Very little is known about the prophet Joel. He did not date his book so the possible range for his writing spans nearly 400 years. He wrote from Judah however, warning the people of the southern kingdom of the coming judgement and encouraging them to repent and turn to God. It appears the book was written in response to a locust plague. He used this event as a basis for speaking about the day of the Lord. There are a couple of themes to watch out for. The first is judgement. Joel might have been writing about the day of the Lord upon Judah but this definitely pointed to a greater future day of reckoning. This greater future day is when the Lord would hold the nations accountable for their mistreatment of God’s people, who themselves would be protected and blessed. Second is the theme of repentance and salvation. Joel called everybody to repentance, from drunks to farmers to priests and everyone in between. But he reminded the people that external change was not sufficient. God looks for sincere repentance. When that occurs God forgives and restores. The most notable thing in this book is the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all people. This is coupled with the promise of salvation for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.
Like other prophets, Joel reminded his people that these words came directly from the Lord. Joel summoned the inhabitants of the land to pay close attention to the prophetic word, asking if anything like this had ever happened before. But it hadn’t. This disaster with the locust plague was unique in the history of God’s people. In fact, the people would tell future generations about what had happened so their descendants would benefit from the lessons they had learned. Joel speaks of four different kinds of locusts. Some scholars believe these refer to four ancient empires that had conquered Israel. The locusts seem to have come in successive waves like armies that destroyed. If this is indeed the case, the four nations would be Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. However, locust plagues were one of the judgements listed in Deuteronomy 28:38-39 if Israel broke their covenant with God. Also, Joel’s description of the damage done by the locusts compares with eyewitness reports. The picture is one of overwhelming devastation. The other option is that Joel is simply describing the destruction brought by wave after wave of locusts. Joel called for the people to wake up and wail because of the gravity of the destruction. Locusts are insatiable, destroying annual crops like grains and vegetables. They destroy perennial fruit bearing trees and vines and they will leave the branches white and bare. Judah will weep like a young betrothed woman who never gets to consummate her marriage because the bridegroom died. Locusts didn’t just ruin all the crops so there was little for the people and animals to eat. It also meant there would be precious little to bring to the Lord as a sacrifice. These locusts destroyed the three essential crops of ancient Israel: grain, grapes, and olive oil. Drought intensified the devastation of the locusts and the people’s joy had dried up along with it. The barns stood empty.
It was the priests job to lead all the people in public rites of mourning at the temple. And their outward actions had to be matched by authentic inward change. We are reminded that the locust plague wasn’t just a natural event but a sign that the day of the Lord was near. Beginning with Amos in the 700’s the prophets had spoken of a future time when God would intervene in human history to judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. Now, everyone and all the animals were crying out because there was very little food. But all creation suffers because of human sin. The only recourse was to turn to the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth and appeal to His goodness. Only God could reverse their desperate situation.
When an ancient city was attacked the watchmen on the wall would raise the alarm by blowing the trumpet in warning. The problem here was that some religious leaders had taught the people of Jerusalem and Judah that the day of the Lord would be a time of blessing for God’s people. However, Joel proclaimed it would instead be a day of darkness and gloom. The destruction caused by the invading army would be like a raging wildfire. Before the attack the land looked like the garden of Eden. After the attack there would be nothing but desolation. The resemblance between locusts and horses heightens the image of locusts as an army, and the noise they make can be deafening. The people were terrified. Locusts didn’t just attack agricultural areas. Like a well organized army they would scale city walls and swarm the city. They would even climb like thieves and swarm through the windows of houses. As they advanced the earth quaked. So did the heavens. This is the sign of a theophany…an appearance of God. Darkening of the sun and moon symbolized divine judgement. The Lord is at the head of the army. This was not just an act of nature, but of God. This is His mighty army. God is executing his judgement, and apart from God’s grace no one will survive. Verses 12-17 are a call to repentance. Joel calls the people to repent and throw themselves on the mercy of God. Verse 12 begins with the Lord says, and it indicates that this gracious invitation came directly from God. God begged His people to repent because the day of judgement was near and there was still an opportunity to avoid the coming destruction. But they had to repent and mean it. Joel is different than the other prophets in that he never listed the sins of the people. Maybe they were so obvious that he didn’t feel a need to list them. God invited the people to not tear their clothes as one wold in grief. Instead He urged them to tear their hearts. In Hebrew the heart is the center of thought, faith, and will. They had to change their inside, their priorities and attitudes but this would happen only if they returned to the Lord. As many others had discovered, God is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in unfailing love. God’s desire is not to punish but to forgive and restore His people.
