Who God Is and What He’s Doing (Part 1) - Joel 1:1a
Today we begin to work our way through the Old Testament book of Joel. It’s one of 12 Old Testament books known as the minor prophets. Not minor in importance, but minor in length. Each minor prophet spoke the message of God to his people in a period of time after the kingdom of Israel had been torn in two. And after these prophets had all spoken their messages, there would be about 400 years of prophetic silence that led up to the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The 12 minor prophet books make up the small chunk at the very end of the Old Testament.
Now, our goal here at Good Shepherd is to preach through all of the Scriptures. Sometimes on a Sunday we will look at a small section, sometimes a large one. Over today and next Sunday, we are only going to make it through the first verse of Joel. But, I believe that when we are finished with Joel, you can have a basic understanding not only of all 12 minor prophetic books, but also of God’s plans leading up to that time, and in addition, Joel will lead us right into the New Testament book of Matthew.
Let me give you some background information about the book of Joel. We know very little about Joel himself. But from what he writes, it seems most likely that he lived sometime around the 8th century B.C. (the 700s). And he lived in the kingdom of Judah before it fell to the Babylonians. Where did the kingdom of Judah come from? Well, many years before, during the time when David was king, there was only one united kingdom. And it was called “Israel.” The capital was Jerusalem.
The temple for worship was there. And times were pretty good back then. But David died, and his descendants served as kings, and they got gradually worse and worse. Eventually the kingdom split into a Northern and Southern part. The Northern part continued to go by the name “Israel” while the Southern part became known as “Judah” because David’s descendants, from the tribe of Judah, were the only ones who stayed loyal to the true king who had descended from David.
The northern kingdom set up an illegitimate capital city and built an illegitimate temple, and they worshipped false gods before eventually falling to the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.
That area of the Northern kingdom is referred to in the New Testament as Samaria. Remember the Good Samaritan, and how it was a big deal that a Samaritan helped a Jew?
These people didn’t like each other during the time of Jesus, and the animosity went way back. Well, the northern kingdom fell, but the southern kingdom lasted a little bit longer. They strayed from God but turned back to God from time to time. However, gradually they fell into the same worship of false idols as the north. Joel’s message from God, like the other prophets, is basically a call to return to the Lord. It was a call to repentance, that God would receive them again. He would show them grace. In fact, it was his grace that made their repentance possible in the first place. And if the people of Judah knew their Bibles, if they knew the instructions in the Scriptures and the laws that had been given to Moses, then they would recognize that God had already said he would do things, when necessary, to bring them back to himself. He would get their attention, to break their pride and humble them. There would be natural disasters, and eventually other nations would conquer them, all so they would come back to where they belonged, so they would be the treasured possession of the one who had saved them from Egypt so many centuries before. So they would live in peace with the one who had said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
Joel, like all the prophets, was a mouthpiece of God. He spoke “the word” or message of God. And to understand a message from someone, you need to know something of that person: who they are and what they’re about. It’s no different with God. To understand the message of God, we need to know more about who God is and what he’s doing. This first verse of Joel addresses both of these in this short phrase, “the word of the LORD.” Today we’re going to focus on “of the LORD” and next week we’ll look at “the word.”
Now I think we would all agree that getting to know another person takes time. In a friendship, a dating relationship, or a marriage – you can never learn everything about a person all at once. There are certain things you can learn immediately just by seeing a person or observing their behavior from a distance. But other things take longer to learn. And much more is learned when you talk at length and spend significant time with someone. You wouldn’t presume to know everything about someone through 1 or 2 conversations, nor would you expect someone to think he or she knows you well without observing you for a long time, and also, without you revealing things to them about yourself.
So if human relationships work this way, why would we presume that we could know everything we need to know about God without God revealing those things to us? We sometimes think we can study God like he’s a flower or an animal or some under a microscope that we can stand over and look down upon. We can study God, but his very name reveals what is obviously true: anything we know about God we know only because he shows it to us. Let me explain.
The Christian faith holds that God is personal and knowable. The Scriptures never portray the one true God as impersonal, detached, disinterested, or completely beyond human comprehension. We can get to know God better. Like people, some things about God are easily observed. Romans 1 says, “what can be known about God is plain…because God has shown it…For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” What God reveals about himself through the natural world we call his “general revelation.” These things generally clear all the time to all people. God is real, powerful, and eternal. But like each of us, observing those things doesn’t give us all the information about God.
Many more things must be revealed by God. 1 Corinthians 2 points out, “who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” God is personal, and to learn these personal things, God must reveal them to us.
Yet we naturally formulate a view of God based on who we think God is or ought to be.
But God must tell us who he is. RHF: And according to the Scriptures, God has done this. And for that reason, we should come to God as one who stands over us,
not one over whom we stand.
But how has God revealed to us these personal aspects of who he is? Well, here in the first verse of Joel we see what is common throughout the Bible.
It is the use of God’s personal name.
And his name tells us two things about himself. I’ve listed them in your worship guide on page 6 to help you follow along.
1. God’s personal name tells us that His character is unchanging.
2. God’s personal name tells us that His being is self-existent.
Now, notice in Joel 1:1 that “LORD” is printed in all capital letters. In many places in the Bible the word “Lord” is not in all caps. So why is it here? The reason why is that the “all-caps” version and the “normal” version are two different words in the Hebrew manuscripts. When you see it written normally, with a capital “L” and lowercase “o-r-d,” that’s a translation of the Hebrew word “Adonai” which simply means “master” or “lord.” But when you see it in all caps, that tells you that the writer of the Hebrew manuscript used God’s covenant name. This is God’s name associated with his covenant of grace. So “Lord” written normally is a general title for God. Written this way, however, it’s his personal name. And personal names in the Scriptures are loaded with meaning relative to a person’s character. The name gets at who the person is. In the Hebrew, this personal, covenant name of God translates to English with four letters: Y-H-W-H.
