A Divine Warning
Life is full of dangers. When there are dangers, we usually appreciate being forewarned about them. Some dangers are so obvious, there’s no need for a warning. I don’t need a warning sign at the edge of the cliff. I know enough to stay well back from the edge. I don’t need the warning on my step ladder that reads “Don’t stand on the top step.”
But some dangers are hidden and without a proper warning, we could be injured or even killed. When you and I see a warning sign or read a warning label on a product, we have a choice to make. We either heed the warning or we ignore it. But if we ignore it, those who posted the warning aren’t responsible for the results of our choice.
Most of us understand how warnings work in the physical world. We know that if we don’t respect or heed those warnings, we could end up paying a high price. But somehow, when it comes to the realm of the spiritual, we think we can ignore the warnings. Or maybe we think they don’t apply to us. That’s a conclusion that can have tragic consequences.
As followers of Jesus, we believe the Holy Scriptures are our guide for living. Its pages are filled with many promises of blessing to those who are faithful and obedient. But there are also many promises of destruction and suffering to those who disobey God’s Word. For the ancient nation of Israel, a synopsis of the Law was given in Deuteronomy 27 and 28. It outlines both the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience. Moses gave them this word from God just prior to his death and their entrance into the Promised Land.
Like us, the ancient people of God were prone to forgetfulness. Their history was a cycle of ups and downs, economically, and spiritually. Into one such downturn, God sent the prophet, Joel, with a message of warning. Joel’s message was unique to Israel’s experience and history, but we can definitely see what happens to those who fail to heed God’s warnings.
The primary message of Joel’s prophecy centers around the day of the Lord. The usage of this phrase shows up in other Old Testament Scriptures, but Joel is the one who develops it, both in the near future and the ultimate fulfillment in the distant future. And so, for the next several weeks, we’ll be looking together into the book of Joel so we can be adequately prepared for “The Day of the Lord.”
Today, we will be looking together at the first twelve verses of chapter one. I’ve titled my teaching, “A Divine Warning.” I invite you to follow along as I read Joel 1:1 to 12.
In this text we see several ASPECTS of the divine warning Joel gives to the people of Judah. Though the circumstances are unique, the principles taught are applicable to us today.
The First ASPECT of the Divine Warning is,
The Call to Listen
Joel begins with these words, “Hear this, you elders, and give ear, all you inhabitants of the land!” The verb translated as hear is “Shema” in the Hebrew language. It describes both the mental activity of hearing as well as its effects. In other words, the expectation for the person who hears is to obey. In fact, even today, religious Jews refer to the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 as the Shema because it begins with the word, hear.
The verb translated as listen can be rendered as “to give ear,” that is, to give due consideration to someone or something (Deuteronomy 32:1). The verbs are used here synonymously to call the people of Judah to attention. This double call to listen implies that the subject is critically important.
In our Western way of thinking, listening involves a mental activity. That mindset comes from the influence of Greek culture and its emphasis on knowledge. But in Hebrew, the word shema is often translated into English as obedience. Let me give you an example. Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient (shema)! (Exodus 24:7)
Notice, Joel makes a special appeal to the older men first. Why? Elderly people, because of their long years of experience, are considered the most qualified to be judges. They have observed the consequences that result from certain choices. They know what choices should be encouraged and what choices should be discouraged. Their experiences have taught them the value of paying close attention when someone speaks, especially God.
The Lord, through Joel, asks the older men if they have ever seen anything like the devastation produced by the locust plague that is coming. If there had been anything like this before in their history, they would’ve known about it. The story would’ve been passed down from generation to generation. Once we get into the details of the locust invasion, we’ll see that an event like this wouldn’t be forgotten. So, this coming locust invasion would be unprecedented.
Now remember, when the Hebrew speaks of hearing – that includes action, obedience. How were these elders to obey? Joel says, “tell your children about it and let them tell their children, and their children to another generation.” This event wasn’t to be forgotten. It was to be a continuing reminder of the importance of listening to God.
Today, the call comes to us to listen to the Word of the Lord too. Not just to hear it with our ears, but to obey what is commanded. We too need to listen to the words of the elders, those among us who have more experience. Today, older people are often scorned, pushed aside, and accused of being out of touch with new ways of thinking and living. It happens even in the church. We are suffering the results of that ill-advised behavior.
And then we need to pass on the faith to our children, grandchildren, and beyond. Current research tells us that nearly two-thirds of 18–29-year-olds in the United States who grew up in church have withdrawn from church involvement as an adult. Could some of that rejection be a result of the failure of us older Believers to truly live out our faith in daily obedience? That might make us uncomfortable, but it’s something to think about.
So, the first aspect of the divine warning is the call to listen.
The Next ASPECT of the Divine Warning is,
The Call to Learn
This connects logically with the call to listen. If I have learned something only in theory with my mind, but have never put it into practice, I can’t truly say I’ve learned it. During my high school years, I had a chemistry class where I memorized the Periodic Table of Elements. I had to be able to reproduce it for an exam. Today, I only remember a few of the elements on the chart, and most of them mean nothing to me. I never truly learned chemistry. It didn’t have a practical application to my life and my field of work.
