A Day of Retribution : Part 1
A few years ago, I read the book, “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the biography of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. Young Louie grew up in Torrance, California, in a nominally Christian home but he was a wild and rebellious teenager. He got in trouble with the law at a young age.
His older brother encouraged him to use his energy constructively – in running. So, he joined his high school track team. His brother’s encouragement changed his life as he began winning race after race. The locals nicknamed him the Torrance Tornado. Louie’s success on the track earned him a place on the US Olympic Team to compete in the infamous 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Competing in the 5,000-meter race, Louie finishes in 8th place with a time of 14 minutes, 46.8 seconds.
But his running career ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War II. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and was trained as a bombardier assigned to the Pacific theater. In May of 1943 Louie and his crew were participating in a search and rescue mission over the Pacific when their plane suddenly lost power to two of its engines and crashed into the sea. Only three of the plane’s 11 crew survived, and one of the initial survivors died before they were “rescued.”
On the 18th day of their ordeal, Louie prayed, telling God that if He would spare them, he would dedicate his life to God’s service. After drifting nearly 2,000 miles in 46 days, Louie, and his companion, Phil, were rescued – unfortunately by the Japanese.
Sent to a Japanese POW camp, Louie is treated horribly by The Bird, a prison guard who takes sadistic delight in seeing how cruelly he can treat the prisoners. After enduring unspeakable cruelties at the hands of his captors, Louie and his fellow prisoners were liberated by US forces in 1945 and returned to the United States.
Louie’s experiences as a POW left him deeply traumatized. He was filled with hate and consumed with a desire for retribution on his tormentors, especially, The Bird. He would have no rest, no satisfaction, no peace until he could provide payback to his tormentors. With no job and no future in running because of the injuries suffered in the prison camp, his bitterness and hatred led him into a downward spiral of alcoholism. As a result of his inability to cope with his trauma, his wife, Cynthia, asked for a divorce.
During this low point in Louie’s life, the Billy Graham Crusade came to town and Cynthia convinced him to attend the services with her. At the meeting, Louie recalled the prayer he prayed while he was drifting in that life raft in May of 1943. Louie committed his life to Christ, he asked for help to deal with his trauma and God restored his marriage.
As a result of his spiritual rebirth, God enabled Louie to forgive all who had wronged him during his time as a POW. In 1950, he was able to travel to Japan where he located many of his former tormentors and personally expressed his forgiveness to them in spite of the ill-treatment they had given him. The Bird, the most notorious of the prison guards, who had treated him so horribly, refused to meet him. So, Louie sent him a letter to express his forgiveness.
Louie Zamparini modeled Jesus’ way of forgiveness. He understood and acted on the command of Scripture from Romans 12:19, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Louie forgave his tormentors, but unless they received the forgiveness that Christ alone can grant, there will be a future day of retribution for them, because according to Hebrews 9:27, every human being ultimately will make an appearance before the Divine Judge.
As we continue our study in the book of Joel, we learn about a specific time of retribution that’s coming to the nations of the world because of the way they’ve treated God’s people, Israel. The title for my teaching from Joel chapter three is, “A Time of Retribution.”
I invite you to follow along as I read our text, Joel 3:1 to 8. This is God’s inspired Word.
God’s words through the prophet Joel reveal to us several ASPECTS of this day of retribution.
Before we get into our text, I want to briefly define the concept of retribution. With its prefix re-, meaning “back”, retribution literally means “payback”. And indeed, we usually use it when we’re talking about personal revenge. As we’ll see in our text, the prophet isn’t talking about personal revenge or retribution. He’s talking about our Holy God pouring out retribution on those who have injured Him by injuring His people.
The First ASPECT of judgment is,
The Place of Judgment
The place of judgment. That makes sense to us, doesn’t it? There needs to be a place where a person’s guilt or innocence is determined and where sentencing or release takes place. In our setting today, this place of judgment is usually a courtroom. But if the defendant is convicted, the sentence handed down is usually carried out in another specific place. That may be county, state, or federal prison, or it may be probation with electronic monitoring, required community service with restitution, so on.
In our text, God says He will render His judgment, His retribution, in a specific place, “The Valley of Jehoshaphat.” Before we look more closely at this place, let’s make the connection between our text and the previous chapter.
“For,” is the connecting word between the last verse of chapter two and this chapter. It also connects to the previous chapter by saying, “In those days and at that time.” What days and what time? The last days are when the Spirit is poured out and the cosmic disturbances take place.
In our text, Joel explains in detail what he had spoken about earlier in more general terms. This verse makes it clear that Israel will be delivered from captivity and back in their own land. We know that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 led to the wholesale dispersion of the Jewish people across the world. From the nineteenth century until 1948, they suffered unspeakable cruelty and persecution wherever they settled. The Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust are among the well-known episodes of suffering, but harassment, racism, and anti-Semitism have been the constant companions of this despised people–and they’re still present with us today; in fact, anti-Semitism is growing worldwide.
