The book itself is divided into two parts.
The first half, Joel 1:2-2:27, is a lament over a catastrophic natural disaster in the form of locusts. Evidently, the horror of locusts had actually happened and was current in the memories of the people Joel was addressing. Joel perceived this calamity as God’s divine wrath that could be prevented only through a national ritual of mourning over sin, fasting, and repentance.
The second half of Joel, 2:28-3:21, is basically apocalyptic, describing an end-time scenario in which the enemies of God and His people will be summarily dealt with, and the cosmos will be restored to the paradise conditions of God’s original intent. His prophecy was of a second invasion, even more terrible than the locusts, which was future to the people in Joel’s day and is still, apparently, future to us.
Joel, in fact, spoke of the Day of the Lord, a call to repentance, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and promise of restoration. A full five hundred years later, the apostle Paul would quote Joel (in Acts 2:16-21) to explain what had just happened in the Upper Room, and much later, the apostle John would use Joel’s vivid description of the locust swarm in his own apocalyptic book (Revelation 9:3-11).
Joel’s book begins with this description of four waves of locusts:
- a locust swarm
- then great locusts
- next young locusts
- and finally other locusts
In 1915 a man named John Whiting described exactly the very same plague in the December issue of National Geographic Magazine.
A Locust Swarm
First, in March, a swarm of locusts covered Palestine and Syria, all the way from the border of Egypt to the mountains. The swarms were so thick they blocked out the sun.
Drought is especially good for locusts because of how they reproduce. The females, two to three inches long, laid about a hundred eggs a piece in little holes in nice, warm, dry soil. Witnesses estimated there were about 25,000 eggs per every square foot of soil. Then the locusts flew away.
In a couple of weeks, the babies hatched, and were about the size of ants, and had no wings. They hopped all over the place, like fleas, and could cover about 500 feet a day, eating everything in their path. By May they had molted and now were bright yellow, and had little wings, though they still couldn’t fly.
Later in the summer they molted again and could now fly. John Whiting described the vineyards where the locusts ate everything, even the tendrils, then stripped the bark off the vines, leaving them to bleach white in the sun. They stripped the leaves, berries, and bark off the olive trees. They stripped layer after layer off of the cacti. They burrowed into the palms and ate them from the inside out.
This is exactly the devastation that had happened in Joel’s day.
When bad things happen and you and I feel ourselves drowning in suffering, maybe one of the first things we want is to feel better.
So how do we do that?
Well, we try to minimize the disaster – it’s not as bad as it looks, things will get better soon, lots of people go through this, hey this is nothing compared to . . . fill in the blank.
But Joel was calling the people to a sober assessment. The locusts were horrible, they were awful, nothing like this has ever happened before, make sure your children and your grandchildren know just how bad it was. Because what’s coming is so much more dreadful.
Joel was concerned that four different groups of people would see the disaster that was heading towards Israel, one even worse than the locust plague.
- The leaders of Israel, the elders, those who were called to take the lead in facing up to what God meant by the locust plague, and how important this really was.
- The partiers, those who were partying through life. They had become addicted to sensuality, dependent upon their pleasures, like wine. Now, God would take away the pleasures they had abused.
- The breadwinners,those who were working hard to provide for their families, the wealth and backbone of Israel: the farmers, craftsmen, builders, and the like.
- The spiritual leaders of Israel, the priests. Everyone had been living for themselves, doing what was right in their own eyes. Maybe Joel himself was a priest, as he modeled in prayer how to call out to God in mourning and despair.
What’s true for the nation is true for the individual. Maybe you have been clobbered recently by a swarm of locusts, out of the blue, darkening your sky and totally laying waste something that was important to you, exposing something that was tender, bringing trouble, maybe even disaster, into your life, and you turned, or are turning right now, to God. Or maybe you can see it coming – you’re facing the bottom falling out of your life and you’re not sure what’s happening to you.
Joel’s words seem to imply the possibility God is seeking to get our attention right now, allowing calamity to act as a turning point in our lives. So, Joel cried out to the people,
Sanctify a fast,
call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord.Joel 1:14
Joel called for a fast to pray about what was going to happen. Sooner or later, like the locusts which had already devasted the land in recent memory, God’s judgement would fall on His people who had turned away from Him and lived for themselves. In his day (as in ours) people had been running away from their responsibilities, morality was taking hits as the demand for instant gratification increased, traditional family values were eroding as the leaders avoided saying whether something was right or wrong, good or bad.
Interestingly, in the last one hundred years, fasting seems to have lost its place as a form of prayer within the western, especially Protestant, church. For one thing, delaying gratification has just about become unAmerican. Concepts such as abstinence, which is fasting from sex, and fasting from anything else, maybe especially from food, seems just about impossible, involving needless suffering.
However, Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes, and those who were serious about praying, fasted. Jesus upheld the discipline of fasting and anticipated that believers would fast and pray.
Years ago I read a really wonderful book by Richard Foster called “Celebration of Discipline.” My friend and I were studying one of the gospels at the time, and we both noticed Jesus saying that some acts of faith can only be accomplished through fasting and prayer.
So we read this book together, and here are a few of the things we learned:
Often you and I cover up our feelings and our sins with food and other good things, but fasting brings these things up to the surface. It isn’t food that sustains us, nor water, nor even oxygen. It is God’s word that sustains you and me, according to the Bible, the power of God’s word.
If you are sensing God calling you to fast and to pray, be wise about what you fast from.
- Relinquish some comfort, or temporarily relinquish even a basic necessity.
- Allow fasting to be an expression of humility, the temporary privation reminding you of how much you need God.
- Relinquish your rights and control of your life to God.
- Mourn over those aspects of your life you know are not aligned with God.
Fasting can bring breakthrough in the spiritual realm that will never happen any other way. So Joel called God’s people together to fast and to pray.
What might God be calling you to fast from, maybe just today, or just this week, in order to draw closer to Him in prayer?
[“Sackcloth and Ashes on the Ponte San Angelo”| by Graeme Churchard, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)