In the introduction of his commentary on the Minor Prophets, Brother Hailey wrote that “A study of the prophets will enrich the life of anyone who applies himself to learn their teaching…An understanding of how the prophets dealt with the religious, political, social, and moral corruptions in their day will give courage to the Lord’s faithful today” (Hailey 2009, 11). I could not agree more. That is why, from time to time, I have selected one of the minor prophets and preached through the book for all of our encouragement. This evening we will be beginning a study in the Oracle of Joel.
The Prophet, His Times, and His Message:
Normally it is helpful to get to know the prophet and the times he is living in. The difficulty with Joel is that there is very little in the way of information to help us know conclusively the time in which he lived and preached. However, with that being said, we do have a few pieces of internal evidence that seems to point to Joel living post-exile. Three are of note:
- There is mention of God’s people being scattered among the nations (Joel 3:2).
- There seem to be references to the sacking of the temple (Joel 3:5) (Lewis 1975, 80).
- There is a direct reference to Jews being sold into slavery to the Greeks (Joel 3:6).
However, this is not conclusive, and other respected students of the Bible have concluded that Joel is pre-exile (Hailey, Keil, and Young, for example). I would quote again, brother Hailey on this point. “Though the date of the composition may be uncertain and beyond our ability to determine, the message of the book is immortal and timeless. It can teach us today as it did when it was spoken” (Hailey 2009, 40).
What we know of Joel is what the text tells us. That that “the word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). In the first verse, we have Joel’s call to be a prophet (the word came to him), the giving of his name, and who his father is. The name “Joel” means “Yahweh is God,” and perhaps, the name itself may suggest to us the overarching message of the book; that Yahweh is indeed who He says He is!
The message of Joel is quite straightforward, the day of the Lord is coming, it is at hand (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14), therefore repent (Joel 2:12-14). To those who repent at the preaching, there is hope, encouragement (Joel 2:25-27), and vindication of the righteous (Joel 3). But to those who do not repent, they shall find only find an un-endurable day of judgment (Joel 2:11).
The Land is Laid Waste:
We begin with Joel 1:2-4, a section we will label “the land is laid waste.” Here we are given a taste of the calamity the nation faces. A locust plague of incomparable proportions. The prophet proclaims in Joel 1:4, “What the chewing locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; What the swarming locus left, the crawling locust has eaten.” Locust swarms were not uncommon in the middle east in the ancient world. Nor are they uncommon today. To underscore the devastation locust can cause when locusts reach their swarm phase, they can “multiply 20-fold in three months and reach densities of 80 million per square kilometer. Each can consume 2g of vegetation every day – combined, a swarm of 80 million can consume food equivalent to that eaten by 35,000 people a day” (Njagi 2020).
The locus was also one of the specific ways God said He would send judgment on Israel if they violated the covenant. In Deuteronomy 28:38, one of the curses of disobedience says, “You shall carry much seed out to the field but gather little in it, for the locust shall consume it.” Joel calling attention to the locus is not him being an astute observing of the times but rather, Joel pointing to the very real judgment God had sent because the nation had violated its covenant with Yahweh.
And this should remind us all that God shows Himself faithful not only in His steadfast loyalty to His people but also in His steadfast loyalty to Himself. The fact that God said this would happen if you did not keep the covenant should have been all the reminder the people needed that Yahweh is God.
A Nation Called to Mourn:
Joel calls for the nation to be assembled to mourn, fast, put on sackcloth, weep over the land and the sin that has caused the judgment to come upon them. Joel addresses four groups of people and calls them to come and lament. He says.
- To the drunkards (Joel 1:5-7), he says “awake” and “weep,” “wail,” because there is no more wine to be drunk. This mighty “nation” (v.6) of locust has come upon the land and has “laid waste to My vine, and ruined My fig tree; he has stripped it bare and thrown it away; its branches are made white” (v.7).
- To the virgin (Joel 1:8-10). The references to the temple (v.9), the farmlands (v.10) suggest that Joel is personifying Jerusalem as the virgin daughter of Israel as other prophets (Isaiah 37:22; Lamentations 2:13). Joel’s message is Jerusalem (those who dwell in the city) look around you at the destruction! Are you not moved with grief at the state of Zion?
- To the farmer (Joel 1:11-12), Joel now turns his attention to the rural inhabitants of the land with a similar message. The crops have failed, and there is no harvest. Harvest, among many cultures, was a time of celebration (consider the feast of first fruits), but instead of it being a time of joy, harvest brings despair. Instead of feasting, Joel will call the nation to lament. This section ends with, “The vine is dried up and the fig tree withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree – all the trees of the field – are dried up. Surely, the people’s joy is withered away” (Joel 1:12 NIV’ 11).
- To the priest (Joel 1:13-14), Joel calls to mourn because there is nothing for the offering (v.13). The prophet instructs the priest to “Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD” (Joel 1:14).
After calling the nation all to lament and mourn, the text transitions, naturally, to a national lament over the nation’s situation and its causes.
The Day of the Lord is At Hand:
Before we push forward, I want to briefly note the expression “The day of the Lord” (Joel 1:15). Brother Tom Hamilton noted that “The most important thing for the student of the prophets to understand is that the day of the Lord does not refer to a specific date, as if there were a single day in mind, but represents a type of day that could be repeated often.” Specifically, it should be understood as “any event in which Yahweh breaks into space and time to battle against the forces of rebellion, defeat evil, and execute judgment over sin, with the corollary purpose of vindicating the righteousness and delivering them from such evil” (Hamilton 2007, 365, 308).
Joel 1:16-20 contains the lament Joel gives the people that all the land suffers and is withered. Even the cattle and sheep suffer under the punishment (v.18). We see the crying out to God in the next verse, which is joined by the beast of the field (v.20).
What Do We Make of This?
While our study of Joel has just begun, we are not without some lessons to consider at the close of the first chapter. I would suggest three to meditate on.
- God is faithful to Himself. If He has said something, it will happen. It does not matter if He said it yesterday or 3,000 years ago. Israel violated the covenant given so many centuries before Joel’s day, and what happened? God was faithful to Himself and His word and sent the curse of locust.
- If, as we have seen, the land and animals cry out to God (Joel 1:10, 20), should not His people cry out more so? Hamilton makes another great point for us to consider, “Instead of causing the rest of creation to join us in suffering the punishment of our sin, we should join the rest of creation in faithfully glorifying our Creator” (Hamilton 2007, 374).
- Finally, there is a final day of the Lord coming. A day that none can escape. Are we ready for that day? Will we find it a day of vindication and deliverance, or shall we find it a day of destruction?
Hailey, Homer. A Commentary on the Minor Prophets. Las Vegas: Nevada Publications, 2009.
Hamilton, Tom. The Book of Joel. Truth Commentaries, Minor Prophets I. Bowling Green, Kentucky: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 2007.
Njagi, David. “The Biblical Locust Plagues of 2020.” No pages. 4 December 2021. Online: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200806-the-biblical-east-african-locust-plagues-of-2020