Calling a Solemn Assembly

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Joel 2:12-17

Calling a Solemn Assembly

“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.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,

and leave a blessing behind him,

a grain offering and a drink offering

for the Lord your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

consecrate a fast;

call a solemn assembly;

gather the people.

Consecrate the congregation;

assemble the elders;

gather the children,

even nursing infants.

Let the bridegroom leave his room,

and the bride her chamber.

Between the vestibule and the altar

let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep

and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,

and make not your heritage a reproach,

a byword among the nations.

Why should they say among the peoples,

‘Where is their God?’”[1]

Whilst pastoring in the Lower Mainland of our fair province, I formed a warm friendship with an Anglican rector who held to a high-church view of worship.  Our friendship was based on our common love for the Saviour, and not our views of the church.  Raised in Vancouver and educated at Cambridge, Robert was well versed both in recent church history and in the history of our province.  On one occasion, discussing the state of religion in Canada, the priest spoke of the impact of and the dynamics of shifting popular sentiment toward the various religious communions.

 “It is a time when you evangelicals are in ascendancy,” he opined.  “However, it was not so many years ago that should the Bishop of New Westminster declare a day of solemn prayer, the legislature would close and the cities would cease their work to pray.”

It seems strange to us that a churchman should have such moral authority as to receive deference when calling for solemn introspection and prayer.  Today, it seems strange to us that a church leader should even issue a call for prayer.  The strangeness arises more from our moral deadness than from a lack of familiarity with the event.

Calling the people of God to consecrate themselves is indeed foreign to us today.  Even calling for a solemn assembly among the people of God sounds strange.  Perhaps it seems strange because we feel no particular need to formally seek the face of the Lord our God.  Perhaps we have grown accustomed to the darkness in which we grope.  Perhaps we actually believe that we are in no grave danger of being set aside as useless.  Of course, no one calls for a solemn assembly unless there is a clear and present danger.

The Living God, speaking through the prophet Joel, called for a solemn assembly.  God had just warned the people that they were facing extreme danger; the land was in danger of invasion by a foreign army.  Though the nation was imperilled, God was gracious.  In the twelfth verse, we read a gracious call preceded by the phrase, “Yet even now.”  Though the peril was real, though the danger was imminent, it was not too late for God to hold back the sentence that had been pronounced.  At issue was not God’s character, but the willingness of His people to honour Him.

Just so, we face extreme danger as a nation, as a congregation, as a people.  Studying the message of the Lord to Joel, we can see the gracious character of our God.  Seeing His gracious and merciful call to return to Him, we find ourselves drawn to consider His kindness.  Join me in study of this text that forms the heart of Joel’s prophetic message to a people in need of grace.

Danger — Joel likely wrote the prophecy that bears his name in the days immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was destroyed in 587/586 B.C., and Joel probably wrote his prophecy around 600 B.C.[2]  The king that ruled Judah, if this date is correct, would have possibly been Jehoiakim, one of the last kings of Judah.  The nation was in grave peril, and the people were willingly ignorant of the danger they faced.  Life went on as though nothing would happen.  However, a storm was gathering.

Religion in Judah had become mere formality, with the people placing trust in formal expressions of faith instead of Him that alone merits our faith.  Throughout the prophetic writings, the messengers call the people to examine their lives in order to see themselves as the Lord saw them.  How the calls of the prophets must have angered the people.  However, the mark of a prophet is not that he says smooth things to make the people feel good about themselves, but rather than he speaks the truth in love.

So, Joel, speaking the words of the Lord calls the people to repentance.

“‘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.’”

[Joel 2:12]

Then, having related the words of God Himself, Joel urges the people to repent.

“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.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,

and leave a blessing behind him,

a grain offering and a drink offering

for the Lord your God?”

[Joel 2:13, 14]

The spokesmen of God have often used common words to communicate theological concepts.  The word “return” is such a word.  The Hebrew word means exactly what is stated—“to return.”  It conveys the thought of movement in a linear path to the place one was previously.  Modern Christians would say that the prophets were calling the people to repentance.

“The Bible is rich in idioms describing man’s responsibility in the process of repentance.  Such phrases would include the following: ‘incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel’ [Joshua 24:23]: ‘circumcise yourselves to the Lord’ [Jeremiah 4:4]; ‘wash your heart from evil’ [Jeremiah 4:4]; ‘break up your fallow ground’ [Hosea 10:12]; and so forth.  All these expressions of man’s penitential activity, however, are subsumed and summarized by this one verb šûb.  For better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good.”[3]

As was also true of the message of Joel’s fellow prophet Jeremiah, who served simultaneously in Judah, the call to repent occupies a central position in Joel’s proclamation.  God called the people to a genuine repentance, to a turning with all the heart.  The peril Joel warned of was an invasion.  He speaks of the invaders as locusts, but the danger is far greater than a mere locust plague.

Locust plagues are natural phenomena; such an invasion could happen at any time.  However, Joel saw the locust plague as a portent.  Whenever a cataclysmic event occurs, thoughtful, believing people will ask questions, and Joel was guiding the thoughts of the people.  Israel was facing invasion and desolation, and Joel would not leave to chance that the people would either ask the right questions or that they would draw the correct conclusion.  He would direct their attention to what God was doing.

Dr. James Montgomery Boice, in a sermon preached from the second chapter of Joel, points out that Palestine and Syria experienced an infestation of locusts in 1915.  The insects appeared in March and did not leave until early summer.  The land was stripped of every green thing: vines, fig trees, grain.  The populace was left destitute following the infestation of voracious insects.  Nevertheless, the locusts did move on.  Boice, quite properly, draws the conclusion that the locust invasion that prompted Joel’s prophecy was at least as bad as this one was.

Dr. Boice writes, “[We] might suppose that Joel would have had at least a few encouraging words.  ‘Hang in there!’ he might have said.  ‘Things are bad, but they will get better.  The important thing is to have hope.  Look up!  After all, every cloud has its silver lining.’  Joel did precisely the opposite.  Instead of suggesting that things would get better, he argued that the worst was to come.  The destruction of the locusts was total, but it was as nothing compared to [what] was almost around the corner.”[4]

Joel’s response to the Word of the Lord demonstrates the difference between prophetic preaching and preaching that will characterise the prevailing ministry at the end of the age.  The prophet of God, the apostolic preacher, is called to speak the truth, especially when sin has brought the people of God to the brink of ruin.  He must confront people in their sin in order to make them aware of the danger in which they stand.  The individual who treats the ministry of the Word as a job will say whatever appears to make listeners feel good about themselves and affirms them, regardless of their condition.

You may recall the words of the Apostle Paul as he instructed Timothy how to conduct his ministry as he approached the end of the age.  “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” [2 Timothy 4:1-5].

Preaching the Word is demanding work at the best of times.  The Word of God is quite challenging, and when people are afflicted with “itching ears,” the work of the man of God becomes that much more difficult.  At such times, according to the Apostle, the ministry God approves will consist of reproving, rebuking, and exhorting.  Ministry that honours God will not be that which necessarily makes people feel good about themselves, but rather the ministry that the man of God is assigned always points the people to conclude the race they are called to run, showing strength and stamina throughout.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrew Christians expressed his frustration at the lack of progress in understanding when he wrote those stunning words.  “About [the doctrine of Christ and His eternal priesthood] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.  For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” [Hebrews 5:11-14].

God expects His people to grow, to advance in knowledge of His character.  The natural tendency of all mankind is to seek an easy way to live, a non-demanding lifestyle.  The natural inclination for all mankind is to try to get by with minimum effort.  Even among us Christians, the tendency is for us to make minimal effort to fulfil the expectations of the Spirit of God who lives with us and in us.  Consequently, we do not readily receive the message that confronts us in our sin, calling us to correct our lives, turning away from sin and turning to what is pleasing to the Lord.

Deliverance — Joel repeatedly calls the people to “turn” or to “return,” especially since man cannot know whether God will relent of what He has planned.  Joel is teaching that the Lord is merciful.  When His people cease their sin and embrace righteousness, God will reveal His mercy toward them.  Joel writes as he does in hope that God’s people will repent.  Hence, his call to return to the Lord.

Joel calls the people to repentance, and his emphasis is on the heart.  What I mean is that he seeks true repentance, and not merely a formal expression of sorrow.  It is true that he points to outward expressions of genuine repentance.  Outward expression of inward decisions is right and valuable; but he does not want to see the people respond with outward expression without inward reality.  Thus, Joel calls the people to rend their hearts and not their garments.  It is easier to rend our garments than to rend our hearts.  But God wants us to be heartbroken over sin.

Joel’s call for repentance evokes a contrast between a casual response to the call for repentance that occurred in Israel and true repentance.  God, speaking through Hosea, had confronted the people in their sin.  When confronted, the people responded,

“Come, let us return to the Lord;

for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will raise us up,

that we may live before him.”

[Hosea 6:1, 2]

The actions of the people treat God as though He is compelled to respond to whatever the people decide to do.  The confession rings hollow.  On the other hand, compare the repentance demonstrated by the end of Hosea’s prophecy.

“Israel, return to the Lord your God,

for you have stumbled in your sin.

Take words of repentance with you

and return to the Lord.

Say to Him: “Forgive all our sin

and accept what is good,

so that we may repay You

with praise from our lips.”

[Hosea 14:1, 2][5]

This is the type of repentance Joel sought; it is the repentance that we should expect today.  What, precisely, should we expect when a person repents toward God?  Were we actually witnessing repentance in the churches of this day, what would we see?  There are three facets of true repentance: confession of sin; contrition; and conversion.[6]  Think with me of each aspect of repentance in light of Joel’s words.

True repentance will always be expressed with open confession of specific sins we have committed.  Until we have confessed specific sins, we are not repenting.  I am not suggesting that we must practise some form of spiritual nudity in which we utterly expose ourselves before fellow Christians, but I am saying that there must be a specific and full confession of all that has hindered fellowship with God.  This is taught in John’s first letter, as he encourages us to keep short accounts with God.  In 1 John 1:9 we read, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Though I am speaking of repentance in broad terms, I am specifically addressing the repentance that is expected of Christians.

A concise guide for Christians in confessing sin is to acknowledge that if we have sinned against a person, we should confess to that person.  If we have sinned against the church, we should confess to the church.  However, if the sin was against God, and not specifically against another person or against the people of God, we need not confess to anyone other than God.  However, we must not minimise our sin by saying in a general manner that we are sinners.  We need to deal specifically with our sins.

The second element in true repentance is contrition.  When I speak of contrition, I mean genuine sorrow for sin.  David, in the penitential 51st Psalm cries out,

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

[Psalm 51:17]

Christians often confuse contrition with regret.  Undoubtedly, we regret sin, especially when confronted with our condition.  When we are exposed, any of us will feel regret.  However, our regret is likely related to the fact that our sin is exposed and thus known.  Embarrassment is frequently a stronger motive than is genuine sorrow over sin.  Contrition is much deeper than regret.  Judas regretted his sin of betraying the Saviour.  His regret was so intense that he returned the money he had received for his betrayal, and then he committed suicide.  However, he did not repent of his sin, and he suffered for it.

God esteems contrition.  Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, states:

“Thus says the One who is high and lifted up,

who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:

‘I dwell in the high and holy place,

and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,

to revive the spirit of the lowly,

and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”

[Isaiah 57:15]

Yet, again, the prophet reminds us,

“This is the one to whom I will look:

he who is humble and contrite in spirit

and trembles at my word.”

[Isaiah 66:2]

Contrition for sin means that we sense our guilt before God and are inwardly broken because of the effect of sin.  We know that sin has defiled our lives, broken fellowship with fellow Christians, and dishonoured Christ.  Therefore, we grieve over the impact of our own wilful way.  This is true contrition.

The final element of repentance is conversion.  This is the point Joel emphasises when he calls the people to return to God with all their heart.  This is the meaning of the word “convert,” which comes to us from the Latin, com (with) and vertere (turning).[7]  The idea in the Hebrew, and in our English concept of turning, is that we have previously enjoyed a right relationship with God, but we have turned away from Him and now we need to turn back.  Of course, this is the meaning of repentance as well.  Repentance implies a basic change in the direction of one’s life; it is an about face.

In a Sunday School class, the teacher asked the children for a definition of repentance.  A little boy replied that it meant being sorry for your sins.  One little girl quickly added that it was being sorry enough to quit.  That is the point precisely!

Boice cites Donald Grey Barnhouse, his predecessor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  “You, today, are facing yourself, and your hope and confidence lie in your character and your good works.  Behind you is the Lord Jesus Christ, despised and rejected by you.  If you hear God’s command to repent—if you are drawn by the sweet wooing of the riches of His grace—there will be an ‘about face’ that will change the direction of your walk forever.  Now you will know values in their true light.  You shall put all your hope and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in Him alone.”[8]

Decision — Of course, Joel is pleading for God’s glory and his people’s good.  Revival is his goal, and so he calls the people to a solemn assembly.  The urgency of the hour demands immediate and serious attention to the call for repentance.  The elders of the community of faith must attend.  Even the children and nursing infants must be present.  There can be no excused absence at this convocation.

Moreover, “the ministers of the Lord” are to lead the congregation.  They must lead in repentance and also lead the people in prayer.  They are to declare a fast, call a solemn assembly, and gather the people.  They are responsible to lead out pleading with God to spare His people, appealing to His jealousy for His holy people.  “Who knows,” asks Joel, “whether [God] will not turn and relent?”  Indeed, who knows?

Surely, the elders of the church are responsible to lead out in seeking God’s mercy.  Surely, the elders of the congregation are responsible to call for a solemn assembly, to repent of the wickedness that infects the people of God and threatens desolation and destruction.  Surely, the elders must plead with God for mercy for His people.  However, can we really say that any of God’s people are exempt from returning to the Lord and seeking renewal for themselves and for their church?

