Of Moral Earnestness and the Spirit of Burning; Thoughts on the Book of Joel

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Devouring locusts, drought, and famine: from these portentous plagues Joel catapults us into the consideration of eternal issues, his broad brush painting across the centuries down to the very end of time. It is certainly not a quiet armchair read, not the kind of read that allows one to thumb through a favorite set of theological categories and then to sit back in smug satisfaction, the world sorted, the furies tamed. Not at all. Joel sets us back on our heels, startles and overwhelms, taking us into uncharted waters, historical events for which there is no precedent, the whole summed up in the brief and bracing phrase “the day of the Lord.” That day cannot be tamed. No amount of philosophical sophistry or theological sophistication can whittle it down into man sized bites. It is the day when God stands up and renders His verdict. “Alas for the day,” Joel cries. “For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.” And further on, “The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” It is sobering, and the question which it poses us, how are we to respond to such a book, how to live in the light of such a message?

We might be tempted to set it aside, arguing that Joel spoke only of a judgment which occurred in his day and that the ancients took a rather grim and savage view of such things anyhow, a view which we have now realized lacks sophistication. But then we swim against a great deal of scripture and New Testament scripture at that, if we attempt to go in this direction. Joel's expectation is writ large across the pages of the book of Revelation, and the background of that coming day of ultimate reckoning sprinkled throughout the rest of the New Testament letters and epistles. No, we can't dodge. The day of the Lord is yet future, earlier reckonings gathered up into one last reckoning.

We might be tempted to argue that the brunt of this judgment, this God “againstness” is reserved for the wicked alone. After all it is the nations which are gathered into the valley of Jehosophat, the goyim which are to feel the brunt of His wrath. The church is not concerned in this. But then we ignore the fact that it is the “church” that is addressed first, the people of God which are called to account. It is the elect which are called upon to rend their hearts. This movement of God is indiscriminate. It is a movement against iniquity, where ever it is found, and it begins with the house of God. (1 Peter 4:17,18)

Thus, dodges aside, we are faced with the necessity of moral earnestness. Personally, this is the first thing that the book of Joel confronts me with. Am I capable of moral striving? Have I grasped the truth that the stakes are high, that it is either overcome or be overcome? Have I grasped just how deep repentance must go, piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow? The danger of our age, the age labeled by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre as the age “after virtue”, is that we should employ gospel promises to cut the nerve of moral earnestness rather than to buttress it.

But further, this capacity of moral earnestness is rooted in the comprehension of the holiness of God. When God moves in judgment only holiness will survive. “So Jerusalem will be holy,” Joel asserts, “and strangers no more will pass through it.” (Joel 3:17) This is not to negate the gospel refuge. On the contrary it firms it up and puts it in proper tone. The gospel is not merely a mechanism for psychological comfort, but rather an expulsive agent of sin in the life. After all, the gospel itself is a judgment on the fallen nature, a redemptive moving against all that yet bears the taint of death.

How much this has come to mean to me as I have wrestled with my own proclivity to sin, facing up to the ease with which it entangles me. How grateful I am that God sticks to His holy guns, refusing to give over to the falseness which is yet in me, unwilling to cave in to my moral duplicity. He takes me to task, He disciplines, He hunts me down that I might yet be saved. (Psalm 39) Yet here also, if we are not careful, the spirit of our age will derail us, healing our brokenness superficially, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace, divorcing in effect gospel comfort from the divine and holy determination to bring an end to sin.

Need we be discouraged? Not at all, for God will attain to His ends. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” says the Lord. And this Spirit, Joel assures us, will be abundantly poured out in the face of the crises. And to all who accept its burning (Luke 12:49) there is guaranteed an abundant redemption, a complete restoration into the fullness of God's good will.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5216