Return to the Lord with All Your Heart
In September 1939, Britain entered World War II. That same month London sounded its first air-raid siren. Loud, harrowing alarms warned the people when danger was upon them. One year later, at the height of Germany’s Blitz Krieg, the sirens became part of daily life. Night after night the alarms sounded. Everything in London screeched to a halt, while men, women, and children made for the shelters. To ignore the sirens was to your own peril as bombs began to drop.
In chapter 2 of Joel, we read of another alarm sounded. The city of Zion faces imminent danger. An army rises on the horizon. Its numbers are great, its power overwhelming. More than that, the Warrior-King leading it is undefeatable. To their surprise, the Lord has turned his forces against Israel. The day of the Lord approaches. So, Joel sounds an alarm. That will get us through verse 11.
Yet even in the face of that danger, Joel also summons the people to repent—that’s verses 12-17. Based on past mercy, Joel holds out hope that this sovereign Warrior will again extend mercy. Chapter 2 is like chapter 1 in repeating this pattern: Joel sounds the alarm, Joel summons to repent. But in chapter 2, he expands on both. He expands on “the day of the Lord” and what that Day is like. Then he expands on repentance, where it’s grounded, and what that looks like for the people. Let’s read it together…
Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another; each marches in his path; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. 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? “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, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
The Alarm Joel Sounds and Why
Let’s first look at the alarm Joel sounds and why. Verse 1, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain. Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble…” Historically, Zion hosted the temple, where God revealed his presence. Also, God’s anointed king ruled from Zion. So, Mount Zion became known as God’s mountain. The place where God dwelled and ruled his people in holiness. Stated differently, Zion portrayed God’s kingdom on earth. “God is in the midst of [Zion],” Psalm 46:5 says, “she shall not be moved.” But here we find a different picture.
Those dwelling in Zion shouldn’t be so confident anymore. Some trumpet blasts called the people to worship. Others call the people to war. But this trumpet calls them to wail. An overwhelming danger approaches. The day of the Lord is why they should tremble. The day of the Lord is near, he says. It’s a day of “darkness and gloom.” Any Jew would immediately recall the darkness that fell on Egypt. It was a darkness “to be felt.” It’s also comparable to what we find in Amos 5:18-20, a darkness that isn’t safe—one flees from a lion only to meet a bear.
On top of that, he mounts another description: “a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Here they’d recall God’s awful presence at Sinai. The mountain “wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (Deut 4:11). Places like 2 Samuel 22:10 even suggest we’re seeing God as the divine Warrior-King. Other kings rode their chariots into battle as clouds of dust billowed beneath and behind. But with God, all the clouds under heaven gather beneath him. They mount up like a dark, raging storm.
Other prophets like Isaiah spoke of this same day. In fact, there’s strong indication that Joel quoted from Isaiah 13:6 already in 1:15. Isaiah 13 also describes the day of the Lord—“all hands will be feeble…every human heart will melt…the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land desolate…” And why is he coming this way? To judge sinners.
But here’s the difference—Isaiah 13 is against Babylon. If you’re an Israelite, those prophecies gave you hope—“God will judge our enemies!” What, then, does it mean for Joel to announce the same words against Zion? It means that they’ve become no different than the pagan nations. Instead of consecrating themselves to God, instead of being his holy people—a light among the nations—they’ve become just like them. So, God must respond in judgment. The day of the Lord now threatens Israel for their sins.
The Day of the Lord and What It’s Like
But what is this day like? Can we get more specific? We can. But here’s where we encounter an interesting question: what is this army in verses 2-11? Some would say he’s re-telling the locust plague of chapter 1. After all, a locust swarm can cloud the skies like darkness—verse 2. They can strip the countryside like a fire—verse 3. Locusts are known to look like horses—verse 4. Also, notice the use of simile: “like a powerful army…like warriors.” Meaning, not human but like human armies.
But wait a minute, others have said. Sometimes we use “like” to point to an ideal. “Dress for action like a man”—we don’t mean he isn’t a man. It could be that a human army is in view, even if they march like locusts. Still another group says, You’re both wrong; it can only point to the demon army of Revelation 9.
Here’s my answer—a short one and a longer one. At the end of the day, does it really matter if it’s locusts, humans, or demons? The point is repent; God’s judgment is awful. Here’s my longer answer. A real locust plague has occurred. He related it to “the day of the Lord” in 1:15. In chapter 2, he takes that locust plague and develops a poetic, theological commentary on what the day of the Lord is like. His focus isn’t so much what the army is, but how the army anticipates what the day of the Lord is like.
