Our oldest living grandparents have never seen anything like this. The alcoholics can’t drink it away or numb it. It’s making history and parents imagine what they’ll tell their children or their children’s children in days to come. A new dread has overtaken the land—so unknown that people feel powerless in its wake. The grief for all that’s been lost is so painful it feels like a virgin widow mourning her husband instead of enjoying her wedding night. Our pockets are so empty there is nothing to put in the church’s offering plate. The store shelves and market stands are empty. Our joy feels withered, like fruit on the vine in drought.
Worldwide 21st century pandemic, or the first chapter of Joel? Both.
The Old Testament prophecies of Joel are easy to overlook. It’s a short, 3-chapter book in the minor prophets about a locust plague that decimated the land and its people. It’s very apocalyptic and, honestly, hard to relate to—that is, unless you’ve lived through a global calamity yourself.
Reading Joel in the shadow of international tragedy was a unique experience. The first half chapter summarized above left me wide-eyed with shock. This ancient text came alive now that I shared a similar experience with its original audience. The first chapter goes on to describe religious leaders in open anguish before their people, and fasting and repentance because no one knows why calamity has struck except for our sin. The food sources are dried up. The land and its people and animals all go hungry and are left parched. There’s a fair bit of aimless wandering, widespread suffering, and storehouses and gathering places left empty and in ruins.
All of those experiences sound so familiar. No matter how much bread we bake or research we read, we can’t ignore that we still don’t understand what is happening around our world, nor how to stop it or minimize the damage. Our economies are crashing. Our marketplaces have empty shelves too. Our religious leaders desperately try to point us back to God, but the places of worship lie empty. Here in Uganda I’ve seen the empty market stalls. The land isn’t suffering here, as under a drought, but the livestock are thinner and sicker as limited resources have been given to people instead of land and animals.
Joel closes chapter 1 speaking about fire that has devoured the fields. We joke about our world being on fire. We have seen protests and riots, because the world has slowed down its spin enough for us to step back and notice our oppressive systems. Violent and opportunistic crime is on the rise as people become more desperate with hunger and poverty. People starve in slums and refugee camps. Treatable diseases are overlooked and untreated more than ever as our hospitals fill with pandemic victims. Global mental health is in crisis. Dictatorial governments have seized even more power. Marginalized people who already lived on the edge struggle for plain survival. Our world IS on fire.
A theme from the first chapter of Joel rings true for us too: large-scale disaster overlooks nothing and no one. The land in Joel’s day was ravaged by drought, famine, and locusts. But it wasn’t just the food that was affected—young and old, wealthy and poor, people and animals, land and water—all suffered. Even though our pandemic has been a global health disaster, it has hit our economies, governments, communities, and every other sphere of society, with crippling force. Every sector has taken a beating. All the destruction and brokenness has left our literal and metaphorical fields dried, shriveled, and unprotected: just waiting for fire to blaze through and pile calamity upon calamity. Catastrophe reminds us how little control we actually have.
But chapter 2.
The second chapter of Joel reminds us that the Lord is in complete control. Yes, he sends the locusts. Yes, he is holy and just and must punish sin. But he is also merciful and good.
The chapter opens with a nightmarish horror scene. Alarm bells ring and trumpets sound to announce an invading army, but the army is locusts. They black out the sun and moon and break over the mountaintops like a grisly dawn. The land that was lush like Eden before them is a barren desert waste behind them. They move and sound like an untamed wildfire crackling and leaping, like soldiers whose formation is not broken by obstacles, enemies, or defense walls. They pour over and through everything and the earth quakes beneath them.
These images depict the utter helplessness Joel’s people felt in the face of their plague. Nothing could stop the onslaught, and nothing was spared in its path. The locusts even crept into homes through windows, like thieves in the night, violating any sense of privacy or security the people felt. There was no refuge.
But then comes the great parenthesis of Joel. Between talks of plague, judgment, and devastation, the Lord gives an offering of mercy: “Even now, return to me with all your heart…,” “tear your heart and not your garments.” Why? Why should the people trust to the mercy of a God who has only measured out judgment? Because of the ancient name of God, the name he gave to Moses in the burning bush as he was sent to deliver God’s people from slavery.
Return to the Lord your God
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and have pity
And leave behind a blessing…
Joel tells us that this wrathful God shows grace and compassion. His anger is slow, but his love overflows. He can cancel calamity. And if you return to him, he may himself turn and deliver blessing instead of punishment. Joel tells the people to gather, young and old. No one is exempt. Help along the tottering elders. Bring in the nursing babies. Interrupt the honeymooners. Weep openly as a people. Repent of your sin and pray for the Lord to spare his people, not to prevent their shame, but the Lord’s. Beg him to relent so that the world will know the Lord’s character and his unchanging love for his people.
Then, Joel says, the Lord will reply with abundance. Food will once again be plentiful in the land. The people and the whole land and its animals can rejoice. The rain returns. The storehouses and places of harvest are full.
Unlike Joel’s people, we are not under the Old Testament covenant promises. Our plague is not necessarily covenant punishment. But the book’s prophecy is filled with God’s truths nonetheless. We too have faced nightmarish scenarios as Coronavirus has overtaken the land. We feel helpless and desperate. We don’t know how to halt it, or how to stop up the holes in our defenses. Our homes don’t even feel safe after we were locked inside them and our privacy and security there feels violated.
Our situation is not the same, but the Lord’s character IS. He is still gracious and compassionate. He is still merciful. Our lives, too, have been interrupted and changed. But just like Joel promised, ‘normal’ can return and we can live in abundance. Disaster has made us desperate, and in our desperation we have new reason to turn to the Lord.
It is here in narrative that the Lord says something startling: “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” What does he mean? How can you repay devastation, lost life, trauma? He quickly answers with a beautiful passage that gives me chills. Peter quotes it at Pentecost.
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth… And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.
Wow. Will the Lord repay in material abundance after a calamity? Perhaps. But he promises an even greater repayment for the trauma we have endured. If we repent, if we use this calamitous interruption to dig into our own hearts and submit them to the Lord, he will repay us with his Spirit.
The years the locusts have eaten—the difficult days we have experienced—will be repaid. Many of us have found a deeper relationship with God during this time of confusion and tragedy. Our life is enriched for the time we have spent with the Lord. We can use the interruption and the unquestionable grief and fear to drive us deeper into our need for Him and his constantly present Spirit with us.
Not only that, but this is a time of new pioneering for our churches. As they have closed and services have moved online or into homes, we have sifted our ‘religious practices.’ What church traditions are actually life-giving to us? Which ones prop up unnecessary cultural habits we can do without and still have abundant life with the Spirit of God? We have seen and felt the Spirit moving amongst God’s people as we have worshipped at home or with our own instruments together with our families and small communities. This is a time of refreshing and renewal—a time of God pouring out his Spirit abundantly on his people who seek him and repent of the hidden sins these times have forced us to face.
Yes, the Lord sent the locust plague to Joel’s people, and yes, he sent the Covid plague to us. The third chapter promises judgment on the Lord’s enemies just as the first two chapters promise it for his own people. He abhors the sins of selling people or trading them for goods. He is disgusted when defenseless people are abused and taken advantage of. The Lord prepares for war on his enemies and will scythe down even the most powerful among them like grass in a field. Where wickedness is ripe, the Lord is ready to cut it down.
But that does not mean he is not merciful. God is just and cannot abide sin, but he delights to show grace. When he does, the world stage will know of his unconditional, redeeming love to people who rely on him to save them. Unlike with the locust plague, God promises this time during judgment that he will dwell with his people and be their place of refuge. He is sovereign over the disasters of the world. But he is also sovereign over their outcomes. The Lord delivers us. He fills us with his Spirit. He gives us life abundant after calamity. He offers hope. He repays the years the locusts have eaten.