Helicopter gunships in Joel – a plea for help

Photo by Chris M0EEG

My problem is a variant of Lingamish’s, but with existential urgency. He asked about one sort of almost unpreachable text (the vengeance passages in the OT) whether he should not just cut the Gordian knot and hack them from Scripture. I am preaching this Sunday (tomorrow already :(

I have to preach on one of those passages where the vivid pictures cause people to read the Bible as a code book. You know, the helecopter gunships in Joel or the jewels in the priestly breastplate… passages preachers are tempted to read as coded messages. They are two a penny in some parts of the Bible.

My problem is pretty much the usual one, except my topic was announced last month “The Bible is NOT a codebook, it means what it says“. Great idea, right? But how does one of these passages work to preach it straight.


5 As with the rumbling of chariots,
they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army drawn up for battle.
6 Before them peoples are in anguish,
all faces grow pale.
7 Like warriors they charge,
like soldiers they scale the wall.
Each keeps to its own course,
they do not swerve from their paths.
8 They do not jostle one another,
each keeps to its own track;
they burst through the weapons and are not halted.

Joel 2:5-8

Is not a prophecy of helecopter gunships in the 20th or 21st century, but of locusts and/or an invading Iron Age army then how is it good news for people in Blockhouse Bay tomorrow?

My problem has greaqter existential urgency as I have a church leadership retreat all day today, so only have a few hours for sermon prep tonight and tomorrow morning, so please help me!
How would YOU preach Exodus 26? Or the beginning of Joel 2?

6 comments on “Helicopter gunships in Joel – a plea for help

  1. jim

    god is not limited to the box in which you put him. you might not like passages of judgement, but god is not confined to your image of him.

    god is ready and able to dispose of his enemies. you don’t have to like it. but there’s nothing you can do about it.

  2. James F. McGrath

    It seems like it could be a perfect opportunity to explore precisely that tendency to take a small section out of its literary context, not to mention its historical context, and interpret it subjectively. Perhaps that’s a useful thing for the group to discuss.

    Perhaps you can give it to them in small chunks. When you eventually bring in v25, it will be clear that we have the tendency to see more relevant things in the text that aren’t what the author meant.

    It might also be an opportunity to discuss the fact that even if we confront a devastating swarm of locusts, we might well not blame God!

    Of course, when you reach the end, you’ll be in more familiar territory. One thing that can connect the ancient author’s experience and our own is that we often respond to crisis or tragedy by turning to God and find comfort and spiritual renewal in the wake of devastation. It was true of locusts, the Assyrian destruction, the death of Jesus (when the passage gets quoted) and for us today.

    Just a few thoughts. I hope you share here what you ended up doing!

  3. Mark

    Hi Tim,

    THe context is the judgment of God, the Day of the LORD… this is the real message of the passage methinks. Interprettaion wise, it seems a similar situation as that faced when folk read Revelation – as a collection of trees rather than as a forest. The overall message is greater than the sum of the parts, so to speak. Getting caught up on the details (helicopters, whothe Antichrist is) is to really miss the point. In this sense, the Bible does ‘mean what it says’ at the appropriate level of interpretation.

    Hope this helps, am really interested to see how you handle it!

  4. John Hobbins

    I would be tempted to one-up the code-readers. The Bible is a code, as Northrup Frye argued very well. It’s that code that we need to crack. More precisely, it is the code that cracks us. It is the code of the ages, the meta-code:


    If you get the meta-code right, it’s even possible to talk make use of locusts and breastplates as metaphors for much else, as in the traditional interpretation of the Song of Songs. But surely, it is more important not to treat Exodus 26 or Joel 2 in atomistic fashion. On a straightforward reading, the passages are only important insofar as they contribute to far larger wholes, the sense of which needs to be explicated with patience and clarity.

  5. Judy Redman

    I would say: There is no way you can understand this passage out of the context of the whole prophecy and with a good background in Jewish apocalyptic.
    I personally don’t have that and wouldn’t be prepared to do the necessary research so I could preach a sermon on it, but I assume that you do, so I would give a Cooks’ tour of the book and why/how the whole book is good news.

  6. Andrea Candy

    Exodus 26: God is interested and involved in every detail of a craftsperson’s work, which mirrors the intricacy and minutiae of his creation (generally, not necessarily in specific typology). Such creative perfection is evidence of the Holy Spirit. Trouble is, we distort the perfection of God into perfectionism – a form of idol worship of our own good work.
    Joel 2: In speaking through his human prophets, God identifies intimately with the horror, fear and grief experienced by his people in the face of invasion and disaster – threats that are both an aspect of his judgment and something they are bringing on themselves. He is objective judge, effective executor of the punishment and co-sufferer in it, all at once. The prophet’s urgent, anguished language speaks God’s Word. Ultimately of course, it’s Jesus on the cross who ‘speaks’ this combination of judge + victim most completely.

    …which means that God also indentifies with your existential urgency in the management of time this weekend!