Rejoicing in the Lord's Restoration
Topic: Prayer Passage: Joel 2:18–27
At supper time, I’ve been reading The Wingfeather Saga to the family. We’re on book two by Andrew Peterson, North or Be Eaten! Only a chapter or two at a time. But quite regularly as I read the final lines of a chapter and begin shutting the book, I hear words like these: “No daddy! Don’t stop there! Can you do one more chapter?” The chapters raise questions they want answered. They heighten tension the kids want resolved: Will they escape? What about the enemy? And so on.
The first half of Joel has left us in a similar place. In fact, Joel shares a story he wants us to tell our children, and our children to their children, on to the next generation (Joel 1:3). But in telling this story, a great tension rises, a great question looms after the first half of the book. The people suffer a devastating locust plague. But it’s not just any locust plague. We’ve learned that the Lord is dealing with Israel under the terms of his covenant at Sinai. The locust plague isn’t random, it’s relational. God has dealings with Israel for their sins; and his goal is to drive his people back into his arms.
Life’s necessities get stripped away. Kingdom hopes shrivel up. The signs of God’s presence get cut off. It reminds Joel of what the day of the Lord will be like. He sounds the alarm—an inescapable day of great ruin and terror approaches, and no one can endure it. Their only hope is the Lord’s mercy and steadfast love. So Joel summons them to repent. He calls them to mourn, to fast, to cry out for mercy and concern themselves with God’s honor among the nations.
Will the Lord turn and leave a blessing? Will God answer their cries? That’s the question we’re left with. The second half of Joel answers with a resounding Yes! Yes, he answers their cry; and it’s an outpouring of mercy beyond what they can imagine. Let’s read it together and hear the Lord speak to us in his holy word. Verse 18…
Then the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The LORD answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations. I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea; the stench and foul smell of him will rise, for he has done great things.” Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield. Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”
The Lord's Jealousy and Compassion
Verse 18 begins a major shift in Joel’s prophecy. From this point forward, it’s nothing but blessing for the people who return to the Lord. But notice what it begins with in verse 18—God’s jealousy and God’s compassion.
In the Old Testament, God’s jealousy is covenant language. The first time we see it is in Exodus 20:5-6. God makes a covenant with Israel at Sinai; and in the second commandment, he forbids idolatry. And the basis for that commandment is this: “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”[i] God is jealous for his people’s exclusive worship. If they belong to him, they can belong to no other.
Sometimes God’s jealousy moves him to judge Israel for flirting with other gods.[ii] But when they repent, when they concern themselves once again with his honor—like they did in 2:17, “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” When that happens, God’s jealousy moves him to save, to deliver, to draw his bride back into his arms and protect her. That’s what happens here. His jealousy for his people’s exclusive worship now moves him to save in light of their repentance.
Joel also uses the word “pity,” sometimes translated, “compassion.” You might recall when Moses was a baby. His mother put him in a basket and set him in the Nile in hopes to spare his life. Pharaoh’s daughter then found the child, and it says, “She took pity on him”—same word. Meaning, she looked on his helpless state and then worked for his good. God acts in a similar way here. In response to their cries, God looks on their helpless state—they can do nothing to save themselves—and then he works for their good. The rest of the chapter is an outworking of that jealousy for their worship in the land and that compassion for his people in their helplessness.
God Removes the Enemy Invaders
One way God’s jealousy and compassion move him to act is this: God removes the enemy invaders. Verse 20, “I will remove the northerner far from you…” Who’s the northerner? Some have said it’s a human invader, like Babylon to the north. Others have said, No, no. He’s still got the locust army in view; and this is but another metaphor to describe them. I think there’s more to support that second view, especially when God identifies the army as the locusts themselves in verse 25.
Still, we have to ask, Why does Joel call a locust army “the northerner”? Because the locust army becomes a type that points to the way human armies will eventually have their way with Israel. Joel uses the same language Jeremiah and Ezekiel used. The Lord would raise up the tribes of the kingdoms of the north to set themselves against Israel all around. It became such a pattern that “the northerner” signals enemies of all types that come against the Lord’s people.
But God promises here to remove them—to “drive [the enemy] into a parched and desolate land,” it says, “his vanguard into the eastern sea [i.e., Dead Sea], and his rear guard into the western sea [i.e., Mediterranean Sea]…” How can the Lord drive them into a desert and, at the same time, drive them into the seas? Which is it? It’s poetry. He’s layering the metaphors. Both are places of desertion and death. Also, the two seas marked the border of God’s kingdom on earth. He was putting the enemy beyond those boarders. Outside God’s kingdom, all you will find is desertion and death.
