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The prophet Joel says ''Jubilate''
by Jeff Carter
The prophet Joel remains a strange enigma to us. We know very little about him. The only concrete thing we know about him is that his father was named Pethuel – and that’s it. That is all that we know for certain about Joel.The prophet Joel remains a strange enigma to us. We know very little about him. The only concrete thing we know about him is that his father was named Pethuel – and that’s it.
That is all that we know for certain about Joel.We don’t know where he was born, where he lived, or even when he lived. We don’t know if he was married or if he had children. We don’t know what he did for a living. Was he farmer, a merchant, or a rabbi? We don’t know. We don’t even know specifically when he composed the lines that have come down to us as the book of Joel. As I said, we know very little about Joel.
Yet his writings have survived.
Working from certain clues within the book of Joel, it seems likely to Biblical scholars that he wrote sometime during the fourth century B.C. during the time when Persian Empire ruled the world (though some have argued for an earlier date, pushing Joel as far back as the ninth century B.C.). During this period of time the nation of Israel was only an insignificant province within the expansive Persian Empire.
But even still, his writings have survived; we can read them in our bibles today these 2,400 some odd years later. And, what is more, they have survived in such a way that even though we know next to nothing about the prophet Joel as an historical figure, we can still understand the message of his book.
One thing is immediately apparent as we read through the book of Joel: he (whoever he was) wrote to an agrarian society. And this is something we can understand in our present community. Even though not all of us gathered here tonight are farmers, we certainly understand the urgent necessity of our agriculturalists. We understand that the strength and security of our country rises and falls with the farmers. When farmers do well, everyone does well. When the farmers suffer, everyone suffers.
This is something we understand. And Joel’s original audience understood this as well.
He wrote his message to them during a period of urgent distress and national crisis. Vast swarms of locusts had overwhelmed the country side and billions of these malevolent insects had devoured the crops. They ate the leaves, stalks, bark, flower, fruits, seeds, and stems of every green and growing thing. Joel compared them to an invading army of horses and chariots destroying everything in their path.
As the swarm moved on to devastate other regions, the people of Judah began to relax, but not for long. While the locust swarms filled the sky, and destroyed the fields the male and female locusts were also busy mating. The pregnant females then deposited clumps of 50 – 80 eggs in the uncultivated ground.
And after about a month (30 – 40 days) these young locusts began to hatch and grow. Their appetites increased proportionally as they increased in size. Every day they grew a little larger and everyday they ate a little more than the day before. From birth to death, the locust is an eating machine that leaves only destruction in its wake. This was round two of the locust plague. (Eyewitness description of a locust swarm that descended on Palestine in the spring of 1915 – Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 6 pg. 1150)
What the chewer left the swarming locusts consumed;
and what the swarming locusts left the jumpers ate;
what the jumpers left the finisher devoured. - Joel 1: 4
And then to compound their already desperate misery – the devastation of the locust swarm was immediately followed by a severe and lingering drought. The sky withheld rain for month after month and slowly the watercourses all dried up. The once flowing streams and brooks of clear cold water became trickles of goopy mud, and then hard packed clay.
Their cattle wandered the barren fields lowing in distress and hunger. Sheep stood perplexed.
Seeds have shriveled under their shovels;
storage bins are desolate,
for the grain has dried out.
How the beasts moan,
the herds weep,
for lack of fodder;
even the flocks of sheep are hurting. – 1: 17-18
As the drought held week after week and month after month, the land dried out, and the countryside became a dangerous tinderbox waiting for a spark – then – Conflagration! Fires blazed across the dry fields, burning and blazing and leaving ashy destruction across the land. The sky was filled with acrid smoke and the burnt out landscapes were devoid of life. There had been nothing like this in their collected memories– even the elders had never witnessed anything comparable in their time.
To you, YHWH, I cry out;
for fire has consumed the pasture land,
a flame has licked all the trees in the field.
Even the beasts in the field
complain to you;
for the waters sources have all dried up,
and fire has devoured the pasture land. – 1: 19 - 20
And here, I think, we can understand their predicament. Our culture is distinctly different from Joel’s in nearly every respect, but we can still relate to their plight. We don’t speak the same language but we can certainly understand their complaints.
