Joel 1:15-20 — Even Creation Groans

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!

Leave a Reply