A Biblical Theology of Locusts

There is a fascinating biblical theological development in the Scriptures with regard to locusts and the judgment of God. This horned grasshopper–that eats all vegetation in its path (and up to its own body weight in food every day!) moves in large swarms of other locusts at the same speed as the wind. Swarms of locust consume entire fields of vegetation–leaving a barren wilderness, as it were, in their wake. The desert locust was one of the most dreaded of all plagues in the Ancient Near East, as it still is in the Middle East to this day. It is fitting then, that this was the eighth plague the LORD sent on Egypt. Moses records the severity of this plague when he wrote:

“If you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory. And they shall cover the face of the earth, so that no one will be able to see the earth; and they shall eat the residue of what is left, which remains to you from the hail, and they shall eat every tree which grows up for you out of the field. They shall fill your houses, the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians—which neither your fathers nor your fathers’ fathers have seen, since the day that they were on the earth to this day.’” (Exodus 10:4-6)

This plague resurfaced as one of the covenant curses promised to Israel (Deut. 28:38-42). The plagues of Egypt became paradigmatic of all God’s judgments threatened to Israel in the covenant curses of Duet. 27-30. Both the plagues of Egypt and the covenant curses pronounced on Israel were typical of the eternal judgment of God. They were earthly, temporal judgments that foreshadowed the just wrath and forthcoming judgment on unrepentant sinners. While all of the specific plagues of Egypt were  not recapitulated in the covenant curses, there is sufficient evidence in Scripture to draw the conclusion that they are of the same nature. The connection is clear from the language of the covenant curses in Deut. 28:

Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away.  The LORD will strike you with the boils of Egypt, with tumors, with the scab, and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed” (Deut. 28:26-27)

then the LORD will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues great and prolonged plagues and serious and prolonged sicknesses. 60 Moreover He will bring back on you all the diseases of Egypt, of which you were afraid, and they shall cling to you” (Deut. 28:59-60)

Two plagues of Egypt are specifically repeated in the covenant curses promised to Israel–darkness and locusts:

Darkness:”And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you” (Deut. 28:29)

Locusts: You shall carry much seed out to the field but gather little in, for the locust shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and tend them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil; for your olives shall drop off. 41 You shall beget sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours; for they shall go into captivity. Locusts shall consume all your trees and the produce of your land” (Deut. 28:38-42)

In the major and minor prophets we find allusions to the plague of locust and the covenant curses in the application of the term locust to the armies of nations that the LORD used to serve His purposes of  judging pagan nations and the covenant people. In the book of Jeremiah we read of God’s forthcoming judgment on Babylon:

Set up a banner in the land,
Blow the trumpet among the nations!
Prepare the nations against her,
Call the kingdoms together against her:
Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz.
Appoint a general against her;
Cause the horses to come up like the bristling locusts. (Jeremiah 51:27)

Likewise the prophet Nahum prophesied about the judgment on Ninevah under the figure of locusts:

There the fire will devour you,
The sword will cut you off;
It will eat you up like a locust. (Nahum 3:15)

While these examples serve to show the allusion to the locust as a symbol of the armies of destruction and judgment, none is so clear as that of the prophet Joel. At the outset of the book, the prophet likens the judgment of Babylon–which the covenant people have just experienced–to the destruction of the locust:

Hear this, you elders,
And give ear, all you inhabitants of the land!
Has anything like this happened in your days,
Or even in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children about it,
Let your children tell their children,
And their children another generation.
What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten
What the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten
And what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten.

For a nation has come up against My land,
Strong, and without number…

 …He has laid waste My vine,
And ruined My fig tree;
He has stripped it bare and thrown it away;
Its branches are made white.  (Joel 1:1-7)

It is important to note that, in redemptive history, the plagues and the Covenant curses fall on Christ at the cross. When He died think darkness covered the face of the land. Just as God had killed the firstborn son in that tenth and greatest plague, so He killed His only begotten Son at Calvary. The greatest of all covenant curses was to be cut off from the people and presence of God. At the cross Jesus was “cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8). It may not appear as obvious how the plague and curse of locusts relates to the saving work of Christ at Calvary, until we consider the language of the prophet Joel. In one of the most memorable and meaningful Messianic prophecies of restoration, the LORD promised:

