4 Their appearance is like the appearance of horses,
and like war horses they run.
5 As with the rumbling of chariots,
they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire
devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army
drawn up for battle.
6 Before them peoples are in anguish;
all faces grow pale.
7 Like warriors they charge;
like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
they do not swerve from their paths.
8 They do not jostle one another;
each marches in his path;
they burst through the weapons
and are not halted.
9 They leap upon the city,
they run upon the walls,
they climb up into the houses,
they enter through the windows like a thief.
10 The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
11 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 2:4-11 ESV
In these verses, Joel provides additional details concerning the coming day of the Lord. It will feature another invasion of alien forces, but this time it will not be locusts, but a foreign army. Yet, Joel uses imagery to describe this invading force that sounds eerily similar to the locust infestation the people of Judah had just endured. You can almost imagine the locusts “devouring the stubble” (Joel 2:5 ESV). His description of the enemy soldiers climbing “up into the houses” and entering “through the windows like a thief” must have brought back unsettling memories of the millions of disgusting locusts invading their villages and homes.
But this time, the enemy was going to be made up of men armed with swords, marching in endless columns, and riding in chariots of iron. And, like the locusts, they would be driven by a primal urge to devour and destroy everything in their path. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Which is why Joel describes the people as being in a state of anguish with their faces white with fear. The armies of Judah will prove inadequate against this massive enemy onslaught. Any attempt to defend the city of Jerusalem will fail, as “they burst through the weapons and are not halted” (Joel 2:8 ESV).
Joel is describing a scene that is meant to instill fear in the hearts of the people. And he purposefully uses language that is intended to remind his audience of all that they have just endured. But this judgment will be far greater in intensity, and the damage will far exceed the loss of grain and grapes. When the locusts had finally disappeared, they left behind a land devoid of crops. But when the invading army that shows up on the day of the Lord is finished, the land of Judah will be like a ghost town, free of human life. Those who are not slain by the sword will be taken captive.
And Joel wants his audience to know that this invasion will be God’s doing. The army that shows up will be His army, and they will be accomplishing His divine will.
The Lord is at the head of the column.
He leads them with a shout.
This is his mighty army,
and they follow his orders. – Joel 2:11 NLT
God had used similar language when addressing the people of Judah through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah.
“…behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:9 ESV
God is sovereign over all. And He is fully capable of using anything He has created to accomplish His will, including pagan armies and foreign dignitaries. In fact, the prophet Isaiah provides another message from God, where He warns Babylon of their coming destruction at the hands of yet another foreign power.
“Raise a signal flag on a bare hilltop.
Call up an army against Babylon.
Wave your hand to encourage them
as they march into the palaces of the high and mighty.
I, the Lord, have dedicated these soldiers for this task.
Yes, I have called mighty warriors to express my anger,
and they will rejoice when I am exalted.” – Isaiah 13:2-3 NLT
The sovereign God of the universe has the entire world at His disposal. He can accomplish His will by any means He deems necessary. And His use of unrighteous kings and ungodly armies does not make God unholy. His ways are always right, and His judgments are blameless. Even Daniel, one of the Jews who found himself living in exile in Babylon after the fall of the city of Jerusalem, commented on the righteousness of God in light of Judah’s rebellion against Him.
To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. – Daniel 9:7 ESV
And the prophet Isaiah provides further insight into Judah’s treachery and God’s righteous response to it.
For they have rejected the law of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies;
they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
That is why the Lord’s anger burns against his people,
and why he has raised his fist to crush them.
The mountains tremble,
and the corpses of his people litter the streets like garbage.
But even then the Lord’s anger is not satisfied.
His fist is still poised to strike! – Isaiah 5:24-25 NLT
And Isaiah goes on to describe how the Lord will mete out His anger against His rebellious children.
He will send a signal to distant nations far away
and whistle to those at the ends of the earth.
They will come racing toward Jerusalem.
They will not get tired or stumble.
They will not stop for rest or sleep.
Not a belt will be loose,
not a sandal strap broken.
Their arrows will be sharp
and their bows ready for battle.
Sparks will fly from their horses’ hooves,
and the wheels of their chariots will spin like a whirlwind.
They will roar like lions,
like the strongest of lions.
Growling, they will pounce on their victims and carry them off,
and no one will be there to rescue them.
They will roar over their victims on that day of destruction
like the roaring of the sea.
If someone looks across the land,
only darkness and distress will be seen;
even the light will be darkened by clouds. – Isaiah 5:26-30 NLT
Because of their unholy behavior, God will use Judah’s unholy enemies to punish them. Like Adam and Eve banned from the garden due to their rejection of God’s word, the people of Judah would be expelled from the land of promise because they had rejected His law. He had set them apart as His own possession and had called them to live holy lives.
You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own. – Leviticus 20:26 NLT
You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 14:2 NLT
But rather than living in a way that illustrated their status as God’s chosen people, they had chosen to assimilate with and follow the example of the pagan nations around them. They fell in love with the world. And their love affair with the world led them to conduct themselves like an unfaithful wife, giving their affection and attention to false gods.
So, God warns them of coming judgment. And it will come in two phases. There will be a more immediate judgment that shows up in the form of the Babylonian army. But there is another judgment that lies in the distant future and will take place at the end of the age. God knows His people. And as the sovereign God of the universe, He is well aware that they will continue to be unfaithful to Him. Which is why He has a future day of restoration planned for them.
But in the meantime, He is going to call them to repentance. He is going to offer them a second chance.
“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. – Joel 2:12-13 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.