The Author: His name, “Joel,” means “Yahweh is God.” We know nothing else about him other than the name of his father.
The Date: The date is not specified within the book. What we use to determine the date, in that case, is internal evidence -- reference to various nations, events, etc. People have suggested dates from 835-400 B.C. The following things are used to pinpoint the date:
- The temple is functioning (1:9) Could have been before or after the exile. Not much help
- Judah is inhabited (1:2, 11, 14) Could have been before or after the exile. Also not much help.
- Jews trading with Sabeans (3:8). Some say the Sabeans and Greeks are the same and are also mentioned in Zech 9:131 so that is not conclusive.
- Tyre, Sidon, Egypt and Edom are mentioned as the enemies of Israel (3:19) Not conclusive because other exilic and postexilic prophets mentioned these same powers - Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Obadiah?, and Malachi.
- Joel is placed between Hosea and Amos in the canon. This is not much help because the arrangement was due to literary similarities to Amos.
- The destruction mentioned in 3:2-3 is so grim that surely it must refer to the Babylonian conquest. Some think this means it has to be after 586 B.C, but we've already discussed that logic in the dating of Obadiah.
- The discussion about pouring out His Spirit in Joel 2:28-29 seems to me to fit well with a final message of preparation for the coming kingdom.
- Assyria and Babylon are not mentioned at all, which makes one think they have not become a threat yet or perhaps they've come and gone.
So, it is impossible to tell for sure. It doesn’t affect the interpretation very much and where it does we will give both options.
The Purpose: Joel uses a recent drought and locust plague as an object lesson to warn of a future invasion of Israel in the Day of the Lord. If the nation will repent and return to the Lord, God will restore His relationship with her and bless her.
God's Response to the Nation's Sinfulness
Extent of Destruction by locusts (1:2-7)
Joel calls for recognition that the calamity is the result of God dealing with the nation of Israel.
Can you tell me another name for locusts? In Hebrew there are at least nine different names to indicate the different species and/or stages of maturity. What that tells us is that they had a real problem with locusts. But this locust plague was worse than ever. Verse 4 shows the complete devastation and thoroughness of the locust swarm. In the Hebrew Joel uses four different names for these swarming locusts, creeping locusts, etc. Some have tried to make something significant out of the different names, but it is probably just a poetic way to emphasize just how complete the devastation was.
Raymond Dillard, in his commentary on Joel gives the following information about locust plagues:
In our generation areas having the potential for a locust outbreak are monitored by international agencies using satellite reconnaissance and other technology; incipient swarms are met by aircraft and trucks carrying powerful pesticides. However, if the locusts are not destroyed or contained shortly after the hatch, once the swarm has formed, control efforts are minimally effective even today. For example, in 1988 the civil war in Chad prevented international cooperation in attacking the hatch, and a destructive swarm spread throughout North Africa devastating some of the poorest nations and threatening Europe as well. It is difficult for modern Western people to appreciate the dire threat represented by a locust plague in earlier periods. Such outbreaks had serious consequences for the health and mortality of an affected population and for a region's economy. Scarcity of food resulting from the swarm's attack would bring the population to subsistence intake or less, would make the spread of disease among a weakened populace easier, would eliminate any trade from surplus food products, and would stimulate high inflation in the costs of food products. Disease outbreaks are further aggravated when swarms die; the putrefaction of the millions of locust bodies breeds typhus and other diseases that spread to humans and animals (see the description in Augustine's City of God 3.31). Baron (Desert Locust, pp. 3-7) catalogues many locust outbreaks known to have been accompanied by outbreaks of pestilence.
It was only in 1921 that the mystery of the locust was solved. Prior to this date researchers wondered what became of the locust during the years in which there were no outbreaks. In 1921 B. P. Uvarov demonstrated that the swarming locust was none other than an ordinary species of grasshopper. However, when moisture and temperature conditions favored a large hatch, the crowding, unceasing contact, and jostling of the nymphs begin to stimulate changes in coloration, physiology, metabolism, and behavior, so that the grasshopper nymphs make the transition from solitary behavior to the swarming gregarious and migratory phases of the dreaded plague. Plagues continue as long as climatic conditions favor the large hatches. Once entering their gregarious phase, swarms, of locusts can migrate great distances and have even been observed twelve hundred miles at sea. The swarms can reach great sizes: a swarm across the Red Sea in 1889 was estimated to cover two thousand square miles. A swarm is estimated to contain up to 120 million insects per mile Baro Desert Locust, (Raymond Dillard, The Minor Prophets, “Joel,” p. 255-56).
People's Response to the Present Devastation (1:8-20)
Mourning (8-12 )
1:8 talks about a virgin mourning for her bridegroom. I remember a movie called The Promise with Kathleen Quinlan where she and here husband were married and on the way from the wedding to start their honeymoon, there was a wreck and she was supposedly killed. I remember being very overwhelmed with the tragedy.
Every individual is affected and mourns. One result of the devastation was that there was no grain to make offerings to the Lord, consequently, their sacrifices had to stop and their relationship with God was severed. Perhaps that was part of God's plan. Perhaps God didn't want their sacrifice. He wanted their hearts. cf. Micah 6:6-8
Here we see what their response should be to the devastation. There should be a call by the priests for corporate mourning, fasting and prayer. Some take the command for everyone to come to the house of the Lord as a clue that Joel is a postexilic prophet when the nation was small enough to actually do this. I don’t know if even the postexilic community could do this or not. It may just be a way of saying everyone needs to repent. They needed to go to God with their hearts.
Suffering of Man and Beast (1:15-20)
All of creation cries out to God. In verse 15 Joel says, “The day of the Lord is near.” He introduces the concept of the Day of the Lord here, but then goes on to elaborate on how bad the suffering is then. But he recognizes that the destruction by the locusts is only a shadow of what is to come. In chapter 2 he describes that destruction.
Description of Future Devastation and the Lord's Army (2:1-11)
The prophet now moves to a description of the coming army. Joel draws on the imagry of the locusts in chapter 1 to describe the invading army in the Day of the Lord. The soldiers will be as methodical and thorough as locusts. cf. 2:3-9.
Some think this refers to actual locusts because of all the similies. For example, in 2:4 it says their appearance is “like the appearance of horses” or in vs 5 “with a noise as of chariots.” Proponents of this argument say that if these were actual horses and chariots, Joel wouldn’t say “like” or “as.” But in Joel 1:15 he says the day of the Lord is near and it will come “as destruction from the Almighty.” It “is” destruction from the Almighty. Why did he use “as”? Perhaps the comparisons in 2:3-9 can be explained in the same way. Also, 2:20 says the army comes from the north. Typically, locusts invade from the south, and human armies almost always invade Israel from the north. These are not 100% rules, but almost.
If this refers to an actual invading army, then when does the invasion occur?
If one assumes that Joel was written around 850 BC, then the coming army could be the Assyrians or Babylonians. The following diagram would depict this view.
If a late date is correct, it could also be referring to an army that God would raise up if they did not repent.
He concludes the section with the statement, “The day of the Lord is indeed great and awesome, and who can endure it?” No one can endure it, so what are they to do? They need to repent and pray that God will have mercy on them.
Call for Repentance
No one can endure. The only thing to do is to repent. God wants the nation to corporately return to Him (vs 16) but that begins by internal repentance of individual's hearts (vs 13)
The motivation to repent is seen in vs. 13b. It is positive motivation. God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, etc. Time and time again God didn’t destroy the children of Israel even though they deserved it (eg. Ex 34:6).
Isaiah 55:8 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (NIV)
This verse is usually quoted out of context to refer to God’s omnipotence, sovereignty, omniscience, etc. But look at the context it is written in – Isaiah 55:6-7 Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (NIV)
It is written in a context of forgiveness. It is not man’s way to forgive. When we are wronged, we hold grudges, we feel like the offender owes us and we want him to pay us back. But God is gracious, and He forgives.
Notice that Joel does not presume on God’s soveriegnty and mercy. In vs. 14 he says, “Who knows whether God will turn and relent.” Sometimes things have become so bad that God must still judge. However, if you do repent, the judgment might be postponed or lessened. For example, in 2Ki 21 Manasseh was such a bad king that God said he would definitely destroy Israel. However, Manasseh’s son, Josiah, was a godly king, and God postponed the destruction until after his death.
2:15. What is a fast? Why do people fast? I think fasting shows that there is some issue that you are dealing with that is so important or so distressing that you aren’t interested in food. vs 15 says they are to have a “solemn assembly.” Fasting is not some ritual or routine you go through once a month so you can mark it off on your checklist of spirituality.
2:16. Why does he mention infants, bridegrooms and brides in vs 16? These are three members of society who are not typically sad and mournful, but even they need to be included in this return to God.
2:17. Notice the basis for the plea for deliverance. It is the same thing Moses used when he pleaded with God not to destroy the nation: Joel doesn’t want God’s name to be tarnished. If the Israelites are destroyed, the other nations would think that their gods were better than Yahweh, Israel’s God. Look at Eze 36:16-28. Notice especially vs 22-23. It is God’s reputation that is at stake. Notice also vss 26-27. Doesn’t this sound like Joel 2:28-29. We will talk more about these verses when we get to Joel 2:28f.
God's Response to Repentance
Pity: God is a God of mercy (2:18)
The verbs in vss 18-19 are translated as future tenses in most Bibles, but they can and probably should be translated as past tenses. I think the people did repent at Joel’s pleading and here we have the results. So it should read:
“Then the Lord was zealous for his land,
and had pity on His people.
And the Lord answered His people, ...”
Next we have the promise of what God will do for them...
Plenty: God is generous with His blessings (2:19-27)
This section is 19-27 given in the form of a Chiasm.2
Restoration of crops (19a) and cessation of shame (19b).
Invasion averted (20)
Praise and exhortation (21-24)
Effects of locust invasion reversed (25)
Restoration of crops (26a) and cessation of shame (26b-27)
Note: In verses 26 and 27 it says “My people will never be put to shame.” Has this promise been fulfilled? No. I think here there is a blurring of the distinction between the near fulfillment and the far fulfillment of God’s promises. It is passages like this that make me look for a literal millennial reign of Christ when He fulfills all these types of promises.
