The Book of the Twelve for Lent 2016
The Lord “Relents” - Joel (3)
The order of Joel is important to notice. The fierce locust plague that opens the book afflicts the people of God. Only later, in ch.3 does God turn to nations in judgment and declare a “Day of the Lord” drawing near to them. 1 Peter 4:17 gives us this same order: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
First, the people of God, then the world. God shows no partiality. His people are “saved” as it were but not exempt from obeying God and being faithful participants in his great drama of redemption. Salvation is not an exemption from faithfulness but rather it very possibility and purpose. Thus the people of God are more responsible (if that’s the right way to put it) for faithful obedience and acts of mercy and justice than the nation (though God holds them responsible too). Maybe a better way to put it would be to say that while the nations remain responsible to God for their lives, the people of God are likewise responsible but also, due to the presence of the Spirit (which we will see tomorrow is that the heart of the good news of Joel) response-able as well (2 Corinthians 5:9-10). God, thus, expects something more from us than from others. And, as Peter sees it, if we keep on falling short, how can we expect the world to fare any better?
However, Joel knows something about God that enables him to find hope even amid the debris of Israel’s faithlessness and rebellion against God. He tips his hand in the middle of ch.2 where we find a recital of God’s own great self-definition in Exodus 34: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The prophet stands fast on theological bedrock here. This is God, Israel’s God the true and living God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other God than this one. None other to look to or appeal to – this is the good news of Joel!
This is the God who, as we saw earlier, dislikes punishing and judging and finds it an “alien” work. Joel adds to this profile. Banking on God’s Exodus 34 character, the prophet is bold to suggest that if the people genuinely and humbly cast themselves on this God, he might possibly “relent” from his judgment and have mercy on his people! “Who knows,” he writes, “whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” (v.14).
“Who knows?” God cannot be presumed upon, to be sure. There is nothing automatic or assured about his relenting from judgment. Only the character of this God. Other passages in the Old Testament concerned with God’s relenting include:
-Numbers 14 -Jeremiah18:7-10 -Micah 3:9-12 compared with Jeremiah 26:17-19 -Amos 7:1-3 -Jeremiah 26:3-7 -Jeremiah 36:3-7These texts suggest to one interpreter that this inclination of God’s to relent from judgment and stay his punishment is “one of his foundational attributes” (Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets, 372). This strikes me as an accurate judgment.
This is but another reminder that our culture’s default view of “God with a Scowl” who is hyper-vigilant in detecting faithlessness and quick to unleash lightning bolts of judgments is wide of the mark. The truth is that God shows a marked reluctance to chastise his people and then is quick to back off it when he sees even the least sign of genuine repentance. The judgment we do find in the Old Testament (and there is still a lot of it) is testimony not to God’s love of vengeance and quick temper but to the radical and massive default and disobedience of his people!
The crucible of Lent can be excruciating if we engage it faithfully. We can endure it, however, because we know that God uses this process to shape us into who he means us to be and who the world needs us to be. More on that tomorrow in our last post on Joel. We bear it in honest confession and the God we know is dealing with us is of such compassion and mercy that he might well leave off chastising us and instead grant us a new blessing!
God is who he has told us he is in Exodus 34 (and all the other places this is repeated). We can bank on it. In New Testament terms, the only God we know is the one we see in Jesus Christ. There is no other God, no other deity acting behind Jesus’ back as it were, doing something different or acting differently toward us than he does. This God’s compassion always outruns his judgment. And his judgment is always directed to our restoration. And to the achieving of his larger purposes. And that we can absolutely count on!