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The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.
Great as is the variety in the works of nature, it is no less so in the treasury of God’s Word. The “prophets” are quite unlike the rest of the books; and between the prophets themselves there is a marked distinction of character. This is seen in the case of the four great prophets, it is even yet more striking in the twelve lesser, or minor, prophets. Notice particularly the three, Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk. Strongly defined are the individual characters of each as different members of the same body, while all alike are animated by one life and spirit; or as varied instruments of music made use of by one and the same poet or musician, and chosen as best suited for his purpose, according to the character of his message or the mind he would convey. The prophet Habakkuk is remarkable for very striking figurative expressions, which have become familiar in the mouths of all. Micah is the one of all the prophets chosen to foretell the place of our Lord’s birth--Bethlehem Ephrata. Micah associates the mercies of the Incarnate Son of God with pastoral scenes, well meet for the herald of Bethlehem. Different to this is the prophet Joel. One object fills his mind from first to last, one subject in which he is altogether wrapt. There are no little sentences of wisdom like Habakkuk, who might be called the prophet of faith; no rural images like Micah, who might be termed the prophet of mercy; but one absorbing spirit throughout; and the question is not about expressions, but about the meaning and intent of them. He is beyond all others, and it might be said, solely and entirely the prophet of judgment. He is full of the trumpet; it is in all he says. What are we to consider the exact subject of this prophet? It is, but more especially at the beginning, the description of a plague of locusts. The description is most exact and striking in all its parts. It is figurative and allegorical of an armed host. In detailing one it foretells the other. This introducing into the same description many judgments is usual in the Bible; more than one thing is contained in the same prophecy;--one near and soon to happen, the other more distant; one of things temporal, the other of things eternal. One great lesson God would impress upon us by His prophet Joel, of constantly hearing the trumpet call, and realising the Great Day. Another remarkable point m Joel is, the voice of joy and exultation that is combined throughout with the terrible theme, and pervades each subject of his prophecy. The more we are impressed with a serious expectation of the Great Day, the more shall we be able to look forward to it with joy and comfort. (Isaac Williams, B. D.)
He is the prophet of the great repentance, of the Pentecostal gift, and of the final conflict of great principles. Of the man himself and his age we know practically nothing. The man is little more than a name to us.
1. He was a successful prophet. He accomplished s remarkable moral revolution. He bowed the hearts of his contemporaries as the heart of one man; he drew them to the altar of God! and united them in a great national fast and supplication. The prophet is raised up to do his work. He is to live, to speak, to die if necessary; to rouse the conscience, and, as far as he can, to persuade the world of the truth of his message. He is to do his errand,--he is not to be talked of. And what are we compared with the work which we have to do? The joy of the true prophet is like that of the Baptist. He (the Lord and Master) must increase. What matter if I decrease, or be forgotten? Where the spirit of self-suppression is, there is power. No dim or uncertain thought mars the concentration of purpose. Feebler or more selfish natures dread to lose self. The date in which Joel lived is not necessary to be known in order to understand the direction and drift of his ministry. The spiritual value of many things is independent of chronology.
2. What was his message? He teaches spiritual principles, not for an age but for all time.
(1) He is a prophet of rebuke and repentance. He so influences the people that they gather to a great day of humiliation. A grievous calamity spoke with the prophet’s words. The calamity was awful, and unparalleled in its severity. It was the utter desolation of the land by locusts. Joy ceases among the people as they gaze at their desolated land, and contemplate the famine that must follow. The prophet gave guidance to people’s thoughts and pointed the significance of the calamity. Mere trouble does not melt the heart or subdue the will, but startling troubles which come to disturb the monotony of indolently expected prosperity are nevertheless messengers of the Lord. The day of calamity, rightly understood, is a day of the Lord. This calamity breaks up two of the accustomed orders of life. The gifts of nature’s order--the harvest of corn and wine--are snatched away. The usages of religious order are suspended. There being no gifts, the daily sacrifice ceases. To the people no two things could be more dread-inspiring. The twofold bond which bound the people to their God, and God to the people, seemed to them to be broken. The order of nature and the order of worship were both upset. All order is witness of another order, the order of righteousness. If there be a bond between the Lord and the people, that bond must be of the highest and most enduring order. It must be a bond in the order of the moral life. The suspension of the accustomed order of things may be the witness to the existence of the highest order--the righteous order in which the righteous God rules. So this calamity is indeed the day of the Lord. It calls man to repair the bond which is more precious than the bond of benefits or material gifts and sacrifices. It bids the people to look at the broken links of that golden chain which is righteousness, purity, faith. The prophet exercises his function of rebuke. And this power it is hard for ministers to retain. Rebuke of men’s sins so easily enlists the assistance of our personal feelings. When once this unholy alliance is permitted we assail men rather than men’s vices. Will the prophet give us hints as to the principles which would enable us to maintain this power in purity and efficiency, and enable us to discharge this duty with impartial fairness? Notice the large sympathy of the prophet. He has the completest power of identifying himself with the sorrows and troubles of the land and people. He is one with them; their sorrow is his sorrow. Here is one condition of the capacity of rebuke. It has often been said that we can only help men by putting ourselves in their place. Want of tenderness almost certainly involves want of tact; and want of tact renders us ineffective in reproof and in persuasion. Along with sympathy there must be a spirit which is profoundly convinced of the reality of the Divine rule. No man is or can be a prophet to whom the kingdom of God is not the most real thing in the universe. Repentance must be deep and natural. It must be the hatred of the moral evil that hinders them. It must be the awakening of the spirit to the gulf which small and unobserved sins may make between them and God. The vainglorious spirit which so often follows in the wake of earnest and victory seeking desires, robs away the protections which humility affords. What is needed is repentance for the whole spiritual tone--repentance which implies a recognition of the claim of God upon our whole spirit; repentance for the deviations from true and inward righteousness--repentance for the dulness and downwardness of our spirits. Joel does not mention specific sins. What then do we all need? We need the strong and vivid conviction of the reality of the kingdom of righteousness to make true our efforts for good. We need spirits which are united in sympathy with the Spirit of Him who sent us, for are we not fellow-workers with Him? Quick in tenderness, firm in righteousness, and with spirits possessed of the consciousness of God, we may attempt our work. (Bishop Boyd-Carpenter.)
The individuality of men’s messages
Not the word that came to Hosea or to Amos, but the word that came to Joel,--intimating that there is a word that comes to every man. Each man has his own view of God, his own kingdom of heaven, his own way of telling what God has done for him. And the mischief is that we expect every man to speak in the same tone, to deliver the same words, and to subject himself to the same literary yoke or spiritual discipline. The Bible sets itself against all this monotony. Every man must speak the word that God has given to him through the instrumentality of his own characteristics. A man cannot say what word has to come to him. A man cannot be both the message carrier and the message originator. We are errand-runners; we have to receive our message and to repeat it; we have not first to create it, then to modify it, then to deliver it. The prophets assumed the position of being instruments, mediums for communications which the Lord wished to make with His children near and far, and with the world at large, and through all time. A man cannot say he will sing his Gospel; the Lord has only sent a certain number of singers, and we cannot increase the multitude. No man can say. I will go forth, and thunder the Word of the Lord in the ear of the age; the Lord hath not given His thunder to that tongue; it was meant to speak peacefully, soothingly, kindly, and when it tries to thunder creation would smile at the feebleness of the effort, and the palpableness of the irony. So we have in the Bible all kinds of ministry. There are thunders and judgments in the Book, and there are voices like lutes; there are whispers which you can only hear when you incline your ear with all the intensity of attention. There are words that roll down the mountains like splintered rocks, granites that have been ripped in two by the lightning; and there are words that fall from another mountain as flowers, beatitudes, tender speeches. The Lord hath need of all kinds of men; He wants the fire and the whirlwind and the tempest, and the dew, and the still small voice--all are God’s ministry, God’s husbandry. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
The Word of the Lord to a sinful nation
The prophet here informs us that the Word of the Lord came to him, and that it had reference to the most alarming calamities which could possibly happen to a nation. The messages of God sometimes come in a loud voice, and have in them more of judgment than of mercy.
I. That the word of God to a sinful nation is communicated through the instrumentality of one man. “The Word of the Lord that came to Joel.” Here we learn that it is the ordinary way of God to communicate with the race through human instrumentality. The Divine Being did not present Himself to the wicked people of Judah and threaten woe; they could not have endured the brightness of His presence; they would have fled from before the majesty of His voice. He did not send an angel to convey His message; an angel would not have gained the confidence required. And so it is the way of God to speak by man to men, that He may dim His infinite glory by wrapping it in human vesture, and thus adapt it to human vision; but the word thus spoken is none the less Divine, and none the less worthy of regard. Christ was incarnate that He might utter the unfathomable Word of God, and that Word is still prolonged by human lips.
