Where to Call When Gladness Dries Up
Topic: Prayer Passage: Joel 1:1–1:20
I’ve titled the first sermon in the Joel series, Where to Call When Gladness Dries Up. If we went around the room, I bet you could identify seasons where gladness dried up for you. In your home, in your marriage, with friends, in the face of great loss or confusion—the joy, the laughter, the celebration you wished lasted forever gets interrupted by seasons that strip you bare. Everything pleasant seems gone. And no human has the resources or the power to restore you—in any lasting way, at least.
Where do you call? That’s a question Israel faced when their gladness dried up. In Joel, we stumble upon God’s covenant people reeling from a locust plague that reduced the promised land to a wasteland. Hordes of locusts devour everything in their path. The people sink into a very desperate time.
These were God’s covenant people. He brought them into the Land. He gave them it’s bounty for years—a land flowing with milk and honey. More than that, wasn’t he the Almighty one? Couldn’t he protect it locusts? What did this mean for their relationship with the Lord? Was he still there? Had he abandoned them? In their grief, the Lord does not remain silent. He sends them a prophet. Joel comes both to sound an alarm about judgment and to summon them to prayer and repentance.
We don’t know much about Joel. His daddy’s name is Pethuel. But unlike the other prophets, Joel doesn’t tell us when his ministry occurs. He doesn’t say if his word comes “in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah” or in the days of another king. But we do know this: the word he receives is that of the Lord; and that word comes to a people with whom God made a covenant at Sinai. Within the Bible’s storyline, we’re witnessing the Lord deal with his people under the terms of that covenant. Meaning, the locust plague isn’t random, it’s relational. God has dealings with Israel; and his goal is to drive his people back into his arms.
That’s also his goal when you read Joel. You’re included in Joel’s audience. Joel tells his readers in verse 3, “Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.” You are the future generations. You need to hear of God’s dealings with Israel. For in them, God sounds the alarm about judgment; in them God summons you to call on the Lord when gladness dries up; in them, God wants you to know the restoration his powerful presence brings. Let’s read chapter 1 and then look at Joel’s message more carefully.
The word of the LORD that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: 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? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation. 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. Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it’s cut off from your mouth. For 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. It 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. Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the LORD. The priests mourn, the ministers of the LORD. 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. 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. Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up. How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there’s no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer. To you, O LORD, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.
A Great Locust Plague
Chapter 1 ends with a land famished by drought. But the drought comes on the heels of an incredible locust plague. Some of you have watched Planet Earth. One segment covers these great swarms of locusts—billions cloud the skies and devour all vegetation in their path. History also recounts multiple locust swarms sweeping across Africa and the Middle East. Even last November, The Guardian published an article on how locusts have destroyed half a million acres of farmland in Ethiopia.
In Joel’s day, Israel experienced a similar plight. Verse 4 piles up various names for these locusts as a poetic way to describe how merciless they were: “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.” Not a green plant left. They stripped everything bare—even the bark from trees (Joel 1:7, 12). They are ferocious. Verse 6 compares them to lions. Lions tear their prey to pieces. The locusts do the same with the trees. No more shade. No more fruit.
You may wonder why he calls them “a nation” in verse 6: “For a nation has come up against my land.” This has led some to suggest that the locusts in Joel are only a metaphor. That is, human armies are the actual threat, but they’re being described as locusts. There’s good precedent for that. In Judges 6:5, for example, God describes Midian’s army like this: “They would encamp against [Israel] and devour the produce of the land…For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels couldn’t be counted.”
So, I can see why some might take it that way. I can even see how a human army might splinter fig trees and cut down forests in order to make their weapons and siege works. There are Sarumons in the world who burn Fangorn Forest to win. However, when we encounter the reversal of this plague in 2:25, God clearly identifies his “army” as the locusts themselves. So, at least in chapter 1, I think Joel describes an actual locust horde using the metaphor of a human army.
At the same time, Joel’s likely saying two things at once—you can do that with poetry. They’ve seen real armies consume their surroundings like locusts. Moreover, the locust army is a precursor to a human army that God describes later in Joel 2. And the locust army and the human army in Joel are both precursors to an even worse demonic army described in Revelation 9. So real locusts are wreaking havoc, but his message signals more than that. His message applies to a number of enemy types; and they are to view them in relation to God’s dealings with them throughout history.
But here’s something else. If you were an Israelite, and you grew up cutting your teeth on the Exodus story, what would enter your mind in the face of a locust plague? “God fought against Egypt with locusts; God is now fighting against us”—and you’d be right to think that way in light of the covenant he made with them at Sinai. God told them it would be this way, if they disobeyed. Deuteronomy 28:38 includes locusts among the covenant curses. The Land would be plentiful if they obeyed. But if they strayed, God would destroy the Land—locusts, draught, armies. God is being faithful to his word of judgment. God has sent the locusts.
