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The exact date of Joel is unknown, since none of the events are datable (there would have been many locust plagues, and probably were not recorded historically) and Joel is not mentioned in any of the historical books of the Bible. Most commentators date it either in the 9th century B.C. or in the 6th century B.C., after the return of the exiles from Babylon. The central message of Joel is not affected by the date, however, some of the symbolic references make more sense if the book is dated in the 9th century.
Joel saw the hand of God in a plague of locusts. It is sometimes difficult with poetic prophecies to tell whether the events described are real or symbolic. However, in Joel, the locust plague in chapter one is generally accepted to be real. The elevated language simply creates a word picture of a devastating event. This locust plague is worse than anything that has happened to Israel in at least the last few generations, and will be remembered for generations to come (v.3). Everything is eaten by the locusts. The exact translations for the Hebrew words used in verse four are unknown, but the general idea is one of total destruction. Wine in the Old Testament is a symbol for joy and prosperity, and wine is mentioned several times in chapter one as one of the things destroyed by the locusts; and verse twelve ends with the statement that all ‘the joy of mankind is withered away.’ Verse six refers to a nation invading the land. If the earlier pre-exilic date is accepted, this nation could easily be a double reference to the physical locust swarm being huge and organized and also the invading nation of Babylonia overrunning Judah.
However you view the symbolic language, the idea is that God is judging a wicked Judah with a devastating locust plague (and since Judah was totally dependent on agriculture for survival, this in itself would be a terrible crisis), and following the description of destruction is an urgent call to repentance. At the end of chapter one, fire is added to the list of destructive forces.
Chapter two is an expansion and clarifying of chapter one. The first part tells of an army of Yahweh which is coming to destroy the Land. It actually does not say that this army is in fact the swarm of locusts in chapter one, but 2:25 makes it clear that it is (‘the…locust swarm—my great army…’). Taking all of these verses together, we find out for sure that the army of locusts was sent by God as a judgment on Judah. The second part is another call to repentance. Yahweh tells his people to make a change, not only in their outward life, but in their hearts (‘rend your heart, not your garments’), and promises that if they do, He will be gracious and forgive them. Joel calls for the priests to declare a holy time of prayer and fasting to petition Yahweh to turn from His anger. In verse seventeen, the prayer to God not to give other nations a chance to ridicule Judah and her God echoes Moses’ prayer in Exodus 32.12. In fact, the whole locust plague certainly harks back to the plague of locusts against Egypt in Exodus.
The last section of chapter two is beautiful picture of what will happen when the Israelites do repent and return to Yahweh. He will ‘restore the years the locust has eaten.’ Everything will become fruitful again, the northern army will be driven back, and the vines will again produce sweet wine—symbolic for joy. But all of these blessings are not the end in themselves: because of and through these blessings, the people will know that Yahweh is God. At this point in chapter two, most commentators see the book shifting from a prophecy concerning things soon to come to a prophecy of the end times and the last judgment.
The Spirit will be poured out, and people will prophesy and see visions. Wondrous signs will appear, including the sun turning dark and the moon turning to blood—all heralding the coming of the day of the Lord. Yahweh promises that all who call upon Him at that time will be saved.
Chapter three begins directