“Lamenting the Locusts of Life”
August 30, 2020
Hear and lament the tragedies of life in a fallen world.
I. Hear this! (Joel 1:1-3)
II. The plague of locusts (Joel 1:4-8)
III. The drought (Joel 1:9-12)
The locusts came in a giant swarm and descended on the crops by the millions per square mile. Everything fell before them, not only the corn and maize, but the vegetables and the plants at the edges of the field that kept the livestock alive. The dying decaying locusts were a cesspool of disease covering the landscape, and the loss of sustenance crops left only a prospect of starvation and death.
If this sounds like a description of some Biblical plague in ancient times, think again. This is what happened this year, 2020, in large parts of east Africa and Asia, especially Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen and Oman. Even larger plagues might come this fall. For many in these areas, the locusts are every bit as devastating as they would have been in Biblical times. The BBC says “Desert locusts have often been called the world’s most devastating pest. Swarms form as locusts’ numbers increase and they become crowded. This causes a switch from a relatively harmless solitary phase, to a gregarious, sociable phase. The insects are able to multiply 20-fold in three months and reach densities of 80 million per square kilometer. Each can consume 2g of vegetation every day. Combined, a swarm of 80 million can consume food equivalent to that eaten by 35,000 people a day.”
Esther Ndavu, who lives in a farming village in Kenya, says “I have gone through a lot of challenges growing up as an orphan, but this locust invasion is more than a challenge. It is a matter of life and death.” When the locusts descended, villagers used the tools at hand to drum away the locusts as well as lighting fires and burning vehicle tires, Children were enlisted to scream at the pests to try to scare them off until the village was able to obtain pesticides. That drumming and screaming has left a lasting effect on her children. “Most nights I do not sleep enough,” says Ndavu. “The children wake me up when they begin screaming. When I ask them what the problem is, they tell me that they were dreaming that another locust invasion had come to our home.”
The book of Joel, which we will be studying for the next six weeks, begins with one of the most vivid descriptions of a plague of locusts found in any literature. It will take us a few weeks to work through that plague and its implications before we come to God’s great “Yet even now,” in chapter 2. But as horrible as locusts are, they are far from the only kind of plague that threatens this fallen world. 2020 has proven this. We are hopefully in the down trend of the pandemic, which has probably killed close to a million people world-wide, and changed the daily lives of most of the world’s population.
Then there are hurricanes. We were just spared Hurricane Laura, but our neighbors to the east have been devastated and the damage is only now beginning to be addressed. Then there are man-made locusts like racism and violence that also seem to be rising to pandemic levels. That doesn’t even take into account the plagues of political division and economic turmoil that have made this year so difficult, with a dismal continuation the only prospect.
Yet even more than the public stuff, each of us is also plagued by the locusts of life. For some it might be the loss of income, for some it might be the hounds of addiction, the ravages of lust, the blows of violence committed against us as children, the heart breaking choices of our own children, the fears of a failing marriage, the ravages of cancer and disease waging war in our own bodies, the losses of loved ones and friends to those diseases or to senseless accidents and injuries, Truly I say to you, there are very few lives in this room or in my hearing not plagued by locusts of one kind or of many kinds. As we turn our attention to Joel, we find that the lament and hope in this ancient book are just what we need as God’s people today. My key sentence for this series is simply that amid the trials of life we turn to a compassionate and just God.
Before we begin lets pursue a little background. Joel is the second of the 12 minor prophets that make up the far end of the Old Testament in our Bibles. Later this fall we’ll study Malachi, who is the last of those prophets. But contrary to what you might think, the prophets aren’t in chronological order. Joel seems to be placed where it is precisely because it’s message is universal, and applies to all of Israel’s history and ages of God’s people. Joel himself is completely unknown, with no hint of his profession or ancestry, except that in the first verse we’re told that his father’s name is Pethuel, who is also unknown.
