Commentary on Joel
by Neil Short
“Joel” means “the LORD is God.” “Jo-” (Yah or Yō) is short for Yahweh. “-el” means mighty or powerful one. It is usually translated as “God.” For example:
[A] wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Gen 1:2).
Joel is an abbreviation for Yahweh Elohim which is usually translated LORD God. “Is” in “the LORD is God” is implied.
Date: There are at least two theories regarding Joel's date. Critics who deny the prophets the gift of prophecy like to place the date after the Babylonian captivity. The majority of these evidences are textual and I will attempt to discuss each one when we get to it. The strongest evidence that helps us to date Joel is that the book is placed in the Jewish cannon among the pre-Assyrian prophets of Israel (Hosea, Amos and Jonah. Similar placement helps us to date the book of Obadiah.) Nevertheless, we will lose little by failing to pinpoint a date. In fact, one can argue, as does Thomas J. Finley, along with a quote from John Calvin, that exact determination of Joel's date does not significantly affect our benefits from the writing (8). They have a worthy point. Sometimes straining to pinpoint a date can later bog us down by motivating us to discover exact fulfillments of various prophecies. Often, by looking for single fulfillments, we give inadequate attention to the teachings of the text. On the other hand, Joel's date affects how we may understand some sections. I will attempt to highlight the significant difficulties when we examine the particular texts.
Joel initially calls upon his readers' memory of a recent locust plague. He wants the people to see in the plague a warning of further punishment. That further punishment is poised to be even more devastating than the remembered plague. Somewhere along the line, the LORD relented of His judgment and promised to compensate (reimburse) His people for the years of locust plagues through which they had suffered. Some of the text in this section may be familiar since it was quoted by Peter in Acts 2.
Joel then explained God's judgment against the nations.
You might be impressed by Joel's warnings of an eminent “day of the LORD.” Joel, from start to finish, is the prophet's perception of The Day. On that day the nations will be judged. If Judah does not return to the LORD, she risks being swallowed up by the LORD's judgment on that day. If on the other hand, Judah returns (as apparently occurred,) she will be blessed on the same day the nations meet their judgment.
1:2-3. “Here this, O elders...” Try to remove yourself from your present lifestyle and place yourself into a day like Joel's. Sometime before 720 B.C. would be ideal! We live in an age that make some aspects of the preservation of history difficult to grasp. We live in an age that makes some aspects of history difficult to grasp. The United States Education System's main goal is to educate everybody. True, not everyone is literate, but most of us are. I dare say, there has been no other age in history that has featured so many literate people! History is only a written document away. Certainly, figures of history are at the mercy of the historians who write the books, which is often an injustice; but there is nothing new about emergences of dominant slants on history. The problem of biased telling of history has not yet been solved; but the problem of the transmission of history seems to have been solved (not that we pay any better attention to it.)
Your average citizen of pre-Assyrian Judah could easily forget about the devastating locust plague in just a few years. The elapse of a generation would certainly separate the event from their memories. Although the ancient writers often documented extremely important historical subjects, the uneducated could benefit from the writings only by attending public readings.
In this ancient environment elders were important windows into the past. Elders were more readily available than writings.
Joel saw in the recent locust plague a judgment from God. If the elders would remind the future generations of the disaster, maybe those generations would seek the LORD and, thus, avert future such disasters. The elders are, in fact, responsible for keeping the memory of the past among the people. Pitiable the generation the LORD reproves when the same lesson was already taught to the previous generation!
If we look carefully, we can see in the Jewish system of growing old a respect for elders as resources for experience. When they are too old to labor physically they can labor as teachers of that wisdom they have gained throughout their lives of hard knocks (1 Tim 5:1-2, 17-21). John's gospel portrays elders as having great wisdom as they recognize realities of shortcomings and weaknesses in their own lives (8:9).
Our study of God's judgment reveals an interesting characteristic. God's judgment occurs in steps. If the people do not repent after God's judgment, He sends another more severe judgment. The judgments continue until either the nation repents or, as was the case with Edom, disappears. Joel wanted Judah to remember this warning shot and to not continue in folley.
1:4. “locust”: Straining to discover the exact critters described is pointless to the understanding of Joel. I agree with C. F. Keil who proposes that this list is a poetic way of saying “One swarm of locusts after another has invaded the land and completely devoured its fruit” (Coffman 14). It is possible the author poetically gives the name “locust” to some non-locust bugs since they eat the crops just as vigorously and effectively. Have you ever observed a horn worm go after a tomato plant?
The point we should all recognize is that there had been a locust plague of such a magnitude that it lasted over the course of years (2:25). Joel reminds the people what had happened and calls upon them to remember.