1. This one man was Divinely selected. The prophet Joel was selected by God to convey the message of woe and the need of repentance to the people of Judah. But who was Joel? Was he a man of social reputation, of advanced scholarship, of eminent talent? We know not. Nothing of his history is written; simply the name of his father is given. He was anxious to be known only as the servant of God. And we find that God often chooses modest agencies, unknown to fame, to speak His Word to mankind; He uses the foolish things of the world to confound the mighty. Thus the word uttered derives emphasis from the absence of human greatness in the speaker. Fame is not a condition of ministerial success. A man must be chosen by God before he has any right to preach the Word to the nations.
2. This one man was greatly honoured. The Word of the Lord which came to Joel imparted to him the highest dignity. It honoured him by coming to his soul, even as the presence of a king confers renown upon those who are favoured therewith. He was the chosen of God out of a vast nation, and was entrusted with prophetic communications. New abilities were awakened within him, and his life, which had hitherto been solitary and of little influence, was to become the centre of a nation’s life. Manhood can have no greater honour conferred upon it than to be sent with the Word of God to men.
3. This one man was supremely trusted. Joel was entrusted with a great position. He was selected as one man out of a vast people to receive and make known the Word of the Lord. This might have led him to assume false claims and empty titles; he might have been tempted to use the moral authority thus given to him for secular ends. A minister holds his unique position in society as a sacred trust, and betrays it if he uses it for any other purpose than the moral welfare of those around him. Joel was also entrusted with a valuable deposit, even with the Word of the Lord. This he was not to conceal, but to declare. This he was not to adulterate, but to defend. This he was bravely to announce to a sinful people, unawed by numbers or results.
4. This one man was arduously worked. To Joel was committed the task of effecting a moral reformation in the national life of Judah. He stood almost alone with a great work to accomplish, lie had to proclaim great calamities to which few would listen. And the true minister has arduous work before him; he has oft, single-handed, to contend with a degenerate crowd; he has to preach great doctrines rejected and despised; he cannot guarantee success.
II. That the divine word to a sinful nation requires the earnest attention of all classes of individuals (verses 2, 3).
1. It should awaken the attention of the aged. The old men in the land of Judah were to listen to the prediction of Joel, and say whether anything so calamitous had ever occurred before. They could remember the past, and hence were competent to speak concerning it. Attention to the truth is the first condition of a renewed and sober life; even old men, who ought to be wiser, are sometimes heedless concerning it, and need to be reminded of its importance.
2. It should awaken the attention of the general multitude. All the inhabitants of the land of Judah were called upon to hear the message of Joel. It not only concerned the wise, but also the ignorant; not only the rulers, but those under them. It would not be the fault of the prophet if any did not feel the importance of his communication. The common multitude arc not generally observant of the judgments of God occurring around them, they need some one to unveil their inner and solemn meaning.
3. It should awaken the attention of remote posterity. The calamity predicted by Joel was to be handed down to a remote posterity. Not only are the memories of Divine mercy to be preserved, but also of Divine judgment, that they may in future deter from evil. Children must be instructed in the historical revelation which God has made concerning Himself, that they may see the wisdom of piety demonstrated in the facts of life. We should ever remember that the ages are mysteriously linked together, and that we are transmitting moral influences and instruction which the future must inherit. Let us heed the teaching of the past.
III. That the Divine word to a sinful nation sometimes has reference to the most awful calamities (verse 4).
1. It was a calamity occasioned by a wondrous increase of useful creatures. God can turn the existing arrangements of the universe into an army of eternal justice. He has no need to create new agencies to rebuke sin; there are myriads awaiting His command. Locusts will execute His judgments. The Divine resource of retribution is beyond human imagination.
2. It was a calamity which employed the weakest agencies to execute its purpose. God’s weak things are strong enough to work mischief to the wicked. Man is soon smitten down by little creatures.
3. It was a calamity which for continuous destruction was unequalled in the national history. One agency of ruin was succeeded by another, until the effect of the whole was utter desolation of resource and joy. Lessons--
1. That men must give themselves to the work which God appoints them.
2. That men should heed the Word of the Lord before the hour of retribution comes.
3. That sin is sure to be followed by the most awful calamities. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
We learn from this passage--
I. That this calamity was Divinely revealed at first to the mind of one man. “The Word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.” No one knew at first what a sad calamity was coming on the country but Jehovah Himself. No sage, seer, or priest knew anything of it. Such a fact as this suggests--
1. The distinguishing faculty of man. Of all the creatures on earth, man alone can receive communications from heaven. We know not how the Word came unto him. The great Father of Spirits has many ways of striking His thoughts into the souls of His children. Souls are ever accessible to Him.
2. The manifest sovereignty of God. Why did He select Joel more than any other man?
II. That this calamity was unprecedented in history. “Hear ye this, ye old men,” etc. Observe--
1. That no Divine judgments have been so great as to preclude the possibility of greater. The penal resources of the righteous Judge are unbounded. Great as your afflictions have been, they can be greater.
2. That the greater the sins of a people, the greater the judgments to be expected. It is probable that Judah’s sins were greater at this time than they had ever been before, and that, consequently, severer penalties were to come. Take care, sinner, in every sin you commit you are treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath.
III. That this calamity was so tremendous as to command the attention of all generations, “Tell ye your children,” etc.
1. Because it shows that God rules the world. It is not controlled by chance or necessity.
2. Because it shows that God takes cognisance of the world’s sin, and abhors it.
IV. This calamity was inflicted by the most insignificant of God’s creatures. There is no authority for the opinion that the creatures here mentioned were symbols of hostile armies. Locusts are mentioned in their different stages and species. So to punish sinners God needs no thunderbolts. He can kill a man with a moth. (Homilist.)
Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land--
Terrible Divine judgments
1. When men become incorrigible, and sin ripens to a height, then the Lord will reprove and plead against it by judgments, and not by His Word only; for whereas the method of other prophets is, first, to reprove sin, then to threaten for it, and then to subjoin exhortations to repentance with encouragements and promises; this prophet doth at first point out their sin and guilt, as to be read in visible judgments,
2. Famine is one of the rods whereby the Lord pleads against the Church for her sin, and strips her of abused mercies, and of temptations to wantonness and rebellion.
3. God can, when He pleaseth, arm very mean and contemptible creatures to execute His judgments, and particularly, to deprive men of the fruits of the ground; for here He sends out “the palmer-worm, the locust, the canker-worm, and the caterpillar,” and they eat up all.
4. As God hath still one scourge after another with which to plague a sinful and incorrigible people, who will not repent, but think to escape with the plagues that have come on them. So it speaks sad things when one calamity stints not the controversy, but He pursueth still one judgment after another, and with breach upon breach, for so it is here, what one left another did eat up.
5. Albeit the Lord in every age be testifying His displeasure against sin, yet at some times, and when sin is come to a great height, He may make one age a remarkable spectacle of justice, and bring judgments on them, the like of which have not been seen in many generations; for such was His dealing with this generation, their fathers, past memory of man, had not seen the like, nor should the like be seen for many generations to come. (George Hutcheson.)
That which the palmer-worm hath left hath the locust oaten.
The Hebrew words arc the gazam, the arbeh, the yeleg, the chasil, and they seem to mean, in accordance with their etymology, the gnawer, the swarmer, the licker, and the consumer. But are they four different kinds of locusts? As there are eighty known species of this “gryllus migratorius,” the supposition would be possible. But all known ravages of locusts are caused by successive flights of the same insect, not by different varieties. Are they then, as Credner argues, successive stages in the growth of the same insect, meaning the unwinged, the partially winged, the full-winged locust, and that changing in colour? Such is the view of Ewald, and he says that these four stages are well marked. There are insuperable difficulties in this theory. For if four successive stages had been intended in Joel 1:4, why is the order confused and altered in Joel 2:25, where the arbeh is put first, and the gazam last? This is inexplicable if, as Credner thought, the gazam in Joel 1:4 meant the mother-swarm, and the arbeh, yeleg, and chasil, its three metamorphoses. In point of fact, there are only two broadly marked changes in the development of the locust--from larva to pupa--and from pupa to the full-grown insect. In hot climates the creature can use its wings in about three weeks. It seems certain that the prophet is in no sense writing as a natural historian. The use of the four terms is only due to poetry and rhetoric, just as the Psalmist, in Psalms 78:46; Psalms 105:34, freely employs the words chasil and jeleg as interchangeable with the word arbeh, which used in the Pentateuch to describe “the Egyptian” plague. (Dean Farrar, D. D.)
What is to be told? God hath many locusts. Only four of them are named here, but they are the greatest devourers that ever fell upon a landscape. They came but an hour ago; they are multitudinous beyond the power of arithmetic to enumerate, and in a few hours not one green thing will be left upon the land. Nay, their jaws are like stones, they will seize the bark upon the trees and tear it off, and none can hear the crunching of that gluttony; and to-morrow what will the fair landscape be like? It will be like a country smitten by sudden winter; the trees that yesterday were green and fair and lovely will be naked, and their whiteness shall resemble the whiteness of snow. All the fourfold locust tribe belong to the Lord. The great providence of God is responsible for its own acts. Man needs to be severely humbled; it does not always suffice simply to bend him a little; sometimes he must be doubled and thrown down as out of a scornful hand--not that he may be destroyed, but that he may be brought to himself. Soldiers with their sabres and bayonets cannot turn back the beetle. The Lord hath made some things so small that no bayonet can strike them; yet how they bite, how they devour, how they consume, how they plague the air, how they kill kings, and make nations weak, and turn armies white with panic. Joel knew what he was talking about, and could point to the landscape. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
Successive foes of spiritual life
The text speaks of the ravages of the locust in the different stages. If to the Jew the locust was a vivid type of the repeated wastings of his nation by the Assyrian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman invasions, it may be to us a no less vivid picture of sin’s successive swarm and scourge of our own spiritual heritage. Three thoughts respecting spiritual life.
I. Its foes. Nature reveals life in its myriad lower forms begirt by foes. In our own physical life, the foreign fact becomes a near experience. Intellectual life has its foes. That spiritual life should have its foes is therefore no anomaly.
II. Their succession. In a garden, you save the plants from their first enemies only to find that later foes attack them. There are successive foes for every stage of the spiritual life.
III. Their connection. The foes of the text were of one kind. They were several species of locusts, or several forms of the same species. So sin in one form is often followed by its fellows or its progeny, each working a wider ruin. We see pleasure-seeking followed by a breed of worthless traits; speculation followed by falsehood and dishonour; worldly yielding followed by neglect in prayer; compromise followed by compliance; doubt followed by intellectual pride; ignorance followed by fanaticism; covetousness by pharisaism; selfish success by indolence. What is the lesson? Beware of the coming into the field of your spiritual life of any sin. It will draw others after it. It will itself be metamorphosed into something worse. (G. H. Morgan, Ph. D.)
Awake, ye drunkards, and weep.
The insensibility and misery of the drunkard
The prophet now endeavours to awaken certain characters in the nation to an earnest sense of the woe that has overtaken them, and to deep repentance, that it may be averted. His first warning cry is to the drunkard. The evils of intoxication are often intimately connected with national plagues, and require that earnest ministries should be directed against them.
I. that the drunkard is insensible to the most important concerns of life, “Awake.” The prophet knew that it was the tendency of intoxicating drink to cast men into an unholy slumber, and to render them dangerously insensible to the most important things around them.
1. Intoxicating drink has a tendency to darken the intelligence of man.
2. Intoxicating drink has a tendency to deaden the moral susceptibilities of man. These drunkards of Judah were not merely mentally blind to the calamities which had come upon their country, but were morally incapable of estimating their due social effect.
3. Intoxicating drink has a tendency to destroy the conscience of man. These drunkards of Judah probably did not consider that they were working their own moral degradation, and that they were inviting the retribution of heaven. They imagined that they were enjoying the plenty they possessed, and that they were the happiest of men. The prosperity of fools shall slay them.
II. That the drunkard is exposed to the most abject misery. “And howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine; for it is cut off from your mouth.”
1. He is liable to the misery of self-loathing. We can readily imagine that these drunkards of Judah would now and then awake from their sottish slumber, and that in the moment of bodily pain they would be seized with sad thoughts of their own degradation.
2. He is liable to the misery of social contempt. Drunkards are the object of social scorn, they are incapable of industrious work, they are injurious to the common good. They prostitute great abilities. They misuse golden opportunities. They place manhood on a level with the brute.
3. They are liable to the misery of unsatisfied appetite. The drunkards of Judah would howl because the new wine was cut off from their mouth. They had abused the gifts of providence, and now they are no longer allowed to enjoy them. Sin brings the wealthiest of sinners to want. Plenty at one time is no guarantee against penury at another. In the next life the appetite which sin has created will be for ever unsatisfied; then the wine will indeed be cut off from the mouth.
III. that the drunkard is in immediate need of the most earnest ministry which can be addressed to him. We cannot but see in this verse that the prophet addressed the drunkards of Judah in earnest and faithful speech. He called them by their right name. He urged them to thoughtfulness and repentance. There is need that the pulpit of our age should take up his cry. Lessons--
1. That the drunkard is incapable of the qualities necessary for true citizenship.
2. That many national calamities are occasioned by the drunkard.
3. That the most effective ministries of the Church should be directed against this, terrible evil. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
Judgments adapted to sins
Prevailing Sins are often visited with corresponding judgments. The Lord in His righteous dealings withholds those gifts of His providence which have been abused. He takes from an ungodly people the means of gratifying their lusts, and leads them to repentance by afflictions which are not capriciously ordered, but with exactest wisdom suited to their character. Thus, to check a thoughtless indifference to religion, He sends forth pestilences which strike down thousands and spread universal dismay. To restrain from habits of self-indulgence and extravagance, He causes a blight to fall upon the earth, bringing on scarceness and want. To put a rein upon the unsatiated pursuit of wealth, He allows a panic on the Stock Exchange. So here the prophet denounces no other woe against the drunkards than the deprivation of the wine they had abused. It is not unlikely that this part of the prophecy has a literal as well as symbolical aspect, that it inveighs against intemperance as well as idolatry. It was sensuality that first led the Israelites into idolatry. Persistence in indulgences so debilitated their minds and blinded their understandings as to cause them to apostatise from Jehovah, and fall down before images of wood and stone. On no class of persons do God’s judgments fall more heavily than on those who embrute their souls with the intoxicating delights of idolatrous worship. (C. Robinson, LL. D.)
Woe to drunkards
Satan has three or four grades down which he takes men to destruction. One man he takes up, and through one spree pitches him into eternal darkness. That is a rare case. Very seldom, indeed, can you find a man who will be such a fool as that. Satan will take another man to a grade, to a descent at an angle about like that of the Pennsylvania coal-shute or the Mount Washington rail-track, and shove him off. But that is very rare. When a man goes down to destruction Satan brings him to a plane. It is almost a level. The depression is so slight that you can hardly see it. The man does not actually know that he is on the down grade and it tips only a little towards darkness--just a little. And the first mile it is claret, and the second mile it is sherry, and the third mile it is punch,, and the fourth mile it is ale, and the fifth mile it is porter, and the sixth mile it is brandy, and then it gets steeper and steeper and steeper and the man gets frightened and says, “Oh, let me get off!” “No, says the conductor, “this is an express train, and it does not stop until it gets to the Grand Central Depot at Smashupton.” (T. De Witt Talmage.)
For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number.
The agencies of Divine retribution
It is generally the way of God to meet sin by appropriate retribution; hence He destroys the vines of the drunkard. Some men are only reached through the lowest propensities of their nature, and are only conscious of penalty when their carnal wants are unsupplied.
I. That the agencies of divine retribution are great in their number, “For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number.”
1. These agencies are numerous; The locusts did not come in a single flight, but in incredible and successive swarms, Heaven has an infinite resource of retributive messengers waiting its behest, It can soon darken our lives by a throng of hostile energies.
2. These agencies are strong. True, these locusts were in themselves weak and diminutive creatures, They were not like the proud monarch of the forest, and had not the majestic appearance or strength of the lion or the bear. They were insects. And so the most trivial agencies of the universe, when sent by God to punish sin, become mighty and resistless. Then the superior intelligence of man will avail nothing against them. Then the pride of the mighty will be brought to the dust.
3. These agencies are united, The locusts came upon the land of Judah as though they were animated by one national policy. The ants and conies are designated a people (Proverbs 30:25-26), indicative of the wisdom by which they are Divinely taught to act. Hence the term nation gives no favour to the view that the locusts are symbolical era foreign invasion. And so the retributive agencies of heaven often come upon the wicked in terrible combination. The agencies of Eternal Justice are unconsciously in sympathy with each other, and advance in one vast army to execute the penalty of sin.
II. That the agencies of divine retribution are well equipped for their work. “Whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek-teeth of a great lion.”
1. Their equipment is appropriate. The teeth of the locust are said to be “harder than stone.” They appear to be created for a scourge; since to strength incredible for so small a creature, they add saw-like teeth admirably calculated to eat up all the herbs in the land. The providence of God in executing the penalty of sin generally employs those agencies whose natural constitution the best fit them for the end contemplated. Heaven knows the most appropriate instrumentalities by which to punish the sinner.
