Discovering Joel

Though not the shortest of the Minor Prophets (Obadiah and Haggai are one and two chapters respectively), the three-chapter book of Joel is still quite brief, consisting of only three chapters. And while some things about this book are obscure or unknown, other more significant things are unmistakably clear. Let’s take a closer look at what Joel contributes to the message of God’s Word.

Background Information

A man named Joel provided the message of this book. Though thirteen other men throughout the Old Testament (OT) are named Joel, none appear to be this man. We know that his name means “Yahweh is God” (a combination of Ja + El) and that his father’s name was Pethuel (Joel 1:1). Otherwise, we don’t know much else about him. Some suggest that Joel was a priest, due to his familiarity and focus upon religious worship practices, but this possibility is inconclusive.

In addition to the prophet’s obscure identity, the historical time setting of this book is also difficult to determine. Unlike many other OT prophets, he doesn’t provide the names of any kings, prophets, or distinctive events which we can easily match on a timeline. The most distinctive historical event that he mentions – the key historical event – is a locust plague. Such a plague, though, would have been a recurring occurrence in the broader OT period.

To date this book, we must rely on a careful examination of bits of internal evidence. Some have traditionally dated this book to the early prophetic period for at least a couple of key reasons. First, the OT scroll of Minor Prophets places this book between two other early prophets, Hosea and Amos. Second, Joel never mentions Assyria or Babylon, implying perhaps that neither world empire had yet risen to power. While this is possible, it is not conclusive, since the ordering of the Minor Prophets is not necessarily chronological, and the absence of Assyria or Babylon may imply a time period after Assyria and Babylon’s demise just as easily as it implied a period before their ascendance.

Others have suggested a later date for this prophecy, sometime after Israel had returned from foreign captivity. This possibility arises from several interesting observations, some of which include the following. First, Joel focuses clearly on the behavior and role of priests and elders and never once mentions a king, a paradigm which matches the social arrangement in Israel after they resettled the land. This argument from silence, though, may be countered by dating Joel to the early date when King Joash was installed as a young boy and the priest, Jehoida, governed for him. Second, Joel’s message to Tyre, Sidon, and various Philistine cities (Joel 3:4ff) matches the message of the post-exilic prophet, Zechariah (Zech 9:2-6; 14:16-19). Joel also shares a distinctive focus with Zechariah on genuine and proper Temple and individual worship.

If Joel prophesied after Israel returned from exile, he would have been a contemporary with men like Ezra and Zechariah. If he prophesied at an earlier date before the ascendance of Babylon, he would have been contemporary with men like Elisha and Obadiah, and the locust plague he mentions may correlate with the seven-year famine of 2 Kgs 8:1-6. In the end, we cannot know for sure when Joel lived and prophesied. This is not a problem, though, because whether Joel prophesied before the rise of Assyria and Babylon (and before Israel’s removal from the land) or after Israel returned from exile, the integrity and meaning of his message remains the same.

Purpose for the Book

While the historical setting for this book remains unclear, the purpose of this book and its message is perfectly clear. Through Joel, God called his people to genuine, heartfelt repentance. A more descriptive statement of Joel’s message may be something like, “Repent in the day of locusts and be delivered in the Day of the Lord.”

Outline and Content

This book consists of 73 verses arranged into three chapters in our English Bible (but four in the Hebrew Bible, with Joel 2:28-32 comprising the second chapter). We may outline the book most simply as follows:

  • The Immediate, Historical Setting: The Plague of Locusts (1:1-2:27)
  • The Eventual, Future Day of the Lord (2:28-3:21)

In this arrangement, two key situations come into view – one is historical and the other eschatological. The first half of this book focuses on a devastating locusts plague which produced a widespread drought in the southern territory of Judah. The drought was so devastating and thorough (1:4, 19-20) that the people were unable to provide the resources necessary for Temple sacrifices (1:1-10, 13).

Because of this sweeping devastation, God called Israel to worship him not through Temple rituals – which were presently impossible to do – but through mournful fasting and prayer (1:13-14; 2:12-17). To such a humble, heartfelt response, God promised to respond with mercy and agricultural renewal (2:13-14, 21-27).

A key translation point must be noted in Joel 2:18-19, in which the main verbs should be translated as past tense, “became jealous/had pity/responded” (ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NET) rather than future, “will be jealous/have pity/respond” (NKJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, KJV). As past-tense statements, they reveal that God did indeed respond favorably to his people’s repentance by reversing the famine and renewing the land.

About this positive, repentant response, commentator Thomas Finley says this:

Joel is noteworthy because his audience responded to his preaching by a public demonstration of repentance. The Lord was gracious to His people because of it, but as with many revivals the spiritual effects were apparently short-lived and only penetrated to a portion of the population. Regardless of where the interpreter places Joel in history, it is clear that the people of the next generation needed to repent of their own rebellion against the Lord.

The crucial turning point or transition in this book, then, occurs at Joel 2:28 (the beginning of Chapter 3 in the Hebrew arrangement). At this turning point, Joel says, “And it shall come to pass afterward,” marking a shift in focus and timeframe. What Joel is about to speak about next will be something like the current agricultural blessing and renewal, but also different. It would be an eschatological or end-times sequence of events, not a current one within Joel’s lifetime. Joel maps out these eventual eschatological occurrences as follows:

  • A time of spiritual “showers of blessing” (2:28-32)
  • A future judgment of God upon the nations (3:1-16)
  • Renewal and blessing in Zion of millennial proportions (3:17-21)

To understand what Joel is talking about here, we have an advantage over Joel’s original audience because we know how the New Testament (NT) interprets some of these passages. Consider what Peter announced in his famous Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:17-21).