1:5-14. These verses call for the nation to repent. Here and there the author reminds the people what has happened. The first to suffer were drunkards and winebibbers. The locust-ruined crop makes impossible any pre-harvest revelry.
1:6. “...A nation has invaded...”: The invasion is immediately understood to refer to the swarm(s) of locust. This view is supported by chapter 2, which seems to be a review of the locust plague (with perhaps a more general application to the nature of the LORD's day. We will explore that possibility when we examine that section of text.) The reference to the locust swarm as a nation is, therefore, appropriate.
Joel recognized, as should have the whole nation, that this plague was the activity of the LORD in response to the wickedness of the people. A contextual reading of Deut 28:36-46 is informative as a companion to Joel's appreciation of the incident.
1:9. “The ...offering[s] ... are cut off...”: The plague was so terrible, even the priesthood was affected adversely. After all, the lifeblood of the Levite priests was sacrifices to the LORD and temple tithing. If all the crops were eaten by bugs, grain and drink offerings would not be available to be offered.
1:8-14. “sackcloth”: We do not have a listing of sins of which Joel intended his audience to repent, except that they had left the LORD (2:12-13).
1:15. “Alas for the day!”: The day of the LORD is an interesting study. See my comments on “The Day” in my notes on Obadiah.
The writer shares with us his perception of that day. Here, it clearly involves destruction, nearness and a measure of the prophet's own foreboding. “The Day” is always presented as a grim thing; however, to the righteous, it always means salvation. Understand that everyone suffers on God's Day; though the righteous are, by God's grace, saved (Ob 15-17). Some look forward to the LORD's Day as their relief from affliction. Another important facet of the LORD'S Day is that usually (maybe “always”) only a few (a remnant) are saved (2 Kings 19:30; Mic 5:7; Zech 13:7-9; 1 Kings 19:9-18; etc.).
Everyone faces judgment on the day of the LORD. Some look for God's day as their day of salvation, but it may be their day of harsh consequences (Amos 5:18). God's day is terrifying! Even for the righteous (Heb 10:30-31). On that day, everyone faces judgment.
Finally on this same topic I will observe that these appearances of the LORD's day are not intended to represent the final Judgment Day. Every O.T. reference to “the day” has some specific intended application of special relevance to the prophets and their audiences. It is perfectly appropriate to let God's day remind us of our ultimate judgment on the final day of decision. I do not agree with Coffman (20-21) or Butler (84) who each give every use of “the day of the Lord” an intended meaning of “the final and terminal destruction of the entire posterity of Adam and Eve upon the great occasion of the eternal Judgment Day, when the dead shall be raised, the righteous redeemed, and the wicked turned aside for ever” (Coffman, 20). The prophets had something in mind that applied (with urgency) to their immediate audiences!
Is it possible that Joel intends a terminal day when the orders of the Cosmos are overturned? The answer is, “Probably not.” The prophet speaks specifically to Egypt and Edom as tragic victims of the LORD's Day (3:19). It is, however, a day of destruction for the LORD's enemies. The prophet's message is, thus, that Israel staggers, about to be swallowed up, along with the nations, in The Day! We should not dismiss the bigness of the Day of the LORD.
Coffman goes on to assert that the prophets did not always understand the things they prophesied (21). I have some trouble with that notion. Each prophet was sent with a message. The message was for an audience contemporary to the prophet. We must assume that it was relevant! So what do we do with the passages that, to modern day Christians, seem to apply only to the Christian age? How do we react to O.T. passages that were quoted by the N.T. writers?
My approach is to look at those quoted passages as examples of things that happened beforehand as a shadow of things to come (Heb 8:5; 1 Cor 10:11). It should not surprise us to look into the O.T. and see the church; nor should it surprise us that the early Christians saw the church there. Surely it is indeed there. The reason it is there is because the nature of God's judgment and salvation has not changed over the span of history. It is there in the sense that history tends to repeat itself - in the sense that God's dealings with mankind is consistent. The Messiah is God's judgment and salvation (Lk 3:16-17; Mal 4) – a LORD's day foreshadowed by all previous LORD's days. Therefore every LORD's day should remind us that mankind's ultimate LORD's day is “at hand.”
Not only does this text plainly link “the day” to the action of the LORD, but the poetry does as well. The line “and as destruction from the almighty,” or, as Finley words it, “and like destruction from Shaddai” (35) is pronounced in Hebrew something like:
We therefore have destruction (šōd) from the Almighty (šadday). This poetic device is known as alliteration, in that a phrase contains recurrences of a sound, usually at the beginning of words or syllables. “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Sometimes the effect is subtle and good poets will use alliteration to further convey the message of the verse with the sounds of the words.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
Within the woodlands, flaw'ry gladed,
The sound of the verse in Joel 1:15 audibly connects “The Almighty” to the destruction. Our respect grows for the book of Joel as very fine literature.
1:17. “The seed shrivels under the clods...”: All I will say is that this phrase is difficult to translate since the Hebrew words do not occur anywhere else in the O.T. (Finley 36). Most modern translations speak of seeds failing to sprout. The thought flow in context demands this conclusion. Any translation that speaks of animals in v. 17 cannot be correct since the contextual discussions remain on the food supply until v. 18.
1:19. “To you, O LORD, I cry”: Let us emulate the prophet. He cried to the LORD on behalf of the people. We should do the same for God's people. The prophet later called upon the priesthood to appeal to the LORD on behalf of the people. Get as many people on board as possible.
“... fire has devoured the pastures...”: My first reaction to this language was that it is figurative, but James Coffman enlightened my thinking. These fires and water shortages might be literal (23). The literal context certainly suggests it. We know the LORD judges in more ways than just locust plagues. Water droughts and dry weather can easily set the fields up for uncontrollable brush fires. Imagine the devastation of a near-eastern brush fire marching across grazing land and wheat fields.
Finley observes that Joel could be using fire in these verses to emphasize the “judgmental nature of the locusts and drought” (38). Whether or not there were real fires, the result was a barren land – the work of God in response to the wickedness of the nation. This interpretation is appropriate in view of the subtle shift of focus in ch. 2 to a more general judgement.
God Invades Zion
2:1. “Blow the trumpet in Zion...”: Trumpets were blown for signals. They announced things. The sound of the trumpet carried its message.
And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?
This trumpet announces a warning. The message is clear. Take the preceding discourse and its substance as a warning.
Many commentators look at ch. 2 as a rehash of chapter 1.
The scene changes from the open country to the city. This is accomplished through a military metaphor. The focus had been on the attack of the locusts on the open fields outside the city. This is certainly natural in that a locust plague would first manifest itself in open country and not in the city. The city, however, could not be spared the onslaught of the overwhelming mass of insects.
There is absolutely no reason to see in vv 1-11 a reference to a historical military attack on the city. The expressions used for the “army” are certainly appropriate for locusts. More to the point, the locusts are called “my great army” in 2:25. Although the direction of the metaphor is different, the Ugaritic poem Keret compares King Keret's army to locusts in Krt 103-4, 192-3. (Mallon 402)
Yes, the language of 2:1-10 is clearly intended to remind us of the locust plague and that God was behind it; however, my impression of the chapter is that it is directed towards warning of further calamity if the people do not return to God. Maybe it will be another locust plague or something else.
The chapter begins with a warning: “Blow the trumpet!” Be warned! says the prophet. What follows is an invasion by God's army.
The images in ch. 2 are sometimes reminiscent of the locust plague because the plague was an act of God. So will be the next judgment. It is completely within the scope of the book of Joel to apply the locust plague to the more general judgment activities of the LORD. The locust swarm foreshadowed future judgments from the LORD.
2:1. “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble for the day of the LORD is coming...”: In consistent character of the LORD's day, it is portrayed darkly.
It is also “near.” This LORD's day is described in the next few verses. It is an event that many commentators say describes the locust plague already past. If the day described is near, the prophet must have meant it as future. Did he mean another locust plague? Maybe so. was there another locust plague which shortly followed Joel's warning? Maybe. We have already examined that the LORD's power is manifested in many ways, not the least of which is by chariots of fire, blindness and locust swarms. However the LORD's power is next manifested in judgment, we can view it in terms of the time it was manifested in a plague of locusts.
2:3-10. “Fire devours in front of them...”: When was the last time the prophet spoke of fire? was it 1:19-20? Does use of fire in a figurative way suggest anything about its meaning just a few verses ago? Or is this a literal event? Fire was often used in war in ancient times. The Assyrians used a machine called “siege engines” which may have been used to fling burning material over the walls of the enemy. Archers sent flaming arrows into the ranks of the enemy.
These verses describe God's army (2:11) – the army by which God will invade Zion (2:1).
It is interesting to compare Joel's description of God's army with that of the Josianic Historian who described it in the story of the Aramean's attempt to seize Elisha (2 Kgs 6:11-23). Elisha's servant went out in the morning and found the whole city surrounded by the great army of the Arameans. Elisha prayed that the servant “may see.” When the LORD opened the man's eyes, what did he see? “The mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire!” God's army was demonstrably greater than Aram's.
One might expect an army of flaming chariots to act shock-and-awe style; but this army acted on the Arameans with blindness. Describing God's army as coming in judgment does not necessarily give literal details of His visit. It does, however, describe its gravity and nearness. See also Nahum 2:1-13.
The language in Joel 2:3-11 sounds almost apocalyptic in style. The images of the army are somewhat bizarre. The next judgment will, like the last, be a manifestation of God's power.