Much of learning is accomplished through observation and God, through the prophet, Joel, is giving His wayward people an unforgettable object lesson. The locust invasion Joel describes was being sent by God to help the people of Judah to move from simply hearing with the ear to hearing with their heart!
This plague of locusts was an awful calamity in an agrarian culture. Depending on the source you check, there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of kinds of different locusts. They can fly for up to 17 hours at a time. Swarms of locusts have been spotted 1,200 miles out at sea! In 1889, a swarm in the Red Sea covered 2,000 square miles. The density of the swarm can be as high as 120 million locusts per square mile. Africa and the Middle East experienced a significant locust plague not that long ago, in 2020 during the time of Covid-19.
If you ever experienced something like this, do you think you would easily forget it? I doubt it. In our day of digital media, there are many photos and videos online that show the “before and after” effects of a locust invasion. The devastation is incredible! Joel said these locust hordes would come up over the land like an enemy nation. In fact, this locust invasion was most likely a precursor to an actual invasion by Judah’s enemies.
What Joel seems to be describing is the four stages in the life cycle of the locust. Each stage wreaks its particular devastation, from the larva to the adult. In verse six, the Lord says, referring to the locusts, “His teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he has the fangs of a fierce lion. He has laid waste My vine and ruined My fig tree; He has stripped it bare and thrown it away; Its branches are made white.”
Compare that scene with Micah 4:4 describing the Lord’s reign in Zion. “…everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid…” Sitting under one’s vine or fig tree is the symbol of ultimate peace, the true shalom. It is the description of God’s original creation in Eden. Having those things wiped out speaks of total destruction.
Nothing would be left of the vegetation. Even the bark would be stripped from the trees! Imagine what follows; loss of product to sell causes hyperinflation and loss of trade, living standards fall, hunger and malnutrition spread, and diseases break out with the potential to wipe out the entire community.
God through the prophet, Joel, is saying to His people, “Listen and learn.”
The Final ASPECT of the Divine Warning is,
The Call to Lament
Beginning with verse 5 we have a call for 3 specific groups of people to engage in great lamentation. The prophet uses very descriptive words to describe what this should look like.
First, the drunkards are commanded to wake, not from sleep but from their stupor. Even in their inebriated state, they will not be able to ignore the reality of the damage caused by the locusts. They are told to weep and wail because the wine has been cut off. They will be shocked into sobriety when they realize their binge has come to an end.
You know, there are many things besides wine or alcoholic drinks that people are intoxicated with. Power, money, pleasure, sports, food, the list goes on and on. To intoxicate means “to excite or stupefy… especially to the point where physical and mental control is markedly diminished.” Intoxicate contains in it the word, toxic. When something is toxic it is poison. That’s the way the word was originally used.
The drunkenness of these men was toxic to their relationship with the Lord. It had left them insensitive to their sin and to the coming judgment. Far too many professing Christians today are intoxicated with the things of the world and are either unaware of their sin or in denial that it exists. But just like in Joel’s time, a day of judgment is coming, and sobriety will come like a bucket of ice-cold water poured over one’s head!
The next group of people mentioned id the priests, verses 8 through 10. Joel uses the Hebrew idiom, “lament like a virgin for the husband of her youth.” This can mean either a very brief marriage or more likely, that the bridegroom dies before the marriage can actually be consummated. Either way, it is a lamentation of the deepest and bitterest kind. Instead of a beautiful wedding garment, she puts on rough and irritating sackcloth.
And what is the reason for this grievous lament? the cutting off of the grain and drink offerings. The grain offering was made from flour mixed with oil and the drink offering, according to Numbers 15, was about a gallon or 4 liters of wine. These were offered with the daily evening and morning sacrifices. With the loss of resources, these sacrifices became impossible. With the cessation of the offerings, there was no more remedy for sin! There was no place of fellowship with God. This was the ultimate judgment.
Grain, oil, and wine were the lifeblood of the ancient Jewish economy. So, no sacrifices meant no work for the priests. Temple worship came to a halt. Besides having nothing to do, the priests also had nothing to eat. Remember, they depended on the offerings of the people for the supply of their physical needs. Because the land was stripped bare, the people had nothing to offer, and the priests went hungry.
The final group of mourners are the farmers and vinedressers. They are called to “turn pale with shame.” Wheat and barley were the primary cereal grains, the most valuable commodities produced by the land. Grapes and olives were also highly valued, but they had been devoured by the locust hoard. Figs, dates, pomegranates, and apples are also mentioned. The failure of all these crops meant nothing to eat and nothing to sell. The specter of starvation reared its hideous head! No wonder joy “withered away” from the people.
What Judah was facing had been foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 28. There, he rehearsed all the curses that God would send to His people if they failed to obey His commands. And in verse 42 of that chapter, He stated, “Locusts shall consume all your trees and the produce of your land.”
God’s Word is filled with warnings for you and me too. Several times in the Gospel Jesus is recorded as saying, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Numerous times He invites us to learn from the parables He used. And He reminds us that if we fail to listen and learn, then we will indeed live to lament our failure.
What warnings are the Word of God and the Spirit of God speaking to you? Are you remembering that there are consequences for not listening to Him? Are you learning the lessons God wants you to learn? I urge you to respond in obedience today so you can avoid the great grief that comes to those who ignore His commands. Don’t ignore the divine warning.