Blessings of Repentance

Joel 2:12-17
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, December 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew

"Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. - Joel 2:12-13

The book of Joel is a brief prophecy, the heart of which is repentance, as disclosed in chapter 2, verses 12 through 32. As we study this book, may God help us to enjoy the blessings therein through humility, repentance, forsaking of sins, turning to God, and humbling ourselves before him.

Verse one tells us this prophecy is "the word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel." Pethuel means "persuaded of God" or "one who trusts in God." Pethuel was expressing his faith in God when he named his son Joel, which means "the covenant Lord is God." Pethuel did this at a time of great apostasy. We also live in a time of great apostasy, a time of great unbelief and secularism, not only in the world, but in the church itself. Yet by God's grace, we and our families will serve the God of our fathers, and we will confess, "Jo-el - the Lord is God."

The Problem of the People

We do not know the date of Joel. Traditionally, scholars believe it was written in the ninth century B.C., during the time of Joash king of Judah. Jesus himself quoted from this prophecy in Mark 13:24 in reference to the events of the last days. Peter quoted Joel on the day of Pentecost, because it was Joel who prophesied the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days. Paul also quotes this prophecy in Romans 10:13, in reference to God's answering our prayers: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

During the days of Joel, the people of God had broken covenant with him. They became unfaithful to God, even while they were enjoying all his material gifts-grain, wine, and oil; figs, pomegranates, grapes and apples; herds of cattle and sheep. The autumn and spring rains came at their usual time, providing for God's people, and they lived in great security and prosperity. Yet they did not worship the true God of the covenant, who had delivered them from Egyptian bondage and planted them in the beautiful land of Canaan. Instead, they became fascinated with paganism, as is the case in the church today. Instead of being loyal to the God who revealed himself to us through the Scriptures and worshiping and serving him alone, they worshiped and served idols. They rejected their God while still receiving all his bountiful, temporal benefits.

Several verses speak of Israel's unfaithfulness. In Joel 2:12 God says, "Return to me." That assumes that these people had gone away from the true God to worship idols. Joel 1:5 says, "Wake up, you drunkards!" God had plentifully supplied everything, and now his people were having a good time. And in 2:27 we read, "Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other." That tells us that these people were worshiping other gods, but that if they repented and returned, they would realize there is only one God whom they should worship.

What was the sin of the people? Unfaithfulness. This is always the problem of God's people. We forsake the true and living God to try out pagan gods, thus violating the first commandment, which says, "You shall have no other gods before me." There is no other God but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who governs his universe, the Lord of history, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Like the prodigal son, we want to go far away from our heavenly Father and live an independent life, a life of sin and mirth. We find living with God too restrictive. But that is only because we do not like holiness. So we wander, seeking happiness outside of the holy, true God. We easily forget all the blessings he has given us, or attribute them to our own abilities or to false gods, like Baal. So we wander, looking for water in broken cisterns or in wells we ourselves dig. This is what the people of Israel did during the time of Joel.

Divine Discipline

But where can we go from God's omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence? Where can we hide in God's universe? If we go up to the heavens, the psalmist says, he is there. If we make our bed in the depths, he is there. The prodigal went away from the father, and soon he was in great need. There was a great famine there, we are told, and he had nothing to eat.

King Manasseh, the most wicked king of Judah, also learned that he could not hide from God. God is in control of his universe, for he created it and he regulates it. He is quite able to discipline his erring people and cause them to return to him. At his command, the Assyrians came and arrested Manasseh, putting a hook in his nose and shackles on his legs, treating him like an animal. Then they took him away to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33:11).

If you are not one of God's covenant people, he may permit you to live in sin and defiance without any intervention. But because God loves his people, he will discipline them when they disobey him. He does so redemptively, that they may return to him, the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.

In Joel's time, God dealt with his people in a special way. The Sovereign God commanded a vast army of locusts to come and destroy all the plants, trees, and grass. He took away his temporal gifts of grain, oil, and wine, the staples of Israel. He also took away their sense of security. So Joel 1:4 says, "What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten." This is complete devastation.

Joel 1:2-3 says, "Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?" The answer is "No." "Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation." God wants his people to understand this truth: He will discipline his people, and will take any steps necessary to do so.

I hope we will not try to resist this Sovereign God or wrestle with him. God always wins, and we will walk with a limp, as Jacob did (Genesis 32). Surrender is the only way with God; there is no other. He does not negotiate; he demands repentance and full surrender. God will not coexist with rebels. He goes out conquering and to conquer. He alone is God; there is no other.