Nonetheless, many have tried to locate the book chronologically, with opinions ranging from just after the division of Solomon’s kingdom to well after the exiled people of God returned from Babylon. As I’ve studied these opinions, the one that makes most sense to me is shortly after that return from exile. There are many reasons for this, which Elizabeth Achtemeier summarizes in her commentary: “The situation pictured in Joel is that of the quiet, postexilic time when Judah was a little sub-province of the vast Persian Empire. No external, historical enemy threatens its existence. The Babylonian exile and the dispersion of the Jews is in the past. The existence of the second temple, which was rebuilt by 515 BC, is taken for granted, along with its priests and daily sacrifices. There is no mention of a king or of courtly officials, and priests and elders are the leaders of the Judean community. The walls of Jerusalem, which were rebuilt in the time of Nehemiah, are standing.” Of course, she includes references from Joel for all those assertions.
So we’ll take a date after 500 BC for Joel’s writing. This allows us to fully appreciate Joel’s use of other prophetic writings in his book. He quotes or alludes to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Nahum, Obadiah, Micah, and Amos. Achtemeier says “Further evidence of the book's date is given by Joel's extensive use of earlier prophecy, including that of Obadiah, which was not in existence before the fifth century BC.” In his use of prophetic tradition “the prophet shares much in common with us modern students of the Bible. Just as we read the words of the prophets in the Bible and hear God speaking to us through them, so too the word of God is revealed to Joel through the preaching of the prophets who have preceded him. The word of God . . . is not a thing of the past for Joel. Rather, that word continues to speak and work its influence in the present.” I love that. Joel is a student of Scripture, just as we can be.
Joel notably picks up themes from Jeremiah, including the day of the Lord and the judgment of God on nations. Achtemeier: “Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the two great themes of Joel encompass the two major poles of the gospel. First, Joel announces God’s real judgment on human sin, a judgment that concerns the whole world of nature and nations. Second, however, Joel proclaims the merciful grace of God who ‘even now’ will not give over his covenant people and his creation to final destruction. In proclaiming this message, the prophecies of Joel are never out of date.” His message to us, I believe, is that amid the trials of life we turn to a compassionate and just God
Our text is Joel 1:1-12, Joel’s call to hear and lament the tragedies of a fallen world, the locusts that plague our lives and our times. We’ll start with verses 1-3. The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 2Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? 3Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.
I’ve already mentioned that we know little of Joel and nothing of Pethuel. We do know that Joel’s name means “The Lord is God,” and that at the climax of the book Joel twice says “then you will know that I am the Lord you God.” They will know the Lord as God as they see the events of the present and the future in light of God’s words. Joel is not simply reflecting on events like a locust plague or a drought. He is giving God’s thoughts and understandings of those events, and God’s instructions for life in the face of those events. We will find that Joel is full of commands which help us know how to live in a world of our own locusts. The first of those is “Hear this.” Verse 2: “Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?’
Even as Joel is bringing the word of the Lord to the people, he also points to the events, a locust plague and a drought. Verse 3: “Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.” Don’t lose the lesson of the locusts. God acts, but also explains. Events have meaning, but only when we hear what the word of the Lord tells us of them. So, for example, the Babylonian exile as an event was one nation conquering and exiling a smaller one. But God reveals that the exile was judgment for the disobedience and idolatry of the nation, but also mercy in saving a remnant. So too, we will find, the plague of locusts and the drought in Joel were explained, on one level, as consequences for the sins of the nation.
In the absence of a clear word from God we have to be careful in assigning meaning to events. What is the meaning of COVID-19? Of Hurricane Laura? We can’t blithely assume we’re seeing judgment. As Jesus said when asked who sinned, a man or his parents to make him blind, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Maybe our locusts have come, at least in part, to show the compassion of God’s people.
So the first command is “hear,” “listen” The second step is to lament the plague of locusts. Verses 4-8 What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten. 5Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. 6For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. 7It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white. 8Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.
Have you ever heard the idea that the Eskimos have many names for different kinds of snow? It’s actually true, because being able to quickly distinguish between light fluffy snow and icy snow is important to their lives. In the same way it appears the people of Israel had multiple names for locusts, probably in the different phases of life. James Montgomery Boice gives describes these phases. “In 1915 a plague of locusts covered Palestine and Syria from the border of Egypt to the Taurus mountains. The first swarms were adult locusts that came from the northeast and moved toward the southwest in clouds so thick they obscured the sun. The females were two and a half to three inches long, and they immediately began to lay eggs by digging holes in the soil about four inches deep and depositing about 100 eggs in each. Witnesses estimated that as many as 65,000-75,000 eggs were concentrated in a square meter of soil, and patches like this covered the entire land from north to south.
