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Lessons From Locusts

The prophet Joel begins his oracle with the odd subject of an impending invasion of locusts. It is odd, that is, to those of us who live in non-agrarian societies without a natural tie to the land which produces our food. To those who live close to the land, a plague of ravening locusts is no laughing matter. J. M. Boice, in his comments on the book of Joel, makes mention of a plague of locusts that devastated parts of Palestine and Syria in 1915 (The Minor Prophets, Vol. 1, 1983, Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002, 122). The damage was catastrophic. When farmers see their crops overrun with two-inch-long, crawling marauders, and know that there’s nothing they can do to stop them from devouring everything in their path, and when an entire culture’s economy is derailed as the result of these . . . insects . . . then perhaps odd is not the best word to employ to describe it. Perhaps a better adjective would be, sobering, or maybe, gut-wrenching.
          That almost captures it.
          Joel writes,
What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)
Such devastation calls for grief and mourning—from the winos whose booze supply will be cut off, if from no one else (see Joel 1:5)! At one point, Joel compares the desolation of the people as a result of the locust plague to the grief of a bride whose intended has been killed on their wedding day (Joel 1:8).
          And it gets worse. As he continues to envision the coming calamity he describes the insect-invaders in militaristic terms. So much so, in fact, that many commentators assume he has shifted focus entirely to prophesy about the impending invasion of the Assyrian army. He writes:
Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. (Joel 2:3)
          Most stunning of all is the fact that the commander of this army (whether it is interpreted as an army of locusts or of Assyrian soldiers) is understood to be God himself:
The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? (Joel 2:11)
So, let’s be sure we have the entire picture here: the prophet Joel is warning the people about an impending invasion (either of locusts or Assyrians, or both—equally horrific any way you slice it) which will be headed by YHWH Sabbaoth—the Lord of Hosts (which, in this case, is seen to be quite a literal title). The image is that of God, riding to battle at the head of his armies, having decreed that their enemy at this point is none other than his own people.
          Now here’s where it gets very interesting. It is at this point that Joel calls on the people to repent. That in itself is not surprising. He writes:
“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. (Joel 2:12–13)
So, if God’s people repent, he will relent and not allow the devastating invasion to take place? Not so fast. In the very next verse, Joel continues:
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him . . . ? (Joel 2:14)
Did you catch that? Joel says that repentance might lead to God’s gracious decision to “leave a blessing behind him.” Employing the imagery he began using in verse 11, Joel describes the possibility of the divine warlord turning in his saddle after he has led his armies through the land of Israel and benevolently deciding to offer some consolation in the wake of his unimaginable destruction.
          In other words, repentance will not lead to an averting of disaster but to a blessing in the midst of disaster.
          To further drive home this point, Joel quotes God’s promise to his people,
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. (Joel 2:25)
God’s word of consolation to his people is not that they might still avoid the devastation but that he would bring them through the devastation and make them stronger. He would meet their needs again and restore their fortunes.
          What a powerful reminder of God’s severe mercy! In the many devastations that overwhelm us in this fragile life it is tempting to think that God’s mercy will result in a removal of our trials altogether. We want to believe that the locusts will be headed off before they arrive. But God doesn’t promise that. Nor, for that matter, does he promise us exactly the same thing he promises Israel, that “you will have plenty to eat and be satisfied.” We have no guarantee that God will entirely restore everything he sovereignly chooses to remove from us during his day of visitation. But he does promise something better by far:
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. (Joel 2:27)
This is a restatement of the covenant promise:
I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God. (Exodus 29:45–46)
That’s all we could ever hope for, in the end: to dwell together with God. And sometimes, to be reminded of this, everything else must first be stripped away by the locusts.

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