Even the locusts obey God's command. In 1915 a locust plague occurred in Palestine and Syria similar to that described in Joel 1. There was another attack in the same area in 1959, and another in November 2004. It is hard to underestimate the destruction these locusts can wreak. One female who lays her eggs in June will have about 80 million descendants by October. These insects eat everything-leaves, fruit, bark, and all. And if we study the prophecy carefully, we see that God not only sent locusts, but he also brought about a severe drought. There was nothing left to eat or drink. The grain was gone, the wine was gone, the oil was gone, the fruit was gone. Even the grass was gone. The Lord gives, but the Lord also takes his gifts away to humble us and to cause us to call upon him in our severe distress.

Joel 1:12 says, "Surely the joy of mankind is withered away," and verse 16 says, "Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes-joy and gladness from the house of our God?" The day of the Lord came-a day of judgment and discipline. Notice, even irrational animals are crying out. Verse 18 says, "How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering." They are the last to feel the suffering because they can eat the very roots of the grass. And verse 20 says, "Even the wild animals pant for you." You see, even irrational creatures cry and moan, and God must provide for them.

But why are the animals suffering? It is because of human sin. You see, our sin affects the environment, including animals. The earth is under a curse because of Adam's sin.

Psalm 107 speaks of God's amazing dealings with his people. Verse 25 says, "For he spoke and stirred up a tempest. . . ." When everything was calm, God's people did not want to worship him. So what did he do? He spoke and stirred up a storm "that lifted high the waves." God is sovereign; he is in control of everything. In his great mercy, he gives us calm. But when we use that calm to defy him, what does he do? He calls for the great storm. Remember how God called forth a storm to deal with Jonah when he defied him (Jonah 1:4)? So the psalmist says, "For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits' end." This describes the people of God when he is dealing with them.

Have you ever felt like you are being lifted up, only to be brought down? I have. Rest assured, God knows how to deal with rebels, whether they be young or old. Let us not try the patience of our God. Though he is longsuffering, he will discipline his people in due course.

But notice verse 28: "Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed." We see Jesus doing this in the New Testament. God creates the storm in our lives, but he also stills it when we call upon him.

In Psalm 107:33-35 we read, "He turned rivers into a desert." It is wonderful to have rivers, for they supply water for food, fruit, cattle, and other forms of life. But suppose we want to try paganism and wander away from God. Suppose we become interested in worldly excitement, as though God does not give us everlasting pleasure. What will God do? He will bring desolation to our lives: "He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there." The Bible says God is a jealous husband; he will not tolerate adultery of idol worship. But then the psalm continues: "He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs." You see, God later brings his people back to him.

Look at the people of Joel's time. There is no joy, no celebration, no singing. People are steeped in their misery. There is not even worship, because there is no grain or wine for the offering. Joel 1:9 says, "Grain offerings and drink offerings are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests are in mourning, those who minister before the Lord."

Then in Joel 2:11 we read, "The Lord thunders." Sometimes God speaks in small and still voice, but at times he thunders. We read in Amos 1:2, "The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers." God has a way of thundering and depriving his people of all their support systems. Why does he do so? To bring them to their knees and make them cry out to him in their distress. So Joel 2 speaks of a time when there is no food, no water, no milk, no wine, no oil, no worship, no celebration, no joy. The Lord has thundered, the Lion of Judah has roared, and there is misery everywhere. Is there a way out of this distress?

The Divine Demand

God has indeed provided a way out of our distress. It comes in the form of a divine demand: "'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart'" (Joel 2:12). That is a wonderful thing. God does not have to speak to us; he is not required to send any prophets to us. So if he is speaking to us, it means he has not forsaken us! The Holy Spirit admonishes: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion" (Hebrews 3:7-8). God is speaking! That means he is still with us. And what is he saying? "Return to me now." It is not tomorrow, not at our own time. We must return and repent now. In 2 Corinthians 6:2 Paul says, "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation."

There is only one way of coming back into favor with God. Today, people do not like to hear about sin or repentance. They want to be brought into God's favor without repentance. But it shall never happen. God would have to deny himself to do that, and he cannot deny himself.

There is only one way to come back into God's favor; that is the way of repentance, as revealed to Solomon by God in 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." This law of repentance is still operative today; it was never abrogated. Anyone who takes hold of this promise and repents will receive mercy, forgiveness, healing, and eternal salvation.

God is not obligated to forgive our sins, nor does he have to heal anyone. He can justly destroy us in his just wrath, for we have sinned against his goodness. All of us have wandered and turned our backs on him. We have sinned against his person and despised his glory. (PGM) Yet by God's grace, the law of repentance still operates.

The question is, what kind of repentance is demanded? God will not accept mere external, superficial repentance. He demands heartfelt repentance. First Samuel 16:7 tells us, "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." The Lord demands a total change of our mind, will, and emotion. He will not accept a mere form of godliness, nor will he accept mere weeping, wailing, and tearing of garments. Some people can easily weep; it is simply the way they are made, but mere weeping is not repentance.

