“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?
The prophet, Joel, surprises the reader with this amazing oracle from the Lord, “Yet even now….” The God who had just devastated the land with a hoard of invading locust, destroyed their crops, distressed their livestock, crippled their economy, brought a halt to their daily ceremonial worship, and warned of a greater judgment to come, now calls them to return to him. This is a genuine offer that requires a genuine response – “with all your heart”. It was common for people to tear their clothing as a sign of overwhelming grief. No doubt, they had already done that. What God really wants is for them to tear their hearts; he wants them to grieve over their sin and turn back to him.
Joel adds his own words of encouragement. He alludes to their covenant relationship, “Return to the LORD your God.” He reminds them of God’s character – a character so rock-solid that it is associated with his very name – “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (cf. Exodus 34:6). Joel knows what Jonah also suspected about God (Jonah 4:2), he is quick to relent on bringing disaster.
The question, “Who knows?” cautions us against presumption. It is not as if the prophet is seeking to plant doubts in our minds. God’s very nature is to be gracious. He is a forgiving God. That is an amazing truth. However, God’s grace is sovereign grace – bestowed as he wills. His mercy, by definition, is underserved. There is not one trace of cause and effect here. We cannot trigger his grace through some 4 step process, recited prayer, or sacrament. There is no bargaining going on here. Even our best intentions, sincerest resolutions, and most pitiful tears are a foul mixture polluted by sin. The desperate, repentant sinner says, “I cast myself on the mercy of God – do what he may!”
But this “who knows” question also pushes the boundaries of faith. What person, fully aware of his guilt – being both undeserving and ill-deserving – would have the audacity to not only seek mercy but also hope for a blessing in addition. Sinners who know the God of the Bible will. It would be just like Yahweh to “turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him.” It is not to be presumed, but it is an unmistakable pattern in his gracious dealing with sinners.
The greatest blessing to be had is restored fellowship with God. It is not merely removal of guilt, but full acceptance by him – God actually delighting in us. This is seen most clearly in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through his perfect obedience, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection he provides helpless, hopeless sinners forgiveness of sins and peace with God. Yet the benefits go far beyond that. By God’s grace and through faith in Christ, we also receive adoption as children, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and many other spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3-14).
We Christians, more than anyone else, should be optimists. But our optimism is not to be based upon the nature of man, but upon the nature of God. We can look at any desperate, seemingly hopeless situation and say, “Who knows?”