God’s Works of Providence - Joel 2:1-27

Earlier in worship we read from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. What are God’s works of providence? “God's works of providence are His most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions.” A longer summary of the Bible’s view of God’s providence can be found in another Westminster document, a longer one called the “Confession of Faith.”  And while it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures, it offers an outstanding explanation of providence, and I’ve paraphrased that explanation for us here to begin our study of Joel 2.

 
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What we see across the board in the Scriptures is a view that God directs and governs all things, big and small, that he does so according to his holiness, goodness, and wisdom, that everything that happens does so because God decreed that it would take place. For that reason, we say that God is “the first cause” of all things. After all, nothing would be here or be happening had God not caused it. Yet much of what happens in our lives and the world takes place as a result of some secondary cause. Yet God knew it would happen and decreed or determined it to be so. 

The Scriptures show God making use of means to bring about his will, but he doesn’t depend on earthly means. He can work apart from them. And of those things brought about by secondary causes, God does not simply permit them, but rather, he orders them according to his own holy purposes, while remaining righteous, for God neither authors or approves any sin. God brings about his holy ends even through the sinful actions of people and the fallen nature of the world, while himself being neither responsible for or accountable for any sin. And God will even turn over his own people to their sinful temptations in order to show us the corruption of our own hearts.  

Here me clearly: the Scriptures demonstrate all of this. You see where we read the catechism question just some of the passages of Scripture that communicate this. We can’t fully understand it, but it’s true: The hand of the LORD moves in all the events of our lives, bringing his holy purposes to pass.
 
But we don’t naturally recognize the LORD’s providence, do we? Even as the Scriptures teach us, and experience proves, that he has determined all the events of our lives for his eternal glory and our eternal joy. But because God does this, we should watch for his works of providence in our lives. But what are the categories? When something happens, how do you label it or classify it? What kinds of providential events should we look for? Joel 2 shows us three kinds: bouts of suffering, seasons of humbling, and times of refreshing.

So let’s examine these.

First, God has determined that the lives of his people will include bouts of suffering. (v.1-11)


There is a thought that develops in the writings of Joel and the other prophets and it’s key to understanding what we are to make of Joel. This message is for Judah, the part of Israel that contained Jerusalem, where the true temple stood. And Judah is the tribe of David, so the true royal lineage is in Judah. In fact, an eternal king would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of David. The northern kingdom, which interesting continued to go by the name of “Israel,” had already fallen into the worship of false gods and various kinds of immorality and they had been conquered by another nation. The people of Judah, no doubt, felt different.

They had the true temple, the true king, true worship.  And yet here is Joel, the LORD’s prophet, telling them that the same punishment is coming to them. But like I said, this thought develops, and without it, you can’t make sense of Joel. It is the concept of the “remnant.” The remnant.  It’s another word for “remainder.” This idea permeates the prophetic writings and is explained further in the New Testament. The remnant consists of those people within the nation who would truly return to the LORD.

They are the ones who would truly repent.  So the call to repent goes out to everyone within the covenant community, but not all will respond. Next week we look at Joel 2:32, where they are referred to as “those whom the LORD calls.” We use the terminology of “visible and invisible church” when we refer to this. The “visible” church is everyone in the covenant community. They have professed faith in the God of Scripture at some point and have received the covenant sign. But while some are true believers, some are not. And those who are truly believers are what we call the “invisible church.” This two-fold structure was present in that old covenant community, and it is present in the church, the new covenant, today.

I bring this up at this point because you must understand that these things which Joel describes will happen to both the remnant and the non-remnant members of the covenant community. True believers are not exempt from bouts of suffering. Even the prophets themselves endured the devastation of the locusts and the conquering of foreign nations.  Look with me at this passage, starting with verse 1. “Blow a trumpet in Zion.” A trumpet meant danger.  Zion is another name for Jerusalem. “sound an alarm on my holy mountain.”  Jerusalem was high on a hill. It had been protected by God according to his covenant with Moses, but this was contingent on the people’s faithfulness. They have been unfaithful to God. Locusts have destroyed their crops and vegetation, but even worse is coming. What Joel calls, “the day of the LORD” or the “day of Yahweh.”

In the movie Gladiator, Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is betrayed by the son of the emperor of Rome. In the story, the son, named Commodus, kills the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius, so that he can become emperor. And Commodus gets rid of Maximus to secure the throne. He has the family of Maximus killed, and Maximus is sold into slavery. Maximus not only survives, though, but he becomes a gladiator.  Gladiators fought to the death as a sport for spectators in the grand coliseums of Rome. Maximus eventually fights in front of Commodus, but Maximus is wearing a mask so that his identity is hidden. Commodus comes down to congratulate him and ask his name.
 
