(Calvin, Commentary on Joel, Part 5)

Lecture Forty-second. 
Joel 2:12,13 
Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye [even] to me with all 
your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: 
And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD 
your God: for he [is] gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of 
great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. 
    The Prophet, having proclaimed the dreadful judgment which we 
have noticed, now shows that he did not intend to terrify the people 
without reason, but, on the contrary, to encourage them to 
repentance; which he could not do without offering to them the hope 
of pardon; for as we have said before, and as it may be collected 
from the whole of Scripture, men cannot be restored to the right 
ways except they entertain a hope of God's mercy inasmuch as he who 
has been ungodly, when he despairs, wholly disregards himself, 
observing no restraint. Hence the Prophet now represents God as 
propitious and merciful, that he might thus kindly allure the people 
to repentance. 
    He says first, "And even now the Lord says, Turn ye to me." The 
Prophet exhorts the people, not in his own name, but speaks in the 
person of God himself. He might indeed have borne witness to the 
favor which he proclaimed; but the discourse becomes more striking 
by introducing God as the speaker. And there is a great importance 
in the words, even now; for when one considers what we have noticed 
in the beginning of the chapter, a prospect of relief could hardly 
have been deemed possible. God had, indeed, in various ways, tried 
to restore the people to the right way; but, as we have seen, the 
greater part had become so void of feeling, that the scourges of God 
were wholly ineffectual; there remained, then, nothing but the utter 
destruction which the Prophet threatened them with at the beginning 
of the second chapter. Yet, in this state of despair, he still sets 
forth some hope of mercy, provided they turned to him; even now, he 
says. The particles "wegam" are full of emphasis, "even now" that 
is, "Though ye have too long abused God's forbearance, and with 
regard to you, the opportunity is past, for ye have closed the door 
against yourselves; yet even now, - which no one could have 
expected, and indeed what ought to be thought incredible by 
yourselves, - even now God waits for you, and invites you to 
entertain hope of salvation." But it was necessary that these two 
particles, even now, should be added; for it is not in the power of 
men to fix for themselves, as they please, the season for mercy. God 
here shows the acceptable time, as Isaiah says (Isa. 49: 8) to be, 
when he has not yet rejected men, but when he offers to be 
propitious. We must then remember that the Prophet gives not here 
liberty to men to delay the time, as the profane and scorners are 
wont to do, who trifle with God from day to day; but the Prophet 
here shows that we must obey the voice of God, when he invites us, 
as also Isaiah says, 'Behold now the time accepted, behold the day 
of salvation: seek God now, for he is near; call on him while he may 
be found.' So then, as I have reminded you, these two particles, 
even now, are added, that men may be made attentive to the voice of 
God when he invites them, that they may not delay till tomorrow, for 
the Lord may then close the door, and repentance may be too late. We 
at the same time see how indulgently God bears with men, since he 
left a hope of pardon to a people so obstinate and almost past 
    "Even now, he says, turn ye to me with your whole heart". The 
Prophet here reminds us that we must not act feignedly with God; for 
men are ever disposed to trifle with him. We indeed see what almost 
the whole world is wont to do. God graciously meets us and is ready 
to receive us unto favor, though we have a hundred times alienated 
ourselves from him; but we bring nothing but hypocrisy and disguise: 
hence the Prophet declares here distinctly, that this dissimulation 
does not please God, and that they can hide nothing, who only 
pretend some sort of repentance by external signs, and that what is 
required is the serious and sincere feeling of the heart. This is 
what he means by the whole heart; not that perfect repentance can be 
formed in men, but the whole or complete heart is opposed to a 
divided heart: for men well understand that God is not ignorant; yet 
they divide their heart, and when they bestow some portion on God, 
they think that he is satisfied; and in the meantime there remains 
an interior and some hidden perverseness, which separates them far 
from God. This vice the Prophet now condemns, when he says, Turn 
with the whole heart. He then shows that it is an hypocrisy 
abominable to God, when men keep the greater part of their heart, as 
it were, closed up, and think it enough, if only they bring, so to 
speak, some volatile feeling. 
    He afterwards adds, "fasting, and weeping, and mourning"; and 
by these words he shows how grievously they had sinned; as though he 
said, that they deserved not only one kind of destruction, but were 
worthy of hundred deaths; that God therefore would not now be 
content with any common repentance, and except they came suppliantly 
and deeply felt their own guilt. It is indeed true, that we ought 
daily and even constantly to sigh, because we continue almost every 
hour to provoke God's wrath against us; but the Prophet here speaks 
of solemn fasting, because the people had so grievously offended God 
that there was required some extraordinary confession, such as he 
here describes. "Come then to me with fasting, and weeping, and 
wailing": that is "Show at length that you are guilty and 
submissively deprecate the vengeance which ye have through your 
wickedness deserved." He speaks like a judge, when he tells the 
criminal, not to act dissemblingly, but simply to confess his fault. 
The guilty are indeed wont to weave many excuses to avoid 
punishment; but when the judge deems a man guilty, and he is 
abundantly proved to be so, he says, "What good can you do? for 
these your shuffling and subterfuges make your case worse: for now I 
hold you bound, and you cannot escape by these shifts, and will only 
the more provoke my displeasure. If then you wish me to show you 
favor, own how grievously you have offended, and without any 
coloring; confess now that you are worthy of death, and that nothing 
else remains for you, except I mercifully pardon you: for if you try 
to extenuate your crime, if you attempt by some excuse to seek 
reprief, you will gain nothing." So now does the Lord deal with this 
people: Turn to me, he says; first, sincerely; then with fasting, 
with weeping, and with wailing; that is, "Let it appear that you 
suppliantly deprecate the destruction which ye have deserved, for 
moderate repentance will not do, inasmuch as ye are guilty before me 
of so many crimes." We now apprehend the Prophet's meaning. 
    He then subjoins, "Rend your heart, and not your garments, and 
turn to Jehovah your God". The Prophet again repeats that we ought 
to deal sincerely with God; for all those ceremonies, by which men 
imagine that they discharge their duties, are mere mockeries, when 
they are not preceded by a pure and sincere heart. But as they were 
wont under mournful circumstances to rend their garments, he 
therefore says, "God has become now insensible to these customs; for 
with regard to men, ye are ceremonious enough, and more than enough: 
ye indeed rend your garments, and thus draw pity from men, and yet 
your heart remains whole, there is no rending, no opening; Rend then 
your heart," that is, "Leave off thus to mock God, as ye have been 
wont to do, and begin with your heart." It is indeed certain that 
the orientals were given to many ceremonies; but the vice the 
Prophet here condemns in the Jews is natural as it were to all men; 
so that every one of us is inclined to hypocrisy, and has need of 
having his attention drawn to the sincerity of the heart. We must 
then remember that this truth is to be set forth at all times and to 
all nations. Let any one search himself and he will find that he 
labors under this evil, - that he would rather reed his garment than 
his heart. And since the Jews usually observed this custom, the 
Prophet does not without reason deride it, and say, that it was of 
no account with God except they rent their hearts. But when he bids 
them to rend their hearts and not their garments, though he seems to 
repudiate that external practice, he does not yet distinctly condemn 
it, but intimates that it was a lawful thing, provided the heart was 
rent. Now this expression, Rend the heart, ought not to be deemed 
harsh, for it is to be referred to the external practice: when they 
rent the garments, they made themselves naked before God and put off 
all ornaments; but he wished them to be displeased with themselves, 
and rather to make bare the heart itself. The heart of hypocrites, 
we know, is wrapped up, and they ever have recourse to hiding 
places, that they may avoid the presence of God. Then the similitude 
is most suitable, when the Prophet bids them to rend the heart. 
Besides, the passage is clear enough, and needs not many remarks; it 
means, that God regards the real feeling of the heart, as it is said 
in Jer. 5; he is not content with ocular obedience, such as men 
exhibit, but he would have us to deal with him in sincerity and 
    Hence he repeats again, "Turn to Jehovah your God". Here the 
Prophet shows, from what God is, that men foolishly and grossly 
deceive themselves when they would please God with their ceremonies: 
"What!", he says, "have you to do with a child?" For the import of 
the words is this, - "When an offense against man is to be removed, 
ye anxiously come to him: now when ye perceive that God is angry 
with you, ye think that he will be propitious to you, if ye only 
trifle with him; can God bear such a reproach?" We hence see what 
the Prophet means when he says, Turn to Jehovah your God; that is, 
"Remember that you have not to do with a block of wood or with a 
stone, but with your God, who searches hearts, and whom mortals can 
by no crafts deceive." The same is said by Jeremiah, 'Israel, if 
thou turnest, turn to me,' (Jer. 4: 1;) that is, "Pretend not to 
turn by circuitous courses and windings, but come in a direct way, 
and with a real feeling of heart, for I am he who calls thee." So 
also now the Prophet says, Turn to Jehovah your God. 
    Then follows the promise of pardon, "For he is propitious and 
merciful". We have already said that repentance is preached in vain, 
except men entertain a hope of salvation; for they can never be 
brought to fear God truly, unless they trust in him as their Father, 
as it is stated in Ps. 130: 4, 'With thee is propitiation that thou 
mayest be feared.' Hence, whenever the Prophets were anxious to 
effect anything by their doctrine, while exhorting the people to 
repentance, they joined to the invitation "Come," the second part, 
"Ye shall not come in vain." This "Come," comprehends all 
exhortations to repentance; "Ye shall not come in vain," includes 
this testimony respecting God's grace, that He will never reject 
miserable sinners, provided they return to him with the heart. The 
Prophet then now engaged on this second head; God, he says, is 
propitious and merciful. And this connection is to be observed by 
us; for as Satan fills us with insensibility when God invites us, so 
also he draws us away into despair when God denounces judgment, when 
he shows that it is not time for sleep. "What good will you gain?" 
Thus Satan by his craft disheartens us, that we may labour in vain, 
when we seek to be reconciled to God. Hence, whenever Scripture 
exhorts us to repentance, let us learn to join this second part, 
"God invites us not in vain." If then we return to him, he will be 
instantly inclined to grant forgiveness; for he wills not that 
miserable men should labour in vain or be tormented. This is the 
benefit of which the Prophet speaks when he says that God is 
propitious and merciful. 
    He afterwards adds, that "he is slow to wraths and abundant in 
goodness". These testimonies respecting God occur often in other 
places; and all the Prophets, as well as David, have borrowed these 
declarations from Exod. 34; where the nature of God is described; 
and He is said there to be propitious and merciful, slow to wrath, 
and abundant in goodness. Though there is no need of dwelling longer 
on these words, as we perceive the Prophet's design; yet more 
extended remarks will not be superfluous since the Prophet so much 
at large recommends the mercy of God. Though men too much indulge 
themselves in security, yet when God calls them to himself, they are 
not able to receive his favor; though he may testify twice or thrice 
that he will be propitious to them, yet he cannot persuade them but 
with great difficulty. This is the reason why the Prophet, after 
having said that God is propitious and merciful, adds, that he is 
slow to wrath, and abundant in goodness; it was, that the Jews might 
overcome their distrust, and that however much despair might keep 
them back, they might not yet hesitate to come to God, seeing that 
he declares himself to be so merciful. 
    He at last adds, "He will repent of the evil". The Prophet here 
not only describes the nature of God, but goes further and says, 
that God, who is by nature placable, will not remain fixed in his 
purpose, when he sees people returning to him in sincerity; but that 
he suffers himself to be turned to show favor, so as to remit the 
punishment which he had previously denounced. And it is a mode of 
speaking which often occurs in Scripture, that God repents of evil; 
not that he really changes his purpose, but this is said according 
to the apprehensions of men: for God is in himself immutable, and is 
said to turn from his, purpose, when he remits to man the punishment 
he has previously threatened. Whatever proceeds from God's mouth 
ought to be regarded as an inviolable decree; and yet God often 
threatens us conditionally, and though the condition be not 
expressed it is nevertheless to be understood: but when he is 
pacified to us and relaxes the punishment, which was in a manner 
already decreed according to the external word, he is then said to 
repent. And we know, that as we do not apprehend God such as he is, 
he is therefore described to us in such a way as we can comprehend, 
according to the measure of our infirmity. Hence God often puts on 
the character of men, as though he were like them; and as this mode 
of speaking is common, and we have spoken of it elsewhere, I now 
pass it by more briefly. It follows - 
Joel 2:14 
Who knoweth [if] he will return and repent, and leave a blessing 
behind him; [even] a meat offering and a drink offering unto the 
LORD your God? 
    The Prophet seems at first sight to leave men here perplexed 
and doubtful; and yet in the last verse, as we have seen, he had 
Offered a hope of favor, provided they sincerely repented. Hence the 
Prophet seems not to pursue the same subject, but rather to vary it: 
and we have already said, that all exhortations would be frigid, 
nay, useless, by which God stirs us up to repentance, except he were 
to testify that he is ready to be reconciled. Seeing then that the 
Prophet here leaves the minds of men in suspense, he seems to 
rescind what he has before alleged respecting God's mercy. But we 
must understand that this is a mode of speaking which often occurs 
in Scripture. For wherever God is set forth to us as one hardly 
willing to pardon, it is done to rouse our slothfulness, and also to 
shake off our negligence. We are at first torpid when God invites 
us, except he applies his many goads; and then we act formally in 
coming to him: it is hence needful that both these vices should be 
corrected in us, - our torpor must be roused, - and those 
self-complacences, in which we too much indulge ourselves, must be 
shaken off. And this is the object of the Prophet; for he addresses, 
as we have seen, men almost past recovery. If he had only said, God 
is ready to pardon, if he had used this way of speaking, they would 
have come negligently, and would not have been sufficiently touched 
by the fear of God: hence the Prophet here, as it were, debates the 
matter with them, "Even though we ought justly to despair of pardon, 
(for we are unworthy of being received by God,) yet there is no 
reason why we should despair; for who knows" which means "God is 
placable and we must not despair." 
    The Prophet then sets forth here the difficulty of obtaining 
pardon, not to leave men in suspense, for this would be contrary to 
his former doctrine; but to create in them a desire for the grace of 
God, that they might by degrees gather courage, and yet not 
immediately rise to confidence, but that they might come anxiously 
to God, and with much deliberation, duly considering their offenses. 
We now understand the purpose of the Prophet. 
    But this will be easier understood by supposing two gradations 
in repentance. Then the first step is, when men feel how grievously 
they have offended. Here sorrow is not to be immediately removed 
after the manner of impostors, who cajole the consciences of men, so 
that they indulge themselves, and deceive themselves, with empty 
self-flatteries. For the physician does not immediately ease pain, 
but considers what is more necessary: it may be he will increase it, 
for a thorough clearing may be needful. So also do the Prophets of 
God, when they observe trembling consciences, they do not 
immediately apply soothing consolations, but on the contrary show 
that they ought not, as we have already said, to trifle with God, 
and exhort them while willingly running to God, to set before them 
his terrible judgment, that they may be more and more humbled. The 
second step is, when the Prophets cheer the minds of men, and show 
that God now willingly meets them, and desires nothing more than to 
see men willing to be reconciled to him. 
    The Prophet is now urging them to take the first step, when he 
says, "Who knows whether the Lord will turn?" But some may object 
and say, "Then the Prophet has spoken inconsistently; for first he 
has described God as merciful, and has spoken of his goodness 
without any reserve; and then he throws in a doubt: he seems here to 
observe no consistency." I answer, that the Prophets of God do not 
always very anxiously hold to what seems consistent in their 
discourses; and farther, that the Prophet has not spoken here in 
vain or inconsiderately; for he, in the first place, generally sets 
forth God as merciful, and afterwards addresses particularly a 
people who were almost past recovery, and says, "Though ye think 
that it is all over with you as to your salvation, and ye deserve to 
be rejected by God, yet ye ought not to continue in this state; 
rather entertain a hope of pardon." This is what the Prophet had in 
view; he throws in no doubt, so as to make the sinner uncertain, 
whether or not he could obtain pardons; but as I have said, he 
wished only to rouse torpidity, and also to shake off vain 
    He then adds, "And leave after him a blessing". We here see 
more clearly what I have already said, that the Prophet, considering 
the state of those whom he addressed, states a difficulty; for the 
Jews were not to escape temporary punishment, and the Prophet did 
not intend to dismiss them in a secure state, as though God would 
inflict on them no punishment; nay, he wished to bend their necks 
that they might receive the strokes of God, and calmly submit to his 
correction. But all hope might have been lost, when the Jews saw, 
that though the Prophet had declared that God would be propitious, 
they were yet not spared, but suffered severe punishment for their 
sins, - "What does this mean? Has God then disappointed us? We hoped 
that he would be propitious, and yet he ceases not to be angry with 
us." Hence the Prophet now subjoins, "Who knows whether he will 
leave behind him a blessing?" 