Here’s how I think Joel functions in Scripture (show screen). The smaller locust judgment foreshadows the Lord’s future judgment—both near and far. The locust army becomes a type that points to the way human armies will have their way with Israel. Like Babylon—it’s no accident that they’re called “the northerner” in verse 20. But even further, they point to the demon army described in Revelation 9. So, regardless of locusts, humans, or demons, what do we learn about the day of the Lord? That’s the focus.
First thing we learn is that it’s a day like no other. In verse 2, the ESV has “Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people.” But the NASB has the better translation: “As the dawn is spread over the mountains, so there’s a great and mighty people.” In the same way the sunlight breaks in the morning, all you can see is this vast army rising over the horizon. It says, “there like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.” About that locust plague—1:2 posed the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?” It showed the unique character of that event. So also with the day of the Lord. The vast might with which it comes—we just have nothing else to compare it to.
That day is also a day of great ruin. Verse 3, “Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” The Promised Land was like a new Eden but bigger. In the same way God made a Garden for Adam, God made a Land for Israel. But here we see that Land destroyed. In the same way Adam’s sin brought death to creation, so here we find that the consequences of Israel’s sin are the same—a paradise becomes a desert before this great host.
The day of the Lord is also one of foreboding terror. In verse 4, he compares the locusts to war horses as they run. Verse 5, “As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of mountains…” Normally, we don’t think of chariots leaping. Nor do they ride very well on mountains. Either he’s illustrating the superhuman nature of this army—that not even mountains can deter them. Or maybe we’re getting an image of a surprise attack—they can hear the rumble, but they can’t see the chariots coming until, Boom, they crest the mountain ridge and swoop down.
They’re swift too. They spread like wildfire. Think of the Rohirrim charge at the battle of Pelennor Fields—the cavalry charging down the hillside. It approaches like a brushfire spreading across the land. “Before them,” verse 6 says, “peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale.” They turned white as a ghost, in other words. Consistent throughout Scripture, the day of the Lord will strike absolute terror in God’s enemies.
That day also comes with inescapable force. Note the progression in Joel’s poetry. He started on the horizon in verse 2. With verses 3-5, the army leaps over the mountains, devour the fields, and now they’re at the city walls in verse 7. “Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall.” Verse 8, “…they burst through the weapons and are not halted.” Verse 9, “They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.”
In other words, no human strength can do anything to stop the judgment from coming or escape the judgment when it arrives. Their walls don’t make them safer. Their weapons don’t make them safer. Their homes don’t make them safer. They’re all vulnerable and exposed when the day of the Lord arrives.
It comes as no surprise, then, that no one can endure that day. That’s the last thing he develops in verses 10-11. “The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.” When kings led their thousands of chariots into battle, you could feel the vibration in the land as that king approached. But if the entire cosmos shakes, if the vast greatness of his approaching presence darkens sun, moon, and stars, we must be dealing with a far greater Warrior.
Sure enough, he names this army’s Commander in verse 11: “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?”
Notice, God is no longer in the city of Zion. His presence is no longer with the people to protect them. The Lord is outside the city charging against it. Seeing the vast and powerful army is one thing. But then to realize that the only Warrior capable of saving you is now against you brings despair to a whole new level.
“Who can endure it?” Joel asks. They know this God. They know his might. They know his holiness. Who can endure his Day? It’s a question we all need to consider. God brought judgment on Israel because of their sin. They didn’t remain faithful to the covenant at Sinai. The locust judgment is but a taste of the much greater judgment to come. In their sins, their no better off than the rest of the world. Before the day of the Lord, none of them could stand. Before the day of the Lord, none of us could stand either. Like Israel, we too have broken God’s covenant. We too deserve for that Day to overwhelm us, to ruin us. We may want a paradise, but our sin has only earned us a barren wasteland and judgment before the holy God.
The Call to Return and How
Which is why verse 12 ought to amaze you! Hear the words of this same Warrior-King: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God…” Not just Joel, but the Lord himself summons his people to repentance. “Return to me,” he says. Returning to the Lord is the most common way to talk about repentance in the Old Testament.[i] At the core is the idea of an internal “180” toward God and away from those things causing estrangement from God.
