David Lipscomb: South Nashville Churches of Christ (1906)

May 10, 2014

While doing some research in Nashville newspapers, I encountered this piece by David Lipscomb:  “South Nashville Church of Christ,” Daily American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.

I thought it was interesting for several reasons.

1.  It illustrates that Lipscomb thought church planting was the way to grow the kingdom.

2. It illustrates the use of tent meetings in the planting of churches, and how other churches supported the planting of those communities.

3. It illustrates the use of “lay” (my term) preachers, that is, bi-vocational ministers, in the growth and maturing of congregations.

4. It illustrates why Nashville has so many Churches of Christ. Lipscomb promoted the planting of many small congregations who managed their own affairs (did their own teaching, missions, evangelism, etc.) rather than consolidating into large congregations. Small but many was better than few but large, according to Lipscomb.

Here is the piece in full:

“South Nashville Church of Christ

BY ELDER DAVID LIPSCOMB

To the Editor of the American:

An item in The American, Monday morning, concerning the South Nashville Church of Christ and its work, is so full of mistakes that it is easier to write a new account than to correct it.

The South  College-street Church was first organized in its present house of worship eighteen years ago. After a few years of successful work, the Green Street, the Carroll Street, and the Flat Rock churches were begun by a number withdrawing from this church to do so. The old Bible School  Church, Highland avenue and West Nashville churches were formed largely by members from this church.

Since the formation of the church eighteen years ago nine or ten preachers have been developed in the church. Tents have been greatly used by the congregation in its work in reaching the non-church going and the people generally. A tent is sent, with a preacher, to hold a meeting, receive what contributions are offered, without asking any, report to the church, and what is lacking in these contributions to sustain the work is supplemented by the churches engaged in the work. Oftentimes the sending of the preacher and tent a few times will arouse such an interest in the place or in some neighboring church that they will support the meeting without cost to those sending, except for the use of the tent. Yet, if the tent had not been sent it is most probable nothing would have been done.

The first tent meeting was held in South Nashville by J. A. Haring, principal of Potter Bible College, of Bowling Green, Ky. He also held very successful meetings in East Nashville, out of which grew largely Foster-street Church.

For  four or five years past the South College-street Church, the old Bible School, the Tenth, West Nashville and Green-street churches have kept two or three tents at work. One has been kept almost constantly at work in and around Nashville. A church has been established on the Dickerson pike, and one at the New Shops within the last year. Churches have been established by the use of these tents at Monterey, Baxter, Erin, Dayton, Graysville, with others in Rutherford, Cannon, Warren and Montgomery counties, Tennessee; Trion and Atlanta, Ga.; Huntsville and Wilsonville, Ala.

Counting the churches formed out of the South Nashville Church, we count thirty-five congregations planted by this work, two of which have dissolved and united with other contiguous churches. There are eight or ten other mission points that promise churches at an early day. During the past summer over 500 persons were baptized through this work. During the last few years as many as 2,000 have been baptized.

Elder E. A. Moore, of South Nashville, has looked after the collecting and disbursing of funds. S. W. Morrow, of the old Bible School Church, has largely done the purchasing and managing of the tents. A number of churches established by the tent work have purchased tents, and become centers of operation for doing similar work around them. Dayton, East Tenn., and Trion, Ga., are examples of this. Other churches in West Tennessee, Arkansas, Canada and California have been moved by the example of this work to do likewise. Much of this work has been done by working men, who have, by conducting the worship, looking after the affairs of the church and studying the Bible, become good, efficient teachers of the word, while following their ordinary avocations for a living. They can more effectively reach their fellow-workmen than can those who rely on preaching as a  means of support. When a preacher can say to his congregation: “I know you are all tired with your day’s work, as I am and I will try to not weary you,” he touches a chord of sympathy in that audience that is worth more than learning, to lead them to good.

With the hours of labor per day the earnest working man can find time for study, and preparation, that will enable him to appear with credit before any audience. There are a number of such preachers in Nashville. It has not been the policy of the South College-street Church to encourage the collecting of a large membership in one body. This with a fine house may flatter the preacher and attract numbers, but to scatter the large congregations into a number of worshipping bodies and leave them greatly to depend on themselves, will call out the activities, develop the talent, give practical experience to the religious lives of the masses of the people, and give the most reliable class of religious people to be found in any community.


Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29

Seventy

All

Prophesy

Prophesy

Men

Men and Women

Old

Old and Young

Free

Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29

Jew/Greek

All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God

Sons/Daughters

Free/Slave

Free/Slave

These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.