    What is this - "behind him"? What does it mean? Even this, that 
as God was to be a severe judge to punish the people's wickedness, 
the Prophet now says, "Though God beats you with his rods, he can 
yet relieve you by administering comfort. Ye indeed think that you 
are beaten almost to death; but the Lord will temperate his wrath, 
so that a blessing will follow these most grievous punishments." We 
now, then, understand the purpose of the Prophet: for he does not 
simply promise pardon to the Jews, but mitigates the dread of 
punishment, that is, that though God would chastise them, he would 
yet give place to mercy. Then God will leave behind him a blessing; 
that is "These strokes shall not be incurable." And this admonition 
is very necessary, whenever God deals severely with us; for when we 
feel his wrath, we then think that there is no grace remaining. It 
is then not without reason that the Prophet says, that God leaves 
behind him a blessing; which means, that when he shall pass by us 
with his rod, he will yet restrain his severity, so that some 
blessing will remain. 
    He afterwards adds, "minchah wasesech laYehovah Elohim", "an 
offering and a libation, he says, to Jehovah your God". This has 
been designedly added, that the Jews might entertain more hope. For 
with regard to them, they had deserved to be wholly exterminated a 
hundred times; yea, they deserved to pine away utterly through 
famine: but the Prophet intimates here, that God would have a regard 
for his own glory and his worship. "Though," he says, "we have 
deserved to perish by famine, yet God will be moved by another 
consideration, even this, - that there may be some offering, that 
there may be some libation in the temple: since then God has chosen 
us a people to himself, and has required the first-fruits to be 
offered to him, and has consecrated for himself all our provision 
and all our produce in the first-fruits, and also in the daily 
offerings, though he has now resolved to consume us with famine and 
want, yet that his worship may continue, he will make the land 
fruitful to us, corn and wine will yet be produced for us," But the 
Prophet does not mean that there would only be so much corn as would 
be enough for offerings, or only so much wine as would be sufficient 
for libations; but he means, as I have already said, that though God 
would not provide for the safety of the people, he would yet have a 
regard for his own glory. God required the corn and the wine to be 
offered to him, not that he needed them, but because he consecrated 
to himself our provision. As then he would have the food and 
provisions, on which we live, to be sacred to him, he will not allow 
them wholly to fail. "God will yet surely pity us, and he will pity 
us, because he has deigned to choose us a people to himself, and so 
to join us with himself, that he wishes to eat, as it were, with 
us." For God seemed then to partake, as it were, of the same table 
with his people; for the law required bread or the ears of corn, and 
also wine, to be offered to God: not that he, as I have said, needed 
such supports; but that he might show that he had all things in 
common with his people. This communion then, or fellow-participation 
of God with his chosen people, gave them more hope; and this is what 
the Prophet had in view. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou seest us so foolish in nourishing 
our vices, and also so ensnared by the gratifications of the flesh, 
that without being constrained we hardly return to thee, - O grant, 
that we may feel the weight of thy wrath, and be so touched with the 
dread of it, as to return gladly to thee, laying aside every 
dissimulation, and devote ourselves so entirely to thy service, that 
it may appear that we have from the heart repented, and that We have 
not trifled with thee by an empty pretence, but have offered to thee 
our hearts as a sacrifice, so that we and all our works might be 
sacred offerings to thee through our whole life, that thy name may 
be glorified in us through Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Calvin, Commentary on Joel

(Continued in part 6...)

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