Verse 15 even relates the locust plague to the day of the Lord: “Alas for the day!” he says. That word “Alas” really isn’t a word so much as it’s the sound you make when somebody kicks you in the gut. It’s terror and dread for what’s coming. “The day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” This locust plague is a sign for the people. It signals that God’s final assize is just over the horizon. The plague is a foretaste of that greater Day when God exposes that all human strength is nothing, all human boasting is vain. God will raise his kingdom and all rebel kingdoms will fall. It doesn’t matter if you’re Egypt or Israel, God will do whatever he needs to bring people to the end of themselves, to prove that God alone is King.
Results of the Locust Plague
We’ll spend more time on the “day of the Lord” next week. For now, let’s move to the results of the locust plague. What did it look like when God brought them to the end of themselves? Well, let’s begin with the most obvious: life’s necessities were stripped away.[i] We read of the trees being stripped and thrown down in verse 7. Look also at verse 10, “The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.” Grain, wine, oil—you find these lumped together quite often in Scripture. They stood for basic staples in their diet. Psalm 104:15 says, “the Lord brings forth food from the earth…wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”
But now all three were missing. Even the farmers are ashamed. They till the soil, and the city waits for them to bring the harvest. But they come with nothing. The wheat, the barley, the harvest of the field has perished, verse 11 says. Verse 12, “Pomegranate, palm, apple, all the trees of the field are dried up.” In verse 17, the storehouses are desolate too. The reserves are gone. Granaries are torn down. Even the animals feel it in verse 18; the sheep have no pastures to eat. Creation itself groans.
But that’s not all. There’s more to these losses than what first meets the eye. Kingdom hopes were also shriveling up. Remember, the Promised Land represented God’s kingdom on earth. It was supposed to be the new Eden but bigger. Associated with that kingdom on earth were numerous promises given to Israel. Consider the promise that God would make Abraham into a great nation; his descendants would multiply such that you couldn’t count them. But here in verse 6, it’s not Abraham’s nation that is great and beyond number. The locusts are great/powerful and beyond number.
Or, take the vine and the fig tree in verses 7 and 12. Yes, we have some dead plants; but it’s more than that. Back in Genesis 49:10, God promised a lion-like son from the tribe of Judah. He would establish his reign; and during that reign, the earth would be so prosperous that you can let the donkey graze freely on the vineyards. Then you move forward a bit further to the kingdom of Solomon, who is a son from Judah. First Kings 4:25 says that “Judah and Israel lived in safety…every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.” When the vine and fig tree prospered, it pointed to God’s abundant kingdom on earth; his rule through a son in Judah’s line. Later prophets like Zechariah 3:10 even use this imagery of vine and fig tree to hold out hope for a future abundant kingdom.[ii] But for now the vines are stripped; the fig tree is dead.
Temple offerings also get cut off. If you know anything about Israel’s history, the temple represented God’s presence among his people. It replaced the tabernacle once they settled in Jerusalem. God wasn’t limited to that temple, but he chose to manifest his glory there. Under the Law, the priests who served in the temple brought regular grain offerings and drink offerings. Some of those offerings accompanied the daily sacrifices for sin. Others came at appointed feasts throughout the year as a way to celebrate God’s abundant provision. In other words, these were happy signs of their relationship with God. These were moments to give thanks and rejoice in his merciful presence.
But without wine, grain, or oil, there were no offerings left to bring. “The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord,” verse 9 says. The Hebrew implies that God himself cut them off: “[the offerings] were made to be cut off.” Then again in verse 13, “Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God.” It’s as if you’re standing next to Joel and his eyes pan back and forth from the agricultural disaster to the relational disaster with their Lord. It’s more than a random natural disaster. The signs of joy and gladness in God’s presence are cut off. God doesn’t tolerate people going through the motions of the covenant without knowing the God of the covenant.
It’s no surprise, then, that twice he alludes to the people’s gladness drying up. Verse 12, “…and gladness dries up from the children of man.” Verse 16, “Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?” God made us to find our joy serving in his presence. “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” “In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” So, yes, the lack of basic necessities leads to sorrow. But more central to the loss of joy is losing the signs of God’s covenant presence. That’s the ultimate tragedy here; and Joel is trying to help them see that. The greatest tragedy of sin is that it separates us from joy in God’s presence.
Responding to the Locust Plague
How does Joel (or better, God) teach them to respond? What are they supposed to do when gladness dries up? Remember, the locust plague isn’t random; it’s relational. God means for the plague to drive them back to himself, to longing for his presence.
