The prophet Joel calls for fasting at the temple in Jerusalem; and in the book of Jonah, pagans muster themselves to fast and repent in imperial Nineveh. To echo Augustine, fasting in the “City of God” and even in the “City of Man.” We endorse both with the invocation, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Calling a Penitential Fast
The Lord’s locust army devours field and mountain, barn and pantry, winery and temple storehouse. So he summons farmer and shepherd, bride and groom, elder and even infant, priest and wino—he calls all flesh to mourn and repent:
Dress yourselves in burlap and weep, you priests! … Wail, … Announce a time of fasting (קַדְּשׁוּ צוֹם) .… Bring the leaders and all the people of the land into the Temple of the LORD your God, and cry out to him there. The day of the LORD is near, the day when destruction comes from the Almighty. How terrible that day will be! (Joel 1:13–15)
Divinely ordained mourning rituals responding to an existential threat to Jerusalem and Judea. And God’s call continues:
Sound the trumpet in Jerusalem! … tremble in fear because the day of the LORD is upon us. It is a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds and deep blackness. Suddenly, like dawn spreading across the mountains, a great and mighty army appears. Nothing like it has been seen before or will ever be seen again. (Joel 2:1–2).
An angry preacher’s smug announcement that the wicked are finally getting what they have coming? No. Even after centuries of covenant breaking, even as the smoke of of judgment rolled, a fiery prophet could still offer hope:
“Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish. Who knows (מִי יוֹדֵעַ)? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse. Perhaps you will be able to offer grain and wine to the LORD your God as before. (Joel 2:12–14)
The prophet of the Lord calls for ritual fasting instead of ceremonial feasting, burlap instead of festive silk and linen, mourning rites where you tear hair and hair-shirts. But if all this drama doesn’t signal actual self-denial and despair over wickedness, then it’s obscene vaudeville. On the other hand, if it really is shame and sorrow pouring from torn hearts, “Who knows?” Maybe we can still see joy in Jerusalem, hope in the house of God, a blessing for the people, no matter how long and how far they—or we—have strayed from God.
Joel’s call to fast summoned the people of God, if you will, summon among the church’s ancestors.
Jonah is set in the upper echelons and broad culture of an imperial power. Instead of hinting at the John’s protected 144,000 it stinks of the “Babylon” in his visions and of the imperial powers of today’s globalized social cancer. You see, prophets don’t confine themselves to Jerusalem’s streets or Galilee’s shoreline; genuine prophets address realms writhing under the ruler of this age. And even there—despite all the markings of a hell-bent society dancing to the tune of principalities and powers—genuine repentance can evoke a pensive “who knows?” and even a prophetic “perhaps.”
Precisely why Jonah didn’t want to head off to Nineveh!
The Lord sent Jonah to proclaim imminent judgment—with a forty-day clock set and ticking. But he knew that alarm might jolt even pagans into repentance. And “who knows” what a “merciful and compassionate” God who is “eager to relent and not punish” might do? Perhaps God—who is no respecter of persons—might reprieve even imperial Nineveh, Israel’s implacable northern foe.
Early in Billy Graham’s ministry, he wrote a letter reporting this family incident: “Some years ago, my wife, Ruth … startled me by exclaiming, ‘If God doesn’t punish America, he’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.’” What would Ruth and Billy say about our own times, about this twenty-first century “Babylon” of Babylons? A train of imperial adventures, pandemic immorality, financial perversion, and demonic rancor from both parties in our so-called republic!
Surely we need a prophet to swing through town and shout, “Time’s up!” The lunatic fringes—right and left—would probably shout down the preacher—and the cowed center would enable it all in fatalistic, cowardly, demonic silence. But who knows?
Results of a Penitential Fast
So let’s cast a hopeful eye on the results of a holy fast, whether on the temple mount or in the swamps along the Potomac.
Joel’s “who knows?” tuned Jerusalem’s ears to the note that the LORD “is eager to relent and not to punish.” So he transposed to a brighter prophetic register:
Then, after doing all those things (וְהָיָה אַחֲרֵי כֵן), I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on servants—men and women alike. And I will cause wonders in the heavens and on the earth …. before that great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. But everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved. (Joel 2:28–32)
Or what about Jonah, who thundered judgment but didn’t utter a whisper about repenting?
On the day Jonah entered the city (וַיָּחֶל יוֹנָה לָבוֹא בָעִיר מַהֲלַךְ יוֹם אֶחָד), he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4)
He went’a preachin’ with nary an altar call or “perhaps.” But despite this dysfunctional prophetic misfire, Nineveh heard “who knows?” Despite their pagan past and imperial pretension, they heard pity and “perhaps.” Through the voice of a relentlessly judgmental prophet with a rhetorical hair-trigger, they heard the call of a merciful and compassionate God who was “eager to relent and not punish.”
The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.… the king … stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree:
No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell (מִֽי־יוֹדֵ֣עַ)? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.
When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways (כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה), he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.
A generation ago, John Stott mused on what had troubled Ruth and Billy Graham: He asked,
Was Cranmer exaggerating when in his 1662 Holy Communion service he put into the lips of church people the words, ‘We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness’? Was Ezra mistaken to pray and make confession, ‘weeping and casting himself down before the house of God’? Was Paul wrong to groan, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’, and to write to the sinful church of Corinth: ‘Ought you not rather to mourn?’ I think not. I fear that we evangelical Christians, by making much of grace, sometimes thereby make light of sin. There is not enough sorrow for sin among us. We should experience more ‘godly grief’ of Christian penitence.1John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (InterVarsity, 1985), 41–42.
Sixteen centuries ago, Gregory of Nazianzus (b. 329/330; fl. 372–389) issued a call that could have been written for tonight’s service:
Come then, all of you, my brethren, “let us worship and fall down, and weep before the Lord our maker”; let us appoint a public mourning in our various ages and families; let us raise the voice of supplication. Let this, instead of the cry which he hates, enter into the ears of the LORD of Tsabbaoth. Let us anticipate his anger by confession; let us desire to see him appeased, after [his wrath]. Who knows, if he will turn and choose again, and leave a blessing behind him?2Gregory of Nazianzus (b. 329/330; fl. 372–389), On His Father’s Silence, Oration 16.13–14.