I recently preached at Valley Bible Church on Joel 3 and decided to rework my notes into an article. It’s long and perhaps not very rewarding (not the best sales pitch, I know) but here it is:
Joel 3: Fight or flight at judgment day
I’m sure you’ve heard of the “terrible twos,” but hearing about them and parenting through them are two very different things. Actually, my son Elijah-who turned two in December, hasn’t been too difficult through these first few months of the terrible twos. But he hasn’t been an angel either. In fact, he routinely disobeys. By routine, I really mean routine. Mostly it is just little things that are meaningful only for the fact that he is disobeying. But sometimes…sometimes he is outright rebellious. Yesterday I came around the corner and witnessed the following scene: Evie, his one year old sister, walked over to what remained of his breakfast, a few strawberries and half a pancake, and began to eat it. Breakfast had been over for an hour or so and I couldn’t get Elijah to finish what was on his plate, but now he sees his sister taking what is his. “Mine!” He screams, sounding like Gollum over his preciousss (LOTR anyone?). He runs toward her full of fury and vengeance. She looks at him with a clueless and helpless innocence. With a fork in his hand, he pushes her head hard enough to knock her down and says “NO EVIE!” At this point I move toward him. He looks up and realizes what is coming and instinctively starts running and crying at the same time, to which I say while snatching him up “you better cry” (it was the best I could think of in the moment). Judgment and punishment followed.
Flight is one of his immediate responses to coming judgment. There have also been a couple of times where he has fought me, almost preemptively. Sensing that punishment is coming either way, he prepares for battle and tries to fight me off. I love Elijah and my punishment is never too harsh or without kind words and gentle touch following, yet he has these mechanisms built in of fight or flight.
In the third chapter of Joel we see that God is giving us these same options when considering His great and final day of judgment (read this article for more on the “day of the lord”). The first two chapters of Joel contain prophecies about this “day of the Lord” and Peter even quotes one of these prophecies in his great sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. The fact that he begins his sermon with an allusion to the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions and prophesying right in their midst begs the question: “has the day of the Lord already happened?” Looking at Joel 3, it is hard to give an unequivocal yes to that question. In fact, I don’t believe this moment has happened yet. I think God was giving Joel and his people a sneak preview to the final terrible fulfillment of the great day at the end of time.
Longtime RTS (and current Third Millennium) professor Richard Pratt’s teaching on the kingdom of God is a great model for understanding Joel’s prophecy of the day of the Lord. Pratt explains the Kingdom as existing in three great stages: inaugurated, continued, and consummated (check this little $3 booklet for a distillation of this model). Just as the Kingdom has different, but connected stages, so does the day of the Lord as Joel describes it. The inauguration came on that great day of pentecost. It is continued even today as God pours out his Spirit on all who “call on the name of the Lord” to be saved as Joel 2:32 describes. And it is consummated, or brought to a final conclusion, at the end of time. It is the consummation of this prophecy that we turn our attention to now in chapter 3.
“For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.
What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will return your payment on your own head swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border. Behold, I will stir them up from the place to which you have sold them, and I will return your payment on your own head. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away for the LORD has spoken.”
“Behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem.” Has this happened yet? I think we must say…sort of. God did pour out His spirit, His people from all over the known world did call on his name and were saved. You could even say that Jesus himself, was the restoration of the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem. But we haven’t seen God gathering the nations for a final and terrible judgment yet. And so we must say it has been inaugurated, and continued but it hasn’t been consummated yet. Let’s look at some of the details of these verses.
When God says he will gather all the nations and bring them into the valley of Jehoshaphat, what comes to mind? Maybe there is a valley somewhere named after King Jehoshaphat-one of the good kings of Judah who reigned for 25 years (you can read about him in 2 Chronicles, starting in chapter 17). Or maybe you think of Ole Sammity Sam shouting “jumpin Jehoshaphat!” while blasting his six-shooters. Either way, you’d be wrong. There actually is not a valley anywhere that was named the valley of Jehoshaphat in the time of Joel. And there is not a valley anywhere in the world that could hold all the nations together. Therefore, the best way to understand the valley of Jehoshaphat-and much of the prophecy of Joel-is theologically. Jehoshaphat literally means “Jehovah judges.” Joel is asking us to picture a final judgment of all people. In fact, this final chapter of Joel is depicting a legal courtroom scene with God sitting as judge over all people.