So, he tells them first, Wake up. Verse 5, “Awake you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, for it’s cut off from your mouth.” Drunkards are those enslaved to drink. They don’t look to the Lord in sorrow but pretend to make it disappear with another drink. Then there’s simply the drinkers of wine. They’re not enslaved to wine but simply enjoy it and go about the days without a care. Yet both groups find themselves on equal footing before the Lord. Both must be careful not to hope in the wrong things. Both, if not careful, will miss the meaning of the locust plague. Both must wake up. The day of the Lord is coming, and the plague is but a foretaste of his all-consuming might in judgment. God will not tolerate covenant-breakers of any sort. Whether lazy drunks or well-to-do wine connoisseurs, both—and indeed everyone in between—must give their lives to the Lord! They must wake up and make the Lord their trust and joy and life! They must wake up before it’s too late!
They’re also called to lament. Verse 8, “Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.” The image is that of a young woman. She’s engaged to be married, only to have her fiancé die before they can enjoy marriage. Again, in verse 13 he tells them to “put on sackcloth and lament…wail, O ministers of the altar.” Without the offerings, the only thing the priests could bring were sackcloth and tears. I once heard someone describe a lament as a “prayer in pain that leads to trust.”[iii] The people must mourn over their sin and its horrific consequences. The Lord has lifted his blessings and stripped from them joy in his presence. The only proper response is godly sorrow that leads to repentance, that returns them to the Lord.
He also tells them, to cry out to the Lord. Verse 14, “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.” Joel then gives the people an example to follow. Joel himself makes his cry in verses 15-20, “Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near…” Then, after reflecting further on their plight, he comes again in verse 19, “To you, O Lord, I call…” Where do you call when gladness dries up?” You call upon the Lord. The Lord is Joel’s only hope. The Lord controls the locust plague. 2:25 says the Lord sent the locust army among them. If he controls it, if he rules over it, then he alone can do something about it. There’s no other helper besides the Lord.
So, Joel calls to him, while inviting the rest of Israel to follow in his steps. But keep this in mind, it’s not merely Joel inviting the people to cry out. It’s God himself. Meaning, the relationship still has hope. Even in the face of judgment, God extends mercy. He doesn’t remain silent but speaks. In mercy, God reaches down. In mercy, God waits for their cry. His response doesn’t come until 2:18. But when it comes, it’s an outpouring of mercy. Restoration, removal of shame, renewed hope, the gift of his presence, protection from enemies—all in response to their cry. He hears them!
A Few Takeaways for Us
We’ll have to wait a few more weeks to cover that outpouring of mercy. For now, I want to stop and reflect on what we should take away from chapter 1. Application isn’t as simple as making one-to-one correlations, such that every natural disaster turns into a time for us to say God is punishing people for their sins. We must be careful not to read ourselves or just any modern nation into the text too quickly.
Joel also says to gather everyone to the house of the Lord. But what does that mean if, according to John 2, Jesus Christ replaced the temple when he raised his own body from the grave? Don’t get me wrong. God’s word through Joel certainly addresses us—we are that later generation. But it’s a matter of how. In Christ, we now belong to God’s covenant people; but as we saw in Hebrews, a new and better covenant has come in Christ. In that light, here are a few things we can take away from chapter 1.
First, recognize the horrific effects of sin. By sin, I mean lawlessness, defying God, reordering existence around yourself, “so that you become your own creator, sustainer, and healer,” to use the words of David Wells. Sin has horrific effects. It lulls people to sleep, such that they’re not alert to the things of God—that’s why he has to tell them to wake up in verse 5. Notice how sin also robs the community of joy and gladness. Sin doesn’t affect just you. It invites consequences on the entire community. Everyone in Israel is hurting, even the faithful like Joel. Sin robs us of joy in God’s presence.
Sin even brings brokenness upon the Land itself—it upends the way the created order ought to be. See in verse 10 how the ground itself mourns; how the beasts groan in verse 18. That’s a far cry from the Garden in Genesis 1, isn’t it? Israel’s history is but a small picture of the world’s history. Romans 8 teaches us that God broke the world in response to Adam’s sin. And since then, it says, “the whole creation has been groaning together in pains of childbirth until now.” Sin causes the world to groan.
Recognize it. See it clearly. Look at the consequences, and let the horrors be all the more reason to put it to death. Don’t toy with the joy-robbing, creation-breaking, false promises of sin. It destroys everything and invites God’s judgment.