Our society hasn’t been devastated by a plague of locusts followed by drought and fire, but we certainly have suffered a series of crippling economic disasters. And maybe we’ve started to feel like the people of Joel’s 4th century B.C. audience.
Like Joel, I have seen the swarming clouds
of insatiable six-legged locusts,
seen them dressed in tailored Italian suits
and driving slick black cars
the swarming deregulated sub-prime locusts
the cutting free-market frenzied locusts
and the scandalous bankrupted locusts
and now that the devouring cloud has moved on
the swirling dark veil has been lifted
working people across the land
examine the remains of their fields.
our pensions – devoured
our factories – closed
our jobs – devoured
and our homes – foreclosed.
“They’ve left us with nothing, not even laughter.”
We may not have a plague of locusts, but we have collapsing banks. We may not be suffering through a period of drought, but we do have an increasing number of people who are unemployed. We may not be dealing with catastrophic firestorms, but the general feeling is that our country is in serious trouble.
We haven’t shared the exact same circumstances as Joel’s original audience, but we share their desperation, their confusion, their angst for the future.
Stand dismayed, you farmers,
wail you vinedressers,
for the wheat, the barley!
The harvests of the field have been lost!
The vine is withered,
the fig tree wilts away;
pomegranate, palm tree, apple tree,
every tree in the countryside is dry,
and for human beings
joy has run dry too. (Joel 1:11-12)
That last line catches at me “and for human beings, joy has run dry too.”
How many have said that recently? They’ve been laid off, their car has been repossessed their home has been foreclosed and the joy of life has just run dry.
And what did the prophet have to say to his audience in the forth century B.C and what does he have to say to people suffering today? What does Joel have to say to people who have lost everything, to a nation on the verge of collapse?
Land, do not be afraid;
be glad, rejoice,
This is counterintuitive.
In the aftermath of horrific destruction Joel say “Do not be afraid” and “Be glad, rejoice.” In one rabbinic translation of this text the translation reads, “…be glad, jubilate.”
Jubilate. What a great word.
Jubilate leads me to the Latin phrase “Jubilate Deo” from Psalm 100 “Acclaim (Jubilate) Yahweh all the earth, serve Yahweh with gladness, come into his presence with songs of joy.”
And that leads me to the hymn tune Old 100th known simply as The Doxology, written in 1674 by Thomas Ken, a clergyman in the Church of England. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
Jubilate is the verb that Joel uses. Joel writes to the very soil of the land and he says,
Land, do not be afraid;
be glad, jubilate,
for Yahweh has done great things.
He writes to the wild animals of the country and he says to them,
…do not be afraid.
the desert pastures are green again,
the trees bear fruit,
vine and fig tree yield their richness.
And after addressing the soil that has been ravaged by locusts and drought and flame, and addressing the wild beasts who have lost their food and their homes because of the locusts and drought and flames, Joel finally turns his attention to the Sons of Zion.
Sons of Zion, be glad,
rejoice in Yahweh your God;
for he has given you
autumn rains as righteousness demands
and he will send the rains down for you,
the autumn and the spring rains as of old.
The threshing-floors will be full of grain,
the vats overflow with wine and oil.
Joel says that the people of Zion should rejoice and give thanks – Jubilate – and he promises that God will restore the regular cycle of rains and that the green growth of the fields will return.
Joel says that the regular rains will be
restored because Righteousness demands it.
And I have to ask, whose righteousness? Mine? Ours? The people of Joel’s 4th century B.C? No. We have no righteousness of our own, “there is no one righteous, no not one.”
So whose righteousness demands that the regular cycle of rains should be restored and that the devastated crops re-established? Whose righteousness demands that all that has been destroyed will be returned?
It is Yahweh’s righteousness that demands it.
The restoration of the land is a return to the covenantal blessings that God made with his people – the devastated fire blasted land would once again become the Edenic paradise. When the people of Zion – the people of God – have been restored to relationship with God then the land itself will be blessed. And the people of God would never again be ashamed.
When the people of Zion – the people of God – are in their proper place, in their proper relationship with God, there is rejoicing and jubilation, and there is restoration. And this is cause for our thanksgiving. This is cause for our celebration. This is cause for our Jubilation.
Do not be afraid