And in a climatic moment, Maximus shocks Commodus as he removes his mask and reveals his identity. Then Maximus says this: “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, 
commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

Maximus proclaims that he would have his “day,” a day of reckoning, a day on which Commodus’ note would be called, and his debt would be paid. For Maximus, it would be his day when all would see and know that the truth.

The LORD God Almighty will also have his day. In fact, he gets more than one. Jake was looking back over the notes of one of our Old Testament professors, Dr. Richard Belcher, a humble pastor and teacher, and a brilliant scholar of the Bible. And Jake reminded me that Dr. Belcher articulates this over-arching definition
of “the day of the LORD.” He says, “the day of the LORD brings devastation to the wicked but deliverance to those who turn to God.”

Here we learn what will happen to the people of God’s covenant community – verse 1 says, “all the inhabitants of the land.” Verse 2 “a day of clouds and thick darkness.” The locusts had come like a thick, dark cloud, and a foreign nation would look similar as they invaded. It would be terrible. Verse 3, “like the Garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness.” It’s not entirely clear if Joel is talking about the locusts or the foreign nation. But that seems to be the point. All of it is devastating, and all of it is from God. Notice 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?”

In the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Moses told the people that if they strayed from God long enough, eventually the LORD would turn them over to the enemies. They would go back to the slavery from which God had delivered them.
Just one example, Deuteronomy 28, “The LORD will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. [37] And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you away.”

God is not a bystander. Here, he is employing these godless nations, although for them, they will conquer Judah for their own selfish reasons. This doesn’t mean that all suffering is God’s punishment. I shared a statement by R.C. Sproul a couple weeks ago. I want to share it again today. Sproul writes, “When God used a catastrophe as an arm of judgment in the Old Testament, we know that his judgment was behind the catastrophic event because we have the benefit of written revelation telling us that this was God’s hand in history.” 
Sproul is referring to the book of Deuteronomy, among others. And he says, “As we live out our lives and see nations suffer catastrophe and calamity strike people, we don’t know exactly what the relationship is between those catastrophes and the judgment of God.” Sproul says that the blind man in John 9 and the story of Job should restrain us from assuming to know the reason for the suffering.  But he points out that God is still God, still Lord of history, and he can issue judgment for sin in the present if he chooses. It’s just not for us to point and say, “That’s God’s judgment on you.”

However, we do know that God’s people must endure bouts of suffering as part of his providential works. Romans 8 talks about our suffering and says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Just as the suffering of Jesus was God’s will and endured for His glory, the same is true with the suffering of true believers. There were true believers in Judah who would endure this suffering and turn back to God.

Recently I visited with a dear aunt of mine who endured a stroke four years ago. She hasn’t fully recovered, and she told me that she would never be the same. Her whole life changed. But her faith has grown so much stronger, and she described all God had taught her through the ordeal and how she had grown closer to him. While she wouldn’t choose to suffer as she has, she can see the providential hand of God in her bout of suffering.

Can you see God at work in your life, even in your bouts of suffering? Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that all things work together for our good includes our suffering. Interestingly, this is a major issue for atheists. Many argue that if God were real he would not allow suffering. But the Scriptures don’t present God in that way.  The Bible addresses our sufferings. 2 Timothy, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Thessalonians, “we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.” And Romans, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

God never sins and never intends to do us harm, yet he sovereignly governs our lives in ways we can’t understand. We don’t have to live in fear or wrestle for control. Even in the worst circumstances, nothing can derail the eternal plans of the one true God.

Also, God has determined that the lives of his people will include seasons of humbling.(12-17)


We shouldn’t be fatalistic in our view of God’s providential works. The LORD does respond to repentance. He does relent or hold back his wrath. Obviously we know that he’s a God of mercy and grace, and he will never change. He sent Jesus Christ to endure the wrath we incurred for our sins. A key aspect of worship in the old covenant community was the sacrifices of blood which let the people know that God was a God of mercy and grace, not holding sins against those who truly and humbly repent.
That is Joel’s message here. Verse 12, “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.” Rending or tearing of their clothes was a demonstration of repentance. Yet we know that even today, someone can show regret outwardly while not being truly repentant in their hearts.

Have you experienced this?  You partially repent, but not fully? You want to appear to have repented, but within your heart you hold on to sin? God tells them to save the outward demonstration and have a true change of heart. 

