Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
We do not know much about the minor prophet, Joel. We were not told much, the only instance in the entire Bible where his name was mentioned, was in the introduction of his own book – The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel [Joel 1:1]. From the content of his book we can guess he lived around the time of the Divided Kingdom, but beyond that, we don’t really know much. The theme of the book of Joel is rather similar to most of the minor prophets, or should I say, similar to most of the prophets. It is apocalytic in nature, speaking of the invasion by locusts, the Day of the Lord, the judgement of God – but like all the prophets always do, it ends with the hope and promise of God’s salvation. In today’s study we will focus on the idea of rending our hearts, which is a plea from Joel in the middle of Joel 2, and attempt to understand what Joel was asking for when he asked the people to rend their hearts.
Rend your heart and not your garments – I always feel that prophets have a way of saying some very shocking things like it is normal. Rend your heart and not your garments. What is rend? It is not a word frequently used today, but most translations still keep it, and for good reason I believe. Rend is like tear – but it also connotes causing great emotional pain to a person or their hearts. How apt. Tear your heart and not your garments – we wouldn’t use the verb tear when the object is our heart, but rend makes a perfect fit.
Do you remember reading about the likes of Jewish forefathers like David tearing their robes? According to biblegateway.com, there were 5188 instances of tearing of robes mentioned in the Bible. I’m not going to count them. It was an expression of extreme emotion, usually grief, sometimes anger, sometimes shock. I once wrote a script for a play in which the high priest tore his robes (during the trial of Jesus), and though we didn’t act it out in the end because of logistics, I did demonstrate it a number of times during our rehearsals and I do see why men would do that in older days. In modern times it would be like when a superior or a teacher receives bad work from a subordinate or a student and in his or her anger, he or she tears up the report. Dramatic, but a very good outlet to vent your emotions.
But, it practically does nothing. Tearing of clothes doesn’t mean you have repented, although the action sometimes come along with repentance in the Bible. Tearing your clothes don’t right a wrong. It doesn’t even really show that you are in distress. Sure, tearing your own clothes practically screams out your desperate emotions – in most cases grief, but it could just as easily be a show, an act of grief. It might make you feel a little bit better, but it doesn’t resolve your problems. You won’t regain the things that you have lost by tearing your robes. Your persecutors won’t let you off just by doing that. Bad things won’t stop coming just by doing that.
Instead of tearing the clothes that we wear, we’re told to rend our hearts instead. Clothes can be easily replaced, especially in the old days when one robe looks pretty much the same from another – now I say this in blatant ignorance of the fashion of those days – and tearing our clothes as a sign of grief doesn’t really damage us at all. Instead, let our hearts break for what we have done against our Lord. In repentance, let us not merely tear our clothes, but let us rend our own hearts, because we’ve turned away from him. Let us tear our hearts, so that we remember this pain, so that we will remind ourselves in the future never again to turn away from the Lord.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity – prior to this verse in chapter 2 Joel speaks of the calamities that are soon to befall, the invasion of the locusts, the coming of the day of the Lord, a dreadful time when nobody can endure [Joel 2:11]. Yet even in that elaborate description of the calamities, Joel reminds us that our Lord is merciful, and he is more than willing to relent from sending calamity. “Even now,” declares the Lord, it is not too late. Even when it seems too late, even when it seems that calamity is upon us already, even then, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” [Joel 2:12]
I don’t know if this custom still goes on amongst certain cultures in this world today, but I am thankful that it doesn’t exist in my culture, at least. It would be kind of awkward if you’re talking to someone and he suddenly tears his clothes because what you were saying was too funny. I would like to think that God’s heart breaks when we leave him. But do our hearts break? Do our hearts break when we realise what we’ve done against him? We often repent and come back to him, but do we truly know the gravity of what we have done? Are we returning to the Lord with an attitude of tearing our garments, or with an attitude of rending our hearts?
Rend your hearts, and return to the Lord.