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If you’ve ever been asked to speak in public about anything at all, you will know that unless you really, really know your subject, there’s often a lot of preparation to be done. In a recent leaders meeting, it was suggested that we did a series on Old Testament prophets, and I must admit, my heart sank, primarily because I get confused about who is who and what is what. To be honest, it kind of felt like I was found out.
What do I already know about the prophets in the Bible? Especially those little ones at the back. As I was driving somewhere this week, I thought about that old adage, that vicars of yore were told in training, “Prepare your sermons like this:” they were told, “An hour for every minute you preach.” “Gosh, that wouldn’t leave me much time for much else” I thought. As I started to wrestle with why on earth we should look at some commentaries and unhelpful books about the Old Testament.
I came across this quote, according to Timothy in the New Testament, the writings of the Old Testament were useful for teaching, for reproof, for training in righteousness and correction so that the person of God can be proficient, equipped for every good work. They go on to say the Old Testament books were for everyone, and so it’s strange they say that Christians don’t read them very much.
It’s probably true. Unless you read through your Bible on a regular basis, it can be tempting to pass up much of the Old Testament in view of leaping ahead to what Jesus said and did, but there’s so much of the Old Testament that informs what we know about the New and so much that we might need to learn or to know from the prophets. Surprisingly, they’re not all about foretelling about the Messiah, God’s chosen one, Jesus. For all these reasons and probably more, we’re going to take a few weeks to look at some of the Old Testament prophets.
The Old Testament was the scriptures for God’s people, the Jews. Today, we’re starting with Joel. Partly because it’s short and we’ve got a little less time today, but mainly because nobody really knew who Joel actually was or when it was written or precisely why, but it still made it into the Old Testament. For that reason, I think it’s important. It talks a lot about sin and judgement, but there’s also a lot about God’s promises as well, especially when the people returned from their wicked way and to live the best way following God.
For Joel, there’s also a huge link into the New Testament. Quite an important thing when we look at the prophets because if they’re prophesying, then perhaps we might already know whether that prophecy came to fruition, at least in part, or not.
Today, we’re going to go through a bit of a rush through Joel. Next week, we’ll be taking a slightly slower pace, but the important thing through this whole series is that we become closer to Jesus through the words of the prophets. I’m so grateful to a number of members of the congregation who will be taking part in preaching through this as well, through which I’m sure we will learn a lot, and I know that I will. The Old Testament Minor Prophets, there are 12 of them, are gathered into three groups, a bit of a teaching session at the moment. Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Jonah.
I think that Neil is preaching on Jonah in two or three weeks’ time as well as Isaiah who’s not a Minor Prophet, he’s a Major Prophet. They were all around the eighth century BC. A century later, in the seventh century, you get Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Nahum. Then come the prophets who wrote whilst God’s people were in exile. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah. Finally, the people who wrote after all of that had happened and they were coming back from exile, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten about all of that already. Do not worry.
Joel doesn’t seem to fit anywhere as he seems to know many of the writings of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and others, and he draws upon them in his writings. That’s why it’s really interesting to have one of those Bible things that links together verses to verses. You know what I mean. Those study Bible type things. Very useful. Joel talks about the sin of the people and knows the ancient history of the people of God. He explains that locusts will come and eat up the crops and the land. Perhaps a thought back to how the ten plagues of Egypt finally managed to get Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
Then Joel goes on to explain that the locusts this time are perhaps a metaphor for military armies to take over God’s promised land. He interprets this as sin for the people not serving God. This in turn is God’s judgement upon them. There are different ways of interpreting. I’m going along one particular way. We also notice in the prophets of the Old Testament that phrases like the Day of the Lord appear. It appears a lot in Joel, “The Day of the Lord.” It appears over 30 times in the Bible, but only eight times in the New Testament. In Joel alone, it comes five times, “The Day of the Lord.” He seems to draw his knowledge of whatever this is from Isaiah and Ezekiel as well as Obadiah.
In Joel, as well as the prophets, The Day of the Lord is, in other words, God’s day. If we compare it to a special day, perhaps like someone’s birthday, it sounds quite jolly and happy. “Oh, look,” we might say, “it’s God’s day, let’s celebrate.” But according to some commentators, a number of Jewish people thought that’s exactly what it was. If you look at Amos chapter 5 for example, they think, “Hey, God’s day, The Day of the Lord, that’s going to be great because God is going to smash all these people.” The prophets seemed to have turned this around and explained that The Day of the Lord really isn’t a good day, rather it’s a day when God acts in a decisive fashion.
Throughout Old Testament history, there are different days of the Lord, The Fall of Babylon in 539 BC and The Fall of Jerusalem in 587 for example. Later in the New Testament, Jerusalem was destroyed again in AD 70 and some theologians will explain some of Jesus’ prophetic words in warning people of that time. Often we will assume The Day of the Lord will be the day of judgement, which only seems to come in the New Testament and then mainly in Matthew’s Gospel.