The interpretive approach is more difficult if we accept an early date for the writing. If the book is post-Babylonian cf. the annotations of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Hicks and Brueggemann), there would be little problem with a figurative interpretation of 2:1-10 as general appearing of the LORD in judgment (since such language is so common in that period.) Joel's choice of words actually suggest an intertestamental origin of the book (since that period is especially noted for such language.) Indeed; the above interpretation would seem at first to be inconsistent with a pre-Assyrian origin simply because such bizarre figures in Hebrew literature are generally associated with the Persian and Greek periods.
Well, the fact of the matter is that bizarre language is not unique to the intertestamental period but are seen in earlier periods. We have looked at 2 Kings 6:17 where Elisha's servant saw God's army. The image there, though brief, is unusual for that period. Another interesting example is in 1 Kings 19:11-13. Since an early date for Joel would make him a contemporary of both Elijah and Elisha, it is reasonable to have all three prophets utilizing bizarre images of God's power.
We should expect bizarre images of prophecy if we consider God's interesting statement to Aaron and Miriam in Numbers 12:6. There was only one Hebrew prophet to whom God spoke clearly (Ex 33:11, Deut 34:10, etc.) The LORD told Aaron and Miriam that prophets other than Moses saw the LORD in visions, dreams and riddles. The message expects prophetic imagery normally associated with post-Babylonian writings. It is just one of the methods the LORD used for revelation.
2:8. “... they burst through the weapons...”: Translational difficulties usually do not allow the major points to suffer. The English translation of the Hebrew for “weapons” illustrates this point. Since the Hebrew word is obscure (which happens frequently in the O.T.), translators find themselves relying on context and ancient translations such as LXX and Targum. Sometimes, the basis that translators use seems almost like guesswork. And so, as Finley puts it: “The idea of bursting through the defenses seems to fit better with not breaking ranks” (47). The AV rendering is unsupportable in context and language (Finley 47).
2:11. “The LORD utters His voice...”: How great is the LORD that an utterance is so potent! The terrible army just described stands awaiting the LORD's utterance. “Who can endure [the day of the LORD]?”
I am reminded of a day when all was darkness. The LORD uttered... and there was light.
2:12-14. “... return to me...”: Why bother? The judgment has been made. Yet the prophet says the LORD is one who “relents from punishing” (2:13) and blesses (2:14). The LORD relented from His judgments against Nineveh in the book of Jonah.
This appeal is to the people of Judah. This call is only partial. Joel continues in the following verses to call for a national show of repentance and for the priests to make petition on behalf of the people.
2:15-16. “... call a solemn assembly...”: The necessary repentance is more than a personal commitment an individual makes between himself and God. In this case, it needs to be a national repentance. I refer again to the completeness of the repentance made by Nineveh in the book of Jonah. Even the animals repented! ... as far as it is possible for an animal to repent.
2:17. “... let the priests... weep.”: The priests had their assignment too. They are called to approach the LORD in all sincerity on behalf of the people. Is there ever a calling to go before the LORD on behalf of someone else (James 5:15-16)?
Mallon observes that “in laments the sufferer [often] complains that his adversaries ask him where God is” (402).
The LORD Responds to His People
Joel 2:18 begins a section describing the LORD's response to His peoples' apparent penitent return. The prophet has called in several ways for a “return to the LORD” (2:13), noting that the LORD is eager to relent from punishing. Zech 1:3 relays the petition of the LORD:
Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
The important lesson is that the LORD desires to maintain a loving relationship with His chosen ones. He is willing. We, on the other hand, may or may not be. Any response we make is out of gratitude for the love with which the LORD reaches out to us. That response is called “faith.” Any relationship requires willingness on the parts of all parties involved.
In the statement by the LORD, “Return to me... and I will return to you,” do we conclude that a relationship with the LORD is the wages of our efforts to come to the LORD? Conclusions that can be logically drawn from Zech 1:3 are:
Another is that the LORD may respond, according to His will, irrespective of whether the people responded. The people can in no way earn the blessing of the LORD.
It is therefore possible that the LORD's choice to relent and to restore the fortunes of Judah happened while Judah continued in its decadence. The LORD restored Israel's fortunes at one time for the sole reason that the people were in distress (2 Kgs 14:23-27). In our judgment, God's reasoning was inadequate; but remember, God's choice is sovereign!
The LORD always responds, however, to those who respond to Him. This theme is made abundantly clear in 2:32. “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.... Among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.” Finley comments:
God's grace made it possible for Israel not only to obtain deliverance, but also to repent. (76)
To conclude that drawing near to the LORD somehow earns His blessing is illogical. This question is taken up by Paul in Rom 9.
