Even now, says Yahweh, turn to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning. And tear your hearts and not your clothes, and turn to Yahweh your God; for kind and compassionate is he, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and he will repent over this evil. Who knows whether he will turn and repent and leave behind him a blessing, offering and libation, for Yahweh your God.
How Far is “Even Now”?
“Even now” – This is saying something, because, if you think about what kinds of disasters have been described in Joel 1:1-2:11, how much worse can things get? Joel has told us about unprecedented multi-wave locust plagues, possibly an unrelated drought, possibly even military invasion (depending on how you reconcile the conflation of images in 2:1-11). In other words, Joel describes a kind of fantasia of worst case scenarios. If all of this happened, we could justifiably say that recovery would not be humanly possible. What Joel has described are the sort of conditions that bring about the end of nations.
The nation-ending “Day of the LORD”
Indeed, there have been many nations and city-states in human history that once existed but that no longer exist. They have been utterly wiped out, and there may be little or even no remaining evidence to bear witness to their existence. These include nations that were once very powerful, that may have even rivaled the greatest world powers of their time – nations such as the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni who once competed with the Assyrians for control of northern Mesopotamia and may at one point have been the most powerful nation in the ancient Near East, but whose existence was essentially forgotten until the early 20th century. Moreover, it has only been since the 1980s that we have come to gain some understanding of the language and larger history of the Hurrian people. Though they were powerful and influential for over 1000 years, going back into the mid 3rd millennium BCE, for various reasons that are not entirely understood, the Hurrians ceased to be a distinct people by the early 1st millennium BCE.
The Hyksos were a Semitic people group, or group of people groups, who governed a large portion of northern Egypt during what is known as Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period. Egypt, you have to remember, was, for most of over 2000 years, one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient Near East. For the Hyksos to have been a part of what stalled their dominance, one would think they would have left a more lasting imprint on history. And yet, as Egypt reorganized itself and launched what is now known as the New Kingdom, the Hyksos disappeared completely from history. If you examine human history, you will discover many more examples of kingdoms and nations and people groups who were suddenly and completely wiped out. And that does not even take into consideration the likely many even more numerous people groups who have disappeared from history of which we have absolutely no record.
When a nation or a people group ceases to exist, it is often because of just the kind of perfect storm of calamities that Joel describes. The Day of Yahweh is a day that brings mighty kingdoms crashing down. Drought and famine may weaken the nation such that they cannot resist an aggressive conquering nation who takes their land, deports their people, and leaves nothing to be a memorial to them. This observation, that nations who in their own time were among the most powerful in the world might be wiped out and entirely forgotten, is the insight at the heart of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—’Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The line that embodies the essential irony that makes this poem so memorable and powerful is this: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Presumably, in its original context this line would have meant, “Look at my greatness and despair of ever surpassing it,” but in the context of this statue’s imaginative discovery in a state of abandonment and decay it means something quite different – “see how my works have faded away and despair”. If even the greatness of Ozymandias could fade away and be forgotten, what hope has anyone else of gaining an immortal legacy? “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” From a biblical-prophetic perspective, the Day of Yahweh came for the kingdom of Ozymandias, king of kings, and not even its greatness could endure.
These are the kinds of thoughts we should have in mind when we read in Joel 2:11, “For the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; who can endure it?” The empire-ending perfect storm of God’s judgment has come upon Israel, and there is no escape or recovery from it. In the face of such a perfect storm, survival is just not humanly possible.
And yet, even now …
Yet, Joel 2:12 says, “Even now” there is hope. Just turn to Yahweh. I’ve argued before that Israel are not necessarily envisioned as having descended into some specific sin to bring this calamity about. Nevertheless, whether the Israelites have been sinning or not, the response to world-ending disaster is the same: turn to Yahweh with all your hearts. Turn to him with genuine devotion. Tear your hearts and not just your clothes, it says in 2:13. If you will do this, even now, no matter how dire the situation or bleak the circumstances, God can and very likely will rescue you and even restore you to your former situation.
This faith, that God is never beyond his ability to rescue us, is not something unique to Joel. It is a principle that runs throughout the Bible, and we see it in action in many different ways. It is the principle behind God’s promise of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. It is reason why God leads the Israelites to the shores of the Red Sea when they are making their escape from Egypt. It is the reason why Joshua and Caleb were right to say that the Israelites could conquer the Promised Land when the other ten spies were intimidated by the strength of the Land’s inhabitants. It is the principle behind David’s victory over Goliath. It is the principle behind the return of the Jews to the Land from Exile in Babylon. It is the principle behind the virgin birth of Jesus, behind his most spectacular miracles, and behind his resurrection from the dead. When things are humanly impossible, God is not at the end of his rope – he is just getting started. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (NKJV). There is no point beyond which God can no longer rescue you. There is no point at which God becomes irrelevant. On the contrary, God intentionally leads us into situations we cannot handle on our own just so that we will have to rely on his provision, his protection, his strength.
Yet, we humans continually think that God has either reached the end of his relevance or power or that he has no interest in our situation. Even we Christians may be tempted to think thoughts such as: “God has done his part, now it’s time for me to do mine”; “I need to clean up my act to show God that I’m serious before I can hope for help from him”; “This is my responsibility. God isn’t interested.”; or “God helps those who help themselves”. Regardless of how he has proven himself over and over in the past, we continually find ways to not trust in God, inexplicably thinking that our circumstances are somehow beyond God’s scope of ability or interest, that God cannot or will not be merciful to us “even now”. Even if we say with our lips “Jesus is Lord”, often in our hearts we don’t really believe it.
Three Ways We Fail to Trust God “Even Now”
I see three basic ways we fail or refuse to trust God to be merciful “even now”:
First, we do not trust that God will forgive us our sins until we do something to show that we are doing our best to make things right.
When we are distant from God, the enemy wants to keep us distant, and key strategy of his to accomplish this is to convince us that we need to “clean up our act” before we can join or rejoin the worship of the community of faith. In other words, we think we need to earn our entrance into the ranks of the faithful. But though this kind of thinking might be supported by certain self-righteous pseudo-saints who enjoy their “holy” status a little too keenly, this is entirely backwards, according to the Bible. We might rephrase this kind of thinking in this way: “God has done his part to make forgiveness of sins available to us through Jesus’ death on the cross. Now, it’s up to me to clean up my life so that I can be forgiven.”
If that’s the way you think, it’s 100% wrong. God doesn’t simply make forgiveness technically available for purchase in exchange for right living. In Jesus’ death, all your sins were forgiven. Reconciliation with God is now freely available. All you have to do is receive this free gift in Jesus’ name, or in Joel’s words that are thematic for the book of Acts, call upon the name of the Lord. It is true that God expects us to respond to his free offer of forgiveness, his free gift of a second chance to be free from the slavery of sin, by not re-entering that slavery, but right living is not a pre-condition for reconciliation with God and salvation.
What is such a pre-condition? One thing only: contrition. Brokenness before God. Admission of your guilt and powerlessness without him. In Joel’s words, “turn to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning.” Because God is kind, compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in mercy. Or as the Bible says in many different places and ways but especially in Psalm 34:18, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Or as Jesus says in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In Luke 23:39-43, we read of two criminals who were crucified with Jesus:
(39) Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”
(40) But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? (41) We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (42) Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”
(43) And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (HCSB)
How did the second criminal gain this promise from Jesus? Did he clean up his life? No. He didn’t have time to clean up his life. He was being crucified. He was dying. What he did was confess his sins, assert that Jesus was innocent, and declare Jesus to be Lord.
This is what Acts 2:38 is really all about. The people to whom Peter was preaching in Acts chapter 2 felt personally responsible for the death of Jesus, whom they now recognized as their God’s Messiah. Surely there was no hope for them, since they were at the very least complicit in the rejection and execution of God’s Son. But no, Peter says in continuity with the message of Joel, even now forgiveness is available to you. Just repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus (i.e., call upon the name of the Lord), and God will prove his forgiveness of your sins and his re-acceptance of you back into his covenant people by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon you, just as Joel predicted in Joel 2:28.
If even a criminal being executed justly for his crimes can be reconciled to God through Jesus in an instant of contrition, and if even those who were responsible or at least complicit in the death of the Son of God (a group that really includes every single one of us), it doesn’t matter how sin-filled your life is or how far fallen from former grace you might be, “even now” if you will call upon his name with sincere contrition and brokenness, tearing your hearts and not just your clothes, even now he is ready, he is eager to receive you into fellowship with him, to wipe away the shame of your past, and to restore to you a beautiful future in Christ.
Second, we do not trust that God is able or willing to help us out of our personal troubles.
We sometimes think that God is not interested in our personal troubles, or else we may think, “God has done what he can do. It’s my responsibility to fix my own problems.” It’s my responsibility to fix my finances, to fix my marriage, to help my kids deal with a difficult time. Young unmarried people might think, “It’s my responsibility to go out there and look for a spouse. God won’t do that for me.” These kinds of thoughts often sound like conventional wisdom – “That’s just the way the world works”; “money makes the world go ‘round”; “you just gotta do what you gotta do”; “God helps those who help themselves”; “God’s not going to just magically solve your problems”; “God has plenty to do dealing with big things to worry about me”. Essentially, whether it’s because we think God is uninterested or because we think he just doesn’t intervene in our ordinary day-to-day lives, we are continually tempted to think, “God has done whatever it is he’s going to do; now it’s up to me.”
But that is exactly the opposite of the way we ought to be thinking. Biblical thinking says, “I have done what I can do (and to be honest it really didn’t amount to a whole heck of a lot); now it’s up to God.” Faith in a God who saves “even now” is not just some luxury that only the wealthy or privileged can afford, or some childish fantasy or wishful thinking that adults really need to grow up out of. This kind of faith is not merely, as Karl Marx famously said, “the opium of the people.” Nor is it a marginal aspect of the biblical faith. A God who cares about you enough to provide for your needs, to protect you and your family, and to prosper you in whatever you do is a foundational idea in biblical theology. Without it, much of the faith falls apart.
Jesus shows us quite clearly that God cares about things that worldly thinking would say is beneath him. How else do we make sense of the story in Matthew 17:27 where Jesus provides for his and Peter’s Temple Tax by having him go catch a fish and find a four drachma coin in its mouth. And isn’t the fact that Jesus cares about things that we consider beneath the notice of important people right at the very heart of the story of Jesus’ healing of the woman who had an issue of blood? Everyone else ignored her, but Jesus stopped and made time for her, even though he was on his way to heal a little girl who was about to die. In Jesus we see the character of God with perfect clarity. God cares about your personal problems, and he wants you to entrust them to him and believe that even now God both can and will take care of you.
Now, I will say this: it may be true that God helps us with our problem by making it possible for us to do something or by giving us the courage to do something that we know we ought to do, but in such cases God is actively involved and is still the one primarily responsible for the solving of your mundane problems. But if we won’t believe that he can do that “even now”, then we will rely upon our own strength, and that, we know, will inevitably fail.
Third and finally, we do not trust that God is able or willing to solve the big problems facing us as a society.