2. Their equipment is fierce. These locusts were armed as with the cheek-teeth of a great lion. Thus they would be able to bite off the top, branches, and boughs of trees. And truly there are times when the judgments of heaven come fiercely upon the wicked, and destroy all that is precious to them.
III. That the agencies of divine retribution are desolating in their effect. “He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig-tree: he hath made it Clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white.”
1. They desolate things of the greatest value. These locusts laid waste the noblest and most valuable fruit-trees of the land, which the Lord had given to His people for their inheritance. The messengers of Eternal Justice will not spare the vines and fig-trees of a sinful life. They strike at the root of all secular prosperity.
2. They desolate things to the utmost extent. These locusts attacked the herbage, fruit, leaves of trees, the young shoots, and their bark. Everything in the country was devoured and made clean bare. And so the agencies of Divine retribution sometimes spread their desolation over a vast area, over the entire history of a nation, throughout the entire circumstances of a family, or of an individual. They leave no token of former splendour.
3. They desolate things to the remotest period. The agencies of Divine retribution often achieve a destruction which is felt to the end of life.
IV. That the agencies of Divine retribution are productive of sad contemplation in the mind of the truly patriotic. “For a nation is come up upon my land.” The prophet here speaks in his character of representative of the people of God, and sees in the desolation of his country an occasion for sorrow. Hence the prophet, regarding the land as a Christian patriot, was pained by its desolation, and sought to remove the cause of the Divine anger. Piety makes men truly patriotic. Lessons--
1. That the retributive agencies of heaven are countless in number.
2. That the retributive agencies of heaven are effective in equipment.
3. That the retributive agencies of heaven spare not the most sacred possessions. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
And barked my fig-tree.--
The fig-tree barked
We all have our fig-trees, and very early we become proprietors. Do these fig-trees continue to live and to thrive? Experience and observation furnish a prompt and sufficient reply. To bark a tree is to destroy it. To bark our fig-tree is to remove that in which we have found chief pleasure and advantage.
I. When may God be said to bark our fig-tree?
1. When God renders that which has been useful to us useless, and that which has been pleasant, obnoxious; and that which has been helpful, injurious.
2. When God removes something from us which He has given to us, and which we have taken to our hearts as all-important, and as supremely precious.
3. By breaking up some work of ours in which we have found much pleasure; or by rooting up something which we have planted, it may be with tears, it may be with joy.
II. By what means does god bark our fig-trees? God uses various means. He may permit some devil, commission some angel, allow or employ a fellow-man to bark our tree. He may use some inanimate and unconscious agent. Or He may effect the destructive work by some influence upon our minds and hearts.
III. With what intent is this done? What is the end of the Lord? Does He do this wantonly, cruelly, ignorantly, or unwisely? Nay, His object is either correction or prevention.
IV. How should a man of god demean himself when God barks his fig-tree? Submit quietly. Reverently ask, Why has God done this? Learn to use all temporal things without abusing thorn. (Samuel Martin.)
I. Look at some of these barked fig-trees. High hopes are often changed into cruel disappointments. Bright prospects of coming happiness are turned, like fairy gold, into withered leaves. A young man’s fig-tree is a healthy body and high spirits, and that tree is barked when affliction seizes him, and bodily weakness and mental depression make him as pale and helpless as a downright old man. A workman’s fig-tree is regular work and a living wage; that tree is barked when work is scarce and wages low. The tradesman’s fig-tree is a prosperous business; providence smiles upon him, friends multiply, and everything promises a golden harvest, when suddenly he meets with disappointment, his schemes are thwarted, the bank fails, and he is doomed to spend a helpless and penniless old age. A family’s fig-tree is the father and husband; and it is barked when he is smitten down by death. The old man’s fig-tree is a gladsome old age, which he hopes to spend with his wife and children “about him”; and that tree is barked when he suddenly dies before he has realised a thousandth part of his anticipated enjoyment. The invalid’s fig-tree is some glimmering hope of returning health; and it is barked when the doctor tells him that his disease is incurable, and that he must die.
II. Who barks our fig-trees? The prophet, looking up to God, said, “Thou hast barked my fig-tree.” The affairs of men, and especially of good men, are under God’s wise, omniscient, benevolent, and almighty control. Were there no particular, there could be no general providence, for it seems quite impossible to take care of the whole ii the separate and dependent parts be neglected. He holds the helm of the universe, and He will bring us into the desired haven.
III. Why does God bark our fig-trees?
1. Does He do it unkindly? No! He is too good to be unkind.
2. Does He do it unwisely? No! He is too wise to err.
3. God barks our fig-trees in mercy, and not in wrath. We are prone to think too much of those trees; to bestow too much thought and affection upon them, and to expect too much happiness from them.
4. Barked fig-trees destroy worldliness. Thomas Erskine used to say: “Education would cease if we and our circumstances fitted each other.” If our position in this world were always one of unmixed comfort, I’m afraid we should never stretch our desires for a better. It is often said that the world satisfies no one; but, as a matter of fact, most men are so satisfied with it that they feel no concern for a better country, that is, a heavenly. Now, what is God to do with such people if their souls are not to be lost, but saved? They must be rendered dissatisfied with their earthly condition, and be made to welcome the hope of a happier state beyond the grave. And what is so likely to do this as some dispensation which snatches from them the objects of their inordinate affection?
5. Barked fig-trees help to mature Christian character. In the midst of our heaviest trials and deepest woes we can sing of mercy as well as of judgment.
(1) Job’s fig-tree was barked (James 5:11).
(2) Jacob’s fig-tree was barked. The loss of Joseph was regarded by his family as a great domestic calamity.
(3) Paul’s fig-tree was barked. He suffered imprisonment at Rome; some false brethren created division and strife in the Church.
(4) Barked fig-trees help to develop latent qualities. It was when Paul Gerdhart was banished from his church and manse, for preaching unpalatable truth, that he wrote that inspiring hymn, “Give to the winds thy fears,” etc.
IV. What are the lessons that this subject suggests?
1. Recognise the providence of God in all the events of life.
2. Moral goodness is the aim of all God’s dispensations.
3. Trust God’s providence. (H. Woodcock.)
Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.
The meat-offering and the drink-offering is cut off from the house of the Lord.
The worship of God sadly neglected through the allure of temporal resource
I. That a neglected worship is often consequent upon the failure of the temporal resource of a people. To the Jews the suspension of the daily sacrifice was the suspension of the appointed sign indicating that they were in covenant with God, and therefore the last of evils. And so there is ever an intimate connection between temporal resource and the worship of God; a desolated commerce will probably involve a neglected temple. When the harvests fail the offerings of the soul are not brought into the sanctuary.
1. That anything which tends to increase the temporal resource of a people gives them an increased power of temple-worship. It is the duty of man to give himself to industry and profitable labour that he may win the means which shall enable him to come into the sanctuary with the offering of the Lord.
2. That our temporal resources are not to be devoted merely to the secular needs of a people but also to the worship of God. The people of Judah were required not merely to supply their own need with the fruit of the vine and of the field, they were required out of it to support the service of the temple and the worship of God. The fine flour and oil they gave to the priest they first received from God, and hence it was right that they should recognise the Divine beneficence. How many rich men amongst us would see the daily offering of the temple languish before they would aid it even by a small gift! Wealth can be consecrated to no higher service than that of the temple.
II. That a suspended worship cannot but be regarded as an indication of the Divine displeasure. Surely the announcement of the prophet, that the temple offerings were suspended, would run throughout the land of Judah, and would lead many souls to ask the reason why. Hence we gather--
1. That the agencies of Divine retribution are likely to prevent a sinful people from the enjoyment of secular prosperity. It is not improbable that the vines and fields Of a wicked people will be destroyed by the retributive hand of God. Secular prosperity is more dependent upon moral character than many are inclined to admit. Sin blights many harvests.
2. That a well-maintained temple-worship is an evidence of the Divine favour. A well-supported temple-worship is an index of sanctified wealth and of the Divine approval.
III. that a neglected worship calls for the deep grief of all reflective minds. The land of Judah waste lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth, who had been snatched from her when she was betrothed to him, but had not yet been taken to his house. The time of betrothal varied from a few days iii the Patriarchal age (Genesis 24:55) to a full year in later times. Hence the people of Judah were not to regard the judgments which had come upon them With indifference, with a mere conventional grief, but with an anguish akin to that experienced by a youthful wife bereaved of her husband. We see--
1. That a neglected worship should awaken deep grief of soul. Lamentation in the hour of bereavement is commended by men, but in the cause of God is regarded as a sign of mental weakness. Ought this to be so?
2. That a neglected worship should lead to outward tokens of the grief of the soul, Judah was not merely to lament like a bereaved virgin, but was to be girded with sackcloth.