First, Peter claims that we are living in the “last days,” as both Paul and the writer of Hebrews do as well (Acts 2:16; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2). This phrase does not refer to “the end of the church age,” but it refers to the entire church age, between the first and second comings of Christ, culminating in what Joel called the “Day of the Lord.”

This “Day of the Lord” is a key concept in the OT prophets, appearing 22 times among them as follows:

  • Isaiah 5x
  • Jeremiah 1x
  • Lamentation 1x
  • Ezekiel 2x
  • Joel 5x (1:15; 2:1; 2:11; 2:31; 3:14)
  • Amos 2x
  • Obadiah 1x
  • Zephaniah 4x

As you can see, this is a significant theme in Joel’s prophecy, appearing more times than any other minor prophet and equaling Isaiah, as well. To understand what this concept means, you should understand at least four related observations.

  • Day here does not refer to a 24-hr. period but to a larger period of time with a set of shared features or characteristics.
  • This phrase describes a period of time distinctively characterized by divine victory and conquest by Yahweh.
  • Sometimes this phrase refers to some historical event or period in the past, such as the plague of locusts in Joel’s lifetime.
  • Other times this phrase refers to some grander, more impressive events or period in the future, like the coming Tribulation and Millennium.

Here in Joel’s prophecy, he uses the plague of locusts in Judah as a springboard to prepare people’s hearts for a much more serious period of divine conquest and judgment in the future.
One of my theology professors, Dr. Layton Talbert, explained the “Day of the Lord” concept in Scripture this way:

It is “a prophesied period of God's sovereign and spectacular intervention in human history to accomplish His will. There are two aspects to the Biblical concept of the day of the Lord: (1) historical – some OT references to the day of the Lord were past or present at the time of writing (e.g., Joel 1, Isa 13); (2) eschatological – the impending climax of God's sovereign and decisive intervention in human history, beginning with the Tribulation and running through the New Creation (2 Pet 3:10), for 3 major purposes, (a) catastrophic judgment of all the wicked, (b) purification and blessing of the righteous, and (c) establishment of His universal reign and worship. Major passages include Joel, Amos (Ch. 8), Obadiah, Zephaniah, Zechariah (Chs. 9, 12-14), Malachi (Chs. 3-4).”

As Acts 2:20 reveals, whatever Joel foretold about these “last days” in Joel 2:28-32 would precede “the awesome day of the LORD” (Joel 2:31) and would be a time of great harvest and in-gathering, as people “call upon the name of the Lord to be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). This is also a time in which the Holy Spirit is “outpoured” upon all who believe. In the OT, this ministry of the Spirit was primarily limited to leaders and specially appointed people, but today this occurs for all who believe on Christ, whether leaders or servants, male or female, young or old (Acts 2:29).

The rest of Joel, from Joel 3 onward, foreshadow events and effects of what will occur in the future Tribulation and Millennium, leading up to the eternal state and the New Creation, when “the Lord dwells in Zion” (Joel 3:21; Rev 21:3). Within this prophetic outlook, he describes “multitudes, multitudes in the Valley of Decision / Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:12, 14). (Jehoshaphat means “Yahweh judges.”) This is a prophecy of the great, future Battle of Armageddon (Zech 12:1-3; 14:1-3; Rev 16:14-16; 19:17-19), a battle in which Christ himself will be victorious over the rebellious, pagan nations of the world, preparing the way for his millennial reign.

Joel foreshadows this coming millennial reign in Joel 3:17-21 when he describes the (a) security of Jerusalem (3:17), (b) agricultural abundance of the land (3:18), and (c) a plentiful fountain flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem (3:18). One of my former Hebrew professors. Dr. Timothy Berrey, says this about this millennial fountain:

The only natural source of water in Jerusalem is the Gihon Spring, hardly enough water to irrigate the valley of Shittim. However, the OT teaches that at the inauguration of the millennium, a river will flow out of Jerusalem east and west (Ezk 47:1-12; Zech 14:8) to the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, respectively. Such an abundance of water will radically change the landscape of Palestine, creating a fertile swathe in the middle of Palestine that extends the width of the land.

The rest of this book alludes to the New Creation and eternal state, promising the removal of ungodly people and the permanent presence of God’s people and God himself among his people forever (Joel 3:19-21).

Personal Takeaways

As we study and reflect upon Joel’s prophecy today, we have the benefit of reading it through the lens of NT revelation. By doing so, we know that we are living in the time period which Joel describes in Joel 2:28-32 and which Peter points to in Acts 2:16-21.

Knowing this, we know two things about the present. First, if you have believed on Jesus Christ as God and Savior, then you have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s message of salvation to the people around you, and whoever believes will be saved. This is the positive – very positive – side of these last days. The negative side, though, is that we can also expect devastating world circumstances, such as the bloodshed and ravages of war (Joel 2:30; Acts 2:19).

About the future, we also know two things from this prophecy. God will judge and destroy the wicked nations and people of the world, and he will also establish a never-ending kingdom and world for those people who have repented and turned to him in faith.

May we let the message of this book encourage us to believe on Christ for salvation and then to more enthusiastically and faithfully encourage others to do the same “before the great and terrible Day of the Lord” comes.

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