Recently, I have been teaching through the Trei Asar (the “12” or “Minor” Prophets) at my synagogue in Atlanta. Going through these books has been helpful to our community as we have moved into the month of Elul and toward the fall holidays. Our most recent discussion was on the book of Yoel (Joel).
Yoel gives one of the most powerful descriptions of the power of teshuvah (returning to God) in all of the Prophets. In this post, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from our discussion with the hope that you will be inspired to do your own cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) during this season.
In verses 1-12 of chapter 1, the prophet draws a picture of imminent judgment and devastation that is coming to Judah and Jerusalem. Then, in verses 13-14, there is a call for a last-minute, massive teshuvah. And then for the next seventeen verses, leading until about half way through chapter 2, Yoel continues to give a graphic description of the Day of the Lord judgment that is right on Judah and Jerusalem’s doorstep.
Starting in verse 12 of chapter 2, we have an amazing text. Up to this point, God has been explicit through the prophet that Jerusalem is an inch away from judgment and devastation. But even with things as bad as they are, let’s read what God says in verses 12-14:
“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?
“Yet even now,” God says at the last minute, if you will do teshuvah … if you will return to me … he will consider relenting. What we see here is that the destruction that did end up coming to Jerusalem could possibly have been averted if they had heeded God’s call to do teshuvah, even at the last minute.
Let’s not let this principle escape us as we consider our own lives.
All of us can experience seasons in life where we are in a deep pit. And it may seem so ominous, and so devastating, and so dark, that there seems to be no way out. But the truth is, with God, there is always a path toward the light. God never wants us to intentionally choose to wait until the last minute to cry out to him for mercy. But even at the last minute, God welcomes our return. And the text above [Yoel 2:12-14] describes where we have to get to in our hearts.
We have to remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and he relents over disaster (13b).
I love these words from Paul in 2 Corinthians 1: 8-10:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
If God can raise the dead, he can heal anything in your life or mine.
Corrie ten Boom said, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
Perhaps there is something in your life that is very dark—and maybe it’s of your own doing (as it was with Israel in Yoel)? Or, maybe you’re a victim of someone else’s wrongdoing?
Whatever the circumstances are, I encourage you to take responsibility for your part, return to God, and trust that he will create a path toward the light. That path may not be easy, and it may still involve pain and consequences. But it’s always going to be a better path if it’s the path of teshuvah.
If you find yourself in a hopeless struggle, cry out to God, give him your heart, and trust that he will bring redemption according to his good and gracious purposes.
* The word rend means “to tear or cut.” Tearing or cutting one’s garments has been a longtime Jewish expression of grief or sorrow.