Digging in Deeper: Joel 2:13

“Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the Lord your God. For he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and he relents from sending disaster.”‬‬ (CSB – Read the chapter)

If you are a parent of two or more, you’ve been through this experience before I imagine: One of your kids does something ugly to another of your kids. What do you do? You make them apologize for what they did. And what do they do? If your kids are like mine, they look disgusted at this instruction, and quickly mumble a meager, “Sorry,” whose inflection makes clear they’re not really sorry at all. And that’s okay, because the exercise of apologizing when you’ve done something wrong is what’s really important in that moment. But relationally speaking, that kind of apology doesn’t accomplish very much. It doesn’t with God either.

Most religions have a mechanism for recognizing and expressing remorse over sin. For Israel, part of that mechanism was tearing their clothes. Now, this didn’t mean they were walking around half naked when they were upset. They tore the outer robe they would wear, not their undergarment. But, this was a not uncommon expression of grief and mourning in the ancient near east.

Having somewhat standardized religious expressions of remorse like this is common, and it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. It gives people a kind of language for letting out feelings that are otherwise hard to express. There are certain situations in which we need that kind of thing.

The potential problem with these kinds of expressions, though, is that if we’re not careful, in some circumstances they can take the place of real emotion. What we see God calling the people away from here offers us a really good example of this.

The people were on a path of sin and had been assured that judgment was coming. In that culture, people tended to not only believe, but take seriously those kinds of things in ways that we don’t today. Many may have scoffed at the prophet’s warning, but some took it seriously and the prospect of what God assured them was coming was a frightening one. Their expression of this grief and alarm came out in part through their tearing their robes.

Have you ever been in a situation when a critical mass of the people around you thought a certain thing was the right thing to do but you didn’t agree with them? What did you do in that situation? If you’re like most people, you probably joined in whatever they were all doing so you didn’t stand out like a sore thumb. You did it because it was the acceptable thing to do, not necessarily because you agreed it was the right thing to do.

There were some in Israel who responded to Hosea’s warnings of judgment by tearing their clothes as a sign of grief and repentance, but whose hearts weren’t really in it. It was the acceptable thing to do, but they didn’t necessarily agree it was the right thing to do.

The thing was, God didn’t want to send the judgment He had told them would be the result of their sin. He wanted to bless them, not curse them. He wanted to be able to relent from the disaster. But, He could only do that if they were really repentant. Their grief and remorse needed to go deeper than just the tearing of their clothes. They needed to have their hearts broken over their sin.

Two things needed to happen in order for this transformation to take place. First, they needed to get their hearts and minds around just how bad their sin really was. The severity of the judgment promised in response to it should have helped with that. Sin is a graphic problem and a graphic consequence is often the only way for us to be convinced of that.

The other thing that needed to happen was for the people to believe He’s the kind of God who would actually accept their repentance, forgive them, and relent from sending the judgment He proclaimed. That is what we see here.

God didn’t simply call the people to repent because everybody else was doing it. He called them to get serious in the depths of their soul about the fact that their sin was destroying them and they were not far from the point that what was happening on the inside was going to start happening on the outside too. It was about to get ugly and they needed to get right before the mess hit the fan.

The reason they could do this was because He is the kind of God who responds to heartfelt repentance. He is not primarily a God of wrath and vengeance. He is a God who is gracious and compassionate. He takes pity on His people in their suffering and gives the benefit of the doubt as quickly as He possibly can.

He does not fly off the handle, but is always measured in how He responds to hard situations. He may sound angry in the verses before this, but consider how long He has let them go before finally saying, “Enough is enough.” When He has committed Himself to some end, He does not deviate from that path no matter how perilous or frustrating or discouraging the journey may get. And though He may proclaim judgment, He looks for any reason He can to back off and relent from sending it.

In other words, this is the kind of God to whom you want to return. He is good and faithful and kind. He is generous and lovely. He is merciful and just. If you have sin sitting between you and Him, do not repent as some mere show of religious devotion or pious display. Let your heart break like His has and commit yourself again to walking His path with a renewed faithfulness. Life is to be found there and nowhere else. May you experience it to the fullest.

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