It is not an exaggeration to remind the people of God that each Christian is a priest before the Lord.  God has made us “a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” [Revelation 1:6].  Peter attests of us who are Christians that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” [1 Peter 2:9].  He also identified us as “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” [1 Peter 2:5].

Each of us is responsible to lead the way in repentance.  If we do not do this, who will?  We are the ones appointed as watchmen to see the approaching danger and sound the alarm.  If we do not sound the alarm, who will?  If we are consumed with our own comfort, refusing to warn the lost and the unwary, who will warn them?  The answer is that no one, other than we Christians, are able to sound the alarm.  If we fight and consume ourselves, worrying over issues that are of no eternal importance, we will be the cause for the death of many people.  The blame will be ours.

Throughout the communities in which we live are neighbours who are lost.  They are good people, kind people, and we enjoy their company.  However, far too many of our neighbours are not saved, if their walk with the Lord is any indication of their relationship to Him.  We don’t want to be judgemental, but we cannot avoid discernment as we witness their failure to give evidence of the grace of God in their lives.

Many of our family members, whom we love dearly, are likewise in danger of eternal condemnation.  We assure ourselves that we would do anything for them, except speak to them of our concern for their spiritual welfare.  We are so fearful of damaging fragile relationships that we jeopardise eternal welfare.

Our communities need Christians to serve as salt and light, speaking up for righteousness and standing up for the vulnerable within society.  However, our contention for godliness has little meaning if we fail to point all alike to life in the Son of God.  Surely, if we review the lost condition of our world, there is need for us to repent.

The message is directed to us who are Christians, to us who name the Name of Christ.  There is implicit in the message the fact that those without faith in the Risen Son of God are lost.  We Christians are the means God has chosen to present His grace in the world.  We Christians are appointed by God as His ambassadors in this darkened world.  God calls His people to turn from the complacency of their own comfort, and to turn to Him.  Similarly, those who are lost are called to turn from the life that leads to death and to turn to the eternal life offered in Christ.  This is the message Christians are to deliver.

“The fact that people are called ‘to turn’ either ‘to’ or ‘away from’ implies that sin is not an ineradicable stain, but by turning, a God-given power, a sinner can redirect his destiny.  There are two sides in understanding conversion, the free sovereign act of God’s mercy and man’s going beyond contrition and sorrow to a conscious decision of turning to God.  The latter includes repudiation of all sin and affirmation of God’s total will for one’s life.” [9]

Dr. Boice relates that Albert Einstein, the great physicist and mathematician, witnessed the rising tide of National Socialism in Germany between the world wars.  Einstein stated that he expected the chief opposition to this evil to come from the press and the men of letters.  However, that did not happen.  The press was strangely silent, and what was even worse is that sometimes the press was on the side of Hitler’s socialism.  The learned men of Germany were also silent.  Einstein hoped that the universities would oppose the rising evil.  However, the liberal minds of discriminating scholars were also submissive to the growing tide of wickedness.  Where, then, could he look for help?

In the end, it was only among the churches that Einstein found those of sufficient courage to make vigorous resistance to the Nazi movement.  Therefore, he came to respect the Christian Faith as he had not respected it before. [10]

The message concludes, then, with a call to repentance.  For all who are outside of Christ, the repentance that is needed is “repentance toward God” and “faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:21].  If somehow you have never believed this message of life offered in the Son of God, know that He died because of your sin and was raised in order to declare you free of all condemnation before God.  Therefore, the Bible calls you to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your that God raised Him from the dead.”  That Word of God is clear in declaring that “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  For this reason, the Word of God declares, “everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9, 10, 13].

The message concludes with a call for Christians to repent as we each “return to the Lord, [our] God.”  It is time for us to weep over the sin of our nation, over the sin of our families, over our own sins.  Let us give ourselves to seeking the face of God, asking for mercy as we seek renewal and revival.  No one else will seek renewal in our time.  No one else has been appointed to intercede for the lost.  Let us accept the burden of giving ourselves to prayer.  Amen.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Ronald B. Allen, Joel: Bible Study Commentary (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1988) 22-3

[3] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 2 (Moody, Chicago, IL 1980) 909

[4] James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary, Hosea-Jonah, Volume 1 (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1983) 106

[5] Holman Christian Standard Bible (Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, TN 2003)

[6] See Boice, op. cit., 109-10

[7] Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Thomas Allen & Son, Ltd., Markham, ON 1993)

[8] Donald Grey Barnhouse, “God’s Wrath,” Vol. 2 in The Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1953) 29-30, cited in Boice, op. cit., 110

[9] Harris et. al., ibid.

[10] Boice, op. cit., 111-12

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