, our orderly liturgies, our commitment to solid doctrinal teaching won’t save us.
May the Smoke Ascend
But this is why Joel invites Judah to mourn. We mourn that God has withdrawn Himself, and we plead with Him to relent. True mourning longs for the glory to be restored. For the smoke to ascend once more.
When Christ ascended, He brought us with Him. Our worship is the offering of ourselves, and it is in our worship that we ascend to God by Christ as a sweet savor. But if our worship is all tidy and in order, but our hearts are full of bitterness, our minds are polluted with lust, our hands are covered with the blood of hatred towards our brother, God will look on it all and say, “Time to shut it down.”
Only through Christ, can our worship be made right. He has entered the holy place in the heavenlies, that we too might enter in and offer right worship. We are to be the offering which ascends to God in Christ. We are to come to God, not try to get God all trimmed out with all the things that are palatable to our culture or our tribe, chanting the right slogans the whole way. The only way to enter in, the only way to ascend with the smoke, is to look to Christ. To put it another way, clouds of grasshoppers should make you look to Jesus.