Second, we must wake up to God’s coming judgment. The book of Joel teaches us that God judges covenant breakers. Whether Egypt or Israel, whether drunkard or priest, whether old or young—God’s judgment is no respecter of persons. He sees us all completely. He knows our sins; and he will not tolerate us treating his word lightly. Even when his own people took his word lightly, he acted in judgment. This smaller, localized judgment is but a shadow of the greater judgment to come. The day of the Lord draws nearer; and these smaller judgments in history are meant to call our attention to it.
Even the cross of Christ testifies that God doesn’t tolerate covenant breakers. He must punish sin. Judgment day is coming, and unless you hide yourself in Jesus, all the curses will come on you. Any Gentile reading this prophet should recognize that. They should see that in God’s dealings with Israel. Then they should realize that, in Adam, I too am a covenant breaker. I too must repent and cry to the Lord for mercy.
Third, when you cry for mercy, come to the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s true sacrifice and temple. The people are desperate in chapter 1—the signs of God’s presence have been cut off. Joy and gladness are cut off from the house of the Lord. The people have nothing to bring. If there’s no sacrifice to bring—if we can’t do what the law requires because sin has so jacked things up—how else can we come before the Lord? How’s he going to atone for our sins? How’s he going to meet with us?
He atones for our sins through the blood of Jesus. Here the people experience the curse of the Law—Deuteronomy 28 is all over this chapter. “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, and do them.” But in Jesus God removes the curse of the Law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” That’s how he atones for our sins. When we have nothing to bring, God provides the offering.
How will God meet with us? The answer is the same, in Jesus Christ. In John 2, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John then goes on to say, “…he was speaking about the temple of his body.” Jesus is the new meeting place. We don’t gather to a place in Jerusalem called the house of the Lord. We don’t go to a temple to enjoy God’s presence. We gather to Jesus! That’s where we meet with God. That’s where we enjoy God’s presence—in union with Christ. The church—meaning, you people the church—is God’s solemn assembly who’ve gathered to the true meeting place in Jesus to find mercy and grace in our desperate need. With the curses removed in Jesus, you are where God now chooses to dwell! Gather to Jesus to have your joy restored; and gladness secured in all the promises that are Yes and Amen in him.
Fourth, when it’s all you have, bring your sackcloth and tears. The pattern is consistent throughout Scripture: God sometimes strip us bare to bring us to the end of ourselves. Sometimes he will cause events that jerk the rug from under us. Sometimes he makes us feel the consequences of sin very pointedly and maybe even for a long time. We’re talking years’ worth of recovery in Joel 1. It’s not like the locusts ate the crop, so we’ll go grab HEB instead. The HEB is in shambles, too; and there’s no trucks coming to replenish anything. You’ve got to wait for next year’s harvest and the one after that.
Maybe, like the wine drinkers, you experience regret for not giving the Lord more attention. Maybe, like the priests, you mourn over how distant the Lord’s presence feels. Maybe, like the farmers, you experience great shame. Maybe, like the children of man, gladness feels like a distant memory. You have nothing but sackcloth and tears. God wants them. Put them on and lament. “Cry out to me!” he says. He wants you, is the point. So, come to him when that’s all you have left. Come to the Lord and find rest for your weary soul. Imitate Joel: “To you, O Lord, I call.” God welcomes you. God sees you. Even when it’s all gone, he’s driving you back into his arms. There you will find restoration, joy, comfort. Also, no shame—in Christ he covers your shame with glory.
Lastly, devote yourself to prayer. Think of how awful things are for Israel in the face of the locust plague—devastation all around. Land destroyed. Years’ worth of restoration needed, changing the course of a nation, moving folks to respond to the Lord’s word, impossible odds—and God tells them to pray. Prayer is God’s chosen means to accomplish his purposes, to bring about change. Restoration will not come to a people apart from prayer. Joy in God’s presence will not come apart from the cries like we find here. Many of us want to see God move in powerful ways in the church—our own church and the larger, worldwide church. But have we forgotten to devote ourselves to prayer? What will it take for God to wake up the church to our dire need to pray? Will it have to be total devastation before people get off social media and get on their knees together? In Christ, we have the greatest privilege in the world, access to the greatest Treasure in the world—the most powerful, wise, rich, sovereign Ruler of the world bends his ear and asks us to cry to him. How insane to refuse him. Let our study in Joel renew your passion to pray, to call out to the Lord for help, for strength, for salvation. And may the Lord be pleased to renew our gladness in his presence.
[i] David Prior, Joel, Micah, Habakkuk, BST (Downers Grove, IVP), 23.
[ii] Cf. Isa 25:6-8; Jer 31:10-12; Amos 9:11-14; Mic 4:1-4; Zech 3:10.
[iii] Vroegop, Dark Clouds—Deep Mercy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 28.