IV. That a suspended worship will especially awaken painful solicitude within the heart of the true minister. “The priests, the Lord’s ministers, mourn.”
1. That ministers of the truth are often the first to be affected by great calamities. The priests of Judah would pre-eminently feel the effect of the terrible devastation that had come upon the land; they would suffer through the, neglected worship of the temple, as they would cease to fulfil their office, and Would be deprived of their livelihood. He stands at the very heart of society, and the most deeply feels the woe inflicted by the retributive agencies of God.
2. That ministers of the truth ought to be the first to set an example of repentance In the hour of calamity. Lessons--
1. That all temporal resource should be regarded as the gift of God.
2. That the withdrawal of temporal prosperity is calculated to affect the worship of God.
3. That the suspension of the worship of the sanctuary is a token of the Divine displeasure. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The land mourneth.
The poets of all nations give nature a voice, and make her share man’s feeling, as man shares her plenty or calamity. The Hebrew preacher shews the sanctity of life by mourning the dearth of Jehovah’s altar. Instead of the abandoned license which in Florence, London, etc., great calamities produce, or the bloody offerings which the Phoenicians and earliest Greeks practised, he calls for prayer and solemnity. In all ages, when human effort is at an end, an irrepressible instinct bids us cry to God. We may be tempted to doubt whether unblest seasons are the “days of the Lord” (Joel 1:14), or are shortcomings of nature, bound by wider necessity than the law of our convenience; and such doubts are not useless in bidding us exhaust the range of human effort, while the preacher joins the philosopher in bidding us not appease God with cruelty or wrong; yet the instinct remains unreproved by anything we know of the Divine government; and our own prayers (Joel 1:18), justified by reason, seem joined by the instinctive cries (Joel 1:19) of brute creatures in distress. (Rowland Williams, D. D.)
The harvest of the field is perished.
The destructive nature of sin
The prophet still lingers on the theme of his solemn and faithful discourses and urges all classes to attend to him that their sin and sorrow may be removed. He did not seek new or pleasing themes on which to address the nation. He was anxious to produce a deep and lasting conviction, and hence dwelt long on the subject which he felt to be of the greatest importance.
I. It is destructive of human labour. “Because the harvest of the field is perished.” The tillers of Judah had taken a great deal of pains in cultivating their soil; they had ploughed and sowed it, and certainly expected as the result a rich and golden harvest. Also the vine dressers had worked hard in the vineyards in watering and pruning the vines, and anticipated their reward. But the wheat and barley were destroyed before they were ripe; and the vines were withered. Thus we see how sin destroys the products of human labour and industry; how it utterly wastes those things which are designed by God to supply the wants of man, and to be remunerative of his energy.
1. Sin is destructive by incapacitating man for industrious labour. There are many men so enfeebled by sin that they are really unable to go into the fields and attend to advancing harvests, they are unable to look after the growth of the vines and the pomegranate tree. They are divested of their vital energy and of their muscular power by a continued habit of transgression against the laws of purity and temperance.
2. Sin is destructive by rendering men prodigal of the time which should be occupied by industrious labour. There are men who will only work three or four days in a week; the rest they spend in idleness. Thus fields are untilled, the vines are neglected, while indolent pleasures are pursued.
3. Sin is destructive by diminishing the ultimate utility of industrious labour. The fields and the vines may be productive of crops and fruits, but if man were a saint instead of a sinner he would enhance their value by putting them to the best and highest use. Sin makes the labour of men tess useful than otherwise it would be.
II. It is destructive of the good and beauteous things of the material universe.
1. Sin destroys the beautiful things of the material universe. We can well imagine the desolated condition of the land of Judah robbed of all its harvests and fruits. The corn stricken. The vines withered. The trees peeled of their bark. Nature, divested of her beautiful vesture of green and gay life, a complete wreck. The difference between Eden and the world as we now see it is entirely occasioned by sin. How lovely would this universe appear were all sin removed from amidst its fields and vines!
2. Sin destroys the valuable things of the material universe. It destroys the things which are appointed to sustain the very life of man, and failing which the grave is immediately sure. It does not merely destroy the little superfluities of the universe, but its most essential and strongest things.
III. It is destructive of that joy which is the destined heritage of man. “Because joy is withered away from the sons of men.”
1. It is certain that God designed that man should experience enjoyment in a wise use of the things around him. God does not wish man to be miserable in the universe which He has made for his welfare. But the use of His creatures must be wise. They must not he abused by excess or ingratitude, or they will be withdrawn, and the joy they should give will be turned into mourning. Let us not rest in the creature, but in the Creator, and seek all our joy in Him, then it shall never fail.
2. Sin is destructive of those things which should inspire joy in the soul of man. It destroys the harvests to which he had looked forward as the reward of earnest toil. It brings him into great need and destitution. It hushes the joy of a nation. Lessons--
1. That sin is destructive of human toil.
2. That sin divests the world of its beauty.
3. That sin is incompatible with true joy. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The advantages of a bad harvest
A harvest may be called bad as compared with expectation or as compared with crops of former years; or as compared with the harvests of other lands. Under God’s benign providence a bad harvest is an instrument for good to men. Like all chastisement, it becomes a blessing to such as are “exercised thereby.”
I. It recalls us to a sense of our dependence upon God. In these days law is everything. There is a tendency to exclude God from nature. What is law but His will? Adversity helps to cure this sore evil. Do what men will, they cannot make sure of results. There are causes beyond their ken. There are influences at work which they cannot control.
II. It awakens us to a deeper peeling of the evil of sin. Calamity witnesses for God against sin. Things are out of course. Every pain, every sorrow, every disaster is a call to repentance. Calamity that affects a whole people is as the ringing of the great bell of providence, summoning a whole nation to repent;
III. It serves as a time of discipline for the improvement of character and the promotion of the general good. Calamity is fitted to humble us. It teaches patience. It stimulates thrift and economy. It quickens the inventive faculties. It moves the heart to a truer sympathy with the struggling and the poor. It develops trade and commerce and civilisation. And commerce becomes a pioneer of the Gospel.
IV. It impresses the soul with a sense of its higher needs and duties. This great lesson is always needful, and never more than in this grossly material age.
V. It invites us to draw nearer to God, and to regard him as the only true and supreme God. If we believe on Christ we should be brave and hopeful. Let the worst come to the worst, our highest interests are safe. In the most desperate straits we may rejoice in God. (William Forsyth, M.A.)
The shame of the husbandman
The husbandmen and vine-dressers should be ashamed, and disappointed of their expectations, through the barrenness of land and trees.
1. Albeit men are bound to labour for their daily bread, yet except God bless, their labour will be in vain, and their expectations by it end in sad disappointments.
2. Sin doth procure great desolation, and doth provoke God to destroy whatsoever is pleasant or profitable to the sinner, and leave him under confusion and sorrow. So much is imported in the first reason of their shame and howling.
3. Albeit men ordinarily count little of the mercy of their daily bread, and of the increase of their labours, yet the want of it would soon be felt as a sad stroke, and will overturn much of their joy and cheerfulness.
4. The matter of men’s joy is God’s gift, to give or take it away as He pleaseth; and whatever joy, warranted or unlawful, men have about anything beneath God, it is but uncertain and fading, and ought to be looked on as such; for here, when God pleaseth, He maketh joy to “wither away.” (George Hutcheson.)
All the trees of the field are withered.
The voice in withered leaves
I. We have a reminder of man’s mortality. “We all do fade as a leaf.” On festive occasions the ancients had a curious custom to remind them of their mortality. Just before the feast a skeleton was carried about in the presence of the assembled guests. The value of human life does not depend upon its length so much as upon its fulness.
II. We have a reminder of the perishing nature of all earthly things. The picture of withered nature in our text is of blight in summer--death just when life is most expected. It is used by Joel as an illustration of the material decay of Israel, living in sin, and exposed to the inroads of enemies without the favour and protection of God. Material blessings are provided for us by the Giver of all good, but we must remember that transitory and uncertain are the things that appear most stable. Men forget this, and reap bitter disappointments in life.
III. We have a reminder of the resurrection. The leaves are falling, but the trees are not dying. In the very decay of autumn we have the promise and hope of spring. And this is the hope of the Christian in view of decay and death. At every stage of life we suffer loss and decay, but every stage brings also fresh gain and new experience. And when we come to the last stage it will be so in richer measure. Our flesh shall rest in hope. (James Menzies.)
Because Joy is withered away from the sons of men.--
Sin destroys joy
A brittle thing is our earthly happiness--brittle as some thin vase of Venetian glass; and yet neither anxiety, nor sorrow, nor the dart of death, which is mightier than the oak-cleaving thunderbolt, can shatter a thing even so brittle as the earthly happiness of our poor little homes if we place that happiness under the care of God. But though neither anguish nor death can break it with all their violence, sin can break it at a touch; and selfishness can shatter it, just as there are acids which will shiver the Venetian glass. Sin and selfishness--God’s balm does not heal in this world the ravages which they cause! (Dean Farrar.)
Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar.
Ministerial duty in the time of dire national calamity
The prophet now directs his message to the priests of Judah, and intimates that the calamity which had befallen their nation had a deep moral significance to which they should give earnest heed, and which should awaken them to immediate activity.
I. That in times of national calamity the ministerial office becomes of the highest importance. It is evident that Joel regarded the office of the priest as of the highest importance in these times of dread calamity. He had called the drunkards from their slumber, but they could do nothing to avert the immediate danger. He had made known to the husbandmen the extent of their loss, but they could not render much aid in the terrible crisis; but now he turns to the priests, and urges upon them the duty of initiating and guiding the nation to a reformed life. He knew that they would be more likely than any other class of men to help him in this arduous work. And why?
1. Because the ministerial office wields a great social influence, and is therefore competent to initiate moral reformation.
2. Because the ministerial office is supposed to seek the general good of men, and will therefore be credited with lofty motive in seeking moral reformation.
3. Because the ministerial office touches the springs of the inner life of a nation, and can therefore infuse healing remedy.
II. That in time of national calamity the ministerial office should be repentant in its inmost soul. “Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God.”
1. Then the ministerial office should be characterised by quick energy. The priests of Judah were to gird themselves. They were to hasten at once to the duty required by the circumstances of the nation and by the retribution of God. This was no time for indifference or sloth; their best energies were required.
2. Then the ministerial office should be characterised by deep sorrow. The priests of Judah were to lament and put on tokens of deep grief; they were to robe themselves in sackcloth. Their outward attire was to be indicative of their inward feeling of repentance before God.
3. Then the ministerial office should be characterised by untiring watchfulness. The priests of Judah were to lie all night in sackcloth and give themselves to prayer; their tears of repentance were not to be wiped away by the gentle hand of sleep.
4. Then the ministerial office should be characterised by true humility. We can readily imagine that the priests of Judah would experience a sense of humiliation as they gazed upon the neglected temple worship, and they would bow in abasement before the Lord of the temple.
III. That in times of national calamity the ministerial office must endeavour to awaken the people to the initial acts of reformation. “Sanctify ye a fast,” etc.
1. They proclaim a fast. The priests of Judah were to proclaim a fast, and they were also to sanctify it. A mere abstinence from food is of little service before God unless it be accompanied by those thoughts and devotions of the soul which alone can hallow it.
2. They call an assembly. The prophet commands that all the nation should be called and gathered into the temple, that public prayer might be added to private abstinence. It appears that fasting was always connected with a solemn convocation; the confession and humiliation of men must be unanimous and open. Humiliation for sin must not be confined to secrecy and solitude, but must be made in the great congregation, that the law which has been openly broken may be openly honoured, and that the ways of God may be justified before men.
3. They urge to supplication. The putting on of sackcloth by the priests, the abstaining from food by the people, the coming into the temple, would avail nothing unless it all were joined with earnest supplication; hence the assembled worshippers are urged to cry unto the Lord.
1. That the ministerial office should exert its best energy to prevent moral apostasy in the nation.
2. That in times of such apostasy it must give an example of true repentance.
3. That in such times it should initiate the necessary worship in order to avert the Divine displeasure. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
Sanctify ye a fast.--
On fast day
Fasting has, in all ages and among all nations, been an exercise much in use in times of mourning and affliction. There is no example of fasting before the time of Moses. And he enjoins only one fast, on the solemn day of expiation. After the time of Moses examples of fasting were very common among the Jews. It does not appear from the practice of our Saviour and His disciples that He instituted any particular fast, or enjoined any to be kept out of pure devotion. Fasting has, in itself, this peculiar good, that it provokes attention, by interrupting ordinary habits; the flow of business and pleasure is on a sudden stopt; the world is thrown into gloom, and a certain solemnity of thought obtruded upon those whose outward senses must be influenced before their inward hearts can be moved. The object, then, of this day is to confess our sins, and to repent of them. The object of the ministers of the Gospel is, to state what those sins are, what are their consequences, and how they may be avoided. Sins may be considered under a twofold division. Those which individuals always commit, which are the consequence of our fallen state, and inseparable from our fallen nature. Those which are the result of any particular depravity, existing in a greater degree at this time than at any other, or in this country than among any other people. As to the first class of sins, it is right to remind mankind of those imperfections, inherent in their nature, lest they should relax from the exertions of which they are really capable. Coming to that part of our conduct which is variable, to that small and contracted sphere in which it is allotted to us to do better or to do worse, begin with the subject of religion. Here may be noticed that prodigious increase of sectaries, of all ranks and descriptions, which are daily springing up in this kingdom. These men seem to think that the spirit of religion consists in a certain fervid irritability of mind. They are always straining at gnats, always suspecting happiness, degrading the majesty of the Gospel. The moment fanatical men hear anything plain and practical introduced into religion, then they say this is secular, this is worldly, this is moral, this is not of Christ. But the only way to know Christ is not to make our notions His notions, or to substitute any conjectures of our own as to what religion ought to be for an humble and faithful inquiry of what it is. There is a contrary excess in matters of religion not less fatal than fanaticism, and still more common. That languor and indifference upon serious subjects which characterises so great a part of mankind; not speculative disbelief, not profligate scoffing against religion, not incompliance with the ceremonies it enjoins; but no penetration of Christianity into the real character, little influence of the Gospel upon the daily conduct; a cold, careless, unfruitful belief. Lot it be our care to steer between these opposite extremes; to be serious without being enthusiastic; to be reasonable without being cold. Alike to curb the excesses of those who have zeal without discretion, and to stimulate the feelings of others who have conformity without zeal; remembering always that every thing intended to endure must be regulated by moderation, discretion, and knowledge. (J. Smith, M. A.)
An extraordinary fast
It must have been in the kingdom of Judah what the drought of Ahab’s reign had been in the kingdom of Israel. It was a day of Divine judgment, a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness. The harsh blast of the consecrated ram’s horn called an assembly for an extraordinary fast. Not a soul was to be absent. All were there stretched in front of the altar. The altar itself presented the dreariest of all sights, a hearth without its sacred fire, a table spread without its sacred feast. The priestly caste, instead of gathering as usual upon its steps and platform, were driven, as it were, to the farther space; they turned their backs to the dead altar, and lay prostrate, gazing towards the Invisible Presence within the sanctuary. Instead of the hymns and music, which, since the time of David, had entered into their prayers, there was nothing heard but the passionate sobs, and the loud dissonant howls such as only an eastern hierarchy could utter. Instead of the mass of white mantles, which they usually presented, they were wrapped in black goat’s hair sackcloth, twisted round them; not with the brilliant sashes of the priestly attire, but with a rough girdle of the same texture, which they never unbound night or day. What they wore of their common dress was rent asunder or cast off. With bare breasts they waved their black drapery towards the temple, and shrieked aloud, “Spare Thy people, O Lord!” (Dean Stanley.)
The duty, object, and method of keeping a public fast
Unusual duties require unusual preparation.
I. The duty of keeping a public fast. It is enjoined on due occasions by God Himself. In Joel’s time what was the occasion? It was a famine. How strikingly it is described. The Word of God repeatedly declares that such a calamity is sent on nations as a punishment for national sins. When God sends a famine in punishment for our sins He Himself calls for humiliation and fasting. This duty has been recognised from time to time. As in the days of Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, Jehoshaphat, Ezra, etc. There is nothing in the New Testament to set the duty aside. We have no instance of a Christian nation fasting, but we have no instance of a nation having become Christian.
II. The object of a fast day. Not to provide opportunity for seeking our own pleasure. Not substituting food equally or more pleasant, even by way of change. Some call it fasting to deny themselves food in one form, to take it in another, with equal or greater zest. Fasting is not an end in itself, but a means conducive to an end. The object is, humiliation for sin in order to pardon and justification. Therefore ministers must aim to arouse the national conscience. There must be humiliation in order to reflection; the deepest contrition of heart for sin, in order to turning wholly to God, with faith in the revelation of Himself in the Gospel and in all His grace, mercy, long-suffering, loving-kindness, and readiness to forgive and save, through Jesus Christ. And we must determine on reformation. A fast is worthless without that desirable end.
III. The method of keeping a public fast. No formal rules can be laid down. The rights of conscience and private judgment must be respected.
1. Sanctify the day. Set it apart from all common uses. And seek grace to sanctify it aright.
2. Attend in a right spirit on public worship, joining in public humiliation and united confession.
3. There should be special and appropriate prayer, both at home, and at church.
4. Make special gifts to the poor.
5. Specially honour Christ as Mediator. He can feel for the hungry, the famishing, the dying. He can pity poor perishing sinners. Let Him come between, and intercede with His own effectual intercession, and the famine shall cease. (John Hambleton, M. A.)