A boy in Sunday school once gave this definition of repentance: "Repentance is feeling sorry for sins." Then a wise girl sitting next to him added, "enough to quit." This is true. Repentance is feeling sorry for sins enough to quit. And we could add to her statement: True, godly repentance is feeling sorry for sins enough to quit sinning and enough to obey God's law gladly. If one's repentance does not lead to obedience, then it is phony repentance, which becomes a sin on top of every other sin. Such a person is only trying to fool God, who sees all things in one view.

Paul told the Gentiles they should repent and turn to God, proving their repentance by their good works (Acts 26:20). Repentance and faith speak of conversion, of turning around. The thief should steal no longer, but should work with his hands that he may give to those in need. He who is following false gods must turn around and return to the Lord of the covenant and worship and serve him only.

"'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments.'" The command to "rend" or "tear" our heart means "Listen! Believe! Turn!" Forsake all evil philosophies, all falsehood, all lies. Believe the word of God and the God of the word. Do the will of God with a soft heart. Forsake all rebellion against truth and against the God of truth. Instead of tearing our garments, we must tear our stony hearts, making them soft and responsive.

In Zechariah 7:12-13 we are told, "They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. 'When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,' says the Lord Almighty." We can never come into the favor of God without repentance, without a soft heart, without listening and believing the word of God.

Yes, it is all right to weep and wail and tear our garments, provided our heart is soft. Externalism is all right, as long as there is interior reformation. It is wonderful to fast for a day when everyone else is eating, provided we weep, fast, and wail because we have offended and despised the Lord, depriving him of his glory and treating him with contempt. But do not weep and fast only because you are sick or because you have no food or wine. That is phony repentance. You must weep because you sinned against God. Cry out with great grief, "Have mercy upon me, a great sinner!" Cry out, saying, "Against thee and thee only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." Cry out and say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son."

There is hope for those who repent like that. That is what Joel 2:12 says: "'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments.'" When we come to God in repentance, we must also trust in his nature. The prophet describes God's nature in Joel 2:13, quoting Exodus 34:6-7: "Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity." Hold on to that nature of God. Come to him in repentance, and base your prayer on God's nature as revealed to us in his word. Don't pray on the basis of justice. Plead mercy and repent based on God's own promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Manasseh repented and humbled himself based on the truth that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. And God heard him. As the hymn writer said, "Mercy there was great and grace was free; pardon there was multiplied to me; there my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary."

Let everyone repent. Let everyone assemble. Let everyone pray. Let everyone fast. Let everyone weep. Let everyone call upon the name of the Lord. Joel 2:32 says, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." It is an amazing promise. Priests, elders, old, young, bride, bridegroom, children and infants-leave your homes and come to the temple of the Lord. He is there still. His glory has not departed. Cry out to him in repentance. Listen to him. Pray to him; tell him, "O God, we believe that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. We return to you. We have sinned against you. We defied you and treated you with contempt. Have mercy upon us."

Notice the prayer in Joel 2:17: "Spare your people, O Lord." That is, "Save us!" We must tear our hearts, be brokenhearted and contrite in spirit, for there is hope for every person who is brokenhearted and contrite.

In Psalm 51:17 David describes the nature of this great and forgiving God: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Isaiah 57:15 says: "For this is what the high and lofty One says-he who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'" And in Isaiah 66:2 God tells us, "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word."

In Hosea 14 we are exhorted, "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: 'Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount war-horses. We will never again say "Our gods" to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion.' I will heal their waywardness and love them freely."

Application

Amazingly, God will receive us as we repent and cry out to him. He does not have to; he could destroy us because of our sins. But he says, "No, even now, return."

Even now, return-not tomorrow, not whenever you feel like it. Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. Now the Spirit of God is speaking to us. Now he is in the midst of us. Now our hearts are being softened. Now God is working, so do not harden your heart and refuse to listen to his offer of mercy and pardon.

God himself causes us to turn to him. Psalm 80:19 says, "Turn us again, O Lord . . . and we shall be saved" (KJV). We will never turn unless God works within us to turn us toward him. Look at the wild animals and cattle and sheep. When they saw there was nothing to eat and drink, they cried out to God (Joel 1:18-20). If this is so, how much more should rational, sentient beings, created in the likeness and the image of God, cry out to their Maker! So hold on to the nature of God. He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love for his people. Humble yourself before him. Take words with you. Acknowledge your sin. Do not try to circumvent or short-circuit it. Come saying, "O God, have mercy upon me, a sinner." Do not be arrogant, proud, defiant, or self-reliant. We must come to God in humility.

Humble yourself, call upon the name of the Lord and seek his face. Repent of your sins and consecrate your life to God. Resolve and determine to obey God with gladness. Ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to walk in that narrow and straight path of righteousness. Where there is repentance, God is there. Where there is humility, God is there. Where there is confession, God is there. God's presence is shown through our humility, repentance, and turning to him. And in God's presence there is fullness of joy and on his right hand, pleasures forevermore.

Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew

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