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“Rend your heart, not your garments!”
Repentance as God’s Salvific Condition In The Book of Joel
Old Testament, Spring 2009
…The preaching of forgiveness must always go hand-inhand with the preaching of repentance; the preaching of the gospel with the preaching of the law . . . [The Lord] too held that the only way to safeguard the gospel of forgiveness was by preaching repentance. If the church refuses to face the stern reality of sin, it will gain no credence when it talks of forgiveness. - Dietrich BonhoefFer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1949, p. 324
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. Introduction II. Book Outline III. Selected Passage: Joel 2:12-14, The importance of the Heart IV. Literary Exegesis of the Passage V. Reflection: Repentance as God’s salvific condition in the prophetic literature 5 A. The meaning of repentance B. Divine and human acts that must precede repentance C. Repentance as total conversion leading to the experience of salvation D. Human acts that must follow repentance VI. Conclusion Endnotes
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I. Introduction The preserved words of Joel ben Pethuel (i.e., “Joel, son of Pethuel”) tell us nothing about his biography other than the name of his father, which is an unusual fact in the writings of the prophets. There is no clear indication of the time when the prophet was active. But through his message we can see that he was a man open to be led by the spirit of the LORD. Joel’s citations and reflections of earlier prophetic saying reveal him as a conscientious student of his predecessors of the prophetic movement (i.e., Amos, Zephaniah, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum and Malachi), moved to speak boldly of judgment, repentance and forgiveness to a people amidst an extreme difficulty. Dating Joel’s activity and his book is a matter of dispute. A few scholars place his existence as early as the 9th century BCE, and some still argue that it is pre-exilic. But most scholars today favor a post-exilic setting, and place Joel’s book between 500 and 350 BCE. Several passages assume the existence of the Second Temple, the priesthood, and daily sacrifices. There is no mention of a king or royal court, but priests and elders are the community’s leaders. The walls of Jerusalem have been restored (2:7, 9) as it happened under Nehemiah’s direction. The community is not facing external threats. All evidence seems to point to the conditions of Judah during the Persian period, when it was a small province of the Persian Empire. The prophecy of Joel extends from the calamity of his days up to time when the people of God will be restored on the day of the LORD. Consequently, Joel may be correctly called the prophet of the day of the LORD. This day of the LORD is mentioned five times in the book (1:15; 2:1.11.31; 3:14). The book of Joel has particular interest for Christians, thanks to the citation of Joel’s prophecy of the day of the LORD (2:28-29) in the book of Acts in relation to the events of Pentecost. Though attributed to a minor prophet, the book of Joel has intrinsic importance for Jewish and Christian theologies.1 II. Book Outline I. Joel 1:1, The Superscription II. Joel 1:2-12, The Locust Plague A. 1:2-4, Tell the Children B. 1:5-12, Three Calls to Lamentation III. Joel 1:13-20, Words to the Priests
A. 1:2-16, An unparalleled plague of locusts and a drought, and their widespread effects B. 1:17-20, the Drought’s Effects and a Priestly Prayer IV. Joel 2:1-11, The Day of the Lord’s Army V. Joel 2:12-17, The Call to Repentance A. 2:12-14, The Importance of the Heart B. 2:15-17, Instructions to the Priests VI. Joel 2:18-27, The Restoration of Communion with God A. B. A. B. A. B. C. D. 2:18-20, Covenant Curse Change to Blessing 2:21-27, An Oracle of Salvation 2:28-29, The Gift of the Spirit 2:30-32, Signs in Heaven and on Earth 3:1-8, The Lord’s Case against the Nations 3:9-12, The Nations Called to Battle 3:13-17, The Final Battle and Its Outcome 3:18-21, The Glorious Future for the Faithful2
VII. Joel 2:28-32, Signs of the Coming of the Lord Day
VII. Joel 3:1-21, Judgment and Salvation in the Day of the Lord
III. Selected Passage: Joel 2:12-14, The importance of the Heart 2:12: “Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning;” 2:13: “And rend your heart and not your garments." Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness And relenting of evil.” 2:14: “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD your God?"3 IV. Literary Exegesis of the Passage Amid Judah’s desperate situation caused by an unprecedented locust plague and drought, God speaks in verses 12 and 13a, calling the Judeans to repent. In the Hebrew text, God utters a “but” (yet = vegam = )םגוthat indicates that God refuses to let go of Israel. God refuses to accept the situation as it is. God is determined to forgive and to welcome back his beloved Israel, regardless of what Israel has done. God’s call for
repentance is a plea and a command, followed by specific instructions. The people are to return to the LORD with “all their heart”, an inner disposition expressed through outward behaviors of “fasting, weeping and mourning”. The LORD is clear: “Rend your heart, and not your garments!” (2:13). Tearing one’s garments in lamentation was an expression of deep emotion in times of grief, terror, horror or misfortune (Gen. 37:29, 34; Num 14:6; 2 Sam 3:31; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 9:3), but this is not what the LORD wants from his people. God’s plea for repentance speaks of God’s desire for people to change their heart. In Biblical Hebrew, the idea of repentance is represented by two verbs: ( שובshuv = to return) and ( נחםnicham = to feel sorrow). In the same idiomatic context, the heart symbolizes what the brain symbolizes in contemporary culture: it is understood as the seat of will and intellect, not as the source of emotions. God, by calling his people to “render their hearts”, is asking them to return to him in a deliberate act of will, resulting from a rational decision affirmed by emotional contrition. The appeal to love, worship and obey God with “all one’s heart” is repeated throughout Israel’s history (Deut 6:6; Jer 4:4; 32:39-40; Ezek 18:31). Other prophets also present the notion of repentance as the change of one’s life that requires “turning around” or going in the opposite direction (Isa 9:13; Jer 5:3; Amos 4:6, 89; Hag 2:17). In Joel, nevertheless, God is asking Judah to make a change based on the nature of God, not on the actions of the people. Verse 13 implies this with the words “your God”, alluding to the covenant between God and Israel: “They shall be my people and I will be their God” (Jer 32:38; Jer 31:33). The nature of God expressed in a statement is found eight more times in the Old Testament (Exod 34:6-7; Num 1:8; Neh 9:17; Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Jonah 4:2; Nah 1:3). The form in Joel is probably taken from Jonah 4:2, since Joel 4:14 also draws on Jonah 3:9. The adjectives used to describe God’s qualities are “gracious” (hannun = )חנון “merciful” (rahum = “ ,)םרחוslow to anger” (erek apayim = ,)אפים ארךand “compassionate” (NIV) or “abounding in steadfast love” (NRSV) or “abounding in lovingkindness” (NAB). Lovingkinndess is a composite word to describe God’s supreme quality of commitment with regards to God’s relationship to God’s people (hesed = .)סחדGod’s graciousness is his total goodwill of a superior to an inferior. His mercifulness can be defined as the love of a mother for her child. The literal interpretation of “slow to anger” is “of a long nose”.4This poetic image describes a God whose wrath takes a long time to appear as fire coming out of God’s nostrils—therefore this is a God with a “long nose”. This God is not quick to punish, but waits patiently for his people to repent for their sins and return to him. God’s “steadfast
love” or “lovingkindness” ( = hesed) is God’s faithfulness to the covenantal bond God established with his people. On the basis of these qualities the Judeans are called to return, even though they have deserted their God. Human repentance, nevertheless, is not a guarantee for Divine forgiveness. God’s grace is not conditional or dependent upon human repentance. Salvation is a free gift that cannot be conditioned upon human change of heart. God invites his people to himself, calling them to a change of consciousness that will also change their actions and bring them close to God again. But God’s Grace does not depend on human activities or demonstrations of repentance. Verse 14 makes clear mention of God’s freedom to decide about renewal when and where God pleases. If God forgives Israel, he will leave signs of his pity—grain offerings and drink offerings for people’s worship rituals to Him. V. Reflection: Repentance as God’s salvific condition in the prophetic literature Forgiveness is God’s free Grace, independent of human actions. The Bible speaks of a God who remains faithful to his people, even when they abandon and forget him. But, when God calls the strayed people to himself, repentance is a condition humans must fulfill in order for them to experience restoration in their relationship with God. The fruits of repentance is the human “return” to God, the renewal of the covenantal relationship, and the enjoyment of Divine blessings that are seen as prosperity, longevity, power, protection, expansion over other nations, and national unity. Seen in this context, repentance is then a fundamental part of God's requirements for the human creature. In the book of Joel, repentance, seen as a divine requirement as well as a plea for renewal of the covenantal relationship, becomes a gift from God that humans must receive in order to experience salvation. In the prophetic literature, repentance from sin is a central theme. Even though almost all prophets name the sins for which God is asking people to repent, in the book of Joel, the nature of people’s sins is not specified. But Joel’s name, which means “Yahweh is God”, as well as verses 2:27 and 3:17, may indicate that the primary sin that the prophet had in mind was the sin of apostasy, the failure to recognize that Yahweh alone was God. By asking his people to repent, God also instructs people how to repent. As an inner change that requires cognitive and emotional processes followed by behavioral changes, repentance is presented in the prophetic literature as a process that happens in necessary and inherently coherent stages. These stages involve a clear understanding of the meaning of repentance, divine and human acts preceding the act of repentance, repentance as total
conversion leading to the experience of salvation, and human acts that follow repentance. The stages, outlined as follows, present repentance as the Divine contition that humans must accept in order for them to experience salvation. A. The meaning of repentance a. As mentioned above, repentance in the Old Testament is seen as a “return to God” that follows a change of heart (i.e. change of mind). It is understood as a change (i.e., a turn) in one’s ways from wrong to right, resulting from a conscious understanding that one’s former ways were harmful, because one had abandoned the ways of God or God himself. In Jonah 3:4-10, when Jonah preached, the people of Nineveh gave heed, were sorry, and “turned from their evil ways” (vv 8,10). b. Repentance always refers to the change of one’s mind with regards to committing sin. Sin is understood as every human thought, emotion, behavior and attitude toward God and each other that violates the covenant God established with his people and the Law that God handed to Israel through the leaders he raised for Israel. In order for the people repent, they must abandon their sinful ways and become obedient to God’s will through their thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions (Ezek 14:6; Jeremiah 8:4-6; 3:7,10-14; 25:3-7; 36:3,7; Zechariah 1:3-4). B. Divine and human acts that must precede repentance a. God calls the people to repent through prophets that God commissions for this purpose. The prophets’ mission is to tell the people the truth about God’s imminent judgment, if the people fail to repent. The prophets are accountable for speaking God’s word to the people as it is, regardless of people’s resistance to listening. False prophets encourage people to continue sinning by not telling them that they need to turn (i.e., repent) from their wicked ways (Ezek 13:22). The prophets who do not have the heart to tell the people God’s Word and compromise the truth, are held accountable by God for the lost souls that result (Ezek 33:79, 14-16). People in sin need to hear exactly what God's word says. To withhold the truth is against God’s will and is of no help to anyone; instead, it leads people to perdition (Jer 23:12; 26:2,3; Isaiah 6:10). b. The people must acknowledge their participation in sin. Before the people decide to change, they must recognize their guilt by means of their transgressions. When honest people hear the truth preached, they see the how they participate in sin through their
thoughts, attitudes and actions. Others, when confronted with their sins, refuse to admit guilt and ask, "What sin? What do I have to repent of?" (Mal 3:7). As long as they defend their practice and refuse to admit error, the people have not repented (Jer 3:12f; 8:4-6; 5:3; 44:4,5; Jonah 3:8,10; Amos 4:6-11). c. The people must feel heartbreaking pain for having sinned against God. In Joel 2:12,13, the Judeans are told to turn to God (repent) with weeping and mourning. To tear their heart, not their garments. God wants not mere outward expressions of grief but sincere, deeply felt sorrow and contrition (Isaiah 57:15; 66:2; 22:12-14; Jer 31:19; 5:3; 6:26; Jonah 3:5-8; Ezra 10:1). C. Repentance as total conversion leading to the experience of salvation a. It is possible for the people to feel sorry for their wrongdoings without consciously changing their ways. In the prophetic literature, repentance means a total conversion of thoughts, attitudes and outward behaviors toward God and fellow humans, without which salvation from God cannot be experienced. This conversion must be heartfelt in order to result in the development of proper attitudes (Joel 2:12,13; Ezek 18:31; Jer 24:7). b. Although God’s forgiveness is a free gift, depends solely on God’s freedom to forgive when and whom God chooses, and can cannot be solicited through human repentance, yet repentance is a divine prerequisite (i.e., condition) in order for human creatures to experience God’s forgiveness. Lack of repentance signifies spiritual death and eternal separation from God (Ezek 18:21-23,27,28,30-32). The wicked must turn from evil and do right or they will die (spiritually). Divine forgiveness is experienced only after the human decision to change (Joel 2:12-14; Jer 36:3,7; Isaiah 55:7). D. Human acts that must follow repentance a. Repentance involves the conscious decision to change one’s ways and remain consistent in this change. A sign of repentance is that the people—who “turned from their ways”—no longer commit sinful acts. To avoid death, the wicked must turn from evil and do right, keeping God's laws. The real fruit of repentance is conscious abandonment of the wicked ways and a commitment to act according to God’s will (Ezek 18:21-32; Jonah 3:8,10; Isaiah 55:7; Jer 4:1; 18:8,11; 44:4-5; 25:3-7). b. Repentance involves conscious and continuous acts of restitution toward God and toward people, following the experience of forgiveness. The ones who were wicked must not only walk in the statutes, but also return what they stole (Ezek 3:14,15). When Israelite
men had married foreign women, contrary to God's law, they had to repent and put away their wives and children (Ezra 10:3,11,17,19,44). VI. Conclusion Joel 2:12-19 is the lection for Ash Wednesday in most churches. Its call at the beginning of every Lenten season is for the rendering of our hearts, for that deliberate exercise of will and thought that will turn our lives in opposite directions and point us toward God. Biblical faith involves making up our minds to be obedient to God and then making the conscious effort to walk in God’s way. This we cannot do by our own powers, but only with God’s help. Repentance, like grace, is a gift from God, which God offers us through the voice of Joel—and all the other prophets—clearly outlining the steps we my take to complete it. As we take these steps we must always remember that our repentance cannot limit God’s freedom to grant or deny us forgiveness. Remembering this keeps us humble before God, as we approach God “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), always praying, always hoping, always having faith in God’s abundant, everlasting, ever needed mercy.
Maria Grace, Ph.D.
ENDNOTES Wolff, H. Joel and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos, Augsburg Fortress Publishers (October 1977) 2 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abington Press, 1996, p. 304 3 New American Standard Bible, 1995 4 Heschel, A. The Prophets, Jewish Pubn Society, June 1969, p. 171
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