Joel 1 Devotional
by Pastor Lawrence Bowlin
The book of Joel begins with deep lamentation by the people of God due to a plague of locusts that has invaded the land and devoured everything in sight. The prophet exhorts the people to tell their children and grandchildren and then to have them tell the next generation about these extraordinary events because they had never happened before within their lifetime. Like the Spanish Flu or the Covid-19 virus, it is not something one would have seen before in their day, nor would they ever want to see it again.
Beginning in 2019 and continuing on through 2020, a great plague of desert locusts has descended upon East Africa the likes of which has not been seen for at least seventy years. I watched a YouTube video about it recently, and the locusts are so thick you can’t even see the ground or the sky at times. Right now there is an army of locusts at work in Kenya that is three times the size of New York City, and has eaten more food than 10 million people combined. Desperate to save their crops, local villagers scream and bang loudly on anything they can find to try and scare the locusts away, but to no avail.
Apparently within just a period of 24 hours, a swarm of 90 million locusts can travel about 93 miles and eat everything in sight. Each locust can eat its own body weight every single day, and swarming locusts can eat an entire field in a single day. Thus, one could easily see why Israel was in the midst of lamentation, for it was a true humanitarian crisis with nothing left for the people to eat.
It’s interesting how the prophet combines the lamentation of the drunkards with the priests. The drunkards obviously have no wine since the locusts have devoured all the vines, and the priests cannot perform their duties in the temple apart from any grain and drink offerings. Thus the people have not only lost something of the general happiness of life from God’s blessings, but they have also lost something of the visible signs of communion with God, for they can’t offer the sacrifices to maintain their fellowship with God. Of course, this reminds me of the time that we have not been able to gather together as a church due to the virus.
But, here, the prophet explicitly tells them that this plague has come upon them because of their sin, and he calls them not only to weep and to wail, but to repent, and to put on sackcloth, to consecrate a fast and call a solemn assembly, to gather the elders and all the peoples to God’s house to cry out to him, for this plague is just a foretaste of the destruction that is about to come upon them. Already, the Lord is gathering the Assyrians to ravage their land in a way very similar to the locusts. They would be an enemy very powerful and beyond number seemingly even with fangs for teeth ready to devour God’s people because of their sin. Joel refers to this judgement as the day of the Lord which draws near. Later on, in the book of Revelation, John will use the same imagery of a demonic plague of locusts to explain what the Day of Judgement would look like.
All of this would happen to a nation that the Lord refers to as “my vine,” and “my fig tree.” Clearly, here, this plague of locusts is meant to awaken the Israelites from their sin before the great and even more terrible day comes. It is amazing just how many times the Lord warns them and gives them room for repentance. He is indeed “a God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping his covenant with thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…”
One other significant note that sticks out in this passage is how the ground itself mourns because of Israel’s sin, how the herds of cattle are perplexed, how the flocks of sheep suffer, and how even the beasts of the field pant after the Lord. On the one hand, this language fleshes out what the apostle Paul says in Romans 8 of how all creation groans because of our sins, and how it is all subjected to futility because of our transgressions. But it also reminds me of how the people in Nineveh would mourn right along with the cattle in the fields, all pictured as wearing sackcloth and seeking the Lord. Here, in our text, the beasts of the fields pant after the Lord. If only his own people would follow suit.