38. The Book of Joel
The name Joel means, “The Lord is God.” Nothing is known about his personal life. Twelve other men in the Old Testament have this name, none of whom can be identified with the author of this book. His father, Pethuel, is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible.
From this book, we can see that he was acquainted with the land, the farming and the geography. Also, it is clear that he lived and prophesied in Judah since he mentions Judah and Jerusalem, and he is thoroughly familiar with the temple and its ministry.
Joel must have lived during the early Eighth Century B.C., and prophesied in Judah during the days of King Uzziah (792-740 B.C.), because he does not mention Assyria, Babylon or Persia. Assyria was in severe decline from 782-745 B.C., and Babylon and Persia had not yet come on the forefront of history. Also, the events, the general attitude of the people, and the literary themes he presents in this book reflect the early Eighth Century B.C. atmosphere.
When you think of King Uzziah, you remember the prophet Isaiah’s call, “The year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted” (Isaiah 6:1). What Isaiah indirectly was saying is that with the death of King Uzziah, Judah lost the king, lost the golden period of the monarchy, and there was no real king left in Judah after Uzziah. At that time, Isaiah saw the real King, seated on a throne, high and exalted.
This means that the prophet Joel lived during the golden period of King Uzziah’s 52 years extended rule. His was the time of great expansion in every aspect: militarily, administratively, commercially, and economically. It was a period of great expansion and solidification. It is noted about him that, “His fame spread as far as the border of Egypt, because he had become very powerful,” and “His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful” (2 Chronicles 26:8, 15). It was a period of peace and prosperity second only to Solomon’s time.
Joel indirectly talks about their prosperity. Their vine vats were overflowing, the fig trees and the pomegranates and apples, all the fruit trees were loaded down; their land was fertile, and barns were filled to the brim and olive oil was flowing like a river (1:10, 17). Their cattle never failed, their herds were multiplying, and flocks were plentiful (1:18).
What does material prosperity bring? Spiritual poverty and religious formalism. Moses had already warned them long time ago:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).
This is exactly what had happened during Joel’s time. Much of their time was spent in merrymaking and drinking orgies as Joel tells them, “Wake up, you drunkards, and weep! Wail, all you drinkers of wine; wail because of the new wine, for it has been snatched from your lips” (1:5).
There is nothing wrong in enjoying life and the material blessing as a gift from God. But when that becomes the goal in life, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless,” and “Nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:1; 2:11).
Of course, people do want to keep God happy and appeased lest all the material benefits are taken away. Remember Satan’s accusation about Job?
Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face (Job 1:9-11).
Of course, that was not right in Job’s case. But only God knows how many times that is just what it is in many who are called by His name.
The people in Joel’s time were bringing their grain offerings and drink offerings as required by the law (1:9). They did rend their garments and had extended sessions of fasting and weeping and mourning (2:12-13). But their heart was not in that. This is exactly what the Lord indicted them for through the prophet Isaiah, who came right after Joel,
The multitudes of your sacrifices – “what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New moons, sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them” (Isaiah 2:11-14).
So, like in Isaiah’s case, it took the death of the king to be able to see who the real King was, in the same way for Joel’s time it took a natural disaster of epic proportion to wake people up. God has His ways to bring His people around. He cannot let them go, because He loves them so much.
Joel provides very vivid and poetic descriptions of the locusts. First, he describes them in the form of the agricultural devastation:
A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness. It has lain waste my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white. … The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up, the oil fails. Despair, you farmers, wail, you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed. The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree – all the trees of the field – are dried up” (1:6-7, 10-12).
Second, he describes them as a marching army:
They have the appearance of horses; they gallop along like cavalry. With a noise like that of chariots they leap over the mountaintops, like a crackling fire consuming stubble, like mighty army drawn up for battle. At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course (2:3-7).