 


Joel 2:18-27 — The Promise of New Creation

April 23, 2014

Joel’s propehtic liturgy previously announced the coming of the great “day of the Lord,” which functions at multiple levels. On the one hand, it envisions any impending disaster that is coming upon Israel–whether it is a locust plague, an invading army, or some other communal crisis. On the other hand, it describes an apocalyptic event that will transform human and planetary existence. I think we must read Joel at both levels–the liturgy responds to present crises but also anticipates a future “day of the Lord.”

Joel 1:2-2:11 described a national disaster that prefigured the “day of the Lord.” In the light of such impending doom, Joel implored Israel to return by assembling for a communal fast and prayer (Joel 2:12-17). This is the turning point in Joel’s iturgy. The second half of Joel turns to thanksgiving for and the joyful anticipation of the future. The prophet sees new creation (2:18-27), spiritual renewal (2:28-32), and the defeat of all hostile powers (3:1-21) in Israel’s future.

Just like the “day of the Lord,” these promises function at two levels. They are present realities in the life of Israel that anticipate a future. However or whenever Israel experienced these promises in their history, they also yearned for the day of their full realization. Their present experience of renewal promised a fuller (even eschatological) future. In this sense, Joel’s language is both historical and apocalyptic; it addresses the present and the future.

The liturgy of lament, then, moves to a liturgy of thanksgiving, and the thanksgiving is rooted in God’s promises, that is, what God will do (Joel 2:18-27). The thanksgiving (2:21-24) is the centerpiece of the liturgy, but it is surrounded by a word of grace about God’s gracious and wondrous mighty acts.

A.  The Lord Removes the Dangers (2:18-20)
B.  The Land, Animals and People Rejoice (2:21-24)
A.  The Lord Supplies Israel (21:25-27).

Yahweh’s first concern is Israel’s life in the land or, more broadly, human existence on the earth.  God is “jealous,” and consequently “compassionate,” for the land and its people. Both the land and people belong to God; they are God’s own possession. God acts out of deep emotion for the sake of the land and the people.

Yahweh’s mercy yields a crop in the land (“grain, wine, and oil”) and removes the shame of the people. God drives the invading army into the sea and wasteland, and the stench of the dead locusts reminds Israel that God has delivered them from the disaster.

In other words, God renews the land and brings it peace. God renews Eden in Israel. What was once a “Garden of Eden” (2:3) has become so again. God renews the promise of creation itself, as well as the promise to Israel, that humanity would dwell with God in the land and thrive in harmony with creation. This renewed promise means that all creation celebrates with thanksgiving.

Consequently, God addresses the

soil (2:21)
animals (2:22)
children of Zion (2:23-24)

Fear has disappeared and joy has emerged within the renewed creation. “Do not fear, O soil…you animals of the field.” The soil and animals will “be glad and rejoice”  because the soil will no longer thirst and the animals will no longer starve. God ends the drought. As a result, the trees bear fruit, the vines and figs “give their full yield,” and grain, wine, and oil are abundant. Creation itself, as well as Israel, will rejoice in God’s renewal.

In effect, God renews covenant with both creation and Israel by sending the early and latter rains “as before.” The autumn (early) rains prepare the ground for planting, and the spring (latter) rains enable a rich harvest (cf. Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; James 5:7). This was the planting cycle of the land of Canaan, which is still the case today. God covenanted with Israel that the rains would come in their Eden as long as they loved their God, but should they love other gods, Yahweh would shut off the rain (Deuteronomy 11:17; 28:12, 24). The seasonal rains give life to the land, food for the animals, and prosperity to Israel.

This renewal, Yahweh promises, will bring peace to Israel. The verb, translated “repay” by the NRSV, is the verb form of the noun shalom. As in Eden, God will bring peace to the land; God will “restore” (ESV) the years of plenty that were lost in the locust years, the days of the invading army. God will make the land whole once again.

Israel, at peace in a restored Eden, will “eat in plenty and be satisfied,” and “praise the name of the Lord your God” because of what God has done. They will know (Joel 2:27):

that I am in the midst of Israel (divine presence),
and that I am the Lord your God (covenantal relationship)
and there is none else (monotheism).

This knowledge is no mere cognition; it is intimacy. God’s presence within Israel is like God’s presence in Eden, which is God’s presence in the Temple in the midst of Israel. This presence is covenantal, that is, Israel lives in relationship with God. Yahweh is their God and they are Yahweh’s people.  But this is not one God among others. Rather, there is no other God. Yahweh alone is God. This is the heart of Israel’s faith: Yahweh, their God and the only God, dwelling in their midst. Israel is a new Eden, and God lives and walks among them.

The result is that “my people shall never again be put to shame”–and this line is repeated twice in Joel 2:26-27.

But when did that happen? Has it happened yet? It might be hyperbole, but it also might be a kind of already/not yet reality.  Israel has experienced moments of renewal, but they still await the fullness of the promise. There will come a time when Israel will “never again be put to shame,” and this is the hope of God’s people.

