Date of Writing and Contemporaries
“The Lord is God” is the meaning behind Joel’s name. Joel makes mention of at least a dozen men in the Old Testament. Joel’s prophecies make one appearance in the entire New Testament. This is seen in the book of Acts (MacArthur Study Bible NASB 1240). The readers learn who the writer is when he identifies himself as “Joel, the son of Pethuel.” Apart from that, the reader knows little else. Pethuel is not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. Despite his zeal for temple sacrifices, his knowledge of pastoral and agricultural life, coupled with his separation from a priestly life alludes to the fact that Joel was most likely not a priest (though a case could be made that he was).
The context of the prophecy lends itself to the interpretation that Joel was a Judean from around the general vicinity of Jerusalem. Joel talks with familiarity of the people, rather than as a stranger (MacArthur Study Bible NASB 1240). One thing that separates this book from other prophetic texts, is that little to no information is given in the opening that clarifies the time of ministry. Because of this, scholars rely on the internal evidence in dating the text. The time of writing can cover pre-exilic, late pre-exilic, and post-exilic (Chisholm Bible Knowledge Commentary 1409).
Israel was in a state of constant warfare with Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia. These nations had made constant invasions into Hebrew territory. The souther kingdom had become weak due to an extended drought, coupled with a massive plague of locusts ruining the economy of Israel. It is with this understanding Joel communicates God’s judgment for Israel. No matter how bad the destruction of the locusts was, God’s judgment in the Day of the Lord will exceed it by far.
The message that Joel is trying to communicate is that God will judge His enemies and bless those that remain faithful to Him. What is interesting is that no specific sins of Israel are mentioned, like idolatry. What the writing style lends itself to is an understanding of possible callous indifference. There is a definite call for repentance throughout the book, and commanding the people to “rend their hearts…” (MacArthur Study Bible NASB 1240).
There is no denying that the major theme of Joel’s writing is the Day of the Lord. The Day of the Lord has the most coverage in the book, permeating every facet of Joel’s writing. The origin of the idea of the Lord intervening in Israel’s wars is clearly seen in this book (The Origin of the Concept of the Day of Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies 4. 1959:97-98). The idea or concept is derived from the Near East tradition stating that a mighty warrior-king could conquer the enemies of His people in a fantastic military campaign in one day.
As with most of the minor prophets, this book carries the name of the author inspired to write it, but God is the main character of this book. Everything in this book centers around what exactly God will do with His people, Israel, during an event called “The Day of the Lord.” The main designations for God are either YHWH, or elohim (or some derivative of elohim like Eloheichem). YHWH is used by Joel to demonstrate to the people that God is still in their midst, and they must call out to Him for aid. He is still willing to save them. The name eloheichem is used by Joel to communicate a possessive nature. “He is eloheichem (your God).” This term is also used in connection with most of the judgments in the book, though the “Day of the Lord” uses the term “Yahweh”.
There are many attributes of God on display in this book. The first of these is Immanence. Joel receives the message (1:1) he must preach from the Lord. God communicates personally to His people through Joel. In chapter two and verse 18 Joel says that the Lord is zealous for His people. Throughout the passage, Joel acknowledges the sovereignty of God by imploring God not to take His favor from Israel. Another attribute of God’s on display is His justice. He declares that judgment will come upon Israel because they have abandoned their first love, and gone in search of other gods (2:12). This judgment will be the great and terrible Day of the Lord, whose foreboding presence hovers over Israel throughout the entire book.
But God also shows that justice involves both judgment and mercy. God will let Israel come back to Him when they repent (2:12).The very fact that God sent this message to the house of Israel shows that God is a compassionate God and rich in mercy. This is not a new development in God. He is willing to extend grace and restoration to those who are His, and are seeking to make things right once again. In the Day of the Lord, God demonstrates another attribute of His, that being His control over creation. The Day of the Lord shows that God owns natural laws. In the Day of the Lord we find seismic disturbances (2:1-11; 2:31; 3:16), clouds and thick darkness (2:2), cosmic upheaval (2:3, 30), and a day of awesome terror and catastrophe (1:15, 2:11).
Throughout the book of Joel, one can learn many things about mankind. This book demonstrates that mankind is looking for something to worship (2:12) and it will be either God or man’s creation. Mankind is intelligent and capable of producing through the means of farming, and cattle raising (1:17-19). Mankind desires life and knows pain is not natural because the Day of the Lord fills its hearers with dread (2:1). Mankind is intended to desire relationship as God makes repentance the focus of His message to Israel (2:12). Mankind has these gifts given to Him from God, and this desire to know God and be known. As relational religious people, mankind is seeking to have a relationship with something greater than himself.
