As 2022 approached, I had occasion to study a couple of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, namely Hosea and Joel. In looking at the prophecy of Joel, I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between the times in which he lived and our own. It made me wonder whether this ancient prophecy might have something important to say to us in these days.
Though it’s hard to identify the exact time of Joel’s prophecies, the nature of his message seems to favour an early 8th Century BC date possibly during the substantially prosperous time of Uzziah, the 10th king of Judah as described in 2 Chronicles 26.
Also called Azariah, Uzziah was only 16 years old when he began a prosperous reign that lasted for 52 years. Contrary to the more tumultuous and less astute reign of his father, Amaziah, Uzziah was very successful in driving back the nations that had waged war against his father. He conducted successful military campaigns against the Arabs to the east, the Philistines to the southwest, and the Ammonites to the south. He fortified cities throughout his realm and established profitable trade routes to most of the surrounding territories bringing gold and precious commodities into his realm possibly from as far away as India. He also established good relations with King Jeroboam II of Israel to the north, and together they expanded the territory of the two nations to what it had been under David and Solomon. Uzziah was a shrewd economic and military strategist that accomplished significant material progress for the nation at that time.
Things were going very well for everyone it seemed. Fields and vineyards produced an abundance of food and wine. Even the temple and priesthood prospered from the offerings of the people — that is, until a natural disaster ravaged the land! In the wake of a dry spell, an army of locusts descended on the land devouring everything that remained. A bounteous time of prosperity suddenly came to a grinding halt. In Joel’s prophecy, the locusts are a vivid picture, not only of the army that would soon overtake the nation of Judah, but also of the Lord’s army that will eventually come against the nations in The Day of the Lord.
Joel describes the situation this way: Grain offerings and drink offerings are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests are in mourning, those who minister before the Lord. The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the olive oil fails. Despair, you farmers, wail, you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed. The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree — all the trees of the field — are dried up. Surely the people’s joy is withered away (1:9-12 NIV).
When I read these words and consider what must have happened in Judah in this time, I can’t help but think about the disasters in our own land, especially in the last couple of years. It hasn’t been an army of locusts that has come to North America and the world in these last two years; instead it’s been a tiny virus — first resident in animals — that has mutated to aggressively infect the respiratory systems of humans all over the world. As of today, there have been almost 300 million cases of illness from the virus and close to 5 1/2 million deaths. Beyond these grim realities is the large numbers of people, due to this tiny organism, that have been greatly impoverished both socially and materially.
But there’s more. Besides the calamity that has come upon the world because of the virus, there have been numerous other kinds of natural disasters in recent months as well — fires, floods, and storms threatening and devastating many lives and properties. We have only to think of the extensive forest fires in British Columbia last summer, the rain storms and flooding that came to the west and east coast of Canada in November, the tornadoes that ripped across the American Midwest in December, and the extreme cold temperatures of the entire continent during this festive season. Currently, a large part of the world’s airline and tourist industry has been somewhat shuttered because of the foul weather and rampant coronavirus.
And the question that many of us have been asking is, why? Why all this trouble and devastation? Most answers speculate about human causes of one kind or another. But, consistent with what happened in Judah in the time of Joel, another reasonable answer could well be that the virus and related complications are God’s way of waking the world to its progressive loss of faith. Of course, not every disaster in the world or in our personal lives is necessarily a sign of God’s judgment. Some, as in the case of the biblical Job, occur as God’s means of testing or deepening faith. Yet, as the prophecy of Joel alludes, sometimes God allows disaster in times of prosperity to incite the nations, or even God’s own people, to reconsider what has been the primary reference of their lives.
For a long time now, much of the world has experienced a high degree of technical and financial advance. People everywhere have been largely preoccupied with material prosperity. Nations historically Christian have grown cool in their spiritual devotion while also dabbling in other spiritual interests. Perhaps it’s appropriate to conclude that the church itself has lost something of its edge (or saltiness) — especially in the western world.
Historically, it seems, people who live in prolonged economic and cultural prosperity often begin to feel less dependent upon the One who is the giver of every good and perfect gift. They have a tendency to feel that they themselves have the capacity to produce the blessings that they have come to enjoy. In the pursuit of material blessing, they easily become preoccupied with the fruit of human achievement. The inclination toward human independence has many permutations. What all have in common is a world of activity that largely ignores God.
Joel’s prophecy is a stark reminder that God holds the reigns of blessing and disaster and can easily send either to accomplish His purposes. Thankfully, in the midst of the disaster, God offers wonderful expressions of blessing to those who are willing to genuinely turn back to Him. Though Joel’s prophecy speaks of certain judgement on the people of Judah in that time, it also has many rich promises of God’s grace and goodness to those who are willing to acknowledge their sinful ways. Return to the Lord your God, Joel preaches, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity (2:13).
While quietly observing all that is happening around us through the coronavirus and otherwise, it seems to me that one can’t help but at least wonder whether Joel’s prophecy given so many years earlier bears a resemblance to our own circumstances in these times. The more I look at Joel, the more I think we need to consider how the message he brought to the people of his time is also one for us in this time. At the least, it seems to me, the ominous cloud of trouble in these times is an occasion for some deep introspection about what’s really important to us. And, as Joel’s prophecy indicates, it also points graphically to the eventual judgment that is sure to come upon the whole world!