A day will come when Israel will live unashamed within the creation, just as Adam and Eve lived in the garden. It is a day when creation itself will rejoice and be freed from the fear of drought and starvation. It is a day when God will dwell in the midst of Israel as God makes a home within the creation. That day is the day when heaven and earth itself will made new, and God and the Lamb will make their home in the new Jerusalem.


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?

 


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.


Joel 2:1-11 — Eden Despoiled

April 9, 2014

The “day of Yahweh,” or the “day of the Lord,” reverses creation. Through creation God subdued the chaos and gave it boundaries, but divine judgment releases chaos. The “day of Yahweh” uncreates. Eden is despoiled. Or, more specifically in the context of Joel, Israel is threatened with the prospect that the land flowing with milk and honey–the promised land–will turn into a wasteland.

The situation, similar to chapter one, is that some kind of an army is approaching Israel. Some think it is a literal army, such as the Babylonians who besieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE and others think it is another locust plague (perhaps an extension of the one described in chapter one). Most probably, the army–described as a locust swarm–is a metaphor for divine judgment, which is a “day of the Lord” that comes in various forms. It may or may not involve a literal army, but may simply represent divine discipline or judgment. The army is Yahweh’s army; Yahweh rides at the head of this host. Whether literal or metaphorical, the discipline comes from Yahweh.

Dillard (modifying a proposal by Keller) suggests that Joel 2:1-11 has a chiastic structure, and this is particularly illuminating (The Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey,p. 278).

A. The day of the Lord nears (2:1-2a).

B. Arrival of the army (2:2b).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:3).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:4-6).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:7-9).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:10).

B. Yahweh’s army (2:11a).

A. The day of the Lord (2:11b).

The chiasm contains four elements: (1) the event is identified as the day of Yahweh, (2) it is described as an army, (3) the result of the invasion is chaos (uncreation), and (4) the army is unstoppable.

In Joel 2:4-9 it is as if someone is watching the army approach from the city walls. They see the war-horses appear on the surrounding mountains, they hear the rumble of the chariots, and they watch the army trample everything in its path like a fire burning through stubble.  Fear fills the city as they watch disciplined warriors stay in formation during their advance and march over defending armies. The soldiers leap up onto the walls and enter homes. Like locusts, they infect every part of the city.

The terror that accompanies the army’s movements is heightened by the fact that this is Yahweh’s army. Yahweh stands at the head of this army, and it is the voice of Yahweh that commands it. This is the Lord’s host, and it is a moment in history when God has decided to act. It is a day when God has decided to uncreate what God created.

The “day of Yahweh” causes the inhabitants–as well as the earth itself–to tremble or quake. It is a day when darkness dawns rather than light (Joel 2:2). The descent of darkness upon Israel reminds them of other great events in its history, including darkness upon Egypt in Exodus 10:22. This darkness, however, is theophanic language; it is the appearance of Yahweh for judgment against a sinful nation (only Zephaniah 1:15 uses the four terms for darkness in this text in exactly the same order). Darkness is often associated with divine appearances or theophanies (cf. Exodus 20:18, 21; Deuteronomy 4:11), and here–like the locust in Egypt in Exodus 10:14–the day is described in hyperbole in order to accentuate its significance. Israel will remember this moment of judgment just like they remember the Exodus except this memory will fill them with fear rather than joy.

Uncreation reverses God’s intent in creation. The images of uncreation are startling. The land of Israel is turned from the “garden of Eden” into a “desolate wilderness.” In Genesis 1-2 God creates Eden out of a formless void that was wrapped in darkness (Genesis 1:2). Eden emerged from that chaos as a divine sanctuary in which humanity could rest with God.

When God created Israel, they were given a land that was like Eden itself. God dwelt among them, rested with them in the land, and protected Israel from even the wild animals. The rhythm of the rainy seasons would provide food, and Israel would live at peace with its neighbors. But Israel did not live by the covenant, and now in Joel (as at other times in its history; cf. Jeremiah 4:22-26) God disciplines them. God despoils Eden. Israel will become a “desolate wasteland.”

Human sin has cosmic ramifications, and the day of the Yahweh causes the whole cosmos to tremble before the Lord. Whereas God placed the sun, moon, and stars as lights in the skin in Genesis 1, during the day of the Lord their lights are extinguished. Darkness will reign upon the earth. Chaos will govern the heavens and earth.

Through creation God orders the chaos, but sin unfetters chaos. Indeed, God even comes at the head of the chaos to discipline and punish those who choose chaos over God’s good order. When humanity lives in covenant with God, order, peace, and tranquility prevail. But when humanity chooses a different agenda–one where they seek their own interests–Eden is despoiled, and God’s good creation is enveloped in darkness.

