Saturday, September 16, 2023

Mining the Minors: Joel (5)

Joel chapter 2’s appeal to return to the Lord has a timeless quality.

Unusually for prophetic scripture, Joel has left undescribed the specific sins of Judah for which God is calling her to account. We can only guess the “when” and the “what” he feels compelled to address. The prophet could be calling any generation of Israelites to return to behavior suited to a covenant relationship with their God — any generation, that is, that still understands the meaning of fasting and mourning, of grain and drink offerings, of the trumpet blown to call together the solemn assembly.

Israelite worship came with a lot of baggage.

To be fair, so did the other religions of the day. In the case of Judah, however, each facet of public worship pointed to the once-for-all salvation God would provide through Christ, rather than dead-ending in ritual in the precincts of a god who was and would forever remain largely an unknown quantity and who could do nothing to help those who invoked his name.

4. An Appeal to Return to the Lord

Joel 2:12-14 — Meaningful Repentance

“ ‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

Him Whom They Have Pierced

Repentance meaningful to God is always inward rather than outward. The Lord is not looking for dramatic public displays, but rather an attitude of humility toward God that reflects the seriousness of having neglected, despised and failed to recognize his claims and his person. If indeed the northern army of the future is God’s chosen instrument to bring about his earthly people’s return to him, then no other outcome should be expected. One day in Israel, hearts will be torn and behaviors will change.

Not to jump too far ahead in our study of the Minor Prophets, but it is Zechariah who best describes the historic moment when Israel will finally recognize its Messiah: “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo.”

These were details Joel never received, or if he did, he doesn’t tell us. That’s the nature of progressive revelation; you get more when you are ready to receive it, not before. Even though these events are sketched out in minimal detail in Joel, there is enough said to assure us the prophet is speaking of the same historical era, as we will see when we reach chapter 3.

The Lord, the Lord …

If Joel’s admonition in verse 13 sounds familiar, it is because he was probably thinking of how God revealed himself to Moses atop Sinai in Exodus 34: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Apart from the reversal of “gracious” and “merciful”, the wording is identical. David says the same thing in the same words in Psalm 103, where he also makes mention of Moses. Given their importance to Jewish history, it is highly likely these words were on the lips and in the minds of all the devout in Judah when Joel wrote, and they are preserved for us in the word of God today to be quoted and contemplated by the remnant of Israel in a coming era.

The important takeaway from both these passages, and from Joel, is that God is not done with Israel, despite the teaching of many today that the church has assumed national Israel’s place of blessing and testimony forever. David writes concerning the Lord’s relationship with national Israel, “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.” The doctrine of supersessionism denies this well-established truth. Thus, when Joel asks, “Who knows if he will not turn and relent?” it is with good reason. (It’s a rhetorical question: Of course he will!)

Note that the blessings Joel says the Lord will leave for his nation are ones only a Jew would relate to: a grain offering and a drink offering. The similarity to the bread and wine of the remembrance feast cannot be ignored, but I doubt it has any eschatological implications for the church. It is hardly surprising that when Messiah’s Jewish brethren finally remember him and glorify him as a nation, they will do so in figure with bread and wine, this time commemorating his sacrifice on their behalf rather than anticipating it. It should be pointed out that these symbols have significance going all the way back to Genesis, long predating both Israel and the church. Here Israel will finally recognize their “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek”, and, like Melchizedek, the returning Messiah will have no shortage of blessings for those who come to him.

Joel 2:15-16 — Another Trumpet

Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.”

The day of the Lord will be a day for trumpets. There is a trumpet in Revelation signaling the beginning of the judgment of Judah that Joel is currently describing, a trumpet in Joel signaling warning of invasion, and now this trumpet to call the people together in order to repent. (The Christian expects an earlier trumpet call to assemble of his own.) David Grabbe comments on the significance of trumpets to Israel here.

For our purposes, we will simply say the meaning of any particular trumpet blast is contextual. Here, it is a call to assemble the people of God without limitation or exception; from senior citizens to nursing infants, nobody is excluded. Even bride and bridegroom are called away from their preparations to an event of much greater long-term importance than the consummation of their nuptials. In Deuteronomy, a newly-married man was exempted from armed service or any other public duty under the Law of Moses. The trumpet call would normally not apply to him. Here it does. No Israelite will be exempt from the remnant’s call to repent in that day.

Joel 2:17 — Spare Your People

“Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?” ’ ”

The Priests, the Ministers

Here again we are reminded of God’s revelation of his character to Moses in Exodus 34 right after Moses has successfully interceded on behalf of the erring nation. In Joel, those whose job is to intercede for the people are now called to fill the shoes of Moses: the “priests, the ministers of the Lord”.

The priests or ministers are called to take their stand “between the vestibule and the altar”, which is to say in the open “priest’s court” where their mourning would be public and corporate, rather than private and personal. After all, they are weeping not just for themselves, but on behalf of their entire nation. The same expression (“between the vestibule and the altar”) occurs in Ezekiel 8, but in that case twenty-five men have gathered in the temple courts to worship the sun. This is not just an abomination, but a blatant, public abomination. So then, when Israel repents, its priests will be called to the same place where they led Israel astray in order to call the people back and appeal to God to act on their behalf despite their apostasy.

A Similar Intercessory Argument

Note that their repentant appeal on behalf of the people is really the same argument Moses used successfully in Exodus 33: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

The presence of God with Israel was the thing that marked out God’s people among all the nations of the earth. Israel has repudiated that relationship in crucifying the Lord of glory. They have no ground whatsoever to stand on with God, but can only appeal to his mercy and his concern for his own name, much like you and I when we came to Christ for salvation.

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