Images of Judgment

As we continue our study of the Minor Prophets, we want to keep in mind much of what Pastor Jonathan mentioned in his sermon last week. Though these prophets don’t all say they same thing, they do rhyme. There’s a rhythm and a pattern to their messages that we ought to understand at a basic level, and then on top of that seek to discern what distinctive contribution they make to our understanding of God and ourselves and history and sin and Christ and the future. 

Last week Pastor Jonathan highlighted the Grossness of Sin, the Necessity of Judgment, and the Insanity of Mercy. Sin, Judgment, Mercy. Sin, Judgment, Mercy. It runs like a thread throughout the Prophets, indeed throughout the whole Bible. There are undoubtedly variations on this theme, but you can always detect this melody within the prophets. Most of the prophets are writing between Step 1 and Step 2, between Sin and Judgment. They are part of that Blockade that God is setting up to keep his people from pursuing greater sin and incurring greater judgment. And as part of that Blockade, sometimes they put the accent of their message on the grossness of sin and sometimes they put it on the horror of judgment. For instance, Hosea puts a strong accent on giving us an image of sin and rebellion: we are the unfaithful bride, rejecting our faithful and kind husband for other lovers. Next week, Amos will in some ways emphasize both the ugliness of sin and its various expressions, along with God’s judicial actions and warnings against that sin. But this week, Joel doesn’t give us much on what sin is; instead he gives us images of judgment. If Hosea wants to help us know and feel how ugly and gross sin is, Joel wants us to know and feel how horrible and terrifying judgment is. 

And we desperately need this. Just as we suffer from a weak and atrophied imagination when it comes to the grossness of sin, so we suffer from an atrophied imagination when it comes to God’s judgment. And the prophets in many ways seek to rectify this. They appeal to the imagination to help us grasp who God is and what he’s doing. This works at two levels. First, there’s the historical level. In Hosea, the prophet’s marriage to the prostitute is a picture, a parable of God’s relationship to his faithless people. The physical mirrors or images the spiritual reality. Likewise, in Joel, the actual physical events occurring in Israel at the time of the writing are both God’s judgment itself and a picture of ultimate judgment. The agricultural devastation in Joel is God’s curse on Israel because of their sin. In the book of Deuteronomy, Yahweh told his people that if they sinned and broke covenant with him, he would pour out curses on the land—drought, famine, pestilence, disease, fire. The same is true of the military conquest which Joel describes. As a historical reality, it fulfills God’s warning that he will turn his people over to their enemies if they break covenant with him. 

But judgments work at another level as well. The historical events are themselves examples of God’s curse and judgment against sin, but they are also images of divine things. They reveal to us spiritual and invisible realities. Joel shows us the pattern of God’s judgments so that we can learn to recognize them in history and in our own lives. Take, for example, the Day of the Lord. The Day of the Lord is a Day of Judgment, a Reckoning. It is the unmistakable, cataclysmic arrival of God in human history in which he destroys his enemies, saves his people, and vindicates his holiness and his name. There are many such days in the Bible. When the Assyrians conquer Israel in the 8th century, that is a Day of the Lord. When the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem in the 6th century, that too is a Day of the Lord. Based on the biblical pattern, I think we can see God’s judgment on Adam and Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3 as a Day of the Lord. Likewise the exodus from Egypt, where God destroyed Pharaoh and rescued the Hebrews. The New Testament, likewise, refers to days of the Lord, like the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. And of course, all of these historical days of the Lord are pointers to the final Day of the Lord, when Christ returns and all people are judged according to what they have done. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).

Joel helps us to see how a Day of the Lord works. When Joel is writing, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Reckoning is still to come. It’s future. But, between now and then, God gives his people foretastes, warnings of what’s to come, in order to shock them out of their slumber and awaken them to the reality and danger of their situation. The dam is about to break and there are already cracks through which water is spraying us in the face. In the book of Joel, Israel is already experiencing some of these foretastes, and Joel is writing to tell them what they must do to get out of the way of the dam, to avoid the cataclysm of the day of the Lord. And Joel’s descriptions of these foretastes are designed to help us understand what’s to come.

So according to Joel, what is judgment like? What forms does it take?

Agricultural Devastation

Drought, pestilence, and wildfires devastate crops, leading to a famine in the land.  Locusts have devastated the harvest (1:4). The fruit of the land is cut off (1:5). “The fields are destroyed” (1:10). “The harvest of the field has perished” (1:11). “The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up” (1:17). The drought leads to wildfires in the pastures, with flames burning the trees of the field, and the beasts of the field panting because the water brooks are dried up (1:19-20).

Now, this sort of judgment doesn’t resonate as much with us, because we live in the 21st century in America, and famines are foreign to us. You could try to modify it a bit. What if our iPhones failed? What if Siri went silent? What if our telecommunications network went dark? And, what if, as a result, all of the infrastructure that makes our society possible crumbled? What if Target and Trader Joe’s were boarded up, with no food on the shelves? What kind of panic would set in then? Now, we do try to imagine this sort of thing. Our movies love to depict apocalyptic scenarios like that, but they tend to feel somewhat distant from us. They’re unreal, hypothetical. That sort of thing doesn’t really happen.

But this is where we really are the outliers. In large parts of the world, droughts, famine, and pestilence are real. Starvation is never very far away. The rest of the world resonates with Joel because they know hunger and thirst, famine and drought. What’s more, our grandparents know. They lived through Depressions and Dust Bowls. They’ve seen the sunken eyes of hungry children firsthand. 

But perhaps there’s another way for us to grasp the terror of this kind of judgment. Notice what Joel stresses with the locusts (1:4). This kind of judgment is one thing after another. Something awful happens, and before you can catch your breath, something else happens. And before you can respond to that crisis, something else happens. All of us have had days like that, mini pictures of that kind of judgment. 

Or notice the language related to the agriculture. Seeds shrivel. Grain dries up. Animals are perplexed. I’m willing to bet that most of us have felt our souls shriveling up, our hearts drying out, our minds stuck in confusion at our circumstances. And Joel wants us to see that connection. 

The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man. (1:12)

Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? (1:16)

The cutting off of the food is connected and depicts the cutting off of joy in our lives. The languishing of the fig tree resembles the languishing of our hearts. Gladness dries up like the water brook in the hot sun. 

Military Conquest

The judgment of God in Joel involves the arrival of a massive foreign army intent on destruction. This army is like a pack of lions, with gnashing teeth and sharp claws (1:6-7). They bring destruction in their wake. They turn a green paradise into a desolate waste (2:3). Those fires that devastated the crops? They start them. Their chariots rumble like thunder (2:5). Barriers and defenses are no protection against them. They scale walls, they climb into windows. They are uncountable and unstoppable. This hostile horde is single-mindedly devoted to your destruction. And the clincher is that this army which is hell-bent on your destruction is led by none other than God himself. “The Lord utters his voice before his army” (2:11). 

Again, our imaginations fail us. We don’t worry about massive armies of barbarian soldiers blackening the horizon on their way to destroy us. We don’t live in fear of chariots and horses, tanks and artillery, bombs and infantry. And again, we’re the exception in the history of the world and the present day. ISIS is real. It’s not a story told to frighten children. Right this minute they are fighting and conquering, enslaving and butchering. Boko Haram really does raid villages in Nigeria, killing, burning, and kidnapping as they go. And our grandparents knew as well. Hitler blitzed through Poland and across Europe. Even our parents lived through the Cold War, with its fears of Soviet aggression and nuclear destruction.

So our imaginations need help. What would you do if you looked to the horizon and saw that hordes of orcs and goblins chomping at the bit to get their hands on you? Do you feel the horror of the Day of the Lord, when God’s righteous eye fixes upon you, no swerving, no turning aside, no distracting. He’s coming with his army of destruction and there is no refuge possible. 

Now it’s at this point that many of us balk. We can imagine the armies on the horizon, and we can feel the terror and hopelessness. What we struggle to feel is that we would deserve it. When we try to imagine the pestilence and famine and military conquest, we invariably see ourselves as victims. We’re the innocent ones, and these horrors are just happening to us. Again, we see the limitations of our imagination. We can’t imagine that we’ve done anything that could warrant fire, pestilence, famine, and conquest. However much we may be aware of our failures and sins, to unleash orcs and goblins upon us would be massive overkill on God’s part. Again, mass murderers, rapists, terrorists—perhaps they deserve such a fate. But not us. We’re good people. Or at least nice people. We try, we make efforts to be kind with others. We love our families and friends. We tolerate our enemies. How could God possibly inflict this great and awesome day upon us? 

Two things can be said by way of response. We must remember that God does not inflict such judgments because he is cruel or heartless. The punishment does fit the crime. If we struggle to reconcile such punishment, if we don’t feel the appropriateness of this judgment and our sin, it is because we have not adequately reckoned with the crime. These judgments in Joel are rooted in God’s warnings and promises in Deuteronomy 28. The curses there overtake and devour the people. The curse chases them down, afflicting the ground and the womb. Confusion, frustration, destruction in everything we do. The pestilence sticks to the crops. Disease, drought, blight, mildew lay waste to his people. The heavens are shut up and no rain comes. God will strike them with defeat before their enemies, madness, blindness, and confusion of mind. Everything they possess—wives, homes, children, vineyards—all of it becomes plunder for others. They serve their enemies who rule them with harshness and oppression. And why? Why will all this come? Deuteronomy is clear. They have forsaken God, rejected God, turned away from God. They have not served him with joyfulness and gladness of heart because of all of the abundance that he supplies them. And neither have we. If you cannot grasp the great outrage that it is for a creature, one who was made by God and for God, to completely reject, ignore, and disobey him, you’ll never understand God’s judgment. If you read Joel and the images of judgment don’t make sense, then go read Hosea again. Listen to Pastor Jonathan’s sermon again. Feel the horror of the Bargain, the Block, and the Barrel. If he has made us, and if he has given us life and breath and everything, if all that we have has come from his hand, and if we’ve responded with such callousness, ingratitude, grumbling, and disobedience, and if we continue to pursue sin despite his blockades, what else could our crimes deserve?