The verb tenses are inconsistent among various translations. Either future tense, or past tense (as in relaying a historical event), the message is consistent with the nature of God. If the people responded to Joel's preaching, then the LORD certainly would have responded. If they did not, Joel was correct to promise the LORD's response if they only would call on Him.
Did the people return to the LORD? Judah was not swallowed up in the predictions of ch. 1. Unmistakably, the LORD relented. The LORD's choice to bless and the reason for the choice (“in response to His people”) is recorded before us.
2:20. “I will remove the northern army....”: In light of my view that the judgment in the form of a locust swarm was symbolic of future judgment from the LORD, the removal of the swarm is symbolic of the LORD relenting from the prophesied devastation. The locust will be blown into the seas; and any invading army, which would typically invade from the North (Finley 63), would also be taken away.
As for any suspicion the prophet intended his listeners to understand a literal army, forget not that the locus swarm is identified as the LORD's army (or the manifestation thereof) in 2:25. The language can, however, apply to a literal army, a disease epidemic, California fruit flies, ... I digress!
There is an interesting contrast in vs s. 20 and 21 that ought to raise our respect for the author as a very good writer. The Hebrew which is translated, “... has done great things,” is identical in both verses (Finley 63). In vs. 20 the “great things” refers to the destructive power of the locust swarm. In vs. 21 it refers to the productive yield of the fields and the eradication of the locust swarm.
NASV translates the last line in 20, “For it has done great things,” and in 21, “For the LORD has done great things.” Finley translates it in 20, “For it has acted arrogantly,” and in 21, “For Yahweh has done great things” (59). Finley notes that the Targum renders the phrase in 20, “For he has shown himself great to do evil” (64).
The main point is that the locusts have done great things destructively. God has done great things constructively. Alternatively, depending on how you interpret the Hebrew, God did great things by driving out the locusts and by renewing the fertility of the land.
Incidentally, how might one drive an army into the sea? One might perhaps need an army. God's army in Joel is a locust swarm and it destroys. There is another unmentioned army: The army that drives away the locust swarm and restores Judah's prosperity. This kind of spiritual army is not unique to Joel. Friendly supernatural armies are mentioned also in 2 Kings 6:15f and Nahum 2. In Nahum, God's army restores the majesty of Israel. Both cited passages depict an army that opposes real flesh-and-blood troops. In Joel, it faced a force no less physical and no less outgunned. Joel does not specifically refer to God as “Yahweh of hosts” (most common in Isaiah and Amos) as may be appropriate in this context; but the power of God is well documented, notably in 2:11.
2:23. “... for he has given the early rain for your vindication....(NRSV)”: This part of the verse is very difficult to translate because a word for rain also means teacher. The reason for the “rain/teacher” is for righteousness, or, as NASV renders, “for your vindication.” Mallon translates the MT as “and he will give you a 'teacher' for righteousness and he will cause the rain to fall on you” (402). He points out that the Qumran scrolls give “Teacher of Righteousness” which is more clear than the MT. A double-meaning may have originally been the point. “Nonetheless,” says Mallon, “note the connection between rain, justice and teaching in Isa 30:19-26; 1 Kgs 8:35-36; 2 Chr 6:26-27” (403). I'll leave it to the reader to further pursue this angle.
At 2:28 the blessings become wonderful.
2:28. “Then afterward...”: Most commentators seem to be impressed by this preposition and place the following blessings in some future age, either the end of time or the beginning of the Christian age. If we are of the school that defaults every prophecy to a Christian age application, we will understand the fulfillment of these verses in Acts 2 as the only intent of Joel 2:28-31. If we approach O.T. in this fashion, we are rarely honest with the text, for we uproot the prophecies from their contemporary setting and plant them all, lock-stock-and-barrel, into the first century (or later.)
It is therefore my approach to take N.T. quotes of O.T. scripture as the N.T. writers intended them to be understood within their N.T. context while not neglecting that they meant something in their original O.T. context.
Even the Lord's sayings are often repeated by different (and sometimes the same) writers, each time with a different twist or application1. The Hebrews did not consider this practice to be plagiaristic . As Finley puts it:
The Holy Spirit led the various prophets to develop different facets of similar truths in language that appealed to the people (7).
In other words, when we study the O.T. text, we should not rely exclusively on N.T. quotations of that text for an explanation; however, when we study a N.T. text which quotes an O.T. text, we can rely upon the O.T. intent in order to help us understand the N.T. meaning. Of course, we cannot resist looking forward; but we will be disciplined interpreters. Right?
