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Introduction to the Book of Joel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Interpreting OT Prophets Dates of kings of Israel and Judah
Syria / Aram The Assyrian empire
Canaanite Religion Covenants in the Old Testament

Joel the prophet

Joel’s name means 'Yahweh is God'. His name in Hebrew is 'Yo - el', Joel is the Latin version. He was the son of Pethuel (1:1), and probably lived in Jerusalem (2:1,15). Some have suggested that he was a priest. He is otherwise an unknown figure, although there are many other Joel's in the OT.

Joel prophesied in the southern kingdom (Judah) (3:1,6) at a time when the nation had not yet fallen into the extreme depravity that was characteristic of the later years. He had a great love and respect for Jerusalem, the temple and its worship (1:14, 2:1,15,32, 3:1,2,6,16,17,20-21), but was probably not a priest, although he held the priesthood in high regard. He laments that the offerings in the temple had been stopped by the plague of locusts.

Date

The date is unknown, and suggestions range from the ninth to the fourth centuries. There are few historical details in the text to give clues to the date and specific historical situation. The absence of any references to either Assyria or Babylon, suggest that Joel was either one of the earliest or one of the latest prophets.

The most probable date is during reign of King Joash (837-796 BC), while Jehoiada the priest acted as regent, following the reign of Queen Athaliah (2 Kg 11-12, 2 Chr 22:10 - 24:16), giving a suggested date of 830 BC. Possibly Joel was addressing a situation where the evil influence of queen Athaliah, who was the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, was being offset by the godly influence of Jehoiada the priest, who was regent for King Joash, and who was introducing a revival of worship of Yahweh. If this date is correct, then Joel is the earliest of the written prophets, before Amos.

The type of government described by Joel best fit a regency. There is no mention of a king, elders and priests seem to be responsible for the nation. The king was probably a minor, with regents ruling in his place. The moral and spiritual condition of the country was bad, but not as bad as in the later years before the exile. The The northern kingdom of Israel is not mentioned, which could be explained because of the sufferings caused by Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel of Israel.

Amos could have known the writings of Joel (Joel 3:18 & Amos 9:13, and Joel 3:16 & Amos 1:2), both have an emphasis on the day of the Lord. Amos could have borrowed from Joel, indicating that Joel must have been earlier than Amos, who prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746).

The enemies threatening Judah are Phoenicians, Philistines (3:4), Egyptians and Edomites (3:19), a time before Assyria and Babylon posed a real threat. The reference to valley of Jehoshaphat (2:2), could refer to the defeat of Moab, Ammon and Edom by Jehoshaphat (870-848) (2 Chr 20:26), a relatively recent event.

Alternatively, Joel may have prophesied later in the reign of Joash. After the death of Jehoiada the priest, the king's officials forsook the house of the Lord and served the Asherim and idols. Joash seems to have been a weak character, influenced by the people around him. God's wrath came on Jerusalem and Judah for their guilt, but God also sent prophets to bring them back to the Lord, but the people ignored them (2 Chr 24:1-2,17-19).

Some date the book in the sixth century before the exile, others date it after the exile in the fifth century BC or even later. Reasons given are the style of writing and possible references to the previous destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC (3:1,17). Also given, are the absence of references to the northern kingdom, suggesting that they had already been exiled, also the prominence of the priesthood suggestion a time after the return from exile.

Historical circumstances

The land was devastated by a plague of locusts and a drought, causing such a scarcity of food, that even the cereal offering and drink offering were being withheld from the house of God (1:13). Joel sees beyond the immediate plague to a day when the nation's enemies will ravage the land and leave it desolate and bare in the same way as the locusts. The locusts are also a warning sign from God of future judgement on 'The Day of The Lord'. Joel reflects the blessings and cursings of Deut 28 and Lev 26.

Theology of the book

The locusts were a picture of God coming in wrath and judgement. There appears to be a threefold dimension of this plague of locusts: Historical - an actual plague of locusts in Judah, Symbolic - the locust plague depicts the terrible ravages that Judah's enemies, considered as God's instrument of judgement, would inflict on the land in days to come (The Assyrian armies?), and Apocalyptic - What would come upon the nation on the final 'The day of the Lord'. Joel is probably the earliest example of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The first part of the book mainly describes the actual and threatened judgement (1:1 - 2:17), describing the swarms of locusts in accurate and graphic detail.

Joel called for genuine repentance with fasting, weeping and mourning. In spite of the destruction, it was not too late for the people to repent, "Yet even now, return to me with all your heart" (2:12). God demanded real repentance, rather than superficial, outward religiosity, "rend your hearts and not your clothing" (2:12). This was possible because, "he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing" (2:13). Joel urged the nation's leaders to set the example by responding with fasting, weeping and prayer, and to beg for God's mercy (2:15-17).

Because of the repentance, Joel then prophesied the return of God's favour, because of God's jealousy for the land (2:18). There was to be an immediate and a future blessing: An immediate blessing of renewed peace and prosperity in the land (2:18-27). The cycle of the early and later rains will return (2:23), ending the drought, and the destruction caused by the locusts will be restored (2:25), there will be plenty of food (2:19,26). Their enemies (the northern army) will also be removed (2:20). Also the future blessing of the outpouring of God's Spirit on all flesh (2:28-32) at some time in the indefinite future, which would be seen as an aspect of 'The Day of the Lord'.

Joel shows that the promised 'Day of the Lord' will have a double aspect, of judgement and of blessing. Destruction (1:15-16): darkness and gloom, cloud and thick darkness (2:2), a great and very terrible day (2:11), but also a time of deliverance for all who will call on the name of the Lord (2:32) accompanied with cosmic signs (2:30-31) and the outpouring of the Spirit (2:28).

The outpouring of the Spirit

2:28 leaves the timing of the outpouring of the Spirit indefinite, "Then afterward ...". In 2:29, the description of the timing is changed slightly, "in those days ...". On the day of Pentecost, Peter used Joel 2:28-29 to explain to the crowd that the disciples were not drunk, but that the Spirit had been poured out upon all flesh (Acts 2:17-21) as predicted by Joel.

Peter located the timing as being part of 'The Day of the Lord', "In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:17). The 'Last Days' are often seen by New Testament writers as describing the period between the first and second comings of Jesus (the church age). Heb 1:1-2, 1 Pet 1:20, 2 Pet 3:3. So, Pentecost was seen as being one aspect of 'The Day of the Lord'.

In the OT, the Spirit had come only upon selected individuals, mostly leaders: judges, prophets, kings and priests. Joel looked forward to a day when the Spirit would empower all classes of people. Moses had expressed this as a desire, when two men were prophesying in the camp and Joshua had objected, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" (Num 11:29). This desire had prophetic overtones.

Joel probably thought this would apply only to Jews, to 'your sons and your daughters'. There is no mention of the nations, but Paul applied this both to Jews and to Gentiles (Rom 10:12-13). "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Joel 2:32). Paul showed that there is no distinction between Jews and Greeks, as God is generous to all who call on him. The gospel is available to all, no longer exclusively for the Jews.

The Day of the Lord (also referred to as 'The Day', or 'in that Day')

Accompanying the outpouring of the Spirit, will be dramatic cosmic events (2:30-31). These bring to mind the mighty signs associated with the deliverance from Egypt, the plagues (Ex 7-11) and God appearing on Mount Sinai in clouds and smoke (Ex 19:18). The Day of the Lord is the day of judgement and of salvation. God visited his people in judgement, on a local level (as in Joel, with the locusts), but this pointed to the future day of final judgement.

Amos had to re-define the Day of the Lord as a day of darkness, not of light. In popular thought, the Jews looked forward to the Day when God will intervene in history to put Israel at the head of the nations, whether the Jews were faithful to him, or not. Amos declared that The Day means judgement for Israel. "Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord. Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord, darkness, not light and gloom with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:18-20). The Jews thought they will be saved on this day, but shock, horror, they will be destroyed with their enemies and only God's faithful remnant will be saved.

Other prophets describe this day (Is 2:12-22, Ezek 13:5, Zeph 1:2 - 2:3 (especially), Zech 14:1, and many others). It will also come on the pagan nations as punishment for their brutal treatment of Israel and other nations (Obadiah on Edom - v15, and others). The Day of the Lord is the final day when God steps in to punish sin which has come to a climax. Joel shows that on this day there are people who are truly repentant, who will be saved (Joel 2:28-32). All enemies of God, whether Jew or Gentile will be punished (ch 3).

In the New Testament, the Day of the Lord becomes identified with the second coming (2 Thess 2:2 - which has not yet come), and is also called "The day of Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:8 and others). But, certain of the blessings of this day have already been received, the day is now but not yet.

The cosmic events of 2:30-31 are more difficult to identify. Some suggest a description of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Matthew's description of the crucifixion is interesting though, "At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Mt 27:51-53).

Note that Peter continues his quotation of Joel to include the cosmic events (Acts 2:19-20), perhaps he saw fulfilment on the day of Pentecost? The Spirit did come as a rushing wind and tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). Otherwise, they would describe the cosmic events associated with the second coming and the end of the earth as we know it.

The valley of Jehoshaphat (3:2,12)

It is unlikely that Joel was referring to a specific geographical place. The name Jehoshaphat means 'Yahweh was judged'. In both verses the valley of Jehoshaphat is named in the context of God judging. The Valley of decision (v14) is probably also a symbolic name. Some people suggest that Joel is referring to a geographical location, perhaps the Kidron valley, between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives (this is a popular burial ground, so to be in the right place at the final judgement). Others suggest the Valley of Beracah, near Bethlehem, where Jehoshaphat's army gathered after defeating their enemies (2 Chr 20:26).

Structure of the book

1:1 - 2:17 Historical - Joel speaks (desolation)
2:18 - 3:21 Predictive - God speaks (restoration)

otherwise into three parts with
2:12-27 Call to repentance and promised blessing

The Hebrew Bible separates 2:28-32 out as chapter three, making our chapter three their chapter four.

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Syria / Aram The Assyrian empire
Canaanite Religion Covenants in the Old Testament

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