Within weeks the locusts hatched. The young had no wings, but moved forward by hopping along the ground like fleas. They advanced 500 feet a day, devouring any vegetation before them. By the end of May they molted. They now had wings but still did not fly. Instead they moved forward by walking, jumping only when they were frightened. They were bright yellow. Finally, the locusts molted again, becoming the fully developed adults that had invaded the land initially.” That sounds eerily like verse 4 “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten”?
Earlier Joel had called the elders to pay attention. Here he calls drunkards, probably ironically, to weep and wail, because this plague will destroy the vines that supply their wine. Locusts don’t limit themselves to smaller plants. Joel says the fig tree is stripped of its bark and its branches made white. In the 1915 locust invasion witnesses said that after eating the softer parts, later locusts would strip the bark. The bare branches were bleached snow-white by the sun. Joel likens this to invasion by an enemy army, to being caught in the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness. The plague is deadly and inescapable.
Finally, in verse 8, Joel tells his readers, and us, how to respond to the locusts of life. “Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.” There is that word “lament” which we focused on when we studied Psalm 143 earlier this year. As Mark Vroegop defined it, “lament is the prayer in pain that leads to trust.” The people of Israel are being told to cry out in the midst of pain, and this lament will lead to trust in the God who says “yet, even now.” The illustration Joel uses is of a virgin, engaged to be married, now mourning because the bridegroom of her youth has suddenly died. This locust invasion, the locusts of life you experience are often as painful, as tragic, as that.
So the call is to lament, which we remember includes crying out to God, bringing him our complaints and our circumstances, questioning him and calling him to be true to his revealed character and will, and then turning to him in trust that finds solace and comfort in him despite our circumstances. That’s what Joel is calling for even in the midst of a devastating plague. Because this is not just a plague of locusts, but also a drought. Verses 9 to 12: The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. 10The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes. 11Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. 12The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man.
Notice the repeated use of the phrase “dried up” in this section. Many commentators, though not all, see this as evidence that the locust plague is followed or even accompanied by a drought. Though the transition of locusts from singular to gregarious is the result of a wet season or two, the actual multiplication of the locusts frequently continues into the next dry period or drought. So the people of Joel’s day were probably suffering from the combination of two or more trials. In the same way, most of our locusts are not singular, but a combination of things coming from different directions.
The priests and ministers of the Lord are to mourn. The Hebrew behind the word mourn is more common than the word for lament, and it usually has to do with grieving over a death. Why do the priests mourn? Because the materials for their grain offerings and drink offerings, the daily provision God had made to remember his presence in the temple, these are now ‘cut off’ from the house of the Lord. Notice the implication that the temple still stands and the priests still minister and the people still bring their tithes and offerings. At least they did until this plague. Then the priests, in particular, mourned because these daily offerings were the heart of God’s presence with his people.
This word for mourning is also used in the context of the land God had given his people mourning, as in verse 10 “The fields are destroyed, ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed.” Just to show one of the many parallels with Jeremiah, that book says “How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away.” As Paul says in Romans 8 “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
Creation groans and laments, because God subjected it to futility as judgment. It was not designed or created for this. Fields were supposed to be flourishing. Crops were supposed to be abundant. But it’s all corrupt and the plagues described, as well as the locusts of our lives are not the way it’s supposed to be. All of us are to mourn. “Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished.” “Be ashamed” probably doesn’t mean ashamed of their failure, but despairing over the failure of the land. The Theological Wordbook says “The primary meaning of this root is to fall into disgrace,” but “the force of [this word] is somewhat in contrast to the primary meaning of the English "to be ashamed," in that the English stresses the inner attitude, the state of mind, while the Hebrew means "to come to shame" and stresses the sense of public disgrace, a physical state.”