I admire James Coffman as a commentator and I regularly rely on his opinions but I must depart from his views on these verses. He uproots the whole passage from its contemporary and contextual environment and views it entirely within the confines of Acts 2 (42). Indeed, first century Christians saw the church in the O.T., and Peter was apt to quote this very section in a N.T. context. It is appropriate for us to understand the passage as Peter quoted it in the Acts context; yet such readings should be applied to Acts 2 and not Joel 2. Before he wrote his comments on Joel, Coffman wrote an excellent and impressively researched commentary on the book of Acts. His comments on Joel 2:28-32 are remarkably similar to his comments on Acts 2:17-21. The pages on the Joel piece might have been a breeze for him to write. Today we examine the book of Joel. We will attempt to understand Joel's words within Joel's context.
Coffman quantum-leaps again by applying the passage to the end of time - suggesting that the apostles might have understood the passage in that context.
It is very likely that Peter and all of the apostles regarded the final judgment as an event to occur in their own times, or shortly thereafter. (45)
This, in spite of the fact that he earlier wrote:
No greater misunderstanding of the sacred scriptures is current in the world today than the notion that Christ himself, and all of his apostles, thought that "the end of the world" was just around the corner. (27)
I regret spending all this space ragging on Coffman (God knows how inconsistent I can be!) but I found the majority of his comments over the second half of Joel to be more confusing than enlightening (not that my own comments are always crystal-clear.) Commenting on the dreaming of dreams, he wrote:
There is absolutely nothing in the NT to indicate that any Christian or any other person (exceptions noted above [those being Joseph in Mt 1, and Pilate's wife]) ever relied upon a dream for anything whatsoever. Christians of all ages have refused to trust dreams. (43)
I suppose Brother Coffman forgot about Peter's dream in Acts 10:9-10. It is worthless to dismiss Joel's Dreamers prophecy. Joel's report here is that the LORD will renew His relationship with His people in a new era of prophetic activity. I doubt Joel meant every man, woman and child in all Israel would be taking up new careers as oracles. The point is there will be no shortage of revelation. Yet, if Coffman presumes this section to have only a first century application, he must notice the small discrepancy between the passage and the actual fact of first century prophecy.
How did Joel intend 2:28-31? How did the people of Joel's day, who did not have access to Peter's first sermon, understand Joel's words?
Just as the locust swarm foreshadowed future devastation from the LORD, the renewal of the land and its fruitfulness foreshadowed even greater spiritual blessings from the LORD. The ancients must have seen in Joel's words a promise of abundant prophetic activity. The day would contrast with that of young Samuel. “Word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent” (1 Sam 3:1).
We would be taking great liberties with the text if we demanded apocalyptic prophecy – unless we also confidently assert a late date for the book.
“... all flesh.”: Again, if we assign a very late date to Joel, we can take “all flesh” to denote that Gentiles will be included in this particular blessing from the LORD; however, not even Peter in his Acts 2 sermon intended this meaning when he quoted the verses from Joel. In the days of the divided kingdom, the nations were generally viewed by the Israelites as objects of the LORD's wrath. The Jewish view gradually matured over the centuries and they saw the nations as objects of the LORD's blessing. When the Lord made His appearance in the flesh, the Jewish culture was groomed to accept the salvation of the Gentiles.
Later on in Joel we see the nations viewed as objects of the LORD's wrath. We lean again towards an early date. A popular solution to this problem (of having some early-date character and having some late-date character) is to chop the book up into sections such that those sections that have late-date character (e.g., 2:1-11, 28-32a) can be assigned a late date and those sections that have early-date behavior (e.g., 3:2-15) can be assigned an early date. I need more convincing rationale before slicing up a document in that fashion – especially if the same document can be viewed in ways that maintain its unity2.
To Judahites in the divided kingdom, “all flesh” would mean “all Judahites.” To a more generous mind of that day and in that audience, “all flesh” might even include Israelites to the north.
But doesn't “all” mean “all?” Well, yes – in context. When Bill Clinton campaigned (for the Presidency) that he would provide a plan that would insure everyone health care, nobody suspected he meant to insure all earthlings. Americans understood his words to apply to all Americans. When Joel's pre-Assyrian audience heard “all flesh,” they must have understood “all Judahites.”
As Candidate Clinton probably purposed to medically insure resident and illegal aliens, Joel might have intended that alien slaves would participate in the LORD's outpoured Spirit. This possibility suggests Gentiles, too, might be expected to enjoy the blessing.
The possibility that Joel meant the blessing to be promised to the Gentile nations is far from the context of Joel. One might rebut, “But that's exactly the intent of Peter's quote in Acts 2!” If we concede the nations to be within the context of Peter's sermon and the events surrounding the beginning of the church, we are not forced to conclude that nations are within the context of Joel3. Sigh.
In Joel's context, we have a joining of human flesh and heavenly Spirit. Judah will enjoy, in the words of the Fifth Dimension song, “The Winds4 of Heaven.”
