The book of Joel is about hardship, it is about hard times. The hardship Joel and the people of Judah were experiencing was caused by the swarm of locusts which had lasted for a long time and had caused much devastation on the land.
The locusts came like an army, leaving behind a path of destruction. The people believed that the Lord had sent this army to devour the land, “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army” (Joel 2:11). What happens when God sends hardship? Sometimes God sends hardship! Hardship may come our way by his doing. In those moments when people face hardship, it is natural for people to ask, “God, why did you do this to me? Why can you allow this to happen?”
We interpret the arrival of hardship as divine cruelty. When people are faced with hardship, they come to the conclusion that God is mean, that God is not good. But what would happen if people had eyes to see the truth that is behind the event causing hardship? They would discover that there is a love that remains unseen. Through the eyes of faith people discover an amazing truth, that is, that behind the hardship people face, there is God’s love.
The Devastation of the Land
Joel 2:1–11 describes the disturbing situation the people of Judah were facing. These verses describe the swarm of locusts which is portrayed as a vicious army. What is also disturbing is that this army is led by Yahweh against the people of Judah. This swarm of locusts is unique, “Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come” (Joel 2:2).
Joel describes the destructive power of the Lord’s army, “The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command” (Joel 2:10-11).
Joel says that the Lord thunders at the head of his army. Like a military commander, Yahweh leads this cosmic army and his army obeys his command. The devastation left behind by the locusts had a profound effect on the land.
Before the invasion of the locusts, the land was “like the garden of Eden.” After the locusts devastated the land, the land became “a desolate wilderness” (Joel 2:3). To the people of Judah, the devastation caused by the locusts was troubling, because the hardship they had to endure was sent by God.
Causes of Suffering
Human suffering is universal; all human beings are familiar with hardship and suffering. Although all humans experience hardship and suffering, human suffering is manifested in different ways and to different degrees. As people cope with their hardship, they search for an underlying reason for their suffering in order to make their hardship and their suffering more bearable.
The swarm of locusts caused much suffering and hardship upon the people of Judah. It is at times like this, that people ask about the causes of suffering. There are many reasons people suffer, however, most human suffering is the result of three realities that are, directly or indirectly, the cause of human suffering.
Human beings live in a fallen world and this reality is the cause of most human suffering. When God created the world, God said that “it was good” (Genesis 1:12). After God created human beings, God said that everything he had created “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
When the man and the woman rebelled against God, human beings sinned against God and the good world God had created became a fallen world. Human beings live on a broken planet; human rebellion has a ramification that reverses the goodness of creation.
Once sin entered the world, the earth was cursed and brokenness entered the world, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). Human beings live in a broken world. The human body is prone to disease which causes pain and suffering. Because of sin and human rebellion, wars, violence, diseases, and human hatred bring suffering, pain, and hardship to humans.
Another cause of pain and suffering are the natural consequence of bad decisions people make. People generally reap the consequences of bad decisions they make in life. People make decisions when they choose an option that they know they should not.
There are consequences to bad decisions people make. Sometimes these decisions become the source of hardship and suffering. Many times, the consequences of bad decisions are unpredictable and unexpected. In the end, a bad decision brings with it its own reward, “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8).
A third source of suffering is divine discipline. Many people hate discipline and despise reproof (Proverbs 5:12), but “the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (Proverbs 6:23). The wiseman encouraged people to receive divine discipline, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11–12).
What was happening in the days of Joel was divine discipline because of Israel’s rebellion against their God. When God called Jeremiah to speak to the people of Judah, Yahweh commanded Jeremiah, “You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, and did not accept discipline” (Jeremiah 7:28).
In the days of Joel, divine discipline was imposed on the people of Judah because of the rebellion of the nation, because of the refusal of the people to return to God.
Many times, when people suffer, they already know the cause of their suffering, even when they fail to acknowledge it. Other times, they need to gain clarity to understand the reason why they are suffering. Other times, people, like Job, do not know the reason for their suffering and they may never know why they suffer.
God did not create suffering. All suffering is because of human rebellion. If God is good, God could remove suffering from this world. But suffering exists, so, why does God not remove suffering from human beings? God is aware of human suffering, “I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me”(1 Samuel 9:16).
It is difficult to explain why God allows suffering in the word he has created. The prophet Habakkuk struggled with the problem of evil and suffering. Habakkuk lived at a time when there was much violence and wickedness in Judah. The actions of evil people were causing many innocent people to suffer. Habakkuk asked God, “How long, O LORD, am I to cry for help, but you will not listen? I cry out to you, ‘There’s violence!’ yet you will not come to the rescue. Why do you make me see wrongdoing? And why do you watch wickedness? Destruction and violence are in front of me. Quarrels and disputes arise” (Habakkuk 1:2–3). The prophet believed that God was not aware of the suffering of the people.
God did not provide a full answer to Habakkuk’s question. The Lord said to him, “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told” (Habakkuk 1:5). “You would not believe if you were told.” God had a plan and a reason, but he did not tell Habakkuk and he may not tell us why we suffer.
Call To Repentance
In the midst of the crisis caused by the locusts, God calls on his people to repent and turn back to him, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12–13).
There are two voices speaking to the people of Judah, Yahweh and Joel. Yahweh says to the people, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
Joel says to the people, “rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
There is a strange tension between the harshness of the punishment caused by the locusts and the grace and mercy of a loving God behind these words of Yahweh and Joel. This tension is an intrinsic part of the story.
The coming of the locusts caused much devastation to the land, affecting people and animals. God used the devastation caused by the locusts as an opportunity to call the people to return to him. The devastation caused by the locusts created the possibility for the people to return to God.
Hardship and suffering tend to bring people to God. Many times, when people are suffering, people lift their eyes to heaven, looking for divine assistance. This truth was expressed by Solomon when he prayed, dedicating the temple in Jerusalem.
Solomon prayed, “If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, or locust . . . whatever suffering, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever plea from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing their own suffering and their own sorrows so that they stretch out their hands toward this house; may you hear from heaven, your dwelling place, forgive, and render to all whose heart you know, according to all their ways, for only you know the human heart” (2 Chronicles 6:28–30).
In returning to Yahweh, the people must express their decision both internally and externally. Internally, the people must return to Yahweh with all their hearts. Externally, their repentance must be expressed with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Nothing less will be accepted. There must be genuine repentance in order to convince Yahweh to remove the locusts, his agents of judgment.
In his words to the people, Joel emphasized the importance of genuine repentance. To rend one’s heart refers to an act of heartfelt contrition. Joel showed a different side of God by appealing to the character of God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The God whom Joel served is a God merciful and gracious. He is a God who is slow to anger, who abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness, a God who keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation. He is a God who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin (Exodus 34:6–7).
Joel said, “Who knows? He may reconsider and change his plan and leave a blessing for you” (Joel 2:14). In his commentary on the book of Joel, James Nogalski writes that Joel culminates his exhortation to the people to repent “by asking a rhetorical question: who knows whether YHWH will change his mind? The point of the repentance in 2:12–13 is to attempt to change YHWH’s mind. The rhetorical question in 2:14 assumes this change is possible, but that only YHWH knows whether YHWH will relent” (Nogalski 234).
Joel was emphasizing to the people of Judah that God was a gracious and merciful God, a relational God who wants to be with his people, to have a personal relationship with each person who comes to him with a sincere heart.
On June 26, 2016, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon from the book of Joel titled “Return To Me.” The sermon was based on Joel 2:10–13. The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
In his sermon Jeff emphasized that God wants to be near his people because God is a relational God. Some suffering may reflect divine discipline but how must people react to suffering when there is love behind it?
Joel’s exhortation to the people of Judah offers help to people who are facing hardship in their lives. Joel said, “Return to the LORD.” These words indicate that the people were far away from God. When facing hardship, people must return to God, open their eyes to see a loving God behind their difficult situations.
Joel said to the people of Judah, “rend your hearts.” If hardship comes because of divine discipline, one must repent before God. The act of repentance must be with the whole heart, with one’s whole life. The rending of one’s garment may be an act of external piety that may or may not reflect an act of true contrition.
The act of returning to God indicates an act of moving toward God to find help in time of need, “Turn back . . . I will heal your afflictions” (Jeremiah 3:22 TNK). When people turn back to God, they will encounter a God who is merciful and gracious, a God who forgives and a God who heals afflictions.
A Video Presentation
“Return To Me.” A Sermon by Jeff Griffin.
Other Studies on the Book of Joel
An Introduction to the Book of Joel
Previous Sermons by Jeff Griffin
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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