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Lenten Reflections 2021: Calling all ministers of the Lord to Repentance!

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

By Vinod John @johnvinod | February 19, 2021

Joel is an atypical prophet in a long line of Old Testament prophets. He does not identify himself, his background, or the period of his ministry except that he is the son of Pethuel (Joel 1: 1) in order to distinguish himself from other Joels. He is entirely focused on his calling and ministry to the One who called him to prophecy. Interestingly, his name “Jo-el” means Jehovah is God! Therefore, Joel wants to divert our attention away from him to the message and His God who has commissioned him. Quite a contrast to many who call themselves “prophets” these days!

In the first chapter of Joel, the prophet describes a plague of locusts that ravaged through Israel damaging everything on its way. Joel refers in 1: 4 and 2: 25 to four species or four different stages of the insects (depending upon the translation that you read) that landed upon Israel:

  1. the gnawing/cutting/devouring locust/palmerworm;
  2. the swarming/great locust;
  3. the licking/hopping/young locust/cankerworm;
  4. the consuming/destroying locust/caterpillar;

In Joel 2: 25, the locusts are mentioned in reverse order compared to the order in 1: 4. These locusts, I think, were literally insects and the devastation they had caused was real. What Joel described has contemporary parallels of the swarm of locusts wrecking havoc in Africa and many parts of Asia. However, this plague is not just about the literal locusts destroying Israel’s crops. Rather, it figuratively represents the various invading armies of Assyrians, Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks, and Romans who caused Israel’s successive destruction over the years. It is conceivable that Joel meant locusts both in its physical and figurative sense, as the ensuing devastation was substantially calamitous (1:6-7). However, the terms that Joel employs in describing this scourge definitely points to something worse than literal insects.

The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off  from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,  the ministers of the Lord.
The fields are destroyed,  the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up, the oil languishes. (Joel 1: 9-10 ESV).

Besides the agricultural devastation, another major aftereffect of the plague was the cessation of continual offerings at the Temple.

The interruption of liturgical worship at the Temple was one of most tragic calamities for the worshippers of Jehovah God because it dramatically implied that their God has rejected his people, leading to a situation where “the priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord” (1:9). Alas! They were instead supposed to celebrate and delight in the presence and service of the Lord and bring encouragement to other worshippers.

Joel refers specifically to three staple crops of Israel that had failed—the (wheat/barley) grain, the (grape) wine, and the (olive) oil. They were not only staple on every dining table but were also crucial part of the failed grain and drink offerings at the Temple. Therefore, while Joel narrates how the farmers were dismayed and the vinedressers were ashamed and the tillers of the soil wailed; the prophet singles out the priests calling them to not just lament, rather he directs them to undertake a discipline of fasting, penitence with sack clothes, prayer, and consecration:

Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate 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: 13-14 ESV).

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