2:30. “... blood and fire and... smoke.”: Since, in vs. 31, the sun and moon are mentioned, we take v. 30, which does not mention any heavenly bodies, to describe “portents... on the earth.” Whatever the prophet is describing with these earthly portents, they are foreshadowed by the locust swarms5. Joel already talked about the swarms in military terms. These words could easily describe war, which always includes blood, fire and smoke. This view is strengthened by later verses which promise the evil deeds of Judah's neighbors to be turned back upon their own heads at the same time Judah's fortunes are restored. Those evil deeds included selling Hebrews to foreign lands, bartering people for spoil, and carrying away sacred treasures. These deeds are easily associated with the aftermath of a military overrun.
There will be war; but this time, the nations will be victims and not oppressors.
2:31 “... sun... and... moon...”: We do not know how this event might be accomplished, but if there is sufficient smoke, like in the burning of a city, such sky signs would be observed. What is noteworthy about a red moon? a darkened sun? What is portentous about fire or smoke or, for that matter, blood? They may be terrible because of the event(s) associated with the signs. Why is there smoke? why a dark sun? a red moon? Why is there so much blood?
“... before... the... day...”: These signs usher in The Day. These events do not happen on the day. They are not the day of the LORD's wrath. Oh no! God's Day follows these signs!
In Joel, what is The Day? We will be well served to read through the book with this question in mind. Remember that Joel fears Judah will also be the victim on The Day. If Judah returns to the LORD (as the text indicates she did), The Day will be full of profound blessing, foreshadowed by the restoration of the land which was destroyed by locusts. She will enjoy the LORD's outpoured Spirit.
What comes next occurs in the valley of decision (3:14). There, judgment will be determined against the nations because “they have divided [the LORD's] land, and cast lots for [His] people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine...” (3:2-3).
Judah will sell the children of her enemies to the Sabeans.
Yahweh will wage war in the valley (3:11) against the gathered nations.
Judah's fortunes will be restored forever (3:1, 18, 20-21).
What does this listing tell us about The Day?
It is pretty straightforward to determine what The Day is not. It is not the culmination of time. If it is the end of time, Judah would not gain anything by selling her enemies' children to a far away nation.
It appears the prophet sees a war coming. The war will not be so terrible for the LORD's enemies as will be the aftermath of the war. We will talk about the aftermath of the war in the next chapter.
2:32. “... there shall be those who escape....”: There will be survivors. They shall be those who call upon the LORD and whom the LORD calls.
3:1. “... when I restore the fortunes of Judah....”: Let us review. The LORD became jealous for His land and people. He promised restoration of Judah's economy (2:18-26). He even promised to pour out His Spirit upon her. Is there greater fortune than God's Spirit (i.e., His presence)? We learn from Amos that there is no worse famine than “for hearing the words of the LORD” (8:11). Looking ahead in Joel, we see there are more blessings in store for Judah (3:8, 18, 20). Coinciding with Judah's blessing, judgment will occur against the nations in the valley of decision. This judgment occurs on the day of the LORD (3:14). This conclusion should be apparent with careful reading of chapter 3.
Here is a list of the main events that take place on Joel's LORD's Day.
An obvious point is that the LORD's Day involves judgment and salvation. Joel's message, I reiterate, was that Judah was in danger of being swallowed up in the judgment meant for her neighbors.
3:2. “... valley of Jehoshaphat....”: Jehoshaphat means “Yahweh judges.” There is no reason for me to wax eloquent over the obvious point (though, perhaps I would be remiss to ignore it.) This valley is also called “the valley of decision” (3:14). Judah's neighbors (3:12) are gathered there to be judged and mowed down like wheat under the sickle and to be crushed like grapes in a wine press (3:13). The imagery is macabre. These humans await violent slaughter by a matter-of-fact order given by Yahweh to his warriors.
3:2. “... because they... scattered [My people]....”: If Joel is dated after (or during) the Exile, he is clearly alluding to the treatment Judah received from her neighbors, picking off the fugitives of the destruction at the hands of Babylon. Finley notes the language can easily refer also to the scattering of the Jews during the reign of Xerxes (85) during the Persian period as described in Esther 3:8.
It is difficult to find pre-Assyrian examples of Judah's neighbors treating her in ways described by these verses. This seeming deficiency does not automatically determine a date after the sack of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. or the sack of Samaria in 721 B.C.
Israel and Judah regularly engaged in war with their neighbors and the enemy often prevailed. When a city was sacked in a war the plundering was usually disturbing and consistent with the descriptions here in Joel.
