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The Prophet Joel: Listen, Lament & Repent

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Joel, the son of Pethuel (1:1), is a prophet who powerfully provided a theological interpretation of an unfolding ecological catastrophe. In this intensifying crisis, the people of God were to acknowledge their standing under God's judgment, marked by a curse due to their rebellion against the divine covenant. Now, they are called to lament, repent, and return to the Lord, paving the way for a new, hopeful future.

The prophet does not speak directly to our own times, but his message resonates and holds prophetic power to shake and challenge the church in the face of the "polycrisis" we confront. By 'polycrisis,' we mean the simultaneous occurrence of several interrelated and intersecting catastrophes.

We live in the era of the 'great acceleration,' where the explosive rise in human population, combined with material consumption, consumerism, unrestrained capitalism, and globalization, has led us into a state of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. To make matters worse, our attention has been diverted from addressing these existential issues by events such as Covid-19, the Ukraine-Russia War, Gaza-Israel conflict, and more.

The climate and ecological crisis is not something we will face in the coming decades; it is something we have been experiencing for decades. It is set to worsen as we move from the current 1.2 degrees above preindustrial temperatures to, according to current trajectories, a world that will reach 2.7 degrees by the end of the century. This is a world of mass starvation, mass migration, and societal collapse.

What is certain is that things are set to get a whole lot worse.

In this blog post, we will look at five prophetic themes within the book of Joel and use these as a springboard for our reflection.


“Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.” (Joel 1:2–3, ESV)

The prophet Joel speaks and encourages people to listen. This imperative is for the leaders (elders) and all the people to pay attention and listen. They are to listen to the voice of Joel, pay attention to what has befallen them. In a world of distraction and denial, Joel calls the people to take stock. They are not to bypass or romanticize recent events but perceive them in all their pain. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, called on the church to ‘Listen to the cry of the earth,’ and Joel, in this passage, allows the earth, the trauma, the suffering to speak and be given a voice. The elders and leaders need to shake themselves awake from their drunken stupor (1:5) and recognize the destruction that has been brought by locusts.

“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” (Joel 1:4, ESV). The power of the locusts, which may well be metaphorical for an invading army (1:6), has brought destruction so that the land is ‘laid waste’ (1:7), ‘fields are destroyed, the ground mourns’ (1:10), and the ‘harvest has perished’ (1:11). The ecological destruction has social consequences as 'gladness dries up from the children of man' (1:12), as economies and food supplies face ruin (1:17-18). The prophet articulates this ecological and societal ruin theologically; it is the ‘Day of YHWH’ (2:1), and paints it in apocalyptic terms.

“Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness, there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1–3, ESV)

The ‘Day of the Lord’ (1:11) is a day of terror, a day of judgment. It brings destruction to the fields but also comes into cities (2:9), affecting both the corporate and the individual.

In his call to listen and give ear, the prophet calls the people to recognize the absolute crisis they are in, and to see this crisis as the outworking of their own sin, idolatry, and pride. For readers paying attention to the Hebrew Scriptures, this ecological crisis is none other than the covenant curse of Deuteronomy coming to bear, curses that are laid on the people of God because they have chosen not to obey and go the way of blessing.

As we face the ‘polycrisis,’ the words of Joel serve as a haunting reminder for the covenant community to listen, pay attention, understand, and theologize the world we inhabit. Just as the locusts' relentless march brought desolation upon the land in Joel's time, today's environmental challenges, driven by factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and unsustainable resource consumption, are leaving a trail of destruction across the planet. The day of reckoning has arrived. Just as Judah saw itself as ‘exceptional’ and saw the ‘day of the Lord’ in purely positive terms, so the current crisis serves as an apocalyptic shock that shatters our own exceptionalism and myths of endless growth, and instead lays them bare; we are reaping what we have sown. We need to take stock and listen to the ‘cries of the earth’ and the cries of the most vulnerable. Climate breakdown has arrived, and now there is no place for hopium, a type of hope that distracts us from reality. Reality presses in, it raises its voice, and we need to listen.


The prophet urges his listeners to listen, awake, and pay attention to the catastrophe that has and continues to befall them. In a second move, he calls for lamentation.

“Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.” (Joel 1:8, ESV)

“Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! …Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.” (Joel 1:13–14, ESV)

In the face of ecological and societal collapse, there is a call for the priests and ministers to move towards grief and lead others in such lament. They are to use liturgical and solemn rites, along with symbolic resources, to engage in lament. Lament is to 'cry out to the Lord' because they hear the cry of the earth; they are to grieve and mourn, for 'fields are destroyed, and the ground mourns' (1:10).

Grief is the opposite of denial, and lament is the opposite of distraction. Lament is to be directed toward God and is part of the tapestry and texture of the faith of Israel.

Lament, a forgotten language in much of contemporary Christian experience, is part of the repertoire of both the prophet and the psalmist, in which individuals or communities bring to God complaints, sorrows, and grief as they reflect upon the calamity that has befallen them.

Corporate lament for a corporate catastrophe speaks against exceptionalism, as the disaster is not something distant but something that has come knocking at the door of the community. At times, the prophets express their own lament to God (see Is 6:11; Jer 4:10, 19–21; 8:18–9:1; 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14, 15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–13, 14–18).

In Joel, the community is called to lament, to lift up their voices in articulation of their distress and suffering. Lament recognises that we are no longer in a place of orientation, where all is well with the world, but rather we are in a place of disorientation. It functions as a way of moving toward reorientation, where we have faced reality, expressed deep sorrow, and opened ourselves to both a fresh reading of history and an imagination for the future. It's a recognition that deep suffering has visited us, and we carry this trauma, even when healed, into our future.

In our own context, lamentation offers a potent means to confront the daunting reality of climate breakdown. It provides a platform to openly express the grief and loss associated with environmental devastation, species extinction, and human suffering, enabling individuals and communities to come to terms with the gravity of the situation. It connects head knowledge with the heart, which in turn prepares us for action. Lament stands in opposition to denial and distraction, compelling us to face the painful truths that we might otherwise avoid.

The practice of lament may also serve as a call for accountability, prompting reflection on our collective responsibility for the ecological crisis. It has the mythic power to unite communities, fostering solidarity and a shared purpose in addressing the climate emergency. Lament, when witnessed by others, communicates emotionally what rational argumentation may not.

While it begins in disorientation, lament and grief guide us towards reorientation, where we can embrace a new future in which we adapt to the pain and cries of the earth.

Lament in the Christian community is a prayer that puts us in honest dialogue with God, allowing for the possibility of hope-filled realism. It gives voice to our sorrows and anger and invites us to pour out our hearts to God.

Repentance & Hope

Judgment is being cast upon the land; the earth mourns, and the consequences of food shortages are widespread. This narrative, which, in one sense, seems to have reached its conclusion, is not, necessarily, the end. The devastating finale, the last destructive waltz, is not necessarily the final dance, the last chapter. The show is not over, and the curtain may not fall just yet. The darkest day, is not the final day.

For YHWH, speaking through the prophet, hints at the possibility of a narrative twist in which the end isn't really the end but could mark the start of a new future. This potential future is open, though not guaranteed; it hinges on the main characters not only recognizing their transgressions but also turning anew towards the living God.

“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)

The ecological and societal crisis, this curse, has unfolded due to a turning away from spiritual and covenantal roots, and an embrace of idolatry. This rebellion has manifested in national and corporate disobedience, as well as in individual human actions. However, against the odds, there remains a possibility that the people of God can undergo a profound transformation. Mere outward displays of allegiance to YHWH are insufficient. True change requires lament and repentance, a turning of hearts, the very core of emotions and existence, back to the living God. Even in times of judgment, God remains the living God who abounds in covenantal love, hesed.

The prophet envisions this future and presents a fresh perspective; a new chapter becomes possible.

"Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had compassion on His people. The Lord answered and said to His people, 'Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no longer allow you to be a disgrace among the nations.' (Joel 2:18–19, ESV)

The ecological devastation of the land is replaced by this prophetic hope, a moment of reorientation. Instead of a curse, we find a blessing. Instead of decay, we witness recreation. Instead of sorrow, there is now rejoicing, and instead of famine, there is feasting. The prophet heralds a new day, announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand, urging us to repent and embrace this good news:

"'Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are lush; the trees bear fruit; the fig tree and vine yield their bounty.

Rejoice, O children of Zion, and celebrate the Lord your God, for He has provided abundant rain for your vindication; He has poured down both the early and latter rain as before. The threshing floors shall be abundant with grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has devoured, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, My great army, which I sent among you.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you. My people will never again be put to shame. You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and I am the Lord your God, and there is no other. My people will never again be put to shame.'"

These prophetic passages possess historical and contemporary relevance when considered within the context of our current climate and ecological crisis. We too live within the curse, having opened the door to unrestrained capitalism, and we are now reaping the consequences. We have collectively headed into a far country and have taken a path that has led to destruction. We are homesick exiles, spiritually bankrupt and unable to live and love in such a way that we have a sustainable future. In this context, we hear afresh the word 'Yet, even now' for our perceived final chapter, and let's remember we are on a trajectory to 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century; it may not be the final act. There is the possibility that with deep change, we may yet avert the worst of what may be.

This requires, as Pope Francis has urged, an ecological conversion: a turning away from the idols and deep myths of our age — unrestrained capitalism, exceptionalism, endless growth, consumerism — and turning towards a new future. Given the idolatrous nature of our present path, we require a spiritual transformation in how we relate to the divine, the earth, its creatures, and the world's most vulnerable.

A new world is possible, and in order to get there, we need prophets who can use their rhetorical arts to create a fresh imagination, to envision a new future. As we look back, we need grief to articulate reality; as we move forward, we need hope-filled imaginations that stir us to repent and live again- 'Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him' Joel 2:14.

Calling all poets and prophets,

The end of the ages has come,

And justice, once neglected,

must once again raise her hope-filled voice.

So pick up that paintbrush,

Strum on that guitar.

Speak Truth, Sing Freedom,

For justice, once neglected,

must once again raise her voice of challenge.

Unrestrained Capitalism —

Your days are numbered.

You have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.

Creation Betrayed —

We reap what we sow.

Let us sow the seeds of faith, hope, and love.

Calling all poets and prophets,

Wake up the church with your sweet melodies and rebuke,

For we have been asleep on our kingdom watch.

Let justice, once neglected, become our beating heart.

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