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Joel 2:1 Blow the shofar on Zion and sound the alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the Land tremble, for the Day of the L-rd comes, for it is near.
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Although the shofar, the ram's horn trumpet is used in many congregations as part of worship throughout the year, Yom Teruah - also known as Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, throughout the mainstream Jewish world - is the only day when we are told to have , "a remembering of blowing". We are commanded to hear the shofar blown, but the Torah doesn't actually command us to blow it. Listening and remembering is more important - although, clearly, someone must blow it so that everyone else can hear - than the blowing. Let's explore what the shofar means, both the ancient world and in our giddy fast-paced world of today.
Our text starts with the prophetic command to blow the shofar; and we have blown it each day through the month of Elul preparing for Yom Teruah when we blow the four calls of the shofar: tekia, a long blast, a summons or wake-up call; shevarim, three medium blasts, sometimes compared to the sound of weeping; teruah, nine short staccato blasts, an alarming urgency; and, finally, tekia gedolah, a last long blast. The blower will often purse his lips a little more and blow a little harder as he almost runs out of puff on the last blast, so that shofar almost shrieks. The shofar is blown particularly during the High Holy Days: "Blow the shofar on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day" (Psalm 81:4, NJPS).
In the Jewish tradition, the month of Elul is known as the time when "the King is in the Field". This is sourced from an Hasidic teaching, based on the verse "The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields" (Ecclesiastes 5:8). Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi1 tells a parable of a king who is normally to be found only in his palace, but during the month of Elul goes out into the fields to meet his people, to see their work and to talk to them on an individual basis. At that time, anyone may approach him, without protocol, and be received with a smile. The month of Elul is then a time whenHaShem is deemed to be very close to His people, encouraging them to talk to Him informally and freely, before the formal season of the High Holy Days begins. It is a time of preparation, of conducting kheshbon - a spiritual inventory - getting ready for Yom Teruah when the books are opened and the annual heavenly judgement starts.
Our text, from the prophet Joel, calls for the shofar to be blown as an alarm call, to wake the people up because the time of HaShem's judgement is coming. He is coming with His army to execute judgement upon His people. The Psalmist tells us that "G-d ascends midst acclamation; the L-RD, to the blasts of the horn" (Psalm 47:6, NJPS). This climaxes in HaShem Himself blowing the shofar: "My L-rd G-D shall sound the ram's horn and advance in a stormy tempest" (Zechariah 9:14, NJPS). Jeremiah describes the physical and emotional responses that wash over him when he hears the shofar: "My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent, for I hear the sound of the shofar, the alarm of war" (Jeremiah 4:19, ESV).
What are the people to do when they hear the shofar being blown? HaShem tells us, "I set watchmen over you, saying, 'Pay attention to the sound of the shofar!' But they said, 'We will not pay attention'" (Jeremiah 6:17, ESV). The people are to supposed to hear and prepare, to wake up and engage with G-d before the judgement starts, but they were unwilling - they were not prepared to turn from their sinful ways, to seek G-d's face and find forgiveness as they come into line with His Torah. "Rabbi Berechiah b'Rabbi the Priest said: When you take up the shofar for blowing, renew your way of living and repent. Then no matter how many sins have been charged against you, I will cover them up, as it is said, 'Who is a God like You, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression ... He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities' (Micah 7:18-19, NJPS)" (Pesikta Rabbati 39.2). The shofar is to awake the people from their slumber and galvanise them into action.
Isaiah voices HaShem speaking to the city of Jerusalem: "Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen, who shall never be silent by day or by night. O you, the L-RD's remembrancers, no rest for you and give no rest to Him, until He establishes Jerusalem and make her renowned on earth" (Isaiah 62:6-7). These watchmen, appointed by G-d, blow the shofar over the walls of Jerusalem because the Day of the L-rd is drawing near. They cry out to the city, "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the L-RD has risen upon you" (60:1, NJPS). Jerusalem is here used as metonymy - referring to the whole by naming a significant part - to picture all of the Jewish people. Spiritually, each year, watchmen - appointed by G-d over the wider body of Messiah - blow the shofar to warn us to be ready to receive Yeshua - our King who is now in the field - when He returns.
Following the words of Yeshua Himself, the Apostolic Writers - all of whom would have celebrated the annual autumn festivals and been more than aware of the significance of those feasts both as a reminder of and for synchronisation with HaShem's great eschatological calendar - tell us of the great shofar blast, blown by YHVH Himself to signal Yeshua's return. Rav Sha'ul is perhaps the earliest to write, "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of G-d. And the dead in Messiah will rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16, ESV). Matthew records Yeshua's own words: "Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:30-31, ESV).
Now, here's the thing: as disciples of Yeshua in these days, we are the current generation of watchmen. We are the ones who know that Yeshua is coming, who hear the whispers of the Spirit, who see the fulfillment of prophecy, who recognise - as Yeshua chided the leaders of His day for not doing, "You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times" (Matthew 16:3, ESV) - the changes in society, who can almost feel His footsteps in the hall. That means we know, we have the information, we see - and so the responsibility devolves upon us to sound the alarm and warn the people of the city what is about to descend upon them. The same applies to us as applied to Ezekiel, who was appointed a prophet for the people of Israel: "If the watchman sees the sword advancing and does not blow the shofar, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and destroys one of them, that person was destroyed for his own sins; however, I will demand a reckoning for his blood from the watchman" (Ezekiel 33:6, NJPS).
But there is yet more. Commenting to our text, Douglas Stuart says, "Jerusalem, like nearly all ancient cities, had watchmen stationed on its walls to give early warning of danger. Here Yahweh is the watchmen's commander ordering them to blow the alarm so that the population will realise its danger. That danger is the long waited great Day of Yahweh, when He will intervene not on behalf of, but against Israel."2 This plays alongside Peter's warning that "For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17, ESV). Judgement is most surely coming; the light is already clearly visible at the end of the tunnel and G-d is going to start that process among His own people, the followers of Yeshua, sooner than most expect or even believe. The Sages record that "Rabbi Ya'akov says: this world is just a corridor for the world to come. One must prepare himself in the hallway before entering the palace" (m. Pirkei Avot 4:21). We must prepare ourselves now - today, this week, this month - to be ready for the Master.
The shofar awakens us from our slumber and stirs our souls for the work of the kingdom. Rav Sha'ul tells the communities of Rome, "Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed" (Romans 13:11, ESV). The time is running out, but the King is in the field! "Therefore it says, 'Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Messiah will shine on you" (Ephesians 5:14, ESV). This year, make sure that you not only hear but understand why the shofar is being blown. It sounds both to arouse us from sleep and to call us to repentance. It tingles in our ears and tears at our hearts to remind us that we belong to the kingdom of G-d, while so many souls around us - gracious or ungracious people alike - know neither the King nor His name. They need to hear the shofar; and you need to blow it for them!
1. - Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was the first rebbe of Chabad, a branch of Hasidic Judaism, also known as the Alter Rebbe.
2. - Douglas Stewart, Hosea-Jonah Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), page 250.
Further Study: Isaiah 2:12-17; Luke 21:29-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:5-11
Application: Have you heard the shofar and woken from your slumber to await the return of the King, or are you still asleep, just letting the world go by while you snore on the pillow? Hear the urgency of the Spirit calling us all to rouse ourselves and prepare in earnest for Yeshua, ready to receive Him as our King, Lord and Saviour!
Comment - 04:47 10Sep23 Bill Kreager: Goosebumps! I had not heard the hearing of the shofar explained in this way before. The King is in the field and we believers are to be bringing in the harvest!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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