The description of the locusts is very vivid and poetic, but not unrealistic. This is a very common phenomenon in that part of the world, even today. I grew up in a small farming community in a remote village in India, and I have seen with my own eyes the devastation that the locusts can make. When the people in my area heard the news of locusts coming, they all would come out of their homes and beat pots and pans with sticks, making a loud noise to scare them away. At least once we saw the widespread devastation by the locusts. For a few days, we heard rumors of locusts eating away the flesh of young babies who were laid out on coats under the open sky. That would give a chill to anyone.
As if that is not enough, Joel describes the drought, “The seeds are shriveled beneath the clods. The storehouses are in ruins. The granaries have been broken down, for the grain has dried up” (1:17).
1. All the material blessings are taken away (1:7, 10-12).
2. All the religious sacrifices are taken away. “Grain offerings and drink offerings are cut off from the house of the Lord” (1:9).
For a Hebrew, cutting off the religious sacrifices was far more serious than the loss of the material blessings, because the religious sacrifices guaranteed them the covenant relationship with the Lord. As long as they were able to offer the sacrifices, they thought that the Lord was bound by His covenant to keep His part and continue to take care of them in every way. But, when the sacrifices are taken away, there is no guarantee of any blessings from the Lord.
3. The joy is taken away. “Surely the joy of mankind is withered away” (1:12). That is how it is with the joy that is based on material blessing and religious formalities.
When man trusts in other things and turns away from the Lord, even the very ground is taken away from under his feet to make him realize how shaky the ground is upon which he stands.
Joel’s concern, however, is not limited to these disasters. He sees them as symbols of deeper significance – the Day of the Lord. It may be that the hordes of locusts that covered the sky and blotted out the sun and the moon and the stars (2:10) caused the prophet to reflect upon the Day of the Lord (2:2). The locusts’ plagues were just a sign of future judgment.
The locusts are described in terms of the Day of the Lord, “Alas for that day! For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (1:15). “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming” (2:1). Verse 2:11 is transitional; it indicates more the future day of the Lord than the locust army:
The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?
What Joel is saying is that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Five of the 19 explicit references to the “day of the Lord” in the Old Testament are found in this short book (1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14).
First, the call for repentance is given after the invasion of the locusts, “Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar … .” And, “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly, summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord” (1:13, 14).
Second, the call for repentance is given after the more intensive description, “Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (2:12). Not just an outward show, but genuine repentance: “Rend your heart and not your garments” (2:13).
Priority of repentance is given to the priests and the religious leaders, “Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar.” And, “Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the temple porch and the altar” (1:13; 2:17). Then, they called the rest of the people, from the oldest to the youngest, “Bring together elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber” (2:16).
The prophet’s call is, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill” (2:1), where Zion is a symbol of the people of God who take the lead. The spiritual condition of the nation at any given time in history was the barometer of the spiritual condition of Zion.
It is the same with the church today. Does the spiritual condition of the nation reflect the spiritual condition of the church? As Paul writes,
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew (Christian); if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples (or, God as in the sense of Malachi's statements)? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written, 'God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles (non-Christians) because of you (Romans 2:17-24; italics added)
The Scripture puts the responsibility on the people of God,
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
If the land is in broken condition, it is not because the heathen are acting as heathen, but because the church is not acting as the church.
Verse 2:18 begins with “Then,” just like 2 Chronicles 7:14 above. If the people, the people of God, will turn to Him in true repentance, “Then the Lord will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people” (2:18). The prophet describes fourfold blessing as a result of their genuine repentance.
1. God will heal their land for their material abundance (2:18-27). The blessings are described in the same agricultural terms as the devastation because of the locusts described earlier. “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully” (2:19). And, “The threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil … . You will have plenty to eat, until you are full … ” (2:24-26).
However, the emphasis is not on the material blessing; it is on the Lord Who provides the material blessings, on the relationship with and the knowledge of God, that provides the full satisfaction. It is the Lord Who is sending the grain and new wine (2:19): “Surely the Lord has done great things” (2:21). “Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God for he has given you autumn rains in righteousness” (2:23), and “You will praise the name of the Lord your God who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be ashamed” (2:26).
