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The Perfect Swarm

by Tim O'Hearn

Locusts. Grasshoppers. There are places where just the mention of those creatures causes people to cringe. Even in places where they do not come in huge swarms they are not the most popular of animals. Children, though, are often fascinated by them. Sometimes it is their defense mechanism of spitting “tobacco” or “blood” that fascinates people. Others catch them and hold contests to see whose can jump the farthest. Whether your reaction is fascination or repulsion, the Bible has a little to say about locusts and other orthopterae.

As food

Chocolate covered grasshoppers are sold in novelty stores throughout the American Southwest. Some people actually buy them to eat them. Those in the Bible would not have been chocolate covered, since cacao was a New World plant. Nevertheless, people of the Middle East did eat locusts and grasshoppers. Sometimes they ate them raw. Others fried them with a little salt. Still others may have had a variety of recipes for locusts. One could probably come up with almost as many varieties of locust food as Bubba listed for shrimp in “Forrest Gump.”

Of insects, locusts and their relatives (and henceforward locust will generally mean all varieties)We have no strength to oppose God, because God is all our strength. were among the few allowed to the Jewish people as food. They met one specific characteristic that made them clean flying creeping things.

Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth; Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you. (Lev 11:21-23)

We even find record of at least one man who regularly ate these creatures. “And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey.” (Mk 1:6) There are those who try to say that John was a vegetarian. They claim that the locusts he ate were the beans of the locust tree. If the Bible had been written originally in English that might be possible. It was, however, written in Greek, and the Greek word for what John ate is specifically the animal, and not the plant. The same word is used in the Revelation (see below), where it is clearly not the beans of a tree. John ate grasshoppers, and he probably ate them raw with honey for flavor.

Like the locust

There are a couple of passages that make comparisons to locusts. In describing his weakness before God, a psalmist said, “I am tossed up and down as the locust.” (Ps 109:23) Locusts are relatively light. While they are strong jumpers, once they are off the ground they are at the mercy of the wind. And so are we at the mercy of God. We have no strength to oppose God, because God is all our strength. If we do not surrender to God’s way, we will be tossed to and fro like a locust in a strong windstorm.

Where do locusts go when it is cold? In Palestine they apparently nest in the bushes or warm crags in fences. When it gets warm enough that they can move about, they scatter. This is the picture Nahum has for the kings of Assyria. They were to be scattered like locusts after sunrise. “Thy crowned are as the locusts, and thy captains as the great grasshoppers, which camp in the hedges in the cold day, but when the sun ariseth they flee away, and their place is not known where they are.” (Nah 3:17)

In the Proverbs, locusts are held up as one of four things that are small but wise. “The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands.” A swarm of locusts has no head, but it moves as a unit. Christ’s church has no earthly head, the only head being Jesus himself, and yet Christians worldwide work toward a common goal. Love for all and love for Christ are unifying factors that can take the church through many hardships on our journey home. But it is this characteristic of locusts (no ruler) that also makes a swarm something to be reckoned with.

A destructive force

Among the great destructive forces of nature one might list the hurricane, tornado, and earthquake. For sheer destructive power and economic impact, many parts of Africa and the Middle East might place the locust toward the top of the list. Those other disasters may destroy buildings and take a few lives, but a locust swarm destroys crops and denudes an area of all vegetation. Looking from the distance like a sandstorm, and sounding up close like a freight train amplified by a heavy metal band, a locust swarm eats everything in its path, sometimes including animal flesh.

It is for this reason that locusts, or the threat thereof, became one of God’s strong motivators. God ordained that certain blessings and curses were to be read to the people of Israel upon entering the Promised Land. The list of curses is longer than the list of blessings. These were things that would happen if the people of Israel would not obey God’s commands. Among threats of illness, drought, conquest, and disaster, God warns his people that if they do not obey him, “Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it… All thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume.” (Deut 28:38, 42)

On the other hand, when Solomon dedicated the Temple, he asked God to save his people even from locusts. All they would have to do is pray toward the Temple.

If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence, blasting, mildew, locust, or if there be caterpiller; if their enemy besiege them in the land of their cities; whatsoever plague, whatsoever sickness there be; What prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house: Then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men;) That they may fear thee all the days that they live in the land which thou gavest unto our fathers. (1 Kings 8:27-40; 2 Chron 6:28-31)

The best known example of God’s use of locusts as a destructive force is probably the plague on the Egyptians. “For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Ex 10:15) In Psalm 105:34-35 it is described thus. “He spake, and the locusts came, and caterpillers, and that without number, And did eat up all the herbs in their land, and devoured the fruit of their ground.” After the hail had destroyed the earlier crops, the destruction from the locusts was devastating. Only one plague followed, and that was the death of the firstborn. The locusts were nearly the pinnacle of all plagues. Perhaps for that reason, locusts also serve a figurative role in prophecy.

Like a locust

Two prophecies prominently feature locusts. Commentators continue to debate whether the locusts in the book of Joel were literal or figurative. How one accepts them is often dependent on one’s mood when reading the prophecy. They may be figurative, standing for an army coming against Israel, because of the similarity of the description of the locusts in Joel 1-2 and Revelation 9. Both passages describe the locusts as being like horses, with teeth like lions, and a sound like many chariots. Both describe the destruction and inexorable nature of these swarms. Both liken the swarms of locusts to conquering armies. And both have the same message. Those that follow God may face persecution for a time, but God will “restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten.”

The forces of evil are indeed powerful and destructive. Sometimes they seem inevitable and irresistible. They come from every side. They try to eatLooking like a sandstorm, and sounding like a freight train amplified by a heavy metal band, a locust swarm eats everything in its path. away our will, our resistance, our hope. They try to destroy everything that is growing and good in our lives and leave behind destruction, devastation, and desolation. When Egypt was plagued with locusts, Moses called to God who provided a west wind to remove every locust from the land. We have such a west wind. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13) The message of the book of the Revelation is that victory is guaranteed. Jesus has conquered. The devil is bound, his power broken. Jesus is our west wind. Against him the locusts of sin have no power. They will be, have been, driven into the sea and destroyed. Locusts may be a powerful and destructive force, but we have an immovable object. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)

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