Whatever it is, certainly the Old Testament Day of the Lord seems to be a fearsome occasion where God uses historic acts against his people, which are seen as some form of judgement upon them by the prophets. Themes of darkness and gloom, destruction are portrayed in quite graphic language. The Day of the Lord will be a fearful thing by the sound of it. Nobody can escape, but Joel’s prophecy turns this day to remind the people that they can still return to God before and even after this perilous event and time. It does seem that there are more than one Day of the Lord mentioned and for Joel, we don’t know which particular historical events he is referring to.
The thundering God must have his judgement it seems, but even now, even now, there is chance to turn and return home to repent, to fast, to weep, and to mourn. The first and a bit chapters of Joel seems to focus on this Day of the Lord, but then there is a promise which is well known when people, Christians encourage one another, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love,” which feels like it’s totally different from the destructive invasion of locusts and military takeovers that Joel envisions as God’s judgement.
Similarly, there is a promise from God to repay you for the years the locusts have taken away. Again, an often used promise of encouragement from one Christian to another, that God is generous and gracious even in spite of the circumstances. Habakkuk refers to something very similar, as we mentioned earlier, at the end of his book, “Though the fig tree doesn’t bud, there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my saviour, trusting God despite the present situation.”
The prophets, when we look into them, have an element of hope against the backdrop of destruction and judgement, certainly in Joel, there is the hope of a loving God, and this is what we have in Joel and that’s what he alludes to in chapter 2 that Dick read for us: he envisages much, when God’s spirit is poured out on all people. During the time of much of the Old Testament, it seems that the Holy Spirit was given to specific people: kings, prophets, priests. But the prophecy of Joel 2 foresees the time when the Holy Spirit will be available to all people, to everybody.
The prophecy which comes to fruition according to Peter in Acts 2:1–6 when The Day of Pentecost came, when they were all together in one place, suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the spirit enabled them and it goes on, amazed and perplexed, people looking on, asked one another, “What does this mean?’’ Some, however, made fun of them and said “They’ve had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the 11, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you. Listen carefully to what I say. These people aren’t drunk as you suppose, it’s only nine in the morning. No, this was what was spoken by the prophet Joel,” and it goes on four verses that Dick read to us earlier. “In those days, I will pour out my spirit on all people.” What is less important for Joel and for Peter is not necessarily the physical signs on earth and the display of what occurs in the heavenlies, but more about the Holy Spirit being available for all people and for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord to be saved.
How wonderful it is that we have the benefit of hindsight. We have the blessing of having the New Testament as well as the Old. We have the story of the Jews that became the story of Christ, which somehow becomes the story of everybody because of the Christ who came to redeem the world from its sin and to restore it to the way it should always have been, full relationship with God, full relationship with creation in its totality.
As we begin our series of some of the Old Testament prophets within Joel, we notice some of the same themes coming again and again. The Day of the Lord, the coming of the Messiah, through his spirit, the sin of the people, the need of people, of God’s people to return to a God who is compassionate, a God who wants to be their God. We will return time and time again to a number of these themes as we explore a number of the prophets. As we read these books and get involved with what they said, we must also be aware of interpreting them correctly.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s in “How to read the Bible for all its worth”, a very good little book, point out that less than 2% of what the prophets say is about the Messiah, less than 5% relate to the New Covenant, and less than 1% they reckon is still future to us. When we come to read and understand Joel and the other prophets, we need to understand a little bit of its background, but so what, so what is always the question. If some of these Old Testament books don’t help me in my faith, what’s the point?
As we said at the start, all scripture, and in Timothy all scripture was the Old Testament only, the Torah, The Jewish Law, the first five books of the Bible, the teachings and the wisdom, writings of the prophets. That was it. As I was planning this series, the start of this series, I came across some notes from a lecturer at the Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, which talks about what’s the point of the prophets if 99% of the prophecy is no longer prophecy.
Samuel Hildebrandt makes the following remarks, “The prophets reveal God’s character and work. They promote God’s ethics and teach about sin and pride and idolatry, yet we read from the Old Testament a different vantage point from the other side of judgement at the cross and the age of restoration having begun.” He says this of trying to get the most out of the prophets and preaching Jesus through them.
He talks about three things. He talks about text that we need to understand on its own terms. I need to read it in its context. Secondly, because we read it from the other side, how does this text relate to Christ? Is there something in the New Testament that relates to the Old Testament reading just as we did with Joel chapter 2 and Acts chapter 2. How does the New Testament develop the Old Testament? How is judgement and restoration, for example, applied to Christ?
Then third and finally – So text, Christ, and then self: having seen Christ in the new light of the text, reading it from the New Testament, how does this apply to us today? With Joel, it’s easy to spot the links. “In the last days, I will pour out my spirit on all people.” Aren’t we so fortunate to have the Old Testament and the New? Aren’t we blessed to have Peter’s words reflecting the same words of Joel centuries before? Aren’t we amazed to learn that the spirit of God that was spoken of there back in the Old Testament, spoken of there right at the start of the church is still available to us when we invite Jesus into our lives?
May God reveal more of himself through this series on the Old Testament prophets. Some of them may not be simple to explain, and so I’ve left them to other people, but let’s hang on in there. The Bible is God’s gift to us as it explains so much about our world, how it was made, who we are as part of it and how we can join in the restoration of this world through a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ as his spirit dwells in us.
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