John the Baptist is presented in the gospels as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise that God would send His messenger to prepare the way for the coming of the glory of the Lord (Is. 40), and the promise to send Elijah before Him to turn the people to repentance (Mal. 4). Thus, Matthew’s gospel tells us that John wore a leather belt, just as Elijah did (cf. 2 Ki. 1:8), and that John wore a garment of camel’s hair, apparently a traditional prophetic garment (cf. Zech. 13:4). Matthew also quotes from Isaiah 40, and tells us that John fulfills that prophecy.
But there are elements in the description of John that do not seem to fit easily into these typologies. In particular, John is said to live on a diet of locusts and wild honey. This diet does not, at first glance, appear to be part of the Elijah typology; nowhere in the Old Testament is Elijah said to eat these things. Moreover, though Isaiah described the Messiah as one who eats “curds and honey” he did not mention either locusts or honey in connection with the “voice in the wilderness.” We might well ask, then, what was the significance of John’s diet? How does his odd diet fit with John’s place in redemptive history?
It is striking that in most of Old Testament passages that mention them, locusts are comsumers, not consumables. True, the Israelites were permitted to eat locusts (Lev. 11:22). But generally, locusts appear not as food but as eaters. Egypt was visited with a plague of locusts, which consumed “every plant of the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left” (Ex. 10:15). God threatened to send locusts to consume the seed of the field if His people disobeyed Him (Dt. 28:38), and the prophets described the fulfillment of that threat (cf. Joel 1-2, Nah. 3:15-17).
Significantly, in several passages the Gentile enemies of Israel are compared to locusts. The particular similarity between Israel’s enemies and locusts is the vast number of each (Jud. 6:5; 7:12). In Jeremiah 51:14, similarly, the Lord swore that Israel would be filled with locusts that would cry in triumph over them, and in Jeremiah 46:23, we find the prophecy that the Egyptians, though numerous as locusts, would someday be no more.
It is not simply in numerical strength that nations are comparable to locusts. More particularly, locusts are likened to armies. Proverbs 30:27 compares locusts to an army that advances rank upon rank, and this comparison is picked up in Joel 1:4, where different ranks of locusts — gnawing, swarming, creeping, and stripping — are distinguished, and compared to an invading army (cf. 1:6). The analogy of locusts and armies is even more explicit in Nahum, who compares the swarming locust to the guardsmen, and the marshals to grasshoppers (3:15-16). Isaiah 33:4 refers to locusts that rush onto spoils.
The symbolism of locust armies is employed in Jeremiah 51:27, where the horses of the nations against Babylon are compared to “bristly locusts.” The apostle John seems to be alluding to this passage when, in Revelation 9, he describes locusts coming from the Abyss and receiving power (9:3). John goes on to describe in detail the appearance of the “locusts”: They are like horses prepared for battle; they wear crowns on their heads; their faces are like the faces of men, their hair like women’s, their teeth like lion’s; they wear breastplates; and the sound of wings is like sound of chariots, or of horses running to battle (9:7ff.).
David Chilton notes1 that the locusts in Revelation 9 come from the Abyss, and thus are demons; their sound is like that of the glory-chariot of God. The locust army is a demonic parody of the glory of God, an “anti-glory cloud,” if you will. This casts new light on all the references to locust plagues and locust-armies in the Old Testament. It suggests that the real enemies behind Israel’s enemies were the demonic armies of Satan, just as the hosts of Israel were accompanied into battle by hosts of angels. The warfare of Israel and her enemies was a type and a visible working-out of the warfare of Michael and Satan.
Given this background, are we in a better position to understand why John would live on locusts? In his Studies in Food and Faith, James B. Jordan has explained that eating in Scripture signifies incorporation; the Lord “ate” the sacrifices on the altar of burnt offering to show His acceptance of the worshiper into the fellowship of the Godhead, and when we eat the bread and wine of the eucharist, we participate in the flesh and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). John’s eating of the locusts, then, may signify the incorporation of the demonically-dominated nations into the new Israel of God.
What about the other component of John’s diet? Honey is associated with the land throughout the Old Testament (Ex. 3:8, 17; 13:5; etc.). Honey in fact is said to flow out from the land. Similarly, Psalm 81:16 records God’s promise to feed Israel with honey from the rock. In 1 Samuel 14, Jonathan eats honey from the ground. The fact that John ate locusts with honey (and perhaps dipped in honey) again might be taken to signify the incorporation of the locust-nations into the blessings of the land. It is significant that John embarked on this ministry from the wilderness; in the waste places, he held out the promise of the blessings of a new Garden.
Putting all these considerations together, it seems that John’s diet indeed symbolized his role in redemptive history. Luke informs us that John gave counsel to what we can assume are Gentile soldiers (3:14), thereby “eating” the soldiers into the kingdom. And, it seems that John’s diet is a part of the Elijah typology by which the NT explicates John’s ministry. Elijah’s ministry was full of contacts with Gentiles, and was a foreshadowing of the coming of a new Israel; John’s ministry marks the beginning of the fulfillment of that type, the beginning of a new Israel in which there is neither Jew nor Greek.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.
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|1.||↑||Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation [Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987]|