Mankind is capable of understanding God (1:1), mankind can serve the Lord (1:1), mankind can gain and lose favor with God (2:12), mankind can expect God to hear them (1:19), mankind can expect God to keep His promises (2:23), God provides for the righteous, and leads them (2:26-27), mankind can be protected by the Lord (3:16), righteous mankind will be avenged by God (3:21). In this relationship between God and man in this book, one can clearly see that God does not tolerate the adulterous faith of His people. Whether Gentile or Jew, God demands sole obedience and sole worship of Him alone. God judges wickedness, and asks that man respond in faithfulness and repentance when called to obey, worship, and repent.
The Day of the Lord is often seen as a solely eschatological theme with an emphasis on end times. This, for the most part, is true. In Joel, the Day of the Lord refers primarily to the end times, when God is judging the Earth, before He returns and delivers all who believe in Him, and restores creation to what it should be. The exception to this is in Ezekiel when the Day of the Lord refers most likely a near completion in the destruction of Jerusalem by Assyria.
Word Study: Yom YHWH
The focus of Joel is judgment and deliverance. This judgment and deliverance will occur during a period of time called “The Day of the Lord.” Because of the amount of activity that goes on in the book of Joel surrounding the Day of the Lord, I am inclined to interpret this term as referring to a period of time greater than one literal day.
The respected translations of Scripture all record the phrase “Day of the Lord” as is. Some minor variants are “Day of Judgment, Day of Yahweh, Day of Adonai, or the Yom YHWH.” The Day of the Lord is a term within Joel that showcases a sense of fear and dread, followed by hope in deliverance. Because there is no number used with the term in Joel, we can conclude that this is not a literal 24-hour day like what is expressed in Genesis.
Lastly, what we can learn from this book is that the Day of the Lord carries a sense of finality with it. Joel understands this term to be a series of events in the world when all creation comes down. The key phrase in all of this is when God restores the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem. In history, this has not happened yet the way God describes it in Joel.
The purpose of this section will be to define what the Day of the Lord means to various authors of Scripture who were contemporaries of Joel. There are 26 uses of the phrase “day of the Lord” throughout Scripture. Ezekiel admonishes Israel for not building a wall “to stand in the battle on the day of the Lord (Eze 13:5).” The day of the Lord is a “doom for the nations (Eze 30:3).” This day of judgment seems to be more focused on Egypt than on the future of Israel. There are multiple uses for the Day of the Lord, but this does not appear to be a Tribulation perspective.
Joel describes that the day of the Lord is “destruction from the Almighty (Joel 1:15),” and tells his listeners to “tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming (Joel 2:1).” Joel asks “who can endure it (Joel 2:11)”, talks of the sun and moon being radically changed on the “great and awesome day of the Lord (Joel 2:31)”, and “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14).”
There are a few passages that relate the Day of the Lord to Israel specifically. Joel 2:1-11 states that the Day of the Lord is a time of darkness for Israel. Joel 3:14-17 says that the Day of the Lord is a time that the Israelites will find refuge. Joel 2:31 tells of the darkening of celestial bodies before the Day of the Lord. The frequency that these passages occur in the Old Testament will make itself evident as important to prophetic writings.
Locusts (vs. 1-9)
The trumpets are significant in this chapter and often showcase a pivot in the direction of the book. The first trumpet is a call of warning, and the second is a call for instruction. Joel is playing the role of watchman in the city, and commanding the people that they must repent in order for the doing judgment to be averted. Joel’s prophecy keys around an “army” of some kind, and how they act in the Day of the Lord (McComiskey, 2000, 273).
Joel 2:1-2 mentions that the day of the Lord is one filled with gloom, showing that it is dreadful. When one reads this the language of Hebrews 12:18-29 could come to mind. John also uses the locust imagery in Revelation 9. These vivid images were common forerunners to OT misery and calamity, as well as appearances of the Lord. The army is seen as devouring locusts which most likely refers to their power to destroy all in their path. In the imagery of the locust a parallel can be drawn—just as God used locust to free Israel, so God will use “locust” to put them back into slavery (Ironside, 83, 1904).
The comparison of locusts to fire is not based solely on their destructive qualities. It has been documented that swarms of locust sound like a rampaging forest fire. They are referred to as having horse heads because they are weapons of war. Horses were not farm animals back then. Joel continues to iterate how bred for war this “army” was by stating that they are like chariots, mighty, and like soldiers. Several times in this book the sense of inescapability looms over Israel like the sword of Damocles. But here lies the doctrine of the remnant of Israel. No matter how inescapable this judgment is for Israel, and the rest of the nations on earth, Israel is constantly spared miraculously by God (Price, 1976, 23).