The priests are commanded to appoint a solemn and public fast, that so all ranks of persons, both rulers and people, being called to the Temple, may solemnly pour out their prayers before God.
1. Private mourning and humiliation is not enough under public calamities, but there ought also to be general humiliation, by the solemn convening of all ranks, to mourn in a public way.
2. Fasts and humiliations, especially such as are public, should not be rashly gone about, but with due preparation and upstirring for so solemn a service.
3. For the right discharge of such a duty it is requisite that men be sensible of their former abuse of mercies.
4. Exercises of humiliation will not be acceptable to God unless they be seasoned and managed with faith and affection to God. (George Hutcheson.)
The great fast
We have observed abundance of tears shed for the destruction of the fruits of the earth by the locusts, now here we have those tears turned into the right channel, that of repentance and humiliation before God. The judgment was very heavy, and here they are directed to own the hand of God in it, His mighty hand, and to humble themselves under it.
I. A proclamation issued out for a general fast. The priests are ordered to appoint one; they must not only mourn themselves, but they must call upon others to mourn too. Under public judgments there ought to be public humiliations. With all the marks of sorrow and shame sin must be confessed and bewailed, the righteousness of God must be acknowledged and His favour implored. Observe what is to be done by a nation at such a time.
1. A day is to be appointed for this purpose, a day of restraint (marg.), a day in which people must be restrained from their other ordinary business, and from all bodily refreshments.
2. It must be a fast, a religious abstaining from meat and drink, further than is of absolute necessity. Hereby we own ourselves unworthy of our necessary food, and that we have forfeited it, and deserve to be wholly deprived of it; we punish ourselves and mortify the body, which has been the occasion of sin; we keep it in a frame fit to serve the soul in serving God, and, by the appetite’s craving food, the desires of the soul towards that which is better than life, and all the supports of it, are excited.
3. There must be a solemn assembly. All had contributed to the national guilt, all shared in the national calamity, and therefore they must all join in the professions of repentance.
4. They must come together in the temple, because that was the house of prayer, and there they might hope to meet with God.
5. They must sanctify” this fast, must observe it, in a religious manner, with sincere devotion.
6. They must “cry unto the Lord.” To Him they must make their complaint and offer up their supplication.
II. Some considerations suggested to induce them to proclaim this fast, and to observe it strictly.
1. God was beginning a controversy with them. It is time to “cry unto the Lord,. for the day of the Lord is at hand.” Either they mean the continuance and consequences of this present judgment which they now saw but breaking in upon them, or some greater judgments which this was but a preface to. Therefore “cry to God,” for--
(1) The day of His judgment is very near.
(2). It will be very terrible.
2. They saw themselves already under the tokens of His dis: pleasure.
(1) Let them look into their own houses, and there was no plenty there, as there used to be.
(2) Let them look into God’s house, and see the effects of the judgment there.
3. The prophet returns to describe the grievousness of the calamity, in some particulars of it.
(1) The caterpillars have devoured the corn.
(2) The cattle, too, perish for want of grass.
III. The prophet stirs them up to cry to God, with the consideration of the examples given them for it.
1. His own example. “O Lord! to Thee will I cry.”
2. The example of the inferior creatures. When they groan by reason of their calamity, He is pleased to interpret it as if they cried to Him; much more will He put a favourable construction upon the groanings of His own children, though sometimes so feeble that they cannot be uttered. (Matthew Henry.)
Alas for the day! for the day of the Lord is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come.
The day of the Lord
The prophet intimates that the destruction caused by the flight of the locusts over the land of Judah was but the commencement of calamity, and that it was a type of judgments more awful in the future. And all the judgments which come upon men in the present are indicative of the final judgment which is to come, and are warnings of that awful event, so that we may not be unprepared to meet it.
I. That it will be Divinely distinguished from all the days which have preceded it. “The day! for the day of the Lord.” This time of judgment is called the day of the Lord.
1. Because on this day the Lord will give a splendid manifestation of Himself.
2. Because this day will be in sublime contrast, in relation to the unfolding of the Divine purposes, to all others that have preceded it. In the days of Christ’s incarnation He was rejected and despised of men; men saw no beauty in Him that they should desire Him. In our own age there are multitudes who neglect and treat Him with contempt, while many who profess to serve Him are cold in their service. These are the days of men, in which they are free to pursue an evil method of life, and in which they are left to accomplish their work, waiting for the return of the Great Master; but these days are soon to give place to the Day of the Lord, in the which He will give to every man according to the quality of his work. Then the Lord will exert His sovereign power.
II. That it is near in its approach and will come suddenly upon mankind. “The day of the Lord is at hand.”
1. This day is certain in its advent. There may be many who contemptuously ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:4.)
2. This day will be sudden in its advent. The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, and will cause a sudden fear to come upon many.
3. This day is near in its advent (2 Peter 3:8).
III. That it will be accompanied by the most awful destruction ever witnessed by mankind. “And as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come.” Lessons--
1. This revelation concerning the day of the Lord should make us careful in the ordering of our individual life.
2. This revelation concerning the day of the Lord should lead us to put forth our best activities to save men from its impending doom.
3. In this revelation concerning the day of the Lord see the mercy of heaven in giving us full warning of the coming peril. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
Joel 1:16; Joel 1:18
Is not the meat cut off before our eyes.
Sin a great deprivation
I. That sin deprives man of his cherished hope. “Is not the meat cut off before our eyes?”
1. This deprivation was unexpected. The ripe crops were seen by the people of Judah, who were rejoicing in the prospect of a safe harvest, when to their astonishment all was destroyed. And sin deprives sinners of their expected pleasures just when they are within sure reach, and turns in an unexpected moment the fairest prospects into barren wastes, it is the way of God to disappoint the evil-doer of his cherished anticipations.
2. This deprivation was calamitous. The people of Judah were dependent upon the ripe crops for the supply of their temporal wants, and would not be able to provide anything as a substitute for them. And sin does not merely deprive man of those things which are for his luxury, but even those things which are essential to his bare comfort.
3. This deprivation was righteous. The people of Judah might imagine that it was very unjust thus to deprive them of the harvest for which they had laboured, and that too at the very moment they were expecting to gather it in for use. They would be unable to understand the equity and meaning of such a visitation. But it is a righteous thing that sin should be punished, and in the manner most likely to restrain it, and this is often done by the destruction of a cherished hope.
II. That sin deprives the sanctuary of its appropriate joy. “Is not the meat cut off before our eyes, yea, joy and gladness from the house of our Lord?”
1. That joy should ever be associated with the service of the sanctuary. Joy and gladness always belonged to the ancient temple; thither the Jews went to give thanks, and to acknowledge themselves the blessed of the Lord. But now they could not rejoice in the presence of God, because of the calamities which were upon them.
2. That sin deprives the sanctuary of the joy which should ever be associated with it. The sins of the people of Judah rendered it impossible for them to participate in their usual harvest festivals, and divested the Divine presence of its accustomed joy. And sin will extinguish the bright lights of the sanctuary; it will hush its sweet music, and stay the spring of joy which God has destined should flow from the temple into human souls.
III. That sin deprives the seed of its necessary vitality. “The seed is rotten under the clods, the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken down; for the corn is withered.” Thus we see that sin perverts the natural order of God’s universe, it renders the seed which is full of life destitute of all vitality. The seed is precious; man’s sin makes it useless. God can plague man’s mercies in the germ or in the barn, it is impossible to escape His retribution.
IV. That sin deprives the brute of its refreshing pasture. “How do the beasts groan! the herds of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture, yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate.” All the life and interests of the universe arc one, and one part of it cannot suffer without involving the rest; hence the sin of man affects the whole. Lessons--
1. That men who imagine that they gain anything by sin are deceived.
2. That sin divests the most sacred places of their destined gladness.
3. That sin brings famine where God intended there should be plenty. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The seed is rotten under their clods.
The Supreme Ruler of the world is righteous and beneficent. What, then, is the cause of national calamities? It is sin.
I. Some of the prevailing sins which have brought us into our present situation. The vices which, on account of their enormity and uncommon spread, may be considered as, in a certain degree, peculiar to the present age.
1. Ingratitude. No nation ever experienced more of the kindness of heaven. Our climate is desirable; our minerals are varied and abundant; our situation favours our independence; our form of government is just and efficient. Internal peace is a blessing we have long enjoyed, Has our gratitude increased in proportion as our blessings have been multiplied? Consider, too, our religious privileges. What returns have we made to God for these mercies?
