Do you remember the Asian tsunami that struck on Boxing Day 2004? It horrified the world. Some said it was God’s judgment on that part of Asia for the child sex trafficking that went on there. Personally I don’t think so, but we’ll come back to that.

The fact is that bad things happen to us all. Joel’s prophecy came in the wake of a seriously bad thing that had struck the people of Judah: a plague of locusts. It had devastated the land[1]—and at a time when the people were already struggling with nationwide drought.

Joel rightly identified this tragedy as ‘the day of the LORD’—a common Old Testament phrase meaning God’s coming in judgment. So in this case the tragedy did have a link with the nation’s persistently sinful ways. What’s more, Joel said, they could expect yet more ‘days of the LORD’. There would be an imminent one when Judah’s enemies from the north—Assyria and Babylon—would invade. And that one, like the plague of locusts, would prefigure the ultimate ‘day of the LORD’ at the end of the world.

Our own bad times have much in common with Judah’s. One feature of theirs was barrenness. In the drought that accompanied the locusts everything ‘dried up’ and ‘withered’.[2] Our bad times often leave us feeling that way. We shrivel up inside and get depressed. The daily routine becomes a grind. We have no sparkle left. Our ‘get up and go’ gets up and goes. We lose all sense of fruitfulness in life and in God’s service.

We feel, too, that we have been invaded, just as the locusts had invaded Judah and as the foreigners would later do when they came charging in.[3] For you it might be a sudden accident, a serious diagnosis or a sudden death that invades—or a natural disaster like the tsunami, or an earthquake, tornado or volcanic eruption. Such things overwhelm us and we can’t easily shake off their effects.

Such events upset the status quo and lead to anxiety. The locust-plague had rocked the nation’s stability, dashing their everyday expectations of growth and progress. Indeed, it had reversed those expectations: ‘Before them’, Joel recorded, ‘the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste.’[4] Instead of happy progress from chaos to Eden, as at the creation, this was a move in the opposite direction: from Eden to chaos. That’s what invasion by bad times does to us. We expect business as usual, a steady going-on, but get instead a complete upset.

And that brings anxiety. Fear and worry grip our hearts. Judah felt like a young woman whose fiancé had been snatched away by death before they’d had chance to be married. And now here she was, riddled with worries. How would she cope without him? And if she did eventually get over the tragedy, would she ever find another husband.[5] Fear eats away at our insides—the fear of illness, of financial ruin, of losing one’s mind, of death.

Why do such bad times come? Sometimes they come to express God’s direct judgment. That was the case with Judah and the locusts. Indeed, the locusts, Joel warned, were just a warning of bigger trouble to come if they didn’t get their lives straightened out. A man who suffers chest pains is being warned to take steps to avoid a heart attack. The locusts were God’s way of saying, ‘Repent and sort yourselves out, or the next invaders will not be insects but foreign soldiers storming through the land.’[6]

It was different, I believe, with the Asian tsunami. We have no solid reason for viewing it as the direct judgment of God for child sex trafficking or anything else. It was more likely a result of the sad fact that we live in a fallen creation. We are a fallen race, Adam’s offspring. Children are born with Downs Syndrome or spina bifida. Some have a genetic disposition to heart disease. Some develop hormonal imbalances that trigger erratic behaviour.

When Adam fell he brought the created world crashing down with him. Genesis records that in response to his sin God cursed, not Adam himself, but the earth: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you.’[7] And now the created order groans under that curse, longing to be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay’.[8] Sometimes it lashes out like a bad-tempered person and we get grinding tectonic plates, earthquakes, floods, lightning strikes, typhoons and volcanic lava-showers. And people get hurt as a result. We should probably see the Asian tsunami as a catastrophe in this category rather than as the direct judgment of God on a particularly sinful people.