Normally, armies are likened to locust in literature of the old world, but in this odd instance, the locust are likened to an army. This military nature of locust is not only mentioned here, but also in Proverbs 30. The locust are an awesome and horrifying example of inescapable rage, and is going to be the cause of fear, and fleeing as mentioned in Deuteronomy 28 (Pohlig, 2003, 93).
Burning satellites (vs 10-12)
The cosmic disturbances are also tell-tale signs of divine appearances close at hand. One has but to read Scripture and see that creation (human or not) reacts to the entrance of God in remarkable ways, almost as if creation cannot handle God’s presence. While darkening skies and blocking of the sun is common during a locust plague, locusts do not normally move at night. This says one of two things—either the locust are moving supernaturally, or Joel has shifted to describing the coming of the Lord. Thomas Edward McComiskey says, “The Lord appears as the commander of the heavenly host, shouting his orders to his warriors; created order is extinguished and plummets to the starless night of primeval chaos. The work of creation is annulled as the cosmos convulses in congruence with the divine judgment.” The God who fought for Israel now turns His face against His chosen people (Gaebelein, 1909, 88).
So what do these locusts mean? Most likely they are an extended metaphor of chapter 1, telling the people that the Day of the Lord is coming soon. In the present sense, the locust of destruction represent Assyria as Joel was written in the 8th century most likely. It also has the far interpretation of the end times, just after the rapture when another army sweeps down to destroy Israel once more.
Yet another chance (vs. 12-14)
God’s mercy is seen in the second half of this portion of Scripture as Joel 2:12-14 marks God’s plea for repentance. God stood ready to forgive and bless the people of Israel if they would simply repent. As always it is God who extends the hand of repentance to the unrepentant. He is reaching out for them. If the people repent, God will forgive them, and heal the land. The urgency of repentance is a common theme throughout Scripture, and the is seen as the only way to escape the “decisions” of the Lord in judgment. Because of the incessant breach of relationship brought on by sin in the hearts of the Jews, God demanded a heart change of repentance. Their hearts needed to be remade. Joel reminds the listeners in verse 14 that even if God does forgive them, He is still sovereign and has the right to punish them for their sin (Levy, 1987, 33).
Breaking point (vs. 15-17)
The gravity of Israel’s situation reaches critical level when even the bridegroom and the bride are needed to help fight. Their consummation of their marriage had to wait as they fought for survival against insurmountable odds. It is important to note that this was not a fight in a military sense, but is calling for an emergency staffing of the temple for national repentance. With the newlyweds, and the children and infants gathered, Joel was communicating that this was the most dire circumstance that Israel had ever faced in its time up to this point. Every last soul was needed to pray for the rescue of the people (McComiskey, 283).
The location of the priests as they weep between the porch and altar is especially significant as one reads through Jewish history. It was a mediatorial position where sacrifice was made to God. It was in this very place where Zechariah son of Berechiah had been killed, and this was the place where the elders in Ezekiel turned their backs on the Lord and worshipped the sun. The priests now have two points in their prayer—mercy, and that YHWH act in honor of His own glory.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the Day of the Lord is a time of judgment upon Israel, and Israel’s enemies, that culminates in deliverance for Israel. As such, it is safe to interpret the Day of the Lord as a near-far interpretation that resulted in judgment of the enemies of Israel in the 8th century BC (Egypt), and the judgment of Israel’s enemies and salvation of Israel in the last days (tribulation). If there is one theme that can be taken from a study of this book, it is that God will judge the wickedness of the unfaithful in a worldwide period of wrath called “The Day of the Lord” that will result in the salvation and rescuing of those who call on the name of the Lord and repent.
The overarching theme of all the passages listed above is judgment. It cannot be stated enough that the judgments in these passages refer not only specifically to Israel, but also to a period of judgment that is directly linked to the Second Coming of Christ. If the Day of the Lord does not begin until the Second Coming of Christ, and that event is preceded by specific signs, then the Day of the Lord will most certainly not arrive as a thief in the night, unexpectedly, nor unheralded. The only manner in which this day can break upon all humanity unawares is by having it occur immediately after the Rapture.
What does this mean for believers today then? It means that God is fiercely jealous for our love, and will punish ungodliness in our lives. It also means that God desires for us to repent. He does not seek to just punish us maniacally. He wants to have relationship with His people. He cannot be a part of sin. Because of that God must drive it out of His people one way or another. Believers can take comfort in the fact that God did not let Joel end with a pronouncement of judgment. The book ends with a call for repentance, and God’s promise to fight for His people. We can live in that comfort. There will be tough times for us ahead, but God will fight for His people, and preserve them.