2020 and the Coronavirus through the Eyes of Joel the Prophet

There is a sense in which the global pandemic has been good for us. Anything that can open our eyes to realities hidden or ignored must be reckoned as beneficial.

Isn’t it true that we learned an important lesson in 2020? Like the Egyptians of old, mighty among the ancient nations, we have discovered that our scientific acumen and technological might is but small before the living God.1 We, like Pharaoh, might have continued to reckon ourselves gods over creation if not for a good slap on the face. Ten terrifying plagues brought mighty Egypt to its knees. One minuscule virus has crippled the powerful and global twenty-first century civilization.

So, what have we learned? Only the most important lesson. God is God, and we are not. As the proverb says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov 9:10; ESV).2 It is good to be in proper awe of God. The rest of life becomes open to our understanding when we know our place.

Thus, if we have learned our lesson, we may continue to learn. I propose that we pay a visit to an old friend (or a video-chat perhaps?). His name is Joel, the son of Pethuel, prophet of God Most High. Joel is an expert in plagues. He lived through a devastating plague of locusts. They ate everything – absolutely everything. It is instructive to discover Joel’s perspective in the face of near destruction. (If you’ve never read Joel, this is a good time. It is short; only three chapters. You’ll find Joel snug between his colleagues Hosea and Amos.)

I want to highlight two messages arising from the book of Joel. First, let me give a brief orientation to the book.

Introducing Joel

Joel is a short book, but it isn’t an easy one (just ask my exegesis students). There is significant disagreement on some basic aspects of structure, message, and time of writing. Today, however, we need not let any of that slow us down. My main points can be skimmed off the surface fairly easily.

I will assume that Joel has two main parts that are linked by the key term “the Day of the Lord.” This Day of the Lord is a concept developed throughout the prophetic literature.3 In short, it refers to a day in the future, the day of judgment in which God will make everything right by punishing the wicked and vindicating the righteous.

The two parts of Joel are these:

  1. Joel 1:1-2:27: Regarding a serious locust plague in Joel’s present, its consequences, and immediate aftermath.
  2. Joel 2:28-3:21: Regarding the distant future (from Joel’s point of view).

The common theme between the two parts is the Day of the Lord. You could almost say that Joel viewed the locust plague as a preview of Day of the Lord. The plague became an opportunity for the people to reflect on their eternal destiny and to seek the Lord while there was still time.

I will draw both my points from the first part of Joel.

Have You Even Paused to Consider God’s Glory?

What amazes me every time about Joel is the way that he begins by drawing attention away from the people’s suffering to the pitiful state of God’s temple. It is only natural for us to focus on ourselves. The prophetic message points us to God’s glory.

Let’s see how Joel works this out. Joel 1:4-7 recounts an unparalleled devastation unlike anything anyone has ever seen (see Joel 1:3):

What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
Awake, you drunkards, and weep,
and wail, all you drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine,
for it is cut off from your mouth.
For a nation has come up against my land,
powerful and beyond number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vine
and splintered my fig tree;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches are made white.

Can you imagine the stress of parents wondering how they will feed their children? Can you sense the imminent danger to yourself, to your loved ones, and to your animals? The danger was real and it was stark. And yet, where does Joel go next?

Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth
for the bridegroom of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
the ministers of the Lord. (Joel 1:8-9)

Joel returns to the same theme just a little further down:

Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God. (Joel 1:13)

Joel does not ignore the suffering of people or animals. And yet, there is a sense in which it is the Lord‘s house, His temple, that is foremost on the prophet’s mind (see also Joel 2:14). The message is: Yes, it is bad for you, but have you even stopped to consider God’s glory?

Given the Old Testament framework, the worship of God was dependent on bringing the best of the harvest and the animals to God. If there is no harvest, then there is nothing to bring. If there is nothing to bring, then there is no worship. At least, any worship would lack that air of joyful thanksgiving that God desires.

We may take a step further. In a time of polytheistic paganism, a lack of rich and joyful worship in the temple would have been evidence for some that the God of Israel was weak and unable to provide for His people. Now God’s reputation is on the line. And this, in turn, is bad for the nations themselves, since salvation is from the Lord only (see Joel 2:17; 19; 27; 32). Why would they seek the Lord and find life in His name unless they can see good cause to do so?

In the midst of this pandemic, have you paused to consider God’s glory? Have you considered the ways in which our testimony as individual Christians and as a Church united may have consequences for God’s reputation? The nations are still watching. Their salvation depends on them recognizing God’s beauty. Will they see God’s beauty in you and be drawn to the living God?

Repent Now, While the Door Is Open

For Joel and his comrades, the plague was serious; more dangerous by far than our own virus. Even so, Joel points beyond the plague to something more terrible, to the great and fearsome Day of the Lord that is yet to come. We may starve or fall ill now, and that is bad. More serious, however, is the final judgment. The rest of the Bible makes it clear that it is far worse to be found an enemy of God at the last day than to suffer in this life (e.g. Rom 8:18; Rev 21:7-8).

What do we do in the midst of pandemic? The wise thing, says Joel, is to repent; to repent, and call others to repentance.

Do not forget that it is God Himself who brings the locust plague (here pictured as an army):

The Lord utters his voice
before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
who can endure it? (Joel 2:11)
If God Himself is against us, then there is only one place to turn – to God Himself:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God? (Joel 2:12-14)

We cannot compel God to do anything. And yet, as long as we are alive, “as long as it is called today” (Heb 3:13), we have the opportunity to seek God and live (Amos 5:4). “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32).

Who knows, this pandemic may have been specifically designed to draw our slothful minds away from our present goals to things that matter far more. In particular, it may be designed for the salvation of many who have only just learned that God is God, and we are not.

Let me end with three exhortations. First, take this opportunity to repent and seek God. He may have a plan for you better than anything you had previously imagined (see Joel 2:18-27). Second, take this opportunity to gather with your church and pray about how you may bring God glory in this difficult time. People are watching. Third, take this opportunity to point people past this pandemic to the great and fearsome Day of the Lord that is yet to come. People need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many will now be more prepared to receive it than they have ever been.

This article first appeared in its French translation at SOLA – Coalition pour l’Évangile.

  1. If this reference to ancient Egypt is unfamiliar to you, I recommend reading the biblical story in Exodus 1-15. 
  2. In this article Lord in small caps stands in for God’s covenant name, Yahweh, which is not typically rendered in translations. It’s a long story. 
  3. See for example Isaiah 2:12; 3:8-11; 4:2-4; Amos 4-5; Zephaniah 1:12; 1:14-2:3.