Jesus had something to say about this. He made it clear that tragic events are not usually God’s judgment. Some pilgrims, in Jerusalem for the Passover, had been butchered by Pilate’s troops while they were slaughtering their sacrificial animals. On another occasion falling masonry from a tower had killed eighteen people. Were the victims in these cases more sinful than other people? Jesus’ answer was clear: ‘I tell you, no!’[9]

He gave the same answer when he and his disciples came upon a man blind from birth. The disciples wondered whether it was the man himself or his parents whose sin had prompted this tragedy. Jesus plainly told them it was neither.[10] So when bad times come your way and you are tempted to ask, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’, the answer is most likely ‘Nothing’. So continue to live with a clear conscience and trust your life to God, who specialises in promising good times.

Through Joel he promised the people of Judah restoration: ‘I will make up to you for the years the locusts have eaten.’[11] That’s the kind of God he is; he loves to send his people the very opposite of what has troubled them. Instead of devastating barrenness he would send Judah fruitfulness.[12] Have you been depressed? Let him give you a sound mind. Has your daily routine become a daily grind? Let him enable you to see blessing in everyday things. Has the sparkle gone? Let him brighten you up with the confidence that ‘I can do everything through him who gives me strength’.[13] Have you lost your sense of fruitfulness as a Christian? Let him remind you that ‘the anointing remains’,[14] that you can’t lose it, that the Holy Spirit is still in you to direct and bless you and that you are quietly making more of an impact for him than you realise.

Instead of enemies invading, look to see enemies driven out. God promised to drive Judah’s enemies into the sea, just as he had earlier done with the Egyptians at the Red Sea.[15] Tragedy, accident or disease may have struck your life and they can’t be undone, but God can certainly drive out their effects so that you don’t spend the rest of your life traumatised or emotionally scarred.

Instead of upset, leading to anxiety, expect to find trust, leading to a mind at peace. ‘Be not afraid, O land,’ said the prophet to Judah. Instead ‘be glad and rejoice’, for ‘surely the LORD has done great things’.[16] When circumstances shake the foundations of your everyday life, lean on your unshakeable God.[17] His heart is set on providing you with good times down the road. You can overcome the effects of the locust-swarm. Indeed, you can become like John the Baptist, who ate locusts—he nourished himself on the ugly things!

But when will these good times arrive? Ultimately, of course, when Jesus returns. Then, and only then, will your storm-tossed vessel drop anchor in the permanently safe haven of the age to come. But there’s a ‘meanwhile’, too. You can know a degree of God’s deliverance here and now, and Joel himself prophesied to Judah how that would come about: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people’. There would be dreams, visions, prophecies—and deliverance for all who would call on the Lord’s name.[18]

That time began at Pentecost, when Peter quoted this very passage, and it continues to this day. This is the era of the Spirit, when deliverance is available to the people of God. Sometimes that will mean deliverance from your troubles. At other times it will mean deliverance in your troubles so that, even though the bad times persist, you know the Lord’s comfort and strength in the very midst of them. That’s what Paul meant when, listing a string of grim afflictions, he concluded, ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’[19] The first word in that sentence is the key.

Get your personal tragedies into perspective. Your eternal destiny is secure in Christ. In the meantime the Holy Spirit is already here, the down-payment on those blessings to come. So take your share of the storms, the setbacks, the drought and locust-swarms, but believe God for his deliverance, for his blessing—and for the good times to outshine the bad times.

Copyright © David Matthew 2010

 

JOEL

Bad Times, Good Times

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Joel

The gist of this article

Bad things happen to us all. Sometimes we bring them on ourselves - as Judah did in Joel’s day - and sometimes they come out of the blue, apparently undeserved. Either way, God is a specialist in replacing bad times with good ones!

 

1. Joel 1:1-7

2. Joel 1:12

3. Joel 2:7-9

4. Joel 2:3

5. Joel 1:8

6. Joel 2:1, 12-14

7. Genesis 3:17

8. Romans 8:19-21

10. John 9:1-3

9. Luke 13:1-5

11. Joel 2:25 ESV

12. Joel 2:22

13. Philippians 4:13 NIV

14. 1 John 2:27

15. Joel 2:20

16. Joel 2:21

17. Psalm 27:1; Psalm 46:1

18. Joel 2:28-32

19. Romans 8:37