Saturday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Joel 4:12-21

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 rouse themselves and march to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit in judgement on all the nations around.” 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 judgment on the nations gathered against Jerusalem. It was there that King Jehoshaphat had witnessed one of the Lord’s historic victories over the nations.

“Ply the sickle for the harvest is ripe; come and tread, for the winepress is full. The vats are overflowing 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 (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 judgment on the nations. Revelation (14:14-20) draws heavily on this picture of judgment.

“Multitude on multitude in the Valley of Decision! For the Day of Yahweh is near in the Valley of the Verdict!” 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.

“Sun and moon grow dark, the stars lose their brilliance. Yahweh roars from Zion, he thunders from Jerusalem; heaven and earth tremble.” The language is apocalyptic. Yahweh 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 do so from his royal city, Zion, from which he rules his “inheritance”.

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.

On the Day of Yahweh 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.

Times of plenty are coming. “When that Day comes, the mountains will run with new wine and the hills will flow with milk and all the stream-beds of Judah will run 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 will spring from Yahweh’s Temple and water the Gorge of the Acacias.” Flowing out from God’s presence, streams of blessing will refresh his people and make their place endlessly fruitful. The location of the ‘gorge of Acacias’ is uncertain in this apocalyptic description of the new Jerusalem. If a plant is referred to, then, since acacias flourish in dry soil, the picture is of a desert now with an abundance of water.

On the other hand, “Egypt will become a desolation, and Edom a desert waste on account of the violence done to the children of Judah whose innocent blood they shed in their country.” 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 will be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation! ‘I shall avenge their blood and let none go unpunished,’ and Yahweh will dwell in Zion.” Once God’s judgment and redemption are complete, his kingdom will endure and flourish for ever. And this book of judgment 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: “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem… An hour is coming, and is already here, when authentic worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshippers the Father seeks” (John 4:23)

This brings us to the end of our selection of readings from the post-Exilic prophets which began in the 25th Week, that is, 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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