He goes on to say that He will enter into judgment with them on behalf of His people and His heritage, Israel. God will judge. He is concerned here with two things, His people and His glory. How have you treated his people and His glory, these are the things that matter in the end when you stand before God in ultimate judgment. God mentions some of the guilty actions the nations have done; scattered His people, divided His land, traded and sold children for pleasure. Here he shows us that one indicator of a nation against Him is how they treat children. Are children viewed as interfering with pleasure? Certainly most of you would say no when thinking about your own children. You would most likely sacrifice any pleasure for the good of your children, and that is good. But what about other children? What about children you don’t know? And how are we doing as a nation with this? How do we view unborn babies in our nation? Since Roe v Wade in 1973, 50 million unborn babies have been aborted. 50 million babies in 39 years. We need to pray for our nation. Now, I don’t mean to say that every time an abortion happens it is because of a clear choice between a child and pleasure, but I do know that for many, abortion is seen as just another form of birth control–which is simply that: a choice of pleasure and comfort and convenience over a child. I am not here to condemn anyone who may have had an abortion, but be sure of this: God will judge at that day. Fortunately, there is a way of escaping the guilty verdict that you and I are certain to hear based on how we measure up to the criteria of God’s glory and God’s people.
God then singles out Tyre and Sidon and all the regions of Philistia, and in courtroom fashion, He issues his opening address as the prosecuting attorney: “you have, you have, you have.” Then as Judge He then proclaims their punishment: “I will, I will, I will.” Their punishment is to be directly related to their crime. They stole God’s riches and sold God’s people and God says He will return their payment on their own head. Tyre, Sidon, and the five cities of Philistia were constant thorns in the side of God’s people and eventually in the time of Joel they were outright enemies whose trade included slave-trade. It may be interesting to learn that these enemies were first defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and then suffered a final defeat-a defeat that resulted in mass destruction and thousands of defeated people being taken and sold as slaves-at the hands of Alexander the great around 330 BC. Again we have a picture of partial fulfillment, of inaugurated and continued fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
God finishes these verses with a pronouncement of authority, legally binding His verdict by these words: “for the LORD has spoken.” God has spoken, and we should remember that God’s plan of redemption, culminating in a great day of judgment,deliverance and victory, marches unstoppably onward regardless of how bad it looks for the church. Apostasy (or falling away from the truth of the Gospel) and wickedness within the church cannot stop it. Islam cannot stop it. Godless scientific worldviews cannot stop it. Church division cannot stop it. Anti-christian regimes in closed countries cannot stop it.
Jonathan Edwards described this onward march of God like this: “the universe is the chariot in which [Christ] rides, and makes progress towards the last end of all things on the wheels of his providence…[at times] the under part of the wheel of a chariot seems to run backward, but it is not so.” Maybe it would be easier for you to picture car rims instead of chariot wheels. Jesus is riding an escalade with 20″ rims ever progressing toward the last end of all things, toward this day of decision. And even when the rims appear to be moving backwards (we’ve all seen this, right?) progress is being made. Because He has spoken and He is true and sovereign and powerful.
“Proclaim this among the nations: Consecrate for war; stir up the mighty men. Let all the men of war draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” Hasten and come, all you surrounding nations, and gather yourselves there.”
Here we have a summons for battle. This is a battle summons that would have sounded familiar to Israel as it mirrors many that they had issued among their own tribes. But here God is actually issuing it to the nations that are against Him. He is saying, “get ready, get your mighty men together. Actually, that’s not even close to enough. Get your farmers and weaklings ready. And you don’t have enough weapons either. Bring your garden tools.” Basically, you need everyone and you don’t have enough weapons. This is a taunt against the bigger and stronger nations that have come against God. Israel has never been the biggest or the strongest. In fact, in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, God says “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” God’s people were always David to the world’s Goliath. This was in part to demonstrate the great power of God’s hand.
In verse 10 we also have an interesting parody of Isaiah 2:4. Isaiah says “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” But Isaiah 2:4 is about Jesus and the way the true church in Jesus will act. It is a powerful and stark contrast. In Jesus there is no occasion for war with God. Apart from Jesus there will be battle. The passage in Isaiah is part of a back and forth prophecy between doom and deliverance, judgment and peace. 2:4 is followed closely by a description of the Lord’s day in 2:10-11: “Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty. The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” Find a rock to hide in. Cover yourself with dust before the terror of the LORD.
“Bring down your warriors, O LORD. Let the nations stir themselves up and come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”
God brings his warriors to the battle and takes his seat as judge. He again mentions the valley of Jehoshaphat and now we are to picture a valley overflowing with God’s wicked enemies dressed for battle. And yet, the order is given for God’s army to attack. The nations have been assembled to lose this battle. The poetic language of the ripe harvest and full winepress is meant to show that the nations are there to be destroyed easily. Verse 14 offers a bit of commentary to the battle scene. The name of the valley changes from God judges to decision, or verdict. The verdict is coming! Our attention is also drawn back to the sun and the moon darkening in chapter 2, tying this all together.
