California, in recent years, has been plagued by wildfires. Previously, we had had years of drought that were blessedly ended by a good season of rain. But we seem to be entering another protracted stretch of dryness. And with the drought comes fire, in which forests, homes, and lives will be again be lost.
I’m not looking forward to it.
Again, I am reminded of the words of the prophet Joel, lamenting over the devastated land:
To you, O Lord, I cry.
For fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness,
and flames have burned
all the trees of the field.
Even the wild animals cry to you
because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness. (Joel 1:19-20, NRSV)
It’s an image of thirst and longing in the midst of ruin, similar to the opening words of Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (vs. 1).
But even in the midst of devastation, there is still hope. Through the prophet Joel, God calls his wayward people to repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). God takes pity on his people, and promises to restore their crops: “I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied” (vs. 19). Even the animals who had cried out to God will know abundance:
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield. (vs. 22)
All in all, their hunger and thirst will be sated:
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. (vs. 26)
This is a prophetic picture of hope. Things are upside down now, but if the people turn to the God of steadfast love, he will make everything right again, graciously, abundantly.
Think again of the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). It’s no accident that Jesus likened the kingdom of heaven to a banquet (Matt 22:2-14). The God who blesses the poor in spirit, the meek, and the mourning wants to satisfy their hunger, and to do so lavishly, generously, in celebration. In the Beatitudes, Jesus paints a picture of the great day in which God will come and satisfy the people’s hunger for justice, their longing to see God put things right.
Jesus weaves a tapestry of hope from threads found in the Psalms and prophets: the kingdom belongs to the poor and persecuted; those who mourn will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth; those who hunger and thirst for justice will see it done (Matt 5:3-6), and more.
A thread of that hope can be found in Psalms 42 and 43 as well. Three times, the psalmist recites the refrain:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (42:5-6a, 11; 43:5)
In the midst of what feels like a season of spiritual drought, the psalmist yearns toward hope, and invites the worshiping community to do the same.
That may seem like a stretch for some of us, for whom the drought has been severe and prolonged. But as we’ll see, I believe there are some things we can learn from the psalmist about cultivating our own sense of hope.