Again … and I hear this kind of thinking from Christians all the time, but it’s wrong … we think, “God has done his part, now he expects us to the do the work of building the Kingdom and bringing it into being in the world. He expects us to do our part to build the Kingdom of God in the world or to impose the justice of the Kingdom of God on the world.” No, no, no. That is thinking that has been twisted by the lies of the enemy who wants us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to and to waste our efforts futilely trying to accomplish Kingdom ends through our own worldly means. So we try to use political means to impose righteousness on society, either not caring that the hearts of the people of that society are unchanged or thinking somehow that imposing righteousness from the outside via law will change the hearts of the people under that law. If you think law has that kind of power, I might suggest rereading Romans, which isn’t just talking about the Torah but about law and its limitations more generally, when it says in 8:3:
What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (HCSB)
Because we do not trust God to build his own kingdom, we try to use organizational models and methods from the world around us, things that we, in our finiteness and fallenness, innately understand, such as business growth plans and cutting edge marketing techniques that have nothing to do with proclaiming the gospel. In the process we neglect the methods of the Kingdom itself (methods which are really quite simple and powerful – loving our neighbor, meaning the person right in front of us, as ourselves). Because we do not really believe that the gospel has the power to change lives, we replace biblical teaching with self-help, pop psychology, and religious sentimentalism that has more in common with our popular culture than it does the historic Christian faith. And then we wonder why lives are not really being changed and why our church attendance is stagnating. Because we do not really trust that God, even now, is the sovereign ruler of our world, we try to seize control of the world through worldly means so that we can do God a favor and build his Kingdom for him, since he seems to be incapable of doing it himself. And ultimately we end up being indistinguishable from any other worldly institution that exists for its own sake, all because we do not really trust that God can, even now, even as bad as it seems to be right now, bring about true justice in the world.
It is absolutely vital that we understand that the biblical portrait of the growth of the Kingdom of God is this: we do not build it, God does. We do not bring it into being, God does. We do not grow it, God does. So what do we do? Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the increase.” In Genesis, God is the one who planted the garden, and Adam was placed in that garden to do what? To work it and to guard it. God himself is the master architect, and he is both capable of and actively involved in building his own Kingdom. We are not the master architect. We are merely workers in his Kingdom, taking our daily orders, loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing good works for them in the name of Jesus.
The German minister Christoph Blumhardt (the younger) makes this point powerfully in his book, Action in Waiting:
In the kingdom of God impatience can make people blind and lead them tragically astray. All the good things that we strive for and hope for from God can be taken away from us when we give in to this failing and are impatient.
The root of our impatience lies in our compulsion to achieve. Nothing motivates us more than being asked to do something in keeping with our strength, our ability. Just the pledge to do something, to improve a situation, can excite thousands of people. Even sensible people waver and get carried away. They think, yes, we must and we can do something! And when this human element enters many people in the Kingdom being to act on their own. God is not fast enough for them, and they rush ahead and press forward according to their own understanding. They also want leaders, if they can find such, to whom they can subordinate themselves and whom they can follow with enthusiasm. Then human strength is roused, in spite of all the misery, all the failure, all the sin that we know is there.
The kingdom of God, however, comes in an entirely different way. It makes no call upon human strength or the exertions of the flesh. The kingdom of God makes us quiet – and for us this is the hardest thing To have to see that we ourselves are powerless when it comes to the most important affairs of our lives and in attaining the highest goals, and that we must drop all our powers, good as well as bad, is the hardest thing for us to do (Jer. 9:23-24). Again and again impatience rears up in our hearts like a dragon. In fact, it is almost a rebellion against the living God because we, in comparison with him, are nothing at all. (Christoph Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 1998), pp. 179-180)
I would say that this impatience that Blumhardt is talking about isn’t just like rebellion. It comes straight out of our fundamentally rebellious and idolatrous hearts. That is the only way I can explain why it is that especially when we are convinced that the stakes are rising, that things have never been this dire, that we would rather trust anyone or anything other than the living God for whom we must wait, including a ridiculous, shoddily made golden calf. But if we truly have hearts that trust in God, let us wait on him and believe that that even now God is both willing and able to forgive us, to save us, and to save our world. If Joel could believe that Israel had hope in the face of the calamities he describes in chapters 1 and 2, then we can rest in the confidence that there never will come a point when God is not capable of turning everything around.