When there's already nothing to eat, held captive in a land destroyed by locusts, drought and fire, the Prophet Joel delivers a message to sanctify a fast. Old Testament scholar, Richard Benton, PhD, discusses how the message of Joel is critical for any leader today to sanctify even failure, ruin, and devastation unto the Lord.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Today my very special guest is Dr. Richard Benton, who has a PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament and co-hosts the Bible as literature podcast. He's recently published a commentary on the book of Hosea and is working on a series of commentaries for the Minor Prophets. Rich is an IT scrum master by day, and by night, he's doing biblical research, studying languages, and doing work with the parish. He's a great husband and partner, even in the work of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Welcome to the podcast, Rich!
Dr. Richard Benton 0:52
Hollie Benton 0:54
So leaders are sometimes in positions where they have to communicate bad news or where the situation is so clearly bad that they have to figure out a way to lead through it. Sometimes the team you're in charge of leading is facing a huge company layoff. A teacher may have to help her class grieve the fatal loss of a classmate, a parish may be really struggling to keep its doors open. It's not enough to just slap each other on the back with platitudes, "Oh, everything's gonna be okay. Let's just make lemonade out of these lemons." So today we're going to be looking at the introduction in the book of Joel and how the prophet is commanded to lead his people through the difficulties and devastation they are facing. Rich, could you provide some context for us before we read this short passage in Joel?
Dr. Richard Benton 1:45
So Joel's appearing on the scene, either during or after the time that the people are suffering from the captivity in Babylon. Their city has been destroyed, their temple has been destroyed. And the book begins with a plague of locusts that is further destroying the crops and leading potentially the people to famine and starvation. It really appears that God is heaping insult on the injury of the captivity. And God has no problem telling the people that he's the one who's in charge of the entire thing. The buck clearly stops with God on both counts, both in the count of the captivity, which you can read about elsewhere in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, other books in the book of the 12. And here we're just taking it for granted that this destruction has come to the people and further destruction is on its way. And it's time for the people to react and act according to the word that the Lord delivers to his prophet Joel.
Hollie Benton 2:57
So let's hear from the prophet Joel. In this first chapter, verses 13 to 20. "Gird on sackcloth and lament, O priests. Wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth ministers of my God. Because cerial offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Sanctify 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 to the Lord. Alas for the day, for the day of the Lord is near. And as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God. The seed shrivels under the clods, the store houses are desolate, the graineries are ruined because the grain has failed. How the beast groans. The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them. Even the flocks of sheep are dismayed. Unto thee, O Lord, I cry, for fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness and flame has burned all the trees of the field. Even the wild beast cried to thee because the water books are dried up, and fire has devoured the pasture of the wilderness." So Rich the current situations in which we serve and lead today, likely pale in comparison with the utter devastation described in the book of Joel. However, even in this day, leaders can face some really tough challenges like failed businesses, company wide layoffs, sickness and death in the community, and even occasionally flood and fire. It seems the prophet Joel has a powerful message for these situations.
Dr. Richard Benton 4:48
This situation, it's not even talking about impending doom. This is when doom actually has happened, when the worst case scenario actually has come to pass. So this is not when the parish is about to have its electricity shut off. This is after the church has closed its doors and it's gone into foreclosure. This is after the divorce. This is after the bankruptcy. This is after the sickness. This is after the death. What do you do then? What does leadership look like there? How many people are going to follow a priest and listen to a priest who has lost his church? Who has divorced his wife? Whose Bishop is fighting with him? How about the major donor who lost his business because of sickness or divorce? And as a result, the parish can't keep its doors open? What does the priest, what does the father of the family, what does the business owner, what does the team lead at work do in these situations when utter failure is looking everybody in the face? What do you do then? What Joel is preaching here to the priests, you are to sanctify a fast. Now for me, this is a cruel irony. Because all the crops and all the food have been destroyed by locusts. And this section here may be describing drought or something, but it may just be a result of the locusts. But in any case, there's no food. There's no food for eating, for feeding the children. And God wants to talk about sacrifices in the temple? I mean, the parish can no longer keep the lights on in their own house. And we're going to talk about how much can you offer in the offering? Why is the offering plate empty? Father, people can't eat! What? What do you mean? How much are we going to contribute the parish? This is what it's talking about. So in this cruel irony, it seems that the Lord is declaring a fast. Sanctify a fast. What does this mean? They're going to be fasting anyway, there's no food. But to sanctify a fast means that you have to go back to the temple, even if it's destroyed. Maybe it's just the ruins of a temple. And you preach this word that the Lord has been preaching all this time, which is that the Lord is in control of everything. Even when it's the Lord that has ruined things, you turn to him because the only salvation that remains is also in the Lord. This is a call to return to the Lord, even when it is absolutely clear to the naked eye, that following the Lord has not benefited us. This is the anti-prosperity gospel. We did everything right, and it all went to ruin. Yet we're supposed to still continue to follow the same gospel, the same teaching, the same Torah, the same teaching from the Lord.
Hollie Benton 8:04
It's a very hard message, a very tough pill to swallow. So here we are. listening to this podcast, equipped with an iPhone and earbuds, maybe out walking the dog ,perhaps lounging around with a hot cup of cocoa, listening to this beautiful, yet very sad poetry that describes a devastated situation for Israel. How should we hear this? Given our current and comparatively comfortable situation? I mean, the typical challenges we face likely pale in comparison where fire has devoured everything. So why read the Prophets when we're sitting comfortably? What do we have to learn from the prophet Joel when we may not see an immediate connection to our current day in caring for the herds of cattle which are perplexed, and the flocks of sheep that are dismayed? Why is it necessary for a servant, a doulos, in the Lord's household to invest time in these biblical texts? Why is it important for one who would call himself a Christian to hear the words of the prophet Joel?
Dr. Richard Benton 9:15
If you want to know what the word is to the comfortable, you can always go on to the next book, Amos, when he's addressing Judah and Israel, which historians would say was probably their highest level of prosperity. Their morality was not so high, and that's what Amos addresses. But I digress, we come back to Joel. What's the point of listening to this now? When it comes to Joel, the point is that you must be prepared from the moment you take up this yoke, never to put it down. You have one teaching, you have one tool in your belt, and that is this teaching. That's why even here it refers to the priests but it also calls them ministers of the altar, "ministers of my God." If you are in a place of authority, whether it's your family, whether it's at work, whether it's in your church, you have one tool in your belt, and that's the gospel, and that's this teaching. If all you have left is starvation, you sanctify that starvation to the Lord. If all you have is a ruined marriage or a ruined business, you sanctify your ruined marriage or your ruined business to the Lord. If you have a devastated family, devastated friends, devastated community, you sanctify that devastation to the Lord. The only response to what the Lord has brought to you is the Lord's word.
Hollie Benton 11:03
Amen. Thanks be to God.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai