Rend Your Hearts and not Your Garments

“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)

When you hear people say that God’s judgment will soon fall upon us, how do you process that? Do you entertain the possibility that it could be true? Or do you just continue through your day with an I’ve-heard-this-before-and-we-are-still-here attitude? Frankly, that’s what I do, because I feel as if we are saturated with the prophet-of-doom types. Furthermore, if we did not ignore them, then life would stop — and that would be downright un-American! Perhaps we should stop, however, and strain to hear God’s voice through the din. Because, if we do not, then the din defines us. And I can think of at least two reasons not to let that happen.

First, just because the noise of many false prophets has fatigued us, this does not mean that biblical prophecies are not true. Second, prophecies-of-doom are nearly all contingent upon behavior, so both individuals and nations potentially have the power to stay God’s hand. He is quick to apply mercy and quick to stay his justice, particularly to those who rend their hearts before him. We should, therefore, listen critically for God’s still small voice and not tune out altogether just because of some background noise. Let us visit with the Prophet Joel to see how God’s ancient people handled these same issues.

Joel’s ancestors were the very people who experienced the deliverance from Egypt. They walked with God through the wilderness; they entered the Promised Land and prospered. Now, fast-forward a few generations to Joel. God’s people would soon be conquered and carried away to Babylon — and that’s a long way from their former glory! What happened? They ignored God.

God had warned his people that certain behaviors would draw them away from him, but the people went ahead and did them anyway! God was right, of course. The people did indeed sin, and they rode their moral spiral down — right to the edge of God’s patience. Although God is longsuffering, he is not forever-suffering — and certainly, he would not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). So, after their iniquity was full, and after it was obvious that they would not repent, God would destroy a nation that (although they did it poorly) still carried his name. If God were willing to do to his Old Testament standard-bearers, why would he do any less to America?

America was founded under God, but our once ubiquitous true Christianity has been supplanted by a cultural Christianity, which is merely paganism with steeples. Cultural Christianity has neither the power nor the reason to fight ideas that are hostile to God. Plenty of those ideas have already permeated our schools, our government and society at large. We, too, are in a moral spiral. So, let us look to the prophecy. It is not too late to rend our hearts and to see what God can do.

The ancient Jews understood that at times God would use his prophets to proclaim a word of warning to his people. But the people often treated their doomsayers much as we treat ours — as sayers. The biblical prophets, however, did not just speak warnings, they also spoke of restoration. As a matter of form, they often started with the gloom, but the gloom encouraged them to seek the light of God, and Joel’s prophecy is a perfect example. It begins with gloom but ends with glory. More importantly, it shows us the transition between those two states. 

God knew how to get the people’s attention. In Joel’s time, all he had to do was threaten their agriculture or their defensibility. Back then you ate what you grew, and a powerful enemy could run roughshod over your country, destroying crops and villages — your entire culture! God often used foreign invaders in this way to punish his children. The fact that they deserved it did not make it any less horrible, and that’s the point. Calloused people need a shot of horror to break complacency. At times, however, God used a smaller enemy.

Joel tells of the palmerworm, which was followed by the locust, the cankerworm, and then the caterpillar. Do you think any vegetation remained after all that? Just as tiny insects cause a huge destruction, so do tiny decisions. And if we Americans continue to make small moral concessions to Satan, we will soon reach our tipping point — the point beyond self-correction. Be warned. A people cannot insult God forever and not expect a response, so let us see how our ancient counterparts fared in a similar situation.

Joel said of the enemy, “...the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness…” (2:3) Now, that’s a dark cloud! But behind it shines the light of God just waiting to break through. There is a catch, however. That ray of restoration falls only upon repentant ground. Fortunately, our key verses show us what true repentance really is. The Lord would not be satisfied with the mere rending of the clothes, which was in that culture the outward sign of repentance. America’s nominal Christians do this. They have no lack of church buildings, which are an outward sign of piety. They have no lack of liturgy to keep them on the outside edge of Scripture, and they have no lack of social programs to keep them on the outside edge of the Gospel. But God demands a rending of the heart — the very center of our beings. There is no other activity like this, and there is no substitute for it.

God continued to use the example of insects and invaders to show how he might apply his mercy to their specific effects. Of the locusts, he says, “And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten…” (2:25), and of the invading army, “But I will remove far off from you the northern army…” (2:20). Although there are no hard and fast rules, Scripture shows us that God is inclined to remove our threats and that he is inclined to restore our assets... but wouldn’t it be better to avoid these straights altogether? I think so, and here is why.

The Bible is full of warnings like those in Joel’s prophecy, and although these prophecies were directed to an ancient audience, their example makes a good lesson for today. By their sheer number, we learn that God is more interested in preventing his people from experiencing punishment than he is in sending them through it...but he will send them through it if that is what’s required to change the heart. Either way, God wants to see a true rending before he applies the mercy of prevention or the mercy of restoration to a wayward people.

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