Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
It’s hard to keep our minds in the right place. Our lives seem so much about doing things. You know what I’m talking about: “I have to work,” “I have to go to the store,” “I have to do the laundry,” and so on. Unfortunately, we often get the idea that it’s the same with God; be it trying to follow God’s Law for our righteousness (which is impossible) or trying to please God to gain favor with him (which is erroneous). But the Holy Spirit showed me through Joel (and a pastor who re-aligned my thinking after reading the passage) that often the best thing to do is to let God take care of it.
Let’s turn the clock back to Joel’s time. Israel was in a bad way back then. He explains,
A nation has invaded my land,
Powerful and without number;
It has the teeth of a lion,
The fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vines
And ruined my fig trees.
It has stripped off their bark
And thrown it away,
Leaving their branches white (Joel 1:6-7).
What sort of army invades and destroys crops and even attacks trees? Locusts. Israel was in the midst of a plague-sized locust infestation. Joel describes it like this:
What the locust swarm has left
The great locusts have eaten;
What the great locusts have left
The young locusts have eaten;
What the young locusts have left
Other locusts have eaten (Joel 1:4).
But their problems didn’t end with big hungry grasshoppers. The locusts weren’t just eating away crops, they were eating what little bit of food was growing during a nation-wide famine. We learn from Joel 1:10,
The fields are ruined,
The ground is dried up;
The grain is destroyed,
The new wine is dried up,
The oil fails.
We’re talking a hard-core famine in the land. The ground wasn’t producing food and the little bit of green that was coming up was being devoured by locusts. This is probably one of the most awful and hopeless ways to die. Jeremiah acknowledged this when he wrote,
Those killed by the sword are better off
Than those who die of famine;
Racked with hunger, they waste away
For lack of food from the field (Lamentations 4:9).
So to be clear, it was a pretty terrible time to be living in Israel. Therefore, Joel called everyone to repent. He writes,
Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn;
Wail, you who minister before the altar.
Come, spend the night in sackcloth,
You who minister before my God;
For the grain offerings and the drink offerings
Are withheld from the house of your God.
Declare a holy fast;
Call a sacred assembly.
Summon the elders
And all who live in the land
To the house of the Lord your God,
And cry out to the Lord (Joel 1:13-14).
However, there was a problem with this plan. You see, the Israelites couldn’t get back into the groove of following God’s Law because…well…it was impossible to do so. Due to the famine, there were no supplies with which to actually give the Lord the sacrifices he commanded:
Grain offerings and drink offerings
Are cut off from the house of the Lord.
The priests are in mourning,
Those who minister before the Lord (Joel 1:9).
So Joel did what we all eventually do when pressed to the limits, he reached out to God for mercy,
To you, O Lord, I call,
For fire has devoured the open pastures
And flames have burned up all the trees of the field (Joel 1:19).
Israel was totally screwed, God was probably punishing them and they couldn’t even dig themselves out of their problems because they didn’t have the resources to carry on the work of the Temple. All they could do was ask the Lord for help.
…And so the Lord answered their prayers. We read his response,
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“Return to me with all your heart,
With fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
And not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
For he is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in love,
And he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and have pity
And leave behind a blessing-
Grain offerings and drink offerings
For the Lord your God (Joel 2:12-14).
One of the first things that God tells his people is not to rend their garments- that is to say, he tells them not to tear their clothes. In Israel, people would tear their clothes when they were in despair. Like when David’s son Absalom killed his other children:
While they were on their way, the report came to David: “Absalom has struck down all the king’s sons; not one of them is left.” The king stood up, tore his clothes and lay down on the ground; and all his servants stood by with their clothes torn (2 Samuel 13:30-31).
Or when the people of Lystra totally didn’t get what Paul was trying to teach them about Jesus:
Barnabas the called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them (Acts 14:12-15).
The rending of one’s clothes is also usually a precursor to wearing sackcloth (which Joel had recommended). Sackcloth is exactly what it sounds like; it’s cloth that sacks are made of- so imagine wearing clothes made entirely of potato-sack burlap. It’s itchy and scratches your skin even to the point of bleeding so people would use it as a form a self-punishment for remorse. We can see this in action in Genesis 37:33-34 as Jacob finds out his son is probably dead:
He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”
Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days.
Or when Ahab was condemned Elijah the prophet:
When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son” (1 Kings 21:27-29).
As you can see, sometimes this sort of thing works when it’s done with a repentant heart. But God told Israel in Joel’s time to stop doing it. Rather, he told them, “Just lean on me with everything and I’ll fix it and give you even more.” This is the same thing that the Lord says to us; for Jesus taught us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). When we try to curry favor with the Lord through empty actions he is not pleased. God knew that the Israelites had forgotten how to worship him and would only be going through the motions by ripping up their clothes and half-heartedly pretending to mourn while instead they wallowed in self-pity. This isn’t what God wants from us; for we read,
The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
And honor me with their lips,
But their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
Is made up only of rules taught by men (Isaiah 29:13).
This is why a lot of pastors are leery of teaching from the Law, because people quickly assume that we can follow the prescribe acts and get what we want from God- after all, we’re used to doing things. However, that’s now how we’re supposed to worship the Lord. The right way is much simpler (though at times, more difficult):
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge him,
And he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Now, does that mean we should totally give up or even avoid good works? Absolutely not, works are an extension of our faith and the fruit of the Spirit. However, there is one work that God recommended to Israel (and to us) that we keep up at all times:
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Declare a holy fast,
Call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).
What’s a sacred assembly? Church! You should always keep going to church because at church you learn about God through his Word, and you can be motivated and strengthened and have your faith grow through the preaching and worshiping there. The New Testament agrees with this sentiment:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:19-25).
The writer of Hebrews carries the same message as we found in Joel: “Lean into God, trust him and when you need help ask him, because he cares and will take care of you- oh, and keep going to church.”
Even when things are at their worst and all hope seems to be gone, we have a good God in heaven that is willing to jump in and help- and we don’t need to cajole him or do anything to impress him to receive the things we need. Rather, God is just waiting for us to come to him, because he’s waiting for us. But keep going to church, even if everything else falls away, find a way to worship God and listen to his Word being taught; because that will help you to keep going and give your faith a probably much-needed boost. I have more to write on this but let’s keep it until next week since the focus shifts a bit. So stay tuned for part two!