Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?” – Joel 2:17 ESV
This was a prayer prescribed by God Himself. It was to be prayed by the priests and ministers of the people in response to the coming “Day of the Lord”. God was bringing judgment against His people. “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2 ESV). Joel was used by God to prophesy to the nation of Judah and warn them of the coming judgment of God for their unfaithfulness and empty religious formalism. They had been going through the motions religiously for years. But what had been missing was true repentance. Their sacrifices had been meaningless. They were empty exercises, religious activities that had no heart behind them. The prophet Isaiah had delivered this stern message from God to the very same people: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11 ESV). What God was looking for was repentance and actions that properly illustrated their changed hearts. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:16-17 ESV).
God gave the very same message through Joel. “‘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” (Joel 2:12-13 ESV). God was willing to forgive. He was anxious to see His people return to Him in brokenness and humility. He even had Joel suggest that they father all the people and hold a solemn assembly and fast. He even gave the religious leaders the very prayer they should pray. Because God knew that one of the consequences of the coming judgment would that the pagan nations would conclude that He had abandoned His people. Their failure to repent and return to God would not only result in their punishment, but it would harm the reputation of God among the nations. God stood ready, willing and able to forgive and restore them. But it was conditioned on their response. Disobedience would bring destruction. Repentance would bring restoration.
One of the results of refusing to repent would be that the people of God would a “reproach”. The Hebrew word for “reproach” is cherpah and it means “disgrace, contempt, scorn”. By rejecting God’s plea that they confess their sins and accept His mercy and forgiveness, they would bring judgment on themselves. It would allow the nations around them to mock and ridicule them. But worse yet, it would cause the godless to dishonor the name and reputation of God Himself. They would sarcastically ask, “Where is their God?” By stubbornly refusing to accept God’s offer of forgiveness and restoration, they would be disgraced, but God would be dishonored among the nations. How often does that sad scenario take place even today? We refuse to come to God in repentance, confessing our sins and humbly accepting His offer of forgiveness and restoration. So we continue to live in defeat, despair and disillusionment, lacking joy, missing out on the promise of abundant life and failing to experience the full extent of His power and presence. Many who know us to be believers probably ask that very same question, “Where is their God?” They look at our lives and wonder what difference our salvation has made. We don’t seem to live any differently than they do. We don’t have any more joy than they do. We don’t seem to have any supernatural advantage over them, in spite of our so-called status as children of God.
But the lesson from the book of Joel is that of repentance. It is a reminder that the deliverance of God is never far away. It begins with a heart of repentance. It is as close as our next confession. He has never left us or forsaken us. The answer to the question, “Where is their God?” is: Right here. He stands ready to step in and offer His forgiveness to any who are ready to confess their sins. He is always ready to restore those who are willing to repent. The amazing thing is that each and every time we return to God in repentance and humility, not only do we receive His mercy and forgiveness, but the world gets a first-hand look at what it means to have a relationship with the living God. We become living, breathing witnesses to the love and grace of God. Our lives become illustrations of His power and presence on earth. God gets glory. Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 ESV). Peter echoed those same words when he wrote, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). Where is our God? As close as our next confession.