But God isn’t oblivious to the suffering of His people. He’s simply waiting for the fulfillment of His Word in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. There, Moses soberly warned the children of Israel that their disobedience would incur God’s discipline. Sadly, that discipline isn’t yet finished according to Jeremiah and Zechariah. The time of “Jacob’s Trouble” still lies ahead. Because God is absolutely just and holy, He will know when that discipline is fulfilled. And then, the very nations God used to carry out that discipline will be judged for their excesses.
And God says He will gather them for that judgment in “The Valley of Jehoshaphat.” The literal meaning of Jehoshaphat is, “Yahweh [Jehovah] judges.” Today, there is no valley named in Israel “The Valley of Jehoshaphat.” So, what are we to conclude from this? Stay with me.
First of all, God says, “I will gather all the nations…” All the nations will be gathered against Israel. They will gather of their own volition, their own will, motivated by their hatred for God and His people. But make no mistake, they are there according to God’s sovereign purpose so He can execute judgment on them.
“I will bring them down…” There are multiple meanings possible here and I believe they’re all valid. A valley is always down, to get to the valley you must first descend the hills that create the valley. Historically, valleys have furnished many battle sites through the ages. Traditionally, Israel’s enemies came down from the north. The armies of the end times will also come from the north, according to Ezekiel 38-39.
Another possible meaning of down is to humble the pride of Israel’s enemies. Pride is what motivated Satan to try to usurp God’s place, according to Isaiah chapter 14. It’s what motivates all his followers too. But God will bring down their pride along with their power, their pageantry, and their riches. When you think you’re at the top, the only way you can go is down.
I said earlier that there is no valley today known as “The Valley of Jehoshaphat.” It’s referred to later in this chapter as “the valley of decision.” Some claim it will be Megiddo, the site of many ancient battles in Israel’s history. Others claim it’s the Kidron Valley just outside Jerusalem. Right now, that valley is actually quite small, I’ve been through it. It’s possible that this valley of Jehoshaphat will appear when Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives, causing it to split in two, according to Zechariah 14:4. That topographical change will likely form a massive valley on the east side of Jerusalem where the Kidron Valley now lies.
Regardless of where the ultimate location is, God has the place of judgment prepared where He will bring down, literally and figuratively, the nations that oppose Him and His people.
And God has a place of judgment for you and me too. If we’re Believers, it is our works that will be judged, whether they were motivated by selfishness or whether they were motivated by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes about this in Second Corinthians 5:10.
For unbelievers, their judgment will take place at the Great White Throne. There, according to Revelation 20:11 to 15, unbelievers will be condemned to eternal torment because they have rejected the sacrifice of Christ. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that somehow you can avoid this judgment. God’s Word says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: so, Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”
Another ASPECT of judgment is,
The Reasons for Judgment
I mentioned earlier that God is absolutely just. That means He has legitimate reasons for any judgment He dispenses. We may not know what His reasons are because of our limitations, that’s why we need to be very careful in criticizing what God does. In our text, God lays out, very clearly, who will be judged and the reasons why He will bring judgment.
I don’t know if you noticed this as I read the text, but eight times in four verses God uses the pronoun “Me” or “My.” Why is that important? I believe it is God’s way of emphasizing His covenant relationship with Israel. The prophet Zechariah, speaking of Israel, expressed it this way, “…whoever touches you touches the apple of His eye.” This phrase, “the apple of my eye” comes from a Hebrew expression that literally means ‘little man of the eye.’ It refers to the tiny reflection of yourself that you can see in another person’s pupils.
In order to see that reflection you have to be really close to the other person and that supposes a level of intimacy that’s not shared by everyone. To be the apple of someone’s eye clearly means that you are being focused on and watched closely by that person. Your very image is central in the eyes of that person! So, basically, God is saying “When you touch My people, for good or bad, you’re touching Me.”
The first charge or reason for judgment is “you have scattered My people among the nations.” Jeremiah, writing in Lamentations 5:1 and 2 says, “Remember, O Lord, what has come upon us; look, and behold our reproach! Our inheritance has been turned over to aliens, and our houses to foreigners.”
Here again, we see the interplay of man’s free will and God’s sovereignty. In Deuteronomy 28, God through Moses told the people that if they refused to obey Him, He would “scatter [them] among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other…” Yet here, God says it is the nations that have scattered His people, and He is holding them accountable.
Then, further, God says you have divided My land. In Leviticus 25:23 God said, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” These heathen nations thought they were just taking the spoils of war, but they had divided up God’s land and now they would answer to Him for their misdeeds.