But perhaps you still struggle to understand God’s judgment. That leads to the second biblical truth that can help. When we read Joel’s words about the Day of the Lord, we invariably see ourselves as victims, as those who are, so to speak, swept up in this horrible tragedy of conquest and devastation. But what if we’re not passive victims? What if we’ve actively chosen to be there and to remain there? 

Think of it this way. Most of us have a sense that some people do deserve the kind of judgment that Joel describes. The rapists and mass murderers perhaps. And this can actually help us, if we remember what was said earlier about the trajectory from sin to judgment. And a central part of God’s judgment is handing us over to greater sin. The terrorist that we think deserves it may simply be farther down the road to judgment than we are. To feel superior to him while staying on the same road that he is on is foolish. If we stay on this road, we’ll be where he is soon enough.

Here’s what I mean. Picture yourself in your worst moments—angry, proud, envious, full of lust, and eaten up by bitterness. Now imagine what would happen if all constraints on that version of yourself were taken away. Your upbringing that keeps those sinful impulses in check. The social pressure that keeps you from getting out of line. The desire for friendship and companionship. The internal character that guides your behavior (what used to be called our “better angels”). Imagine that all of that is taken away. What is left? You. But it’s a you stripped of all virtue and kindness and compassion. All that is left of you is the Grumble, the Lust, the Craving. You are no longer simply bitter; you are Bitterness. What’s more, you’re alone. All notion of “we,” of companionship, your sense of a shared humanity—all of that is gone. All that is left is “I,” Self. Hungry, Insatiable, Looking for someone to devour.

And now, perhaps our imagination can begin to understand the images of judgment better. When we picture the agricultural devastation, we imagine ourselves as the hungry man, the thirsty child. And in this life, we are. But what God’s judgment is telling us is that we are also the drought and the famine. We are the locusts who devour and devour and devour. We are the fire that consumes every good thing in our lives. 

Or again with the military conquest. Our initial move is to picture ourselves as innocent villagers fleeing before the coming hordes. And again, in this life, that is partially true. But we’re also the hordes themselves. The inhuman, the orcs, the wolves and lions that devour. This devastation is, in a real sense, self-inflicted. Of course, it is still inflicted by God. He is at the head of this army. But that means that he is the one who turns us over, who gives us up to the Grumble and the Lust and the Pride that is consuming our soul.

What then of the Day of the Lord? It is the final moment of decision. Picture the moment before it finally overtakes you, before your humanity shrivels to an infinitesimal size, before you simply become the Great Want, the Great Craving, the Great Demand.

In his final chapter, Joel mentions that the nations are gathered in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (which means “Yahweh has judged”). He later refers to the multitude in the Valley of Decision. This is where we are all headed. Indeed, in one sense this is where we live our whole lives. Our whole lives are made up of a series of choices that all boil down to one great Choice: will we embrace God or will we forsake him? Will we receive forgiveness in Christ or will we turn aside? Will we, as Joel says, rend our hearts and return to the Lord, or will we continue in to barrel through God’s blockades? 

But I haven’t clarified the Choice. As much as Joel accents the images of judgment, he also gives us images of mercy that correspond. In 2:12, we see the turn: there is still time to rend our hearts and return to God. And if we do:

Instead of the shriveled fruit and dry land, we hear this:

Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield. (2:21-22)

Instead of military conquest:

I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea; the stench and foul smell of him will rise, for he has done great things. (2:20)

The locusts that ate and ate and ate:

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. (2:25)

And above it all, God himself. The reason that the curses came was because we had forsaken God. But now in his mercy, he brings us back and gives us himself.

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (2:26-27)

This is the great Choice. Life, or Death? God, or Self? Heaven, or Hell? Everlasting Joy, or Everlasting Shame? As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The Table

The Table is a great reminder of this Choice between Judgment and Mercy. In Joel 1:10, God takes away their grain, their wine, and their oil. In Joel 2:19, God returns them:

“Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; And later he says, “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil” (2:24).

    Where is the grain? It is here in the bread, which represents Christ’s body.

    Where is the wine? It is here in the cup, which represents Christ’s blood.

And where is the oil? It is here in this church, the Holy Spirit, poured out upon us and dwelling within us and strengthening our faith as we share this meal.  

This table is for those who call upon the name of the Lord, the name of Jesus. It’s where we gather to eat in plenty and be satisfied as we praise the name of the Lord who has dealt marvelously with us.