2. Pride. This has been called the universal passion. It is by no means peculiar to our country and times. Yet it may be called one of the peculiar sins of our age. Would to God that pride were confined to the State! Alas! its ravages have extended to the Church.
3. Infidelity has of late been greatly increasing. There is public avowed scepticism, by which revelation in general is censured and rejected.
4. Luxury and licentiousness of manners prevail to a most alarming degree. Was there ever a period, not excepting the age of the second Charles, when profanity, intemperance, seduction, and other vices were so common? Lewdness and intemperance are not confined to the more wealthy. Our prosperity, it may be said, is the cause of all these disorders. But shall we dare to palliate our vices by that which aggravates them in an inconceivable degree?
5. The prevailing influence of a worldly spirit.
6. The spirit of irreligion. As seen in the practice of profane swearing, in the omission of family duties, and in the neglect of Divinely instituted ordinances.
II. The means of deliverance. Consider those important duties without which there is neither safety nor hope.
1. We must return to God in the exercise of faith.
2. The review of our sins ought to fill us with grief.
3. Our faith and contrition must be accompanied with a universal reformation of our hearts and conduct. Exercise faith in God. Present to Him the sacrifices of a broken spirit. Be concerned to mortify the whole body of sin. These are duties beyond the strength of fallen humanity. The Spirit alone can enable us to perform them. To Unwearied diligence let us add fervent supplication to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He would have mercy upon us, and cause His Spirit to descend as a spirit of faith, of contrition, and of holiness. (Alex. Black.)
This is the first new stroke of pathos which the poet adds to his previous description; but mark how he multiplies stroke on stroke. As though it were not enough to lose all mirth in the passing day, the heart of the people is torn with apprehension for the future. The very grain in the earth has “rotted under the clods,” so that there is no prospect of a crop in the coming year to compensate for the loss of this year’s harvest. Smitten by the burning rays of the sun, denied the vivifying touch of dew or rain, the germ has withered in the seed. The husbandmen, hopeless of any reward for their toils, fold their hands in indolent despair; they suffer their garners to moulder away, their “barns” to fall. Why should they repair barn and storehouse when the “corn is withered,” even the seed-corn? (Samel Cox, D. D.)
God’s voice in things terrible
How does God utter His voice? In things terrible by terror, so that the feeling He inspires finds utterance in voice of man. In nature, by objects which He creates. In history, by results which He brings about. In calls to repentance, by the concurrence of calamity with our sense of sin, whether an instinct trained or rather a sentiment inbreathed by Divine communion. When such sentiments run through a people, kindled by prophets or organised by priests, the national temples echo with them; public religion embodies them; signs of joy are suspended, and prayers go up to the unsearchable Dweller of eternity in words which are the words of men, seeking to move the mind of God, yet breathing a life which God’s breath implanted. (Rowland Williams, D. D.)
How do the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed.
The cattle plague
We have been called to make this a time of solemn humiliation and prayer, in the presence of a grievous plague upon cattle. Let us seek that our prayers this day may be the prevailing prayers of faith There is a rough way of regarding the afflictive dispensations of God’s providence, which is founded on a principle more Jewish than Christian, and regards them as “judgments” in the vulgar sense. We may say, generally, that all suffering is the consequence of sin, but no man has any right to say that a particular judgment follows a particular national or individual sin.
1. We are asked to acknowledge that this grievous plague has been sent by God in His all-disposing and sovereign providence. And we are surely all agreed here. Providential is an adjective that admits of no comparison. Nothing that happens in this world is more or less appointed by God than all the rest. He ordains all events. Mercy and judgment are alike providential: we take them both from God. Mercy with thankful joy: judgment with thankful resignation. We are not driven from our simple faith in God by anything that can be said of second causes intervening between Him and us, or even of the intervention of human folly or crime. Man’s mistakes and misdoings have doubtless contributed to the spread and fatality of the cattle plague. Want of observance of obvious natural laws: want of knowledge of such; want of simple precautions, etc. We are called to acknowledge God’s hand in this sore calamity; to humble ourselves before Him under it, and to turn from our sins by a true repentance. There is a discipline of God’s appointment always around us which ought to lead us to repentance. God’s goodness should do that; it ought not to need a cattle plague. God’s goodness would be quite enough if we took our discipline rightly. Alas! God’s abounding goodness often is found to harden. And we know that seasons of great sorrow and bereavement are often times of spiritual awakening. As times of trouble have been times of individual repentance and amendment, so doubtless have they been of national. How shall we repent? We cannot just make up our mind to be sorry, any more than to be joyful. All feeling must be founded in fact. The only way to be sorry for our sins is to think of them, to set them before us, so shall we find good reason to be humble and penitent. To be truly penitent for anything you have thought or done, you must see it to be wrong yourself. Then let us “take with us words, and turn unto the Lord.” (A. K. H. Boyd, D. D.)
O Lord, to Thee will I cry.
Adding prayers to complaints
Turn thy complaint into prayer, or else it is but a murmuring against God. It is by prayer we make our sorrowful hearts known to God. The reasons of this doctrine are--
1. Because God forgetteth not the complaints of the poor; i.e., of those that pray unto Him. Otherwise He remembereth no more the poor man’s envy than the rich man’s quarrel. Therefore let this stir us up to make our complaint in prayer.
2. When men do only complain of this or that want without prayer they tempt God; therefore if we will obtain anything at the Lord’s hand for our good, let us ask by prayer.
3. Let us learn to ask of God without murmuring or grudging at our own estate, or the Lord’s hand; for the Lord will complain as fast on us as we complained to Him.
4. Another use is this,--that if complainers without praying be odious in the Lord’s sight, although the cause be indifferent, then much more are those that never pray but for unlawful and filthy things, that they may bestow them on their lusts, as the apostle saith. (Edw. Topsell.)
Prayer to God against terrible judgments
The prophet now turns from the people of Judah, with whom he could prevail but little, and cries to God as he stands in the midst, of the universal plague. It is often a relief for Christian workers to leave the society of hardened men for communion with Jehovah. Prayer is sometimes their only refuge and strength.
I. That this prayer was wisely directed to the only Giver of the true remedy. “O Lord, to Thee will I cry.”
1. It was wisely directed. He sought unto God in this time of peril. He did not pray unto any idols, but unto the true God, the Maker of the heaven and the earth. Jehovah had sent the calamity, and He only could remove it. Sorrow should send us to God.
2. It was earnestly presented. The prophet cried unto the Lord with all the energy of his being. His was no languid petition. Sorrow should make men earnest in devotion.
3. It was widely representative. The prophet did not merely pray on his own behalf; he remembered the universal woe around him, and caught up the pain-cry of nature and of the brute, and expressed it in his own prayer. He prayed as the groaning herds could not. A good man is the priest of the universe, especially in the hour of calamity.
II. That this prayer was prompted by a sad appre hension of the calamity it sought to remove. “For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.” The prophet recognised the severity of the calamity which had come upon the nation. And it is essential to prayer that we should have a clear apprehension of the sorrow to be relieved, of the sin to be removed, and of the want to be supplied; prayer should always include a good knowledge of the conditions and circumstances under which it is presented and which it hopes to ameliorate.
III. That in this prayer was united the inarticulate pleadings of suffering brutes. “The beasts of the field cry also unto Thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up,” etc. We are not to suppose that the cry of the brutes was one with the cry of the prophet; one was the outcome of pious intelligence, the other was the outcome of blind instinct (Psalms 147:9; Job 30:41). Lessons--
1. That a sorrowful soul should pray to God for aid.
2. That the soul must feel its need before it can expect relief.
3. That man should consider the pain of the inferior creatures, and never render himself liable to their rebuke. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The influence of national calamities on the minds of the good
It is a question whether the fire and flame are to be taken literally as burning the grass, or whether they are used figuratively. Probably the reference is to the burning heat in drought which consumes the meadows, scorches the trees, and dries up the water-brooks. The effect of national calamity on Joel was to excite him to prayer, to compel him to lay the case before the Lord. Having called the attention of all classes of the community to the terrible judgments, he turns his soul in a devout supplication to Almighty God.
I. This was right. Prayer is right.
1. God requires it.
2. Christ engaged in it. He is our example.
II. This was wise. Who else could remove the calamity and restore the ruin? None. When all earthly resources fail, where else can we go but to Him who originates all that is good, and controls all that is evil? True prayer is always wise, because--
1. It seeks the highest good.
2. By the best means.
III. This was natural. “The beasts of the field also cry unto Thee.” “What better,” says an old author, “are they than beasts, who never cry to God but for corn and wine, and complain of nothing but the wants of sense?” Conclusion. It is well when our trials lead us in prayer to God. The greatest calamities are termed the greatest blessings when they act thus. Hail the tempests, if they drive our bark into the quiet haven of prayer! (Homilist.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Joel 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany