The Hebrew Scripture passage set by the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, is part of an extended announcement by the prophet Joel (1:13–2:17), calling the people of Israel to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13), “sanctify a fast” (1:14), “blow the trumpet” (2:1) in order to “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). He exhorts the people to offer a prayer to “spare your people, O Lord” (2:17).
The prophet makes this call in the midst of describing the Day of the Lord that is coming—“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1–2). He evokes the traditional imagery of repentance—sackcloth and lament, weeping and mourning, prayer and fasting—as the appropriate responses to that Day, even as he utilises the traditional imagery of the doom that awaits on that Day.
The prophets warned of the Day of the Lord; it will be “darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18), it will come “like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6), as “a day of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:14). Joel joins his voice with this parade of doom: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the 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! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1–2).
Yet the response desired is not meek acceptance, but rather to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12). “Return to the Lord, your God”, Joel advises, highlighting the central purpose of the role of the prophet, to recall the people from their waywardness and lead them to recommit to the covenant with God, which lies at the heart of the identity of the people of Israel. That’s probably the reason that this passage from centuries before the time of Jesus (let alone our time) is set for Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.
The tradition about Lent is that it is a time for “giving up”, for restraint and abstention and ascetic practices. However, Lent is also a time for returning; for re-connecting with God, for turning back to depend on God, for returning to the heart of faith. And this passage helps to remind us of that purpose.
The passage also provides a further thought which undergirds the call to “return to the Lord”, and that is what it says about the fundamental nature of God. Joel repeats a mantra that must have been important to the people of ancient Israel; an affirmation about the nature of God, the one who, in the midst of the turmoil of the Day of the Lord, stands firm as the one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).
For, although the Lord is credited as the one who demonstrates his wrath on the Day of the Lord, this divine figure is also one who is willing to step back from the threat of judgement and destruction, who is willing to give a new opportunity to a repentant person, and reach out to them in grace. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?”, the prophet asks. And so, he advocates that the people leave “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13–14). The process requires maintaining a tangible sign of the intention to return to God: an offering, in ancient Israel, a marking of ashes, on Ash Wednesday, for Christians.
The mantra that Joel offers about God is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
The same affirmation about God is made in the story of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34:6). This citation, however, does maintain the ominous threat that this same Lord is yet “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”, so the picture is fuller and more realistic here.
During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), after the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship 9f the Lord in the Temple, exhorting the people, “do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you” (2 Chron 30:8).
It was a time to “return to the Lord”, and Hezekiah encouraged the people, especially encouraging northerners who had suffered under the Assyrians to return, saying “your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chron 30:8–9). That same mantra appears.
Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, and then returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, confessing that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:16).
Ezra continued in praise of God: “you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).
It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a fry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).
In another, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).
In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).
And in still another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this aged, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom we turn on this Ash Wednesday, seeking to return to our foundational commitment.