“Be killing sin or sin will be killing you” – John Owen

The Harvest Is Ripe – Joel 3:13

“Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great” (Joel 3:13).

This verse is not to be taken in the positive sense. The ripe harvest, the full winepress and the overflowing vats are not to be seen as prosperity or blessing, but rather, as a description of judgment. Farmers and vintners would be thrilled with such things as a ripe harvest and an abundance of wine. That is not the case here. Jesus spoke of the harvest being plentiful but the laborers few (Matt. 9:37, 38; Luke 10:2). He was referring to the vast helplessness and need of the crowds who were as sheep without a shepherd. Jesus said we should pray that more laborers be raised up and sent. The harvest, Jesus speaks of, is a good thing.

But this is not the case in Joel. In Joel 1 we read of God’s judgment in the form of locusts (Joel 1:4). Locusts are well known for their devouring of everything edible. Joel refers to different kinds of locusts—cutting locust, swarming locust, hopping locust and destroying locust. His point is that if one doesn’t accomplish the job, others will. The result of this locust invasion is utter devastation. This is a picture of God’s wrath and judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. This judgment of God’s is also referred to as “the day of the Lord”(1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). It occurs 13 times in seven other prophets (Isa. 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Amos 5:18–20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5). It refers to God’s final judgment, the judgment that Judah and Israel were to experience from their enemies, and also what their enemies were to experience from God.

The locusts were a precursor of this judgment day. The destruction by the locust would leave a nation struggling economically. God will reduce them to dependence in the physical realm. This is also a spiritual judgment. We tend to overlook this aspect of God’s dealings with individuals and nations. This national calamity in Joel should cause the people to look to the Lord and turn to him, but they will be stubborn and refuse. Joel 1:11 states that the “harvest of the field has perished.” The locusts are compared to a nation like a great army (1:6; see also Prov. 3:27; Jer. 5:15–17; Joel 2:25; Rev. 9:7). 

Now, if your livelihood is removed, that should prompt immediate soul-searching before the Lord. Vines and fig trees are symbols of prosperity and peace in Israel, so the destruction of them presages the destruction of the nation (1:12). What is needed is a solemn repentance (1:13–15). Repentance is not something people like to talk about since it sounds so depressing and shameful. Shameful in the sense of exposing ourselves to others and to God.

There have been recent attempts to separate shame from guilt in terms of culture. This seems to me to be nitpicking at issues to alleviate how we should think. We should hold both together. Guilt involves shame and shame involves guilt and that is the end of it. We usually feel the guilt aspect first, and then shame drives home its point. I don’t think we should try and explain distinctions between guilt and shame. They are woven together always. Sin produces both. We always try to avoid guilt or alleviate shame. It is only grace and mercy that drive away guilt and shame. This is what makes the work of Christ so marvelous. He delivers us from our sin and guilt, and thus, from our shame. Yet at the same time, we freely confess our guilt and acknowledge our shame. This can only be done at the Cross. That is where we must always go.

Faith lays hold of the promises of God, but faith never works apart from repentance. Faith is given to us by God, and so is repentance. By ourselves, we would, like Adam, hide sin. God had to get Adam to speak about his sin. Adam would never have said a word about it if God didn’t raise the issue. But God always raises the issue of sin. One of the beautiful benefits of having the indwelling Holy Spirit is that we have an on–board Counselor directing us in the areas of right and wrong. When we sin, we are convicted. We feel the terror of God. Only the Christian or someone under conviction by God can know this. The unbeliever shuts out everything that pronounces him guilty or sinful.

This is what guilty Judah and the nations were like. They refused to acknowledge the truth about their condition, even when God deprived them of important things (i.e. their crops eaten by the locusts). So God uses a reverse play on words to get their attention in Joel 3:13. The “sickle” represents the tool for harvesting—the tool for judgment. Treading the winepress is a picture in Scripture of judgment (Rev. 19:15).

It is not only Judah that would experience the judgment of God, but also the nations. They do not escape. They do not go free. They too, must be punished. In Joel 3:12, God says: “Let the nations stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations.” The evil of God’s people and of sinful nations will be judged.

God does promise relief to his people. In Joel 2:24, he said, “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” This is used in the good sense. This is the language of blessing. God’s judgement upon the nations is described in cosmic language which highlights the severity of it. In Joel 3:16, when God utters his voice, the heavens and earth quake. We know that God’s voice terrifies. Israel was afraid to have God speak to them: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die’” (Ex. 20:18, 19; also Deut. 5:25). Psalm 29 is a beautiful psalm about the voice of the Lord (see vv. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9). Isaiah said that the nation Assyria would be “terror-stricken at the voice of the LORD, when he strikes with his rod” (Isa. 30:31). In the midst of God speaking to the nations he will be a “refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel” (Joel 3:16).

The last few verses of Joel 3 promise restoration for Judah. It is future Messianic promise. It is stated in cosmic language but promises abundance. There will be the knowledge of the Lord: “you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (3:17). This is the New Covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31–34. Joel 3:18 promises that the “…mountains shall drip sweet wine…the hills shall flow with milk…all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water, and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord…” Judah’s enemies—Egypt and Edom shall be made desolate (3:19), but Judah shall always be inhabited by the Lord (3:20, 21).

It is possible that you might feel that you are in a barren place spiritually. The only recourse you have is to go to the source and supply of spiritual life. Every day is a battle spiritually. We are constantly at war. We get tired of the fight. Only God equips us with what we need. The moment we depend on ourselves (we do this when we get tired and dejected), we fail. We blame God, others, ourselves. If you had no water in your house, but a fountain springing up with cold fresh water in your garden, what would you do? Would you ignore the fountain? No, you would go back again and again. That is what we must do with God. Only then will the harvest be truly ripe and the wine press full. So eat and drink.