Add to that how the Lord has a reputation—since the Exodus—of hurling Israel’s enemies into the sea. What happened the next day in Exodus 14? “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the Lord used…” Likewise, it says at the end of verse 20, “the stench and foul smell of him will rise, for he has done great things.” It’s possible to read that last part as the Lord doing great things. But it seems better to read it as the reason for the severity of God’s judgment. God wipes out the enemy invader, because they have done great things against his people.
God Reverses the Covenant Curses
Here’s another way God’s jealousy and compassion move him to act: God reverses the covenant curses. He hints at this in verse 19, “Behold, I’m sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied…” But he develops it further in verses 21-24. He addresses the land, the beasts, then the children of Zion. Whereas the Lord’s judgment provoked great terror before, now the Lord’s replaces fear with rejoicing.
“Fear not, O land,” he says. “Be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!” In verse 20, the locust army had done great things—that is, by way of destroying the land. But now in verse 21, “the Lord has done great things.” The prophets will sometimes describe the land rejoicing, trees clapping their hands, hills singing together. The image is that of a creation no longer burdened by the curse, no longer groaning under futility, decay, and death, but a creation set free to blossom with the beauty God made it to display. Because of God’s compassion, that was soon to be true again for the land.
In verse 22, he adds, “Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green…” That phrase in English “are green”—it comes from a Hebrew word that appears only one other place in Scripture. Genesis 1:11, “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation…’” God promises here to re-create the pastures like that. Joel 2:2 said, “The land is like the garden of Eden before [the locusts], but behind them a desolate wilderness.” God reverses that. He transforms the wilderness into a paradise.
And along with it, “the tree bears its fruit,” he says. “The fig tree and vine give their full yield.” Remember the fig tree and vine imagery in Scripture? 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 coming. He’s restoring to them the kingdom hope.
Then look at verse 23: “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”
Israel was utterly dependent on God to bring the rains. When they were in Egypt, the crops were normally fed by irrigation systems off the Nile. But when God brought them to the land of Canaan, it was a land of hills and valleys that needed the rains to prosper it. God brought them to a land where they’d be utterly dependent on him to provide rain. It’s not something they could control. This is why the covenant curses are such a big deal. If they obeyed God, then God would bless the land with rain. But if they disobeyed, he would curse the land by shutting up the skies altogether.
So it becomes really good news when the prophets promise a new day of rain and plenty. For the threshing floors to be full was for the prophet to be saying that God would lift their curse. You will note that he gives “the early rain for your vindication” in the ESV. That could mean the Lord is vindicating his people before others—perhaps those who would’ve mocked them saying, “Where is your God?” But it could also be translated, “the early rain for righteousness.” In this case, it recalls God’s righteousness in responding just as he promised to respond in the covenant. When the people repented, when they cried for mercy and concerned themselves with God’s honor, he would be faithful to do as he said and bless them. God purposed to be gracious to them and restore his people in a kingdom that’s plentiful and leaves them wholly satisfied.
God Restores the Kingdom Blessings
One more way God’s jealousy and compassion move him to act: God restores the kingdom blessings. We observe this in the Lord’s provision. Verse 25, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied…” God was sovereign over the locust army when it came. He sent them. But the judgment served its purpose, didn’t it? He drove his people back into his arms. Now God is sovereign to remove the army and restore the years that the swarming locust had eaten.
Can you imagine standing in the land, seeing years of devastation, years of consequences for your sin. Every morning there’s not a green plant in the field. The farmers toil and labor but the trailers still come home empty. The kids are hungry. Life seems so futile. Why bother anymore? And then to hear the Lord say, I’ll restore to you the years the locusts have eaten? Meaning, what you will receive in my kingdom, it’ll far surpass the years you lost. God offers a kingdom whose bounty far surpasses what their sins have destroyed. They will eat in plenty and be satisfied.
We also observe the kingdom blessings in the Lord’s praise. Verse 26 says they will “praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” In 1:9 and 13, Joel mentioned how the grain offering and drink offering had been cut off. Those offerings accompanied the daily sacrifices for sin. But others came at appointed feasts throughout the year as a way to celebrate God’s abundant provision. They were happy signs of their relationship with God. They were moments to give thanks and rejoice in his merciful presence. When the locusts invaded, all that was taken away.
But here the Lord restores their praise. He deals wondrously with them, a word that appears often in the Psalms to describe works only explained by God’s powerful, gracious intervention. Such works not only send the psalmist into praise; they compel the people to follow him into that praise as well. “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered…” “Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” Same praise here in Joel now restored to the people.
The kingdom blessings also come in the Lord’s protection. Twice God says, “My people shall never again be put to shame.” When they were under his judgment, God made them a reproach among the nations (cf. Joel 1:19). He put them in a vulnerable position where the nations would mock them. But in light of their repentance, the Lord now fights for them. He rebuilds them and takes away their shamefulness among the peoples. In God’s kingdom, he removes people’s shame and replaces it with glory.
We also see the Lord’s presence restored to them. Remember from chapter one that the greatest tragedy of sin is that it separates us from joy in God’s presence. Even worse, we observed from chapter two that sin turns the Lord against us. He was leading the army against the city in 2:11. But now look at verse 27, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God…” Here is the ultimate gift of God’s compassion and grace—he gives them himself.
That language, “I am the LORD your God”—it’s covenant language; it spoke to the close relationship he shared with Israel as a result of his special grace. Here we also find the answer to the question of verse 17. The nations would ask, “Where is their God?” Now we hear the Lord’s answer: “I am in the midst of Israel.” We wouldn’t have thought that by the end of verse 17. But the Lord answered prayer and chooses to dwell among them. In mercy, he gives himself to his people.
It’s here, in the experience of God’s merciful presence that the people learn, “there is none else.” God is holy. He doesn’t wink at sin. He must judge covenant breakers. But for those who cry for mercy and concern themselves with his honor, he gives them himself and full access to his presence once again. We’ve come full circle, haven’t we? God is jealous for his people’s worship; and through his compassionate acts of removing the enemy, reversing the curse, and restoring the kingdom, they come to worship him and rejoice in his covenant presence.
A Few Takeaways for Us
That’s not all the Lord does. There is more to this story that stretches into the more distant future, and it involves the outpouring of his Holy Spirit. But we’ll wait until next week to look at that more closely. For now, let’s close with a few takeaways from verses 18-27. The first is related to prayer. Joel encourages us to pray for God’s merciful intervention. Consider how the whole of Joel’s message functions.
In 1:2-3 he says, “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 is it that he wants the coming generations to know? Is it only the locust plague he wants you to know? Is it only the day of the Lord approaching that he wants you to know? If we stop there, we have failed to understand Joel. Joel also presents to us the God who mercifully intervenes when his people pray.
God’s answer to the people’s cry is motivation for you to pray, for you to fast, for you to cry, “God act in my life this way. Father, remove the enemies who set themselves against your kingdom. Father, break the power of cancelled sin and set the prisoner free. Father, restore the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Let the land and seas rejoice, make the hills sing for joy and the trees clap their hands. Bring the day, Lord, when there’s no more shootings, no more 13 years olds dying in the streets, no more pain and sorrow and tears. Father, break into our mess and have mercy!”
We don’t know how long they had to pray between verses 17 and 18. We don’t know how long they had to wait for God’s answer. But we do know that God answered the prayer; and when he did, it came with an abundance of blessings and lavish kindness and all kinds of hope. Cry for God’s merciful intervention in your life and in the lives of others. Let Joel’s message further motivate your prayers and longings. This answer to their prayer was meant to be passed down from generation to generation as a way of saying, “No matter how bad it may get for you, God hears his people’s cry for mercy.”
Second, rejoice in the abundant provision of God’s grace. Joel is written to sinners, not righteous people. Joel is for covenant breakers, not those who think they have it all together. Before the Lord they were undone, on the brink of total destruction for their sins. But when they repented and leaned into God’s mercy, they found an unending waterfall of blessing. That’s the kind of God we serve. That’s the kind of God we preach to our neighbors and the nations. He is the only and true God that exists—the one who lavishes his kindness on sinners who turn to him for mercy. He enters the lives of the desperate and needy, he shows compassion, and in his jealousy for their praise, he satisfies them with the abundance of his kingdom.
For those of us who belong to Jesus, we know this better than Israel ever got to experience. The blessings in the land of promise were but pointers to the blessings that we share in Christ and his kingdom. Think about it.
What does God reveal in the ministry of Jesus? Do we not see the Lord removing enemy invaders? But it’s a better removal than just a locust army. Jesus unseats demon armies and tears down their strongholds in people’s lives. He casts out demons by the Holy Spirit. He drives them into the sea, doesn’t he? Remember the two demon-possessed men that meet Jesus in the country of the Gadarenes? The men were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Jesus then casts them into a herd of pigs; and it says, “the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.” What’s the point? Jesus is the Lord of Joel’s prophecy who drives our enemies into the seas. His kingdom replaces theirs. Even as we speak the gospel, enemy strongholds come down. In Christ, people overcome the world and its evil.
Or consider God reversing the curse. In Joel we see this divine reversal of the curses that fell on Israel. What does God reveal in Jesus’ ministry? The blind see. The lame leap like the deer. The sick heal. The storm calms at his word. Jesus is the one that will make creation right again. Jesus is the one who reverses the curse for you; he makes better everything that sin destroys. Even better, he takes away the curse altogether for those who trust in him. As long as sin remains in us, the curses cannot be lifted in any final and ultimate sense. But Jesus died to take away our sins; he endured the ultimate curse on the cross beneath his Father’s wrath.
