The disasters we witness or personally experience point us to our need to turn to the Lord, to trust in Him, and to examine our relationship with Him. The prophet Joel emphasizes this by means of both a current disaster and an approaching one.
In Control of the Chaos
Several years ago, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean suddenly swept ashore in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and other areas, claiming the lives of more than 200,000 people. To this day it remains one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, and as you can imagine, it left many people with questions about life and even about God’s role in human affairs.
If God is truly sovereign, the question was repeated over and over again, why did He not control this disaster? If God is in control of all things, why did He permit such a random and tragic loss of life?
Well, we can say this much: God has His purposes in all things, even if those purposes are not explained to us. And we need to be careful not to assume that God uses all such natural disasters to target people who are especially sinful.
During the earthly ministry of Jesus, a tall tower collapsed, killing eighteen people. When told of this deadly occurrence, Jesus responded, not with an explanation of why it happened, but with a reminder that all people eventually are going to die, and they need to repent before that day arrives and follow God (see Luke 13:1-5).
Even if we don’t understand all God’s purposes behind these events we call natural disasters, the lesson we do need to think about is this: what if that had happened to us? Where would we be, one minute after we died? The lesson to be learned from tragedy, then, is the need to turn to the Lord.
Well, today we begin our Wisdom Journey through the little book of Joel, the second of the twelve Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. The prophet Joel describes a disaster currently taking place and uses it to warn his readers of even greater disasters to come. And just like Jesus, Joel urges the people to repent.
While there are no time markers in the book of Joel, I believe he lived about a hundred years before Hosea, during the reign of King Joash of Judah (see 2 Chronicles 24:1-27). This would mean his ministry in Judah actually overlapped with the miraculous ministry of the prophet Elisha in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Joel begins in chapter 1 by describing a devastating plague of locusts that has come upon the land. It is hard to even imagine how destructive locusts can be to an agriculturally based society. I have read that a locust is “capable of eating its own weight daily.” One square mile of a swarm of locusts can include more than 100 million of these hungry creatures. And if you can believe it, swarms have been known to cover hundreds of square miles.
Well, this is what Joel is describing here when he says in verse 7 that the locusts have “laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; [they have] stripped off their bark.” In verses 10-11 he writes:
The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished.
Nobody was expecting this tsunami of locusts that literally swept through the land. And Joel doesn’t spend any time giving all the reasons why; he simply calls on the priests to gather the people and call upon the Lord in repentance. The relief they truly need will come by repenting of their sin.
But there is another reason they need to turn to the Lord. Joel writes in verse 15, “The day of the Lord is near.” Now in the Bible this expression, “the day of the Lord” simply refers to any period of divine judgment. It is often used for that future period of judgment during the coming tribulation.
Here Joel is focusing on the near-term judgment: he says that this locust attack is foreshadowing a coming day of the Lord when Judah is attacked by the Assyrian army.
In fact, the first verse of chapter 2 calls for the sounding of a trumpet to alert the people. Joel says, that “the day of the Lord is coming; it is near.” Verse 2 says that this is a “day of darkness and gloom.”
Joel describes this invading army in verse 10: “The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”
By the way, this invading army is called the Lord’s army, because they are actually fulfilling His purposes. Verse 11 says:
The Lord utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful.For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?
How should they respond to this prophetic announcement of a coming tsunami of judgment from the Lord? Well, here again, it should be with repentance:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and 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. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent? (verses 12-14)
Joel actually assumes the nation will repent, and he promises in verse 18, “The Lord . . . had pity on his people. The Lordanswered and said to his people, ‘Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.’”
In other words, when the people turn to the Lord in repentance, relief will come from this locust plague, but more than that, deliverance will come from the invading army. The Lord says here in verse 20, “I will remove the northerner far from you.” Again, the enemy that comes from the north is this Assyrian army. And we know from the book of 2 Kings and the book of Isaiah that the Lord dramatically ended the Assyrian threat during the reign of King Hezekiah, when the Angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers who had surrounded Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36).
The Lord then calls on the land to “fear not” in verse 21, the “beasts of the field” to “fear not” in verse 22, and the “children of Zion” to “be glad” in verse 23. God promises “abundant rain” and in verse 25 says, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.”
I love that promise; yes, the locusts have ruined so many things, but God can restore many things for someone who repents and walks with Him. The point to remember is to not wait around any longer to return to walking with God.
Natural disasters, accidents, unexpected problems—they are all under the sovereign control of the Lord. Even the chaos is under His divine control. And in the meantime, God will never leave us on our own. Now that doesn’t mean God always gives us an explanation, but we can trust Him no matter what takes place.
But listen, beloved, there is one thing that every disaster, every challenge in life, every painful problem we have should drive us to do; and that is to examine our hearts, our desires, and our motivations to be sure we are walking with God. And then let’s be quick to admit when we are not right with Him and to repent—and ask the Lord to chase those locusts away once again.
And let’s never downplay the suffering people endure at times. It is real, it is painful, it is distressing, and it is the common experience for all of us in this fallen world. But even in the midst of hardship, let us be reminded of God’s grace to us now and the hope we have in Him for the future.
The grace of God is truly amazing.
 John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Baker, 1971), 120.