3:3. “... traded boys for prostitutes....”: Finley:
Imagine the chaos after invaders have penetrated a great city. The soldiers are prone to mob action and atrocities. They kill all the defending warriors but capture the defenseless for their own uses. So the dice are thrown to determine who gets the best women and the strongest slaves. A man sees a woman he wants and trades a mere boy for her. Another wants wine and gives a young girl for it. These are commonplaces of war.... (87)
As I have noted, part of the judgment against these nations is that their children would be sold by Judahites to foreigners (3:6-8).
3:9-12. “Prepare for war....”: “Muster yourselves against the LORD!” seems to be the call. At the Valley of Jehoshaphat we shall meet. There you shall be judged.
“Beat your plowshares into swords....”: Later, the LORD issues the order to bring down the sickle (3:13). The farming tool is used to cut down soldiers. Here, we have farmers told to become soldiers. Fighters were violent against Judah and so too were people of other trades (3:4-5). We know a man need not have bloody hands to be a murderer. Who is responsible for the existence of an American drug culture? Are the drug smugglers and pushers responsible? Yes. Are the purchasers and users guilty? You bet! If witnesses are murdered as part of an ivory smuggling operation, are not the merchants who buy the ivory guilty of murder?
Slave merchanting is one thing. A business man in Tyre buys Judahite children from travelers and sells them to the Greeks. He is just as guilty as the raiders or soldiers who took the children from their homes.
3:13. “Put in the sickle....”: What carnage! Clearly, from 3:9 forward, the language is figurative. Anyone who sees literal slaughter described here is avoiding the obvious. History would certainly have recorded the event had it occurred. If The Day is yet future, let us observe that some of the nations mentioned by Joel no longer exist!
When a command is uttered by the LORD, it gets done. The command has been uttered. It is the instant before the great and terrible day. The ax has been raised and is coming down. “Put in the sickle.”
Verses 13-15 remind me of those action movies that drag a critical moment out in slow motion. An explosion is viewed four or five times, each from a different angle. The bomb squad has twenty seconds to diffuse a bomb. It takes up to twenty minutes of movie time to dramatize the ordeal.
The day is near – indeed! upon us. The heavens are darkened (3:15). Judah's fortunes have been restored. There is an explosion of prophecy. A huge multitude of the nations has been gathered at Decision Valley. The constable has nodded to the executioner.
The sickle whirls.
3:16. “The LORD roars....”: When the LORD utters, things happen. How frightening for everyone is the LORD's roar! The roar issues forth from Zion, his possession and dwelling place (3:21). On the day of the LORD, the best place to be is in proximity to the LORD. By extension, ZION is the gathering of those who have made their dwelling with the LORD. We must make our dwelling there.
Just what does the LORD roar? What does He say when he utters? It was quoted in 3:9-15. When the LORD sits to judge (3:12), He sits among His people.
3:18-21. “... mountains... drip... wine....”: On the day that heads roll in Decision Valley, blessings descend upon Judah.
Disputed authorship of 3:4-8
Some commentators deny the authorship of Joel 3:4-8 (Finley 88). That is, the author of 3:4-8 is different from the author of the rest of the book. One reason submitted for this suspicion is that, understanding the context as pointing to the end of the age, it is inconsistent that Judah will sell her neighbors' children to foreigners (Finley 92).
The argument falls apart right away. To give the book an eschatological slant compels us to date the book in the Apocalyptic age – after 250 B.C. (Metzger and Collins 362). If 3:4-8 were inserted later, it should have been more apocalyptic than the surrounding context. The section better fits an earlier period. The logical result is that an editor inserted old text into the book. Why would an editor do such a thing? Would not it be because the section fits within the context? But it does not fit if the rest of Joel 3 is eschatological!
There is another serious consistency flaw. If the questionable section is post-Babylonian, then it rings with memories of the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C. Why then is Babylon not mention by name? Why is Greece not portrayed as the plunderer? These are not foolish questions.
I think there are deeper reasons some commentators are not comfortable with the section. The mere mention of Greece might point to a late date for the book, especially if we are viewing Joel 3 entirely eschatologically (virtually required if we accept a late date). But the Greeks are portrayed as distant slave buyers (3:6). If a commentator looks at the section as a literal record of the deeds of Phoenicia and Philistia, then the mention of these nations promotes an earlier origin. In order to maintain the late date of the book of Joel, 3:4-8 must be an insertion from a much older source. We sure took care of that little problem, didn't we!
Let us examine the possibility that the section predates the rest of the book. Then Joel (or the chronicler of Joel's preaching) inserted the text here because it complemented the contextual writing. We, then, are compelled to understand the passage as the author intended. Joel, therefore, did not intend an eschatological meaning for the events in chapter 3. God's wrath against the nations would leave survivors whom the Judahites would sell into slavery. We, again move to accept an early date for the book. Once accepted, we must honestly contemplate the man Joel as the original source of 3:4-8.