Often when someone is caught in sin by another person, he or she immediately verbalizes repentance. But usually, time must pass before the person truly comes clean. And what should compel them to repent? Verse 13, “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.” We are sure that the great “I AM” does not change. He does not give up on his people. And so we are hopeful.  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?” We saw a couple weeks ago in Joel chapter 1 that any offering we are able to give to the LORD is only a portion of what he has given to us. From seasons of humbling, God’s people can give him authentic praise and worship. Those who are humbled by the LORD can give true worship back to him. And so Joel calls the people to this. Verse 15, again, “Blow the trumpet in Zion. Consecrate a fast.” Jake gave some great info about fasting last week. If you didn’t hear that, I encourage you to go online and listen.
Fasting from food and other things is appropriate for those who would be humble before God.

It’s not always convenient, but Joel addresses that here. Verse 16, he says, “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.” Perhaps the Holy Spirit is compelling you to fast.  But you think, “Oh, this week is no good. I have a lunch on this day and a dinner party that day.  And we have breakfast at work on this day.” Don’t wait till it feels convenient. Here God is calling the people to drop what they are doing, including wedding plans.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all weddings need to be postponed and all events cancelled, but you get the point: Repentance before the LORD is serious, it is urgent, 
and it supersedes all your other plans. Joel sees the urgency.  That’s why verse 17 says, “Between the vestibule and the altar (meaning the place where the priest would offer prayers) 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?’” There’s that wording from Deut. 28.  A byword.  What is a “byword?”
A byword is the embodiment of something notorious or dishonorable, when something bad happens with a person and their name becomes synonymous with that event. 
Think of people who have been embroiled in some scandal and it characterizes them.
Judah does not want to go down in history as the people who worshipped Yahweh yet were totally destroyed by him for their unfaithfulness. You see the fear here at the end of verse 17.  These are words from Psalm 42. “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?”

I know many of you could describe your seasons of humbling. Perhaps you are in one right now. Maybe it was provoked by you, maybe not. But suffering, where self inflicted or not, should produce humility in those who are truly born again. I’ve been asked a question before. It goes something like this: “I have a relative who attended church for years and served in the church. But then they experienced a great disappoint or a great tragedy,  and my relative has turned his (or her) back on God.  Do you think they are still saved?” It’s a great question. And it’s addressed in the Scriptures. This happened both in the old and the new covenant communities of the Bible. Both had people who professed faith but later left the faith. The apostle John says this, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” These were people who had heard the promises of God, received the sign of the covenant, and enjoyed the blessings of membership in the covenant community.  But they were not truly saved.

Perhaps some returned later, perhaps your friend or relative may yet return to the LORD, and you should pray for that and love the person. But true repentance produces humility.


What is your response to the humbling of the LORD?  Anger? Bitterness? Stubbornness? Or do you search your heart and comb through your life to see what you must turn from that you may know and walk with the LORD your God? Keep in mind that if you do return, you will experience what we see in this final verses.

 

God has determined that the lives of his people will include times of refreshing. (v.18-27)


This last section details the renewal that comes from the LORD, the restoration that follows repentance. God would have pity, verse 18, he would send grain, wine, and oil for worship, and they would no longer be a reproach or byword among the nations, verse 19 The invaders would be driven out, verse 20. God would restore the land, verses 21-22. And the children of Zion could rejoice in the LORD.  He would send the rains again, verse 23, and restore their crops, their livelihood. And we see the heart of God in 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.” God would restore what sin had destroyed.


Of course, we know that as a nation, Judah and Israel did not recover from their abandonment of God, what we call their “apostasy.” Some repented, some did not, and so nations invaded, and while they did later rebuild, it was never again the same.
But with the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, it became clear that what God had in store was a future and eternal restoration, not limited to life in this sinful world. These events served to teach us about that future time. The promised land is a future land. We will sing about it at the end of this service. And so the description in verses 26-27 are ultimately promises to the remnant, both those from the old and new covenant communities – so they apply to true believers today.

Not people of one nation, but of every nation, every tribe, and every language. Those who trust in Jesus Christ, who Galatians 3 calls “the true sons of Abraham,” who will inherit the blessings promised by God to Abraham that we saw in the book of Genesis. Look at verse 26-27, which God promises to the those who return to him: “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.” Romans 10 in the New Testament says that those who trust in Jesus will never be put to shame. Like Judah back then, we could never secure such eternal blessings
for ourselves. We look to the one true God.

As we go to the table today, consider words from Acts 3. The apostle Peter said, “Repent…and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, [20] that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” We trust in Christ and wait for his return. And we humble ourselves before God.God  providentially works behind and within our circumstances, and through them all,
for his glory and according to his will. Do you have this hope, and do you hope in God’s restoration of all things through Jesus Christ?

Let’s pray together.