Ancient Hebrew didn’t have written vowels, although, interestingly, they pronounced the vowels sounds when they read it aloud. Out of reverence, the Jews generally didn’t add the vowels to God’s covenant name so that it would not be misread, mispronounced, and possibly disrespected. So they chose not say the name aloud, and at some point the way to say it became unclear. Eventually, in an attempt to begin saying the word, a group took the vowels from “Adonai” and added them to the four letters, Y-H-W-H, and in the 1500s it came to be written and spoken as “Jehovah” like we sang earlier. That pronunciation isn’t bad, but it’s generally considered to be incorrect. The best pronunciation is considered to be “Yahweh.” So going forward here, today and throughout Joel, that’s how I’ll read and pronounce it. You could read Joel 1:1 this way: “The word of Yahweh came to Joel.” Now what would that mean to the people hearing this from Joel? Well, it brings into view the time at which the name “Yahweh” was first spoken to them, and everything that comes along with knowing him as “Yahweh,” most importantly his covenant with his people, which we will look at next week.
Husbands and wives, and those who are engaged or dating, can often remember the first time they heard the name of their significant other. Maybe they heard it from someone else, or maybe from the person themselves. But it’s a special moment. That word – your name – comes to embody all that is you. Often when people have a falling out, when they no longer like each other,
they don’t even want to hear the other person’s name, because when you hear the name, everything the person has said and done comes along with it. Sometimes that’s a good thing; sometimes not a good thing.
After learning God’s name, the people would learn who he was and what he was doing. Moses uses the name “Yahweh” throughout the Old Testament book of Genesis, but the account of God telling him his name comes in Exodus 3 – the story of the burning bush. Moses was in the desert, and he saw a bush that burned with fire but was not burned up. It just continued to burn and burn. God announces to Moses that he sees the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, and that he will save them from it and bring them into a land of their own, where they can be free to know, worship, and serve the true God. Then Moses says to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
The word “Yahweh” is related to their Hebrew word which means “to be.” Do you guys remember conjugating verbs in school? Present tense, past tense, future tense? I know you young kids remember this or you’re doing it now. The farther in time we get away from those school days, the more we forget. But to help you, the present tense of “to be” is “I am.” Past tense would be “I was.”
So “Yahweh” means “I Am.” And therein lies these two things we learn from God’s covenant name, two things we must know about God to understand “the word” that came to Joel.
First, God’s personal name tells us that His character is unchanging.
God does not change. He is not in the process of becoming something else. He is who he is. He is what he is. And that is who and what he will always be. One summary of the Bible’s teaching about God says “God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being.” So never-mind the false gods of the various peoples of the world. This is the only living God, the one and only true God Almighty. James 1 says that with God “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” R.C. Sproul writes, That God’s unchanging nature, “is likely (his) most overlooked, under-appreciated, unknown attribute.” But Sproul adds that it’s so important because it enables us to depend on God to be God. In an uncertain world, with uncertain thoughts and desires lurking in each of us,
there is certainty with the God who does not change.
We all change, don’t we? Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Times change, seasons change, the world changes. Our bodies change; our minds change. How much has the world around you changed in 5, 10, 25, 50 years? Just by looking at the world around us, we would likely assume that God changes also.
But in Malachi, another minor prophet, chapter 3, God says, “I Yahweh do not change.” God was saying this to explain why he had not utterly destroyed his people even though they rebelled against him. His grace had not changed. And in the next verse of Malachi, Yahweh says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” Have you been deceived into believe that God has changed and his grace is no longer enough? Hebrews 13 says that Jesus Christ, God himself, “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” God was the unchanging in Your past. He was entirely in control then.
And when you get the future, God will be there, haven’t never changed,
still in completely control of all things.
Also, God’s personal name tells us that His being is self-existent.
Yahweh does not dependent on anything else. God was not made. He simply is. He has always been, and will always be. In Revelation 1 God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega. So he is the beginning and the end. And he is the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” He exists entirely outside of our created world and universe, although he interacts with it. Psalm 90 says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
In 2010, philosopher Antony Flew passed away at the age of 87. A New York Times article after his death noted that Flew embraced atheism as a teenager. He went on to teach at the University of Oxford, among other places, and was a strong advocate for atheism. He even debated C.S. Lewis. However, in 2004, he announced that he had changed his mind. Though he never professed belief in Christianity or in an afterlife, he stated that he believed that DNA research had shown “by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.” He pointed to what he considered to be inconsistencies with the Darwinian account of evolution and the origin of all things. Flew claimed belief in a supreme intelligence who was, in his own words, “the first initiating and sustaining cause of the universe.” After all, how could something come from nothing?
Do you ever ponder this key difference between you and God: there was a time when you did not exist, but there was never a time when God did not exist? This is who we’re dealing with. The only one worthy of our worship and our trust. The only who see it all, understands it all, and who is sovereignly in control of it all. Abraham Kuyper famously stated, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!” Yet part of us seems always unwilling to trust to his wisdom, justice, and power.
As we go to the table today, we come to the great “I AM.” Jesus infuriated the Jewish religious leaders when he said as John 8 quotes, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He put himself on par with the unchanging and self-existent God. We find “Yahweh” in many familiar places in Scripture. Psalm 23, “Yahweh is my shepherd.” Psalm 121, “My help comes from Yahweh.” Because that is who he is. And that is who it took to take our sins upon himself and remove them from us. He is the one who gives “the word” to the prophet Joel. Hebrews 1 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
We receive no fuller revelation of Yahweh than in the person of Jesus Christ. So how should we respond today? Behold the God of grace, worship him, turn from your sin, return to him and rest. Bow with me in prayer.