Even more interesting, in view of the drought, is the fact that this word differs only in one vowel from the word ‘dry up’ that is used in the rest of this text. In other words, it’s not only the land that has dried up in the drought, but the farmers and the vinedressers too. If you’ve ever watched or read stories about droughts, you know what this means. I always remember the great visual from the second “Sarah Plain and Tall” movie of the husband, Jacob, who has stayed behind in the drought sitting down on the ground absorbing that first sweet rainfall. In the same way, whether it’s COVID-19 or a hurricane, or the personal locusts that haunt our days and darken our dreams, we mourn with the calamities, the tragedies and the trials of our lives.
Healthy response requires lament. We’re not supposed to be indifferent. Verse 12: The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man. Between the locusts and the drought every living and fruit bearing thing is in extremity. Everything is dried up and barren. And gladness dries up from the children of men. We’ve all been there, in that place where the situations around us, our open or hidden locusts have caused gladness to dry up.
This is the starting point of the book of Joel and it’s the right place to start. We do no one a service by trying to minimize the locusts of life, the pain people carry, the hardship they struggle under. Boice says “The most remarkable thing about Joel’s prophecy is not that the describes the the locust invasion so accurately. The remarkable thing is how he deals with it. To begin with, he does not treat the disaster lightly, as certain kinds of Christian people tend to do. . . . Instead of slighting the problem he accepts it in its full horror and calls on various groupings of people within the land to mourn with him. Christians need to learn from Joel’s approach to suffering.” This is the same lesson, we tried to learn from Psalm 143, that lament is a key characteristic of the life of God’s people, because it does not lead them to despair or disbelief but to trust.
One of the books I’ve used researching Joel is The Millennial Narrative by Jaco J. Hamman. He says that Joel can speak to our millennial generation, to the young adults among us, but for them it has to start with realistic recognition of loss. This isn’t the generation of the Depression, but it is the generation of 9/11 and the generation of the 2008 Recession, the generation of diminished economic expectations, and for many the generation when relational issues of a broken family has been central. Like every generation, there is reason to lament, but these losses are unique. Hamman says “Joel invites us into the good life by recognizing the locusts of life, acknowledging the devastation they cause, and offering concrete ways to respond. It’s a summons for us all to attend to the very thing that is happening in our midst.”
Hamman gives numerous examples of the narrative of lament-to-trust, especially among millennials. One is of a young pastor, Kyle. He and his wife Natalie were unable to have children, itself a plague to so many. They tried to adopt, a little girl they named Aria, the lioness. The process dragged on and finally, after 16 months of foster care and full bonding, their Aria was sent back to a dysfunctional family, against her own mother’s expressed desires. The couple was rightly devastated. But they were given no space to lament until over a year later, when a caring leader at a conference encouraged Kyle and he wrote a beautiful lament of the kind we’ve studied. That began their healing.
We begin this journey in Joel by lamenting the vulnerability we experience in the presence of the locusts of life and their threat of devastation. Be assured this is not where we will end. My wife has long suggested I preach Joel because of its great “but God.” Joel 2:12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” That’s where we’re headed. It will take a couple of weeks to get there, but what starts with lament soon turns to the recognition of a compassionate and just God.
I found out about Jaco Hamman’s book in a rather backhand way, because I first found an album by Christopher Williams called We Will Remember, Songs inspired by the book of Joel. It turns out the album was a companion to the book, but I like the album way better than the book. The book has too much liberal theology for my comfort. But the album is great and I want to close with the first song of the album, which sums up what we’ve seen today.
Hear this all who live; Come heavy come helpless, receive what sorrow gives; Hear this all who live; Come gather together, this story is ours. All we see is devastation like never before; For the love of generations, we must tell them how we mourn. Hear this all who live; Come heavy come helpless, receive what sorrow gives; Hear this all who live; Come gather together, this story is ours. Over mountains they’re descending, on numberless wings; In their darkness, we are defenseless, the locust leave us suffering. Hear this all who live; Come heavy come helpless, receive what sorrow gives; Hear this all who live; Come gather together, this story is ours. Before them a garden sweet like Eden; Behind them a dry desert waste; The locusts will cut down like fire. The earth shakes so wake up and wail, for nothing escapes
Hear this all who live; Come heavy come helpless, receive what sorrow gives; Hear this all who live; Come gather together, this story is ours.