The ultimate purpose of God for blessing His people is that they would want to know Him and grow in their relationships with Him. God says, I will bless you: “Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed” (2:27). The purpose of blessing and meeting all our needs overabundantly is not that we get into enjoying the gifts and forget the Giver, but that we would find our joy, our fulfillment, our satisfaction in Him alone, because, as David said, “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).
Repentance, as defined in the English dictionary, usually means “to feel sorry or self-reproachful for what one has done or failed to do,” or “to feel sorry, contrite, or self-reproachful over an error, sin, etc.”282 However, when the prophets preached repentance, it was not always repentance of a particular sin in a person or community’s life. Repentance in the Old Testament does not always mean being sorry for a particular sin, because that word is used for God Himself (e.g., Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:14; Psalm 106:45; Jeremiah 18:8, 10; etc.). The basic idea in repentance is to turn about, changing the course, making a U-turn, changing life goals and priorities. This is what the people of God, people who call themselves Christians, need to do today. Instead of running after the material things, they need to seek after the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Instead of finding happiness in the things of the world, they need to seek the true joy, fulfillment, and contentment in relationship with the Lord. The ultimate purpose of God for blessing us is that we seek Him and desire to know Him more and more and love and serve Him more and more.
2. God will pour out His Spirit for their universal spiritual restoration (2:28-32). After speaking about their material blessing because of their turning back to God, Joel speaks of their spiritual blessing. In the New Testament, Peter applied this to the outpouring of the Spirit at the beginning of the church (Acts 2:16-21). Paul applied 2:32 for the salvation available to all,
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:12).
Although the ultimate fulfillment of this will be at the Second Coming of Christ, it already has been partially fulfilled, as all believers have the indwelling Spirit and can experience the fullness of the Spirit as they are filled with the Spirit in the sense that Paul speaks (Ephesians 5:17-20).
3. God will judge the wicked and establish His eternal Kingdom (3:1-21). Joel speaks of God’s wrath and ultimate punishment of all the nations that oppressed God’s people. They will be judged and ultimately destroyed, e.g., Edom. The wrath of God on the unbelieving nations is described as God’s trampling of the grapes in the winepress (3:13). As the Apostle John describes in the Book of Revelation,
The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia (180 miles) (Revelation 14: 19-20).
Then, the Kingdom of God will be established, and God’s unlimited blessings will flow to His people,
In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord's house and will water the valley of acacias (3:18).
4. The ultimate blessing. The book ends with a note of the ultimate blessing, “The Lord dwells in Zion,” the Lord’s eternal presence with His people as described in Revelation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
However, for a Christian, a partial fulfillment of this blessing has already taken place, because “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). We can enjoy the presence of the Lord in our life right now. We can experience His guidance, His provision, His abundant blessing in the sense that David talks in Psalm 23 right now. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
So, Joel begins with the devastation of the locusts and ends with the eternal blessing of the presence of the Lord with His people forever. Those who have trusted the Lord and committed their lives for His glory, and those who long to fellowship with Him and seek to know Him more and more, enjoy all these blessings right now.
Two of the oldest writing prophets, Obadiah and Joel, speak about the Second Coming and the millennial Kingdom without speaking about the first coming. Why? One of the reasons is that they did not have the full revelation, and they did not have the clear picture and the distinction between the two comings.
However, the more important reason is that, as Peter tells us, “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you” (1 Peter 1:12). And, as Paul writes, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). With the Cross and more than the Cross behind us, the Christian now needs the exhortation of the Second Coming of Christ and to be prepared to meet Him, which the Old Testament prophets provide more than anything else.
We look back to the cross with gratefulness for what God has done for us, and live a life that expresses that gratefulness, and look forward with boldness and great expectation to His Second Coming. Like Paul, every believer should be able to say near the end of his life,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day--and not only me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
281 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Imanuel Christian, guest speaker at Community Bible Chapel, on August 5, 2001.
282 Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.