Israel repeated the story of the original couple. Just as Genesis 3 opened the floodgates of chaos, so Israel’s sin did as well.  And we still do.

The day of the Lord will come again…and again…and again, until that day when God will create anew and fill the earth with the glory for which the creation was intended.

 

 

 


Joel 1:15-20 — Even Creation Groans

April 8, 2014

After opening with a call for lamentation, the text presents two laments (1:15-18 and 1:19-20). The first laments the day, and the second cries out to Yahweh. The first weeps over the  devastation of the land and the suffering of the livestock. In the second both the people and the animals cry out to God because both the pastures and the waters have dried up.

Creation itself laments, not just Israel! Humanity and creation lament together.

First Lament. The first word in Joel 1:15 is “Alas!” (‘ahah). A cry of anguish, it appears in other troubled circumstances (Joshua 7:7; Judges 6:22; 2 Kings 3:10; Jeremiah 4:10; 14:13; Ezekiel 11:13; 20:49). The present crisis–whatever it is–is a day of despair and loss. “Alas” is the voice of lament.

Given the losses that surround them, the people recognize that the day of Yahweh is coming, even near at hand. The “day of Yahweh,” which appears in Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14, is paralleled with “destruction” that comes from the “Almighty.” The “day of Yahweh” is judgment day, and it appears throughout Israel’s history and other nations as moments of divine refinement, discipline, and punishment. It does not necessarily refer to a specific day, but to those times in history where God moved within history to accomplish the divine purpose. In this context, Israel laments the coming “day of Yahweh” in their midst.

The lament is communal. The first person plurals (“our eyes” and “our God” in Joel 1:16) reflect this. The very place where Israel gathered before Yahweh–at the temple–is destitute. Its storehouses and granaries are empty because the fields have yielded no food. As a result, there is no joy in the courts of the temple. The temple has become a place of lament rather than celebration.

The lament is also cosmic. Creation is the subject of verbs in Joel 1:18. The beasts “groan,” the cattle “wander about,” and the sheep “are dazed.” The animals mourn just as Israel groaned in Egypt (Exodus 2:23) or like women in childbirth (Jeremiah 22:23). The cattle are, more literally, perplexed or confused. The sheep are desolate or wronged. The sheep suffer because of the guilt of others.

This cosmic groaning uses the language of breaking hearts and bitter grief (cf. Ezekiel 21:6). The moaning of the animals becomes their prayer to the Creator to whom they look for everything (cf. Psalm 104). When Israel sins, the land and its animals suffer; when humanity sins, creation suffers. As Paul notes, creation itself groans for liberation (Romans 8:18-23), and creation mourns its own devastation.

Second Lament. The first word in Joel 1:19 is “to you” (that is, Yahweh) to whom the prophet addresses the lament. The prophet here intercedes for the people as Joel speaks in the first person (“I”). He cries out (kara’) to Yahweh. While the verb is a general one (normally translated “call”), the context gives it a more distressful meaning. The verb regularly appears in lament Psalms (cf. Psalm 3:4; 18:6; 22:2; 27:7; 30:8; 42:7; 57:2; 69:3; 86:3, 5, 7; 88:9). The verb expresses utter dependance; there is no one else to whom the prophet can turn.

Like the first lament, the second also gives voice to creation, this time the beasts of the field or wild animals (same word as in Joel 1:18). All creation is affected, not just the domesticated livestock of Joel 1:18. The wild animals “long for” God, just as the deer longs for water and humanity longs for God in Psalm 42:2. The verb is from the same root as the Hebrew word for “bed,” so that it represents a desire for intimacy or relationship. The land’s chaos bespeaks a disruption of the communion between the creation and its Creator.

Fire, rather than locust, is the cause of this devastation. Perhaps fire results from stripped plants and drought caused by locusts, or perhaps it is another metaphor (in addition to the locust) for the disaster that has come upon the land. Whatever the case, it is not only the crops that are lost, but the pastures and trees, and the sources of water are also dried up.

Lament is personal, communal, and cosmic. When the earth is devastated because humanity fails to live in ways for which we were designed (that is, to image God in the world), the whole cosmos groans. Creation, like humanity, looks to God for the good things of life, but it also, like humanity, laments when life is frustrated. Like us, creation groans.

Humans have the power to make creation weep!


Joel 1:1-14 — A Call for Lamentation

April 4, 2014

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Take account of the devastation involved that occasion the lament. We should notice the pain people endure and how widespread the pain is.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.

No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.

The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.

The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.

Joel fits this pattern.  Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.

The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).

The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.

The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.

In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.

We lament, but we never lament without hope.

[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]