May 27, 2011

Tornados and Locusts, Joplin and Joel

This past week I started a Bible Study on the Old Testament book of Joel.  When I started preparing for chapter 1 I thought it was going to be difficult to help the students see how a description of a locust invasion is relevant to their lives.  However watching the news it was easy to see how relevant this is.  In chapter 1 Joel describes an unnerving natural disaster.  It doesn’t take us long to think of recent natural disasters that have caused massive devastation: the Joplin tornado and other recent killer tornados, the Mississippi flood, the Japanese earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed 230,000 people, and the list continues.

In Joel 1 (read it) the prophet describes a locust invasion of unparalleled proportions.  This was not the kind of thing that happened to every generation (see verse 2-3).  All vegetation was completely stripped away by the locust army.  The crops were destroyed.  Food for the people and their animals was gone.  Think about the effect this would have on a society in Old Testament times.  It isn’t as though they could drive to the next town to buy food.  No trucks would be coming with supplies from FEMA.  Their animals were going to die.  People were going to die.  There was no escaping this tragedy.  Even the drunkards would not be able to escape by drowning their sorrows in alcohol (vs. 5). 

Why did Joel spend so much time writing about this?  Joel could have just written, “There was a terrible locust invasion that destroyed all vegetation.”  This would have been true, but it wouldn’t have helped others to feel the impact of this tragedy.  In the same way, it is one thing to hear a news report about the Joplin tornado.  It is another thing look at the pictures.  It is another thing to be there, and another thing to actually live it.  I think that one of the reasons Joel wrote in poetry is that poetry communicates feeling.  This isn’t abstract head knowledge.  We need to notice that the Bible does not treat disaster lightly or downplay it as if it really isn’t all that bad.  It treats disaster as disaster. 

In verse 15 Joel uses the locust plague to remind people that “The Day of the Lord” is coming.  The Day of the Lord is a repeated term used in Scripture to refer to the time of God’s intense judgment against sin that will take place at the end of the world.  It will be the time when God stops holding back judgment.

The Bible does not let God off the hook for natural disasters.  For example, consider Psalm 135:6-7 and 2 Chronicles 7:13-14: 

Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
 in heaven and on earth,
 in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
 who makes lightnings for the rain
 and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. –Psalm 135:6-7

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. -2 Chronicles 7:13-14

God is in control, although not in a sense that we can “blame” Him for having done anything wrong.  We live in a fallen world because of man’s sin.  Even in times of disaster, God does not give anyone worse than any of us deserve.  The problem is that because God usually gives us much better than we deserve, we start to think that we deserve the good life.  We do not.  Every day that we are not swallowed up by an earthquake is a day of God’s mercy and grace.

When God permits or ordains disaster, He is doing it for a purpose.  Yet this does not mean that the people of Joplin were any worse sinners than the rest of us.  We need to remember what Jesus taught in Luke 13:2-5:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Often God uses these disasters to shake us out of our false sense of security.  Like the falling of the tower that Jesus mentions in Luke 13:1-5, disasters can be used by God as a reminder to us of the fate we all would deserve without a Savior.  If that is the case, then we need to learn from these events and not let them go to waste.  With Luke 13:1-5 in mind, James Boice makes a good observation in his commentary on Joel:

When we listen carefully we hear him [Jesus] saying [in Luke 13:2-5] that those who object to tragedies like Lisbon [the earthquake of 1755 that killed 60,000] or the locust plague do so because they are asking the wrong question.  They ask, “Why should disaster fall upon these?  Why should God strike such innocent people?”  But what they should be asking is: “Why haven’t these disasters come on us? Why haven’t they destroyed us?”  Our problem is that we have forgotten how sinful we are.  We have forgotten that it generally takes a disaster of unparalleled proportions to wake us from sin’s lethargy (Minor Prophets, 1:126). 

Mourn with those suffering from tragedy.   At the same time let us be grateful that God gives us time to repent instead of sending all the tornados we deserve. 


  1. Hey how do I get one of those workbook things that is for your morning services (Doctrine and Life)? I saw that Ken Postma has one and I saw its authored by Adam and you so I want one. Can I have one? Pweeze? Also I saw the SB short video and the senior salute video and it was very encouraging! God is still really really blessing the PYG and I am glad you and the sponsors are still so committed to being used by Him. Takes me back!

  2. You should post it on your articles page with the other Bible study notes!

  3. Hey Nate. In regards to this post I thought you might like someone else's post.


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