Yes, fast, weep, mourn, he says. But more than just the outward expressions, God wants the totality of our hearts. “Rend your hearts,” he says. This is the opposite of what Pharaoh did in the face of the locust plague. Pharaoh hardened his heart. God is calling his people not to follow in his steps. Rend your hearts. Down to the very core of your being, cry to the Lord. Seek his face. No half-hearted repentance here. No room for just wanting circumstances to change. You must come to the Lord with your whole being—it must be him you want. Return to the Lord your God.
But how can we be so sure? Isn’t this the Warrior we just read about? Won’t he strike us down in wrath? How’s it even possible to return to him? “Because,” Joel adds in verse 13, “[the Lord] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” He must punish the guilty. But he has a track record of choosing to show mercy. Do these words sound familiar? They come from Exodus 34, just following the golden calf incident. The people break the covenant, and God intends to wipe them out. He will not tolerate covenant breakers. But Moses intercedes for them. He cries for the Lord to show mercy; and God does. They didn’t deserve it, but he renews the covenant with the people.
It’s at that point, God reveals his character to Moses: “the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” The hope for a renewed relationship with the Lord is based on his merciful character. It’s based on his steadfast love.[ii] God’s steadfast love is his unwavering commitment to save a people for himself, even when those people could offer nothing in return. When you see the faithful—like Joel—leaning on God’s steadfast love as their only hope, they know they’ve got nothing to offer God in return. Their only hope is his steadfast love to provide what they cannot, to avert the judgment that they cannot escape.
He asks in verse 14, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?” It’s his way of saying, God isn’t bound to show mercy by your prayer. He is free not to show mercy and would be just and righteous still. But based on his history, based on his commitment to show mercy to a people, perhaps he will act again in your favor. Perhaps your prayers will become the occasion for God to display his gracious character once again. Joel’s hope is that the signs of God’s presence would be restored—the grain offering, the drink offering. It’s not just the offerings he wants but what those offerings pointed to—the presence of God with them once again.
How do they walk out this repentance? In verses 15-16, he calls an assembly. Another trumpet sounds, but this time it’s a call to worship. From elderly to nursing infants—everyone must gather to fast and pray. Notice too the urgency: “the bridegroom must leave his room and the bride her chamber.” Joel doesn’t care if they just said, “I do.” The honeymoon must wait—there are more pressing matters. They need God more than anything else—more than each other, more than sex, more than happy times away. The day of the Lord approaches, and all must be certain that their hearts wholly belong to the Lord. There’s not a more important relationship to tend to, he’s saying.
Finally, he calls the priests to act. In the same way Moses interceded for Israel in the Exodus, the priests were to intercede for the people here. Their chief concerns were God’s mercy for the people and God’s fame among the nations. “Spare your people, O Lord”—that’s God’s mercy. And then “Why should they say among the nations, ‘Where is their God?’”—that’s God’s fame. In other words, the desire for mercy shouldn’t be limited to escaping judgment. It should also include a longing for God’s faithful character and saving power to be known among the nations.
How should we respond?
In summary, then, the day of the Lord approaches. Joel sounds the alarm and he summons to prayer and repentance. God’s answer will come with verse 18; and it’s an outpouring of mercy beyond what they can imagine. A land restored, the removal of shame, the outpouring of God’s presence in the Spirit. But we’ll have to wait to enjoy that answer more fully. For now, let’s draw out a few ways to respond.
The first seems obvious: return to the Lord and do not delay. The great day of the Lord still hasn’t come. 2 Thessalonians 2:2 even warns not to let others deceive us as if that Day has already come. But come it will; and it will be a day like no other; there will be no mistaking it. God will shake the heavens and come down.
Joel’s message actually serves us much like it served his own generation. When it comes to the Lord’s final day, you won’t be able to escape. You won’t be able to stop it. Your only hope is to bow your knee to the true Warrior-King and ask him to show you mercy. Please don’t hear me saying that just for those who aren’t yet Christians. Repentance is just as necessary for Christians. Again and again the New Testament writers call the church to repentance.
James includes one of the strongest appeals: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (Jas 5:1-4). Likewise, Jesus tells the church in Pergamum to repent. But “If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
Repentance is for the church, too. Don’t sit back as if Joel’s appeal doesn’t apply to you, as if it’s only for those other types of sinners that you’re not like. No, my friends. As in Jesus’ parable of the publican and the pharisee, the proper response to a message like Joel’s is always, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Also, don’t let despair lead to inaction. Perhaps you see the day of the Lord approaching, you know you’ve blown it, you know you deserve wrath and ruin—and in the middle of it all, you’re tempted to throw up your hands and say, “Screw it. It’s too late. Why bother now?” Hear these words more carefully: “Yet even now return to me with all your heart.” That’s God talking. That’s God pleading with you. No matter what you’ve done, there’s still hope for you. Return now and do not delay. If you need someone to talk to about that, pray with you through that, we’re not in a hurry to go home. Stick around and let’s talk about it more together.
