Joel 2:18 ESV
Then the Lord became jealous for his land
and had pity on his people.
Occasionally I find myself fielding questions from people who don’t know the Scriptures except from a cultural standpoint regarding the difference between the Old Testament God, who seemed to be very concerned with turning the earth into kindling, and the New Testament God, who seemed to overlook sin and wrong and injustice in favor of a John Lennon-esq world of no fault sins and costless forgiveness. I understand these questions, they make sense to me. I can even see where the conclusions come from; a cursory understanding of the Bible would likely yield these views with great regularity. I am far more disturbed, however, when I hear these questions, and others like them, from seasoned Christians and so-called “Bible believing church-folk”. Because while many of the passages in the Old Testament that stick out in the memory do involve God-ordained destruction, there are far too many passages like this turn around in Joel that offer us a far more complex picture of God than the popular “cosmic arsonist” that opponents try to portray.
The reality of God’s anger and wrath come from at least two places. First, without some sort of judgment there would be no way we could call God a “just God”. If He was toothless in His dealings injustice He would become something less than what He has proclaimed Himself to be. And truly this is not that difficult to understand when we step back and look with some perspective. Justice and punishment are not unique to God, they are built into the created order. We all, as lenient and patient and compassionate as anyone could be, would cry out for the punishment of child molesters, serial killers, and genocidal bully organizations. The sweeping current of the “Kony 2012” movement is evidence that we don’t live in a culture that is devoid of morality or a sense of justice. The issue probably lies in our inability to give God our full trust in His dealings with injustice. We see the annihilation of a city or military stronghold as capricious, which is to assume that God has no more knowledge of men’s individual hearts than we do as finite creatures. If there is anyone in the universe qualified to take life it is the One that is able to restore that same life. We support a cultural ethic that deems the death of babies for the sake of convenience. It seems obvious that we are hypocritically taking a moral high ground. And this issue could go on and on, but it is not my focus.
The powerful truth seen in this text in Joel’s writing is not how fair God’s judgement is, though the preceding verse and all of chapter 1 is about the wrath of God being poured out on His own people because of their wayward focus. This verse is a part of the wild shift that we see in much of the Old Testament prophetic writings. It does not paint a picture of a tyrant with his finger on the destruction button, just itching to use it on anyone who would step out of line. The Old Testament prophets open a window and show us a God whose affections are driving His anger, His passionate love for His people is the root of His fury. He is a lover that has been scorned by the object of his romance.
For clarification, we see Jesus describe God this way in Luke 15. Philip Yancey, in an interview, said this about the issue of God’s balance between mercy and wrath:
The story of the Prodigal Son appears in a string of three stories by Jesus – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son – all of which underscore the loser’s sense of loss, tell of the thrill of rediscovery, and end with a scene of jubilation. Jesus says in effect, “do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost.” To God, it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.
After the destruction of Joel 1, all the famine, drought, and plague, we find in Joel 2 that our Father is pained to see His kids in pain, He longs for them as they long for the grain and wine and peace that He has temporarily taken from them. We do not see a madman pulling the strings of nature to exert His maniacal authority, we see a Dad ferociously striving to restore a relationship and weeping through the process. Maybe you aren’t comfortable with that kind of imagery being projected onto the Creator of the world, the all Holy God, the consuming fire…but even if you aren’t, He was. In Jesus we are told that “all the fullness of God dwelled within Him”. He is the “image of the invisible God”, and as such He is our clearest picture of what the Old Testament God is like. And we see Him weeping over a lost people as He gazes across the Jerusalem landscape, and mourning with tears over his friend who was rotting in a tomb, and He is moved with compassion for the people who are hungry and thirsty, and the examples continue on and on. Jesus teaches us what God is like, both through His stories and through His story.
May we fully believe in the justice of God, that He will not allow unchecked injustice to create an uninhabitable world. But as we approach the reality of God’s justice and wrath and hand of discipline may we never look at that hand without also seeing the tear-filled eyes of the prodigal’s father as he catches a distant, blurry glimpse of a boy that just might be his son coming around the bend . He does discipline, but let us never forget that He also runs to us.
No matter what this day holds, the situations and circumstances that may attempt to undercut the moorings of our faith in the goodness of God, may we always take comfort that our Father runs to rebels and failures and dirty, pig-smelling ingrates. He loves us.