Joel’s simple question acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He asks, who knows? God is under no obligation to restore us. Forgiveness only comes through divine grace. Joel called for a time of fasting and a solemn meeting for the purpose of seeking the Lord. The ram’s horn was to be blown gathering the people…all of them, even the newlyweds. Newlyweds were usually exempt from most civic duties but this was an emergency. Everyone was being summoned to the temple to cry out to the Lord, asking for his grace and mercy. Up until this point Joel has focused on God judgement of Judah and Jerusalem. But from here to the end of the book Joel describes God’s promise of restoration. If the people sincerely repented, God would respond graciously. God promised to restore His people’s material lives in the immediate future, replenishing their fields, orchards, vineyards, and flocks. Since both people and the land suffered from God’s judgement, both would be the object of His compassion. God would restore the fruits of the land, making available the elements necessary for sacrifice and worship. He would also eradicate the invading armies from the north. God’s deliverance would be full and complete. The drought would be reversed because God would send rain. The same God who brings judgement is pleased to restore blessings to those who repent. Sin will leave a scar but God can restore people to usefulness in spite of past disobedience. This leads the people to offer up praise and worship, acknowledging that the Lord was in their midst and that He alone is God.
Verse 28 moves beyond Joel’s time to the future day of the Lord, when God would pour out His Spirit in ways never before seen. And He would perform signs and wonders for all humanity to see. Previously in Israel the Spirit had only been given to select individuals like priests, judges, kings, and prophets. But a time was coming when God’s Spirit would be given to all people. It would be accompanied by signs and wonders like blood, fire, and smoke together with the darkening of the sun and moon. All these things are indications of God coming in judgement. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. However, this should not be a final act of desperation. This accompanies a lifelong commitment of worship, service, and fellowship with the Lord. Joel here is predicting divine judgement on the nations, especially those that had oppressed God’s people. The Lord would assemble the armies of the world in the valley of Jehoshaphat. This is not connected to the king with the same name. This is rather the valley where the Lord judges. Here God would decide the fate of the nations.
The Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon and the cities of Philistia were guilty of looting precious treasures of Jerusalem and selling its people as slaves to the Greeks. They had enslaved Israelites so the Lord would punish them by selling their sons and daughters into slavery. The nations are mockingly called to a futile war against the Lord that would end in their destruction and judgement. Chapter 3:10 deliberately reversed an image from Isaiah 2:4. Joel ordered he nations to mobilize every resource for the upcoming battle. Even those unfit for war must become soldiers. The military weapons of the Gentile nations would not be sufficient to protect them against God’s judgement. Therefore they are called to beat their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears. Still, God would defeat the nations like a sickle that mows down stalks of grain and like workers who tread grapes in the wine press. Literally thousands of people and nations are waiting in the valley of decision, and the noise is deafening. The name of the valley is changed because now the Lord’s judgement had been decided. God’s voice will be like that of a mighty lion, shaking heaven and earth and terrifying sinners. But this ferocious lion will also be a refuge for His people.
God’s ultimate purpose is that people should know Him and share His holy character. They have to learn that He alone is God and that He rules over all creation from Zion, His holy mountain. God brings the only true security and hope for the future. Blessings will flow from His presence in Zion. There will be an abundance of sweet wine and milk and the temple will be the source of a spring that would forever water the arid landscape. But even as Judah is restored her ancient enemies Egypt and Edom would experience God’s judgement for their crimes against His people. There is a marked difference between the beginning and the end of the Book of Joel. In the beginning Judah’s future was in doubt. Signs of divine judgement were everywhere, threatening Judah’s existence. But Joel ends with the divine assurance that Judah and Jerusalem will endure through all generations.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W