We know very little about the background of the prophet Joel, apart from the fact that his father’s name was Pethuel, Joel 1. 1, and it seems clear from his book that he lived and ministered in Judah and Jerusalem but apart from this brief biography there is nothing else in scripture concerning him.
What we do know, though, is that he bore a name that was made up of two divine titles, Jehovah and El, meaning ‘Jehovah is God’, and, in many ways, this tells us all we need to know about the man. What he is says more than who he is.
Joel was a man who lived experimentally in the consciousness that Jehovah was his God. This clearly regulated his life and, as such, he became a fit vessel to communicate the mind of God, like other ‘holy men of God [who] spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’, 2 Pet. 1. 21.
There are no dates referred to in Joel’s prophecy, neither are there any kings mentioned, so it is difficult to dogmatize as to the exact placing of the book. That said, there is a consensus amongst many conservative scholars that the book of Joel likely has a pre-exilic setting, which would place his ministry during the early reign of the boy king, Joash, king of Judah from 835 - 796 BC.
The reasons for this suggestion are as follows:
The principal purpose of the book is to show that the Lord is behind the locusts.
The land of Judah had been devastated by a plague of locusts. Joel uses this literal, national tragedy as a foreshadowing of the ultimate discipline of the nation in the future day of the Lord, with a view to their repentance.
The book divides into two main sections:
Right in the centre of the book we have two verses upon which the prophecy hinges, 2. 17, 18. The cry for recovery in verse 17, ‘Spare thy people, O Lord’, will be gloriously answered as ‘the Lord [will] be jealous for his land, and pity his people’.
For a simple overview, I suggest we divide the prophecy into three sections:
1. The plague of locusts, 1. 2 - 2. 11 Chapter 1 verses 1 to 14 describes in graphic detail the awful destruction caused by the plague of locusts. As if adopting a scorched-earth policy, these pests had advanced through the land sparing nothing and affecting everyone they came across: old men, drunkards, priests and workers were all impacted by the devastation, 1. 2, 5, 9, 11.
No fewer than eighteen imperatives are used within these opening verses as the prophet impresses upon the people the urgency of their responding - ‘hear’, ‘tell’, ‘awake’, ‘lament’, etc.
He wants them to sit up and listen to God’s voice through the calamity that has come upon them, to learn the lessons He would teach them.
As ever, God had been true to His word when He warned of the price of unfaithfulness in the book of Deuteronomy - ‘all thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume’, Deut. 28. 42. This surely shows us that the reformation under good King Joash did not have the lasting impact that was intended.
The section in chapter 1 verses 15 to 20 begins with the hopeless lament, ‘Alas for the day! for the day of the Lord is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come’.
These events in Joel’s day foreshadow events that are yet future. It is in his prophecy that we meet with the first of five references to ‘the day of the Lord’, 1. 15; 2. 1, 11, 31; 3. 14. This is a vital biblical expression which indicates the time when God will publicly and judicially intervene in the affairs of earth. He has done this throughout Old Testament history but, in a very particular way, it refers ultimately to future times of tribulation judgement.
The two titles used in verse 15 are of great importance: as Jehovah He will act according to His immutability; He is the covenant-keeping God. This covenant will embrace God’s place for Israel in relation to the earth and the subjugation of her enemies, and God will be faithful to His word in bringing this to pass. But He will also act as the Almighty. With infinite power He will bring to fruition His will, none can resist Him who is omnipotent.
The second chapter continues with the theme of the locust devastation; the threat of a second plague is clearly imminent, vv. 1-11. The prophetic watchman exhorts the people to ‘blow … the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in [the] holy mountain’. War is coming! Like a great army, Joel describes the irresistible power and advance of the hordes of locusts, all moving under the authority of the Commander-in-Chief, the Lord Himself, 2. 11. They are, after all, the rod of His correction.
Once again, the historical, literal reality in Joel’s day anticipates the distant prophetic future when the land of Israel will be invaded by her enemies.1
2. The plea and pity of Jehovah, 2. 12-27 This section calls upon the nation to repent; they are encouraged to do so by God’s character, ‘for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness’, 2. 13. This matter of repentance:
God assures them that upon this true repentance He will abundantly bless them, dispelling their enemies and blessing the land with fruitfulness and abundance. He Himself will be ‘in the midst of Israel’, and will thus effect His promise, v. 27.
3. The promise of a glorious future, 2. 28 - 3. 21 This section commences with the words ‘And it shall come to pass afterward’. Here we are projected forward in our minds to the dealings of God with the nation in the end times.
God will do three things during this period:
(i)He will bring renewal to the nation, 2. 28-32
God will effect national regeneration, He says, ‘I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh’, v. 28. The dead bones of Ezekiel’s prophecy shall live, Ezek. 37. Not only will there be divine action but also divine abundance; His Spirit will be poured out copiously so that ‘all’ within the nation will come into the good of the blessing, and supernatural gifts will give expression to the reality of this divine work.
It is vital to understand that when Peter famously quotes from this passage on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, he is not saying that the events are the direct fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, but rather that it is characteristically the same. As F. B. Hole writes, ‘Peter’s words, “this is that which was spoken”, imply that it was of the nature of that which Joel had foretold, but not necessarily the full and conclusive thing which the prophecy had in view’.2
Before this day of national regeneration comes, ominous signs will be seen in the heavens and on earth, which will be the harbingers of ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord’, 2. 31. Yet even then the cry for deliverance will be answered in salvation.
ii) He will bring retribution upon Israel’s enemies 3. 1-17
These verses should be compared with the book of the Revelation, in particular chapters 16 to 19.
There will be two gatherings, 3. 1, 2. God will gather His people for blessing, but He will also gather the nations for judgement, the issue at hand being the attitude of the nations towards God’s people, Israel, and the land. They will then reap what they have sown, v. 2.
iii) He will bring restoration to the millennial Earth, 3. 18-21
Abundance, fruitfulness, freshness, and permanent safety will characterize these days of unparalleled glory. The renewed nation will have been restored to the Lord and replanted in the land.
Paul tells us that ‘whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning’, Rom. 15. 4. So, as we read this little prophecy, we can lift some of the abiding principles that stand for all time, irrespective of the dispensation.
One thing that stands out is the fact that God is in control of all things. From the small insect to the great events of prophecy, His hand is over all. What a source of comfort to the believer in a world that, from a human standpoint, is in total disarray. We need not fear, the wheels of providence are still turning - it is still true that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof’, Ps. 24. 1, and He will fulfil His purpose in His own way and at His own time on His own creation.
We must not miss the searching, practical lessons. The book clearly implies that, in spite of the early religious reforms under King Joash, formality and barrenness had set in, hence the discipline of the locusts.
It is so easy to hide behind a form of things, to look the part but not to be the part! The scriptures speak of the functioning of the priests, Hophni and Phinehas, 1 Sam. 2, but their behaviour had no sign of holiness that becomes those in priestly service. To the human eye, things in the church at Ephesus looked to be in a great condition but, before the all-seeing eye of the risen Lord, their heart was far from Him; they had left their first love, Rev. 2. 4.
Another encouraging lesson is that God will always meet true repentance with blessing. Even in a book like Joel with the dark and grave background of the terrors of the coming day of the Lord, His grace shines out.
In chapter 2, we noticed that God’s character of grace and mercy is the basis upon which blessing upon repentance can be experienced. Because of this in the future of the nation, ‘all Israel shall be saved’, Rom. 11. 26. In the same Epistle, Paul lifts the declaration of Joel chapter 3, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’, Rom. 10. 13, and applies it in the gospel in the present day of grace. Our God always delights to bless, consistent with His righteousness.
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