Be glad then, you children of Zion,
And rejoice in the LORD your God;
For He has given you the former rain faithfully,
And He will cause the rain to come down for you—
The former rain,
And the latter rain in the first month.
The threshing floors shall be full of wheat,
And the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil.
“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
The crawling locust,
 The consuming locust,
 And the chewing locust, My great army which I sent among you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
And praise the name of the LORD your God,
Who has dealt wondrously with you;
And My people shall never be put to shame.
Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel:
I am the LORD your God
And there is no other.
My people shall never be put to shame. (Joel 2:23-27)

The language of restoration and salvation is the language of God “restoring the years the locust have eaten.” This prophecy comes immediately prior to the prophecy of Pentecost (Joel 2:28-31), intimating that it is directly related to the work of Christ in the incarnation. In the Gospel, the people of God have their sins forgiven. The judgment of God is taken away in the judgment of His people at Calvary. When Jesus died under the wrath of God the wrath that the elect deserve was removed from them. By virtue of our union with Christ, the wrath has been satisfied. Now that Christ has been made a curse (Gal. 3:13) believers are blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places with Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Instead of covenant curses, there are only covenant blessings for those savingly united to the Savior. There is no more judgment for those who have died with Christ and been raised with Him. Jesus Himself bore witness to this when He said, ““Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:25). The judgment of God was satisfied in the death of Jesus at Calvary.

It is interesting to note that the last time we find mention of locusts in the NT (prior to the symbolic reference, in regard to eschatological judgment on the Kingdom of Satan, in the book of Revelation) is in the narrative about the forerunner of Messiah. When John the Baptizer appeared the Evangelists mention that he ate “locust and wild honey” (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6). This has often been explained merely with regard to his ascetic lifestyle. It has sometimes been suggested that it refers to John’s ceremonial obedience to God’s commands (Leviticus 11:22), however, it is more likely a prophetico-symbolic act in redemptive history. John’s ministry is so inexorably tied to the work of Jesus that it would be wrong for us not to consider whether there is a correlation between all that John preached and all did with the saving work of Jesus. It is probable that John is showing that in the Messiah, the “devourer” is devoured. The “years that the locust have eaten” are taken away. As the forerunner of the Messiah, it is fitting that John began his ministry in the desert–the place representing the curse on the ground. The blessing of the Gospel would come against the background of the spiritual barrenness of the fallen world. John had been prophesied of in the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. Mark, in the opening chapter of his Gospel (Mark 1:2-3), acknowledging these prophesies about the forerunner when he puts them together.

“ Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
“ The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘ Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’”

One of the most interesting thing about these prophesies is that the latter–found in Malachi 3:1–begins a Messianic prophesy in which God promises:

And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes,
So that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground,
Nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,”
Says the LORD of hosts;
And all nations will call you blessed,
For you will be a delightful land,”
Says the LORD of hosts.

Here again is an allusion to the removal of the covenant curse of locusts in the blessings of the Gospel. Whether Malachi has actual locusts in view, or the armies of destroying nations that God constantly likened to locusts–or the destruction of Satan, the world and sin in the life of each covenant breaker–makes little difference. The spiritual enemies of the believer is behind all of the destruction that Christ comes to take away. Sin always lies at the root of our sorrows. In Christ, the devourer is taken away. Again, John’s eating the locusts may very well be a symbolic act in which what is spoken of in Malachi is shown to be at hand in the coming of Christ. Perhaps the eating of the wild honey was also representative of the unexpected sweetness in the wilderness produced by the work of Christ. Adam had turned the garden into a wilderness. The second Adam turns the wilderness into a place of sweetness and joy. The locust consumed fields and produce turning fruitful habitations into barren wildernesses. The LORD had promised the spiritual reversal of all things under the figure of the wilderness being turned into rivers–in the days of Messiah–when he prophesied:

I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.
The beast of the field will honor Me,
The jackals and the ostriches,
Because I give waters in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert,
To give drink to My people, My chosen. (Isaiah 43:19-20)

All true believers know that the grace of God is so great, that in the Gospel God restores to us the years that the locusts have eaten. The plagues of God’s wrath have fallen on Christ at the cross. The Savior has so fulfilled the work of Christ–saying ‘Yes’ to the covenant curses in the place of His people, that in His resurrection there is a resounding ‘Amen’ to the promises of blessing for believers (2 Corinthians 1:20).

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