Next, let Joel help you with genuine repentance. Notice how he centers repentance on a relationship with the Lord—“Return to me,” says the Lord. Repentance isn’t just feeling guilty. It’s not just saying “Sorry.” It’s not even just saying No to evil things. Repentance is incomplete if there’s no turning to the Lord. Behavioral change that’s divorced from a relationship with the Lord is mere moralism and it’s just as damning. Repentance is relational. Having God’s presence is the goal. Repentance isn’t concerned with a mere change in circumstances, but knowing and enjoying God.
Repentance is also necessary to experience God’s presence. Scripture also tells us that repentance comes as an act of divine grace.[iii] At the same time, the Scriptures summon us to act. We are responsible to repent. Our relationship with God works itself out in turning away from the things God hates and giving him our hearts.
True repentance is also not half-hearted. “Return to me with all your heart.” Sometimes we only pretend to repent—we tell the Lord how much we want some evil thing gone, but deep within we don’t really want to let it go. Perhaps we even find ourselves making excuses for it—“Oh, it’s not that bad,” we say. “God will still forgive, won’t he?” “Don’t other Christians have the same struggle?” “I’d change, if they would just…” and so go the excuses. But, as Calvin once wrote about this passage, “moderate repentance will not do.” Joel teaches us to rend our hearts. Tear them open before the Lord so that all is laid bare, and all is ready to give him your total allegiance.
Repentance is also not just for the few folks caught in some major sins. It’s for the whole community. Older, younger, men, women, especially the leaders—all must join one another in returning to the Lord and seeking his mercy together. Perhaps, like Joel, the Lord has given you eyes to see real evil in the church. Perhaps the evil grieves you very deeply; it also causes you great concern for future days. You may even fear that God’s judgment is shaking the church now. Brother or sister, if that’s you, be the first to humble yourself in prayer. Be the first to fast and weep and mourn. Don’t reduce your response to pointing out sin. Lament. Cry to the Lord. I fear that in a desire to expose evil in others, some of us have forgotten to assess our own evil and our own excesses and our own need for the Lord’s mercy. Pull the log out of your own eye first, beloved. Get on your face before the Lord and come before him together.
Third, rest assured that God removes judgment in Christ. Recall how verse 10 depicted the day of the Lord: “the earth quakes before him…the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.” Again, when God approaches in his majestic otherness, the world as we know it rocks and reels; it comes undone before him.
Can I show you how the gospel writers present the death of Christ? When Jesus dies, Matthew 27:45 says “from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” It’s high noon—but God covers the land in darkness for three hours. Matthew 27:51, “behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Luke 23:44, “there was darkness over the land while the sun’s light failed.” What’s going on with these signs?
If you know the book of Joel, you will understand them as characteristic of the day of the Lord, the day when God brings his wrath. God shook the earth and darkened the sky to show that the day of wrath we deserved at the end of history, it fell on Jesus in history. Here is where we find the ultimate revelation of God’s steadfast love. Here is where we find God’s unwavering commitment to show mercy by saving a people for himself. Here is where we find his steadfast love turning the judgment away and causing it to fall on Jesus instead. He gives us more than a grain offering, a drink offering—he gives his own Son as the offering; and in doing so, he gives us himself.
As we observed in Hebrews not too long ago, it’s also through Jesus’ blood that we get to participate in the new and heavenly Zion, a Zion that isn’t under the threat of God’s judgment but a Zion that’s filled with God’s restoring presence. Israel eventually lost the earthly Zion because of their sin. Because they didn’t listen to Joel. But with the resurrection of Christ God has raised up another Zion that will never be shaken. Hear the alarm Joel sounds, hide yourself in the blood of Jesus, and you will be safe there in God’s presence.
Lastly, hold out the hope of God’s steadfast love to the nations. “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.” Do you plead with people like that? Do your interactions with those going astray sound like that? O that God would help us sound more like Joel—robust vision of God’s holiness and justice, but coupled with tears and pleading because of how much mercy he has shown us.
[i] E.g., Isa 6:10; Hos 3:5; Ps 78:34; Lam 5:21.
[ii] E.g., Exod 34:6-7; Num 14:18; Ps 25:6-7; 50:1.
[iii] E.g., Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25.