Whether Joel calls for lament in a specific historical situation or provides a liturgical frame for communal lament (or both!), the opening calls the people of God to cry out to God as they weep and wail in their despair.
There are times to lament, and the people of God need the regular rhythms of lament and hope to endure their tragedies, to seek forgiveness for their sins, and to implore Yahweh for justice. Whatever the circumstance here, Joel invites Israel to weep (bacah; 1:5), howl (yalal; 1:5, 11, 13), mourn (‘abal; 1:9), lament (saphad; 1:13), and cry out (za’ak; 1:14).
The first imperative, however, is “hear” or “listen.” The elders (city leaders) and the inhabitants of the land (those who “dwell” in the land) are told to pay attention and notice what is happening among them. The moment has significance. It is something they will tell their children and their children.
Some may read the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?,” as a wholly unique event. But perhaps it is hyperbole to highlight the importance of the moment. Israel finds itself in a lamentable circumstance, one of considerable consequence. As a liturgical document, this may not refer to any specific moment but rather anticipates those moments in a people’s history that appear with some regularity. The United States remembers, for example, Pearl Harbor, the death of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. The invitation, then, does not so much announce a unique event as it emphasizes the depth of the lament occasioned by the circumstance, whatever it may be.
In this case, Joel identifies the occasion as a locust plague. In the ancient world, and up until very recent history, locust swarms devastated huge tracts of land. Locust devour everything and leave nothing in their wake. Famine, disease, and poverty follow.
Interpreters differ on how to understand Joel’s use of the plague. Some think it is a metaphor for an invading army (e.g., Babylonians or some other power). Others think it is a literal locust plague. Still others believe the locust function as a metaphor for weighty moments of lament. In other words, if Joel functions as a lament liturgy, the locust plague is a figure for every tragedy that might devastate a nation. Whatever the case may be, lament is the primary concern.
Lament is described in several ways.
- Wine-makers and drinkers lament the loss of the vines and the lack of new wine (1:5).
- The priests mourn the lack of crops and vines that would provide drink offerings and grain offerings at the temple (1:9, 13).
- The farmers, who till the soil and dress the vines, weep over the loss of their crops (1:11).
Nothing is left. There are no resources for a prosperous life; there are no gifts for the temple. Everything is dried up. Life has lost its joy; it has dried up just like the vines, fruits, and trees (1:12). The lament is so great it is compared to a bride who never had the opportunity to enjoy her husband (1:8); she remains a virgin and her husband is dead.
There is reason to lament.
Religious leaders–the priests–must “consecrate a fast” in a “solemn assembly” (1:14). They are to gather the people–both elders and those who dwell in the land–at the temple, and there the whole assembly will “cry out to Yahweh.” Joel opened his oracle by addressing the “elders and inhabitants of the land,” and the call to lament concludes with the “elders and inhabitants of the land” crying out to God. The whole community gathers to lament.
The call to lament involves several elements which are important for our own practices today:
- Take note of the significance of the moment. We should not look past our pain too quickly nor underestimate the importance of our tragedies and hurts.
- Take account of the devastation involved that occasion the lament. We should notice the pain people endure and how widespread the pain is.
- Gather in a solemn assembly; covenant to fast as an expression of lamentation. We do not have to weep alone. Rather, we should encourage communal forms of lament that give voice to our hurt.
- Cry out to Yahweh. We may weep over our losses, but we also seek God in those moments. We address God with our needs; we intercede for ourselves and others. We voice our distress to God.
Lament is a common human experience. It is not about whining or even complaining, but weeping over our hurts, our sins, and the brokenness that fills the world. Rather than isolate, we gather. Rather than silence, we speak. We lament, and God listens.