In this section God continues his speech with promises of more deliverance. But this section refers to a future deliverance. Peter quotes from this passage in Acts 2:17f. (See Addendum for Peter's use of Joel 2:28 in Acts 2:17f.)
Judgment of Nations for Mistreatment of Israel (3:1-17)
When you read this chapter you can't help but notice that there are several things that have not happened.
- God has not restored the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem (3:1).
- He has not judged all the nations (3:2).
- Jerusalem is certainly not holy today (they are still looking for the Messiah) and with all the political chaos in Jerusalem today, there is no way one could think 3:17 has been fulfilled. When it says “strangers will pass through no more” it means there will be no more invasions on Jerusalem. Just as recently as 1991 we had the skud missile attacks by Hussein on Jerusalem, so this certainly hasn’t been fulfilled.
- The reference to beating plowshares into swords in vs 10 implies that there is a peace in the land that is temporary and they will resort back to war. This sounds to me like the peace in the first half of the tribulation which is broken by the man of sin in the middle of the tribulation.
I think all these things indicate that this happens in the future.
Ultimate Deliverance and Prosperity in the Land (3:18-21)
Here we have a description of life in the millennial kingdom. It will be a utopia. We also have another promise to the Jews. It says, “Judah will be inhabited forever and Jerusalem for all generations.” Again, we have to look to our future for this fulfillment.
Note the symmetry in the book.3
- The Lord disciplined the people by sending a locust plague which destroyed the land.
- The locust invasion was a warning that the nation was about to experience God’s judgment by way of an invading army.
- Only national repentance would stop the coming discipline.
- The nation did repent, God did relent and brought rain and crops.
- God also promised future judgment on the nations and Israel, but He would save those who called on Him.
- After the final judgment, He would set up His kingdom and dwell in Jerusalem forever and there would be peace and prosperity.
- We don’t know what the sins of the people were. Joel does not elaborate. So we can’t really look at the book, and see their sins and evaluate our lives to see if we are doing the same things.
- We can see that God does not ignore sin. He will punish it.
- We see that God is gracious and patient and may relent if we repent.
- We do know that the repentance that Joel called for was internal, heartfelt repentance, not just sociological reform. So we need to be sure our repentance is genuine.
- Joel also gives us an assurance that God does have a future for His people and the book reaffirms our concept of a literal future tribulation when God will judge the nations, and restore his people to the land.
- Finally, I think the book shows that God is in control.
Prophecy is not designed just so we can build our time lines and figure out what is going to happen. Prophecy is designed to show us the character of God (His justice, mercy, sovereignty, etc.) and cause us to turn to Him.
Peter's use of Joel 2:28 in Acts 2:17f
In Acts 2:17 Peter quotes Joel 2:28. There have been several views on what this means:
- Some have taught that the prophecy in Joel 2:28 was totally fulfilled at Pentecost, but that is not true because they did not have all the necessary ingredients. They were missing signs, wonders, dreams and visions. Some say the sun being darkened at crucifixion was the sign and wonder, but that happened almost two months before Pentecost. There really was nothing to equal the blood, fire and columns of smoke in Joel 2:30.
- Some spread the fulfillment over the church age and think that the early rains and latter rains in Joel 2:23 refer to the Holy Spirit being poured out at Pentecost and later visions, speaking in tongues, etc. being given in our time. I think they are just trying to find justification for their charismatic practices. The rain in Joel refers to precipitation that actually fell in Joel’s time. It does not refer to the Holy Spirit.
- Others think that there was a 9th century fulfillment - in Joel’s day. Then there was an application/fulfillment in Peter’s day and there will still be a future fulfillment. But Peter didn’t say this is “like” what Joel said. He said this “is” what Joel said.
- Another view is what we might call the Potential View. It could have happened in Peter's day but it didn't. But Peter thought it would. The signs he mentioned by Jesus could have been seen as a precursor to the cataclysmic signs mentioned in Joel. All the disciples thought this. Compare Acts 1:6-7. Jesus did not tell them they were wrong to think that the kingdom would be set up, because it was going to be. He just told them it was not for them to know the time. They still didn't know there was going to be a church age.
Perhaps a diagram will illustrate the potential view:
I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come up with another solution to the problem. First we have to look at Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:18-19. Jesus shows that only the first part of Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled at the first advent. I think the same thing is happening in Joel 2:28-32. Verses 28-29 happened at Pentecost. Verses 30-32 will happen during the tribulation. God promises in vs 32 that whoever calls on him during this terrible time (which I think is the Tribulation) will be saved.
Look back to Ezekiel 36:26-27. Notice also that he says he will remove the heart of stone (ten commandments - law) from your flesh and give the Spirit to cause us to walk in those statutes instead. The statutes are not gone, there is just a new way of following them.
So, I think that Joel 2:28-29 happened at Pentecost. Joel 2:30-3:21 happen in our future.