Saturday of Week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Joel 4:12-21

Today we have our second and final reading from the prophet Joel. It is an apocalyptic-style call to a people who are suffering, who see only a bleak future with threats on all sides. It is a message full of hope in the ultimate future.

It begins with a call to the nations. The nations may “declare” (literally “sanctify”) war on Yahweh and march on Zion, but there in the “Valley of Decision” they will meet their judgement and ultimate defeat. It is called ‘holy’ because all war was regarded as a sacred undertaking. Earlier in the chapter, Yahweh had said he would gather all the nations together and take them to the Valley of Jehoshaphat where he would put them on trial. That is now about to happen. The call for the nations is to hammer their ploughshares into swords and their bill-hooks into spears. This is the exact reversal of what is to happen in paradise as described by Isaiah (2:4).

Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.

The valley of Jehospaphat is called the “Valley of Decision” later in the passage. It seems to be a symbolic name for a valley near Jerusalem that is here depicted as the place of God’s ultimate judgement on the nations gathered against Jerusalem. It was there that King Jehoshaphat had witnessed one of the Lord’s historic victories over the nations.

Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow — so great is their wickedness.

Because of their numerous crimes, the nations are ripe for punishment. The use of warlike weapons against them is likened to the use of reaping instruments on the fields and vines at harvest time.

As a result of the Lord’s great army (the plague of locusts) that had marched against Judah (see 2:3-11), there have been no harvests. That harvest was now to be restored. In the final great day of the Lord, there will also be a harvest – the harvest of God’s judgement on the nations. Revelation (14:14-20) draws heavily on this picture of judgement.

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.

The word for “decision” also means an instrument with sharp wheels or stones used in threshing. Just as the threshing machine divides the wheat from the chaff, so will God’s decision be against those who have been unfaithful. The valley is now viewed as the place where that decree will be executed.

Next comes a brief description of the Day of Yahweh.

The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.

The language is apocalyptic. “The Lord will roar” like a lion and destroy the unbelieving nations. And, as God at the head of his army had thundered against Jerusalem, so he will on that day thunder against Jerusalem’s enemies, and he will:

…dwell in Zion, [his] holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her.

On the “Day of the Lord” his people will know that he is Yahweh their God, residing on Zion, his holy mountain. Jerusalem will be his sanctuary and it will never again be over-run by the foreigner. The Lord from now on will be with his people forever. The final blessed state of the now unholy and vulnerable city will be God’s abiding presence in her. Then she will be holy and impregnable.

In the third and last part of the reading, God blesses his people in a dual way: negatively, by destroying their enemies; and positively, by giving them good things.

Times of plenty are coming:

In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water…

The Eden-like lushness pictured in this verse is in great contrast to the terrible drought which followed the plague of locusts.

…a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord and water the Wadi Shittim.

Flowing out from God’s presence, streams of blessing will refresh his people and make their place endlessly fruitful. The location of the ‘Wadi Shittim’ is uncertain in this apocalyptic description of the new Jerusalem. The picture is of a desert now with an abundance of water.

On the other hand:

Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood.

Egypt and Edom were old enemies of Israel and here represent all those nations hostile to God’s people.

All life-sustaining blessings are removed from these nations, thus setting in sharp focus the contrasting destiny of God’s people and the enemies of God’s kingdom. This picture of desolation also recalls the earlier description of Judah’s condition after the locusts.

But Judah shall be inhabited forever and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.

Once God’s judgement and redemption are complete, his kingdom will endure and flourish for ever. And this book of judgement ends on a promising and encouraging note: “The Lord dwells in Zion” and therefore all will be right with those who trust in God and live with him.

We do not now hold that God preserves any particular place for ever, not Jerusalem, not Rome. For us, Zion is not a physical place. God is present not in stones but in the hearts of those who open themselves to him, who hear his word and keep it. The ‘New Jerusalem’ is not a place, but the composite of all those who are in loving relationship with God and with each other because of Him. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman:

But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. (John 4:23)

Indeed, an hour is coming, and is already here, when authentic worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. It is just such worshippers the Father seeks.

This brings us to the end of our selection of readings from the post-Exilic prophets which began in the 25th Week of Ordinary Time (three weeks ago). We have read passages from Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, Nehemiah, Baruch, Jonah, Malachi, and Joel. What they have in common is that all come from the same period, following the return of the Hebrews from exile in Babylon. Two are historical books (Ezra and Nehemiah) and the rest are from prophets. And they have appeared more or less in chronological order.

On Monday we will return to reading from the New Testament.

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