For that reason, we find ourselves beneficiaries of his abundant kingdom. Paul says that even now, we possess every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. We know the Lord’s provision—our greatest need has been met. We sing his praise—he has done wonderous things for us in Christ. We know his protection—that nothing can separate us from his love. We know his presence—we have access to his throne; he is Abba, Father.
Yes, we do not yet see the full extent of that kingdom on earth yet. But when it comes, we know that it won’t be limited to a piece of land in Palestine. The paradise he brings will one day swallow the earth; and all the kingdom blessings he will restore to his people. Children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God. Fear not. As long as you’re united to Jesus, God is in your midst. He lavishes his kindness on you by giving you the ultimate gift, the gift of himself.
Third, take your regrets to the God who restores. In studying Joel, I’ve grown to love the promise of verse 25: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…” Maybe you ignored the Lord for a long time. People told you that only Jesus’ kingdom satisfies. Instead, you chased one relationship after another, one job after another, one toy after another. Not until much later in life did you bow the knee to Jesus. The Lord has his own reasons for saving you when he did. Still, you experience regret for the years you wasted. You lack the power to restore them.
Or maybe you had a falling out with mom and dad. Years have passed; and you haven’t sought to reconcile. Bitterness has kept you distant; and now you’ve learned to regret how much you’ve neglected the relationship. Maybe you’ve kept something hidden from your parents; and it has brought great hurt to the family. You want to restore the years lost, but how? They’re just gone and you can’t get them back.
Or maybe you were hard on your children. For years, you grew frustrated when expectations weren’t met. You kept your distance instead of drawing near. After getting help, though, you finally realize that many of the problems at home were the result of your sin, your lack of patience, your failure to understand your son, your daughter. But by the time you learn differently, they’re graduating high school. The years are gone. The consequences of your sins linger. What can you do to restore them?
Maybe it’s regrets you have as a husband. You wish you could change the years that have passed. But they’re gone; and when you come home from work, you don’t find an oasis anymore. Your sins have left a wilderness of pain. The kinds of things that need to change, the healing that has to take place, it’s too much for you to restore. Maybe it’s a friendship you left, a responsibility you didn’t own.
If you’re remotely alert to these kinds of regrets, give thanks to the Lord for opening your eyes. But also take those regrets to the Lord who’s able to turn wastelands into a paradise, to turn deserts into Eden. For those of you in Christ, hasn’t he already begun that work in you? “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). God is in the business of new creation.
That doesn’t mean everything will be rightly and fully restored this side of Jesus’ return. With all creation we still groan for that day to come. But it is possible that some things can be. That’s what the church is; that’s what Christians are. In the same way God restored Israel to be a pointer to the coming kingdom, God restores us too such that our lives become pointers to the new creation glory. Don’t let your regrets drive you to despair, inaction, hopelessness. The God we encounter in Joel offers a kingdom whose bounty far surpasses what our sins have destroyed. Ask him to restore your life, to restore your home, and to restore your church family. Begin by enjoying the greatest gift he gives to you in Christ, the gift of his restoring presence.
Lastly, live for God’s reputation among the nations. Eleven years ago, Jim Hamilton wrote a book where he traces God’s works from creation, through the fall, across Israel’s history, onto Jesus’ redeeming work, the church, and the new creation. His aim is to establish the central theme of Scripture. His title summarizes what he found: God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. All God’s works in salvation and in judgment share the ultimate goal of his glory recognized among the nations.
Even here in Joel we find the same. It’s through judgment in the locust plague that the Lord works repentance in his people. Then it’s in saving them and restoring them that they learn to praise him and acknowledge that there is none other. It’s also in working to deliver them that God answers the nations’ question, “Where is your God?” with “I am in the midst of Israel.”
God will not be mocked—not by his own people when they pretend their sins are no big deal. Nor will he be mocked by the nations when they doubt his power to save. Joel is clear: God will shake heaven and earth, he will send locust plagues and drive them away, he will raise up armies and tear them down, he will devastate a land and re-create its beauty—all to make it abundantly clear to his creatures that he alone is Lord, he alone saves, he alone deserves our attention and worship. Is his glory your greatest concern? Is the Lord’s reputation among the nations your highest pursuit? Learn from Joel that all our concerns in life should end there. The centrality of the Lord’s glory should be the sun in our solar system, holding everything else in orbit. When we minimize that glory, when we trade it for lesser pursuits, everything else comes undone. Let us keep him at the center of all we are as individuals and as a church. He has spoken: “You shall know that…I am the LORD your God and there is none else.”
[i] Cf. also Exod 34:10, 14; Deut 4:23-24; 5:2, 9; 6:15; 32:16; Ps 78:58.
[ii] Ezek 16:38, 42; 23:25.