“The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel.”
The courtroom scene now climaxes in the verdict that God issues. God’s voice roars from Zion, from the center of His Kingdom. He proclaims a verdict so strong that it quakes the heavens and the earth. Hearing this description, His people would have immediately thought of Mt Sinai in Exodus 19. Just before giving Moses the 10 commandments, God’s presence shook the very mountain before them and caused the people to fear His power. At His final verdict at the end of time, the shaking will not be limited to one mountain but will extend to all the created universe. But! But the LORD is a refuge to his people! Hebrews 12:26-29 puts it like this: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken-that is, things that have been made-in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” In other words, those who refuge in the LORD have received an unshakeable kingdom and need not be afraid of that terrible day. But, those who have not refuged in the LORD will be destroyed. This is the verdict for the guilty and the innocent.
“So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who dwells in Zion, my holy mountain. And jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it. And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley Shittim. Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, for the violence done to the people of Judah, because they have shed innocent blood in their land. But Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, blood I have not avenged, for the LORD dwells in Zion.”
The end of that day of judgment will be our faith and joy increasing as His glory is revealed. God’s glory and our true eternal joy are inseparably related. God’s people will be holy, will be perfect in his eyes. There will be no more enemy to attack us. Our swords WILL be beaten into gardening tools. There will be wine and milk and water flowing. Wine is celebratory and represents our joy in God and His provision. The picture of milk flowing from the hills is a picture of provision and sustenance. Just as the promised land of Exodus was a land flowing with milk and honey, the people would have pictured a fertile land full of cows roaming the hills, overflowing with milk. And water represents a complete reversal of God’s people’s fortunes. The locust plague brought about a complete desolation of the land and culminated in a debilitating drought. At that day there will be no drought. The water will flow. This is the picture of the last few verses as well, a reversal of fortune.
But more than simply material blessings and sustenance, the fountain that comes forth from the temple, or the house of the Lord is Jesus. In John 4:13-14, Jesus tells the woman at the well that “everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” When Jesus cleared the Temple of the money changers, they asked him for a sign of his authority. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2). John explains to us that Jesus was the temple! He was the house of the Lord. Again, in John 7:37-38 “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” Jesus is the fountain of living water.
God is giving us two choices on that day. To fight against Him or to fly to Him. That day is coming and God will judge us for what we’ve done in this life. Have we kept His righteous requirements? All 613 commandments of the law? 613!…you thought there were only 10? No, there are many more. And even if you limited it to the 10 big ones, Jesus tells us in the sermon on the mount that there is no hope even of fulfilling their requirements because our heart is involved as well. He says if you hate another person you are just as guilty of breaking the law of murder. If you have ever lusted after another you are just as guilty of adultery. And so on. No, none of us can say that we have perfectly obeyed God’s laws in the way we’ve His glory and His people. And no amount of silver, gold, or warfare will be able to stand up to his roaring voice of judgment. The voice that made everything will just as easily unmake. His voice on that day will shake more than just Mt Sinai, more than just Israel or the Middle East, more than just the entire earth. His voice will shake the entire created universe. Will you stand up to him and fight him on that day?
You can say “I am a warrior” now when that day seems far away or unlikely. But on that day you will, as Isaiah says, be desperate for a rock to hide in. But there is no escape. And that day may come sooner for some of you than you expect. Some of you have less time to become righteous and holy and to perfectly obey God’s righteous laws because your days are numbered. A famous old sermon put it well: “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering.” Life is but a vapor, a rotten covering. You may feel healthy and strong one day and be gone the next. Fighting against God on that day is a bit like Hamlet fighting Shakespeare:
Hamlet: “I am a warrior! And we’ve beaten our shovels into swords. Let’s do battle!”
Shakespeare: “Hmmm…That’s an interesting rebellion you’ve got there prince….” (followed by the sound of an eraser (yes, I know they didn’t use erasers…but you get the point))
Fighting is not a viable application, is it?
So flight is our only option. You have a limited time to become righteous and God will judge us based on what we’ve done. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fallen short of His glory.” You and I, we are hopeless to fulfill the law. The law of God imprisons us under sin. Not that the law itself is sinful, but it makes us aware that we are trapped under the burden of perfection. We are in need of rescue. Flight is our only option. We must fly to Jesus. On that day God will see all the nations, all those who opposed and rejected Him. And He will see his Son, who became sin so that we could become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus will be, and is currently, our representative on that day. He is our head. We make up his body. We are united in him by our faith in him. His righteousness is imputed, or given to us as if it was ours, and we stand in Him only if we fly to Him for rescue.