Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. – Joel 2:3 (ESV)
Whatever we might come to think about this particular verse, clearly, it does not present anything good. The theme of destruction weighs heavily here. It must be said that this book of the prophecy of Joel is full of interesting imagery, and that it is presented within the larger, ongoing story of Israel. That story, of course, begins with the report of the activity of their God, the Creator.
The story of judgment and redemption that it presents is unusual, to say the least. We tend to forget about the strange method of judgment and like to focus on Joel 2:28, and its presentation of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all flesh, for prophecy, for dreams, and for visions. Along with that, we love to read about our God that is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster” (2:13).
Before we get to those things, however, we trek through the presentation of the Lord’s army (2:11). It is an unusual army indeed, as it consists of cutting locusts, swarming locusts, hopping locusts, and destroying locusts (1:4). The coming of this army of locusts, according to Joel, is an element of the “day of the Lord” (2:1). This day of the Lord is “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (2:2a). This army of locusts is so thick that it is referred to as “blackness…spread upon the mountains” (2:2b). Most assuredly, this is not a common occurrence, as Joel writes of them as “a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations” (2:2c). A once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for sure.
As Joel goes about describing this awesome force for destruction that has been sent forth by the hand of God, he writes the words of our text above, saying that “the land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” So as we can see, Israel’s narrative is always in mind. Now, what do we think about when we read about the Garden of Eden? Above all else, one would think that there would be two things that would spring to mind. The first is that of perfection, of God’s good creation. The second would naturally be the fall of man, and Scripture’s presentation of man’s marring of God’s perfect creation through Adam’s rebellion, violating the covenant that God had made with him. If we do in fact think such things when we read of the Garden of Eden, then an analogy (limited though it may be) should spring to mind as we read this verse, in its context of these destroying locusts.
What is that limited analogy? The analogy, as it relates to this third verse of the second chapter, is that humanity is the locust. Man was introduced into the garden of Eden on the sixth day of God’s restoration and ordering of an earth that had come into a state of desolation and chaos (presumably, as Israel would have insisted, because of the activities of the lesser gods of the peoples that surrounded them, thus demonstrating the supremacy of Israel’s God, the entirety of the cosmos being His Temple and realm of authority). In each previous day of ordering and restoration, the Creator God’s work was pronounced good. The whole of creation, including mankind, was declared to be very good. Not only was man introduced into a land like the Garden of Eden---a land of perfection---but man was placed in the Garden of Eden itself. He was charged with dominion over God’s creation, as beings made in the image of God, and given responsibilities that included one very well known restriction. In this restriction, man needed merely to trust God, but alas, this proved to be too difficult, resulting in what has come to be called “the fall”.
Through his fall that is marked out as rebellion and distrust, man introduced sin (faithlessness to God’s covenant, failure to bear the divine image) into the world. With sin, as we are told, entered death. The effect of sin, that being death, went well beyond an effect merely on the ones who sinned, but extended to the whole of creation itself, as the failures to bear the divine image, which included the ordering and restoration of creation in care for the temple of the Creator God, would come to bear. God’s perfect creation was now, through no fault of its own, subject to corruption and decay. From that point on, everything that would come to life would, without fail, eventually come to death and pass away, be it plant, animal, or human.
Yes, the land, the creation, had been delivered over to man’s dominion in perfection, “like the garden of Eden before them.” However, through unfaithfulness, in subjection to that dominion, the land was left “behind them a desolate wilderness” and “nothing escapes them.” Regretfully, no part of this creation escaped the corruption and locust-like destruction brought about by man’s failure to live up to his covenant responsibility. Thankfully, God would not leave this situation alone, but would bring redemption to His image-bearers and His creation. He would execute His grace and His mercy, establishing His faithfulness in steadfast love, and pouring out His Spirit. Eventually, through Christ, His kingdom, His eternal life, and His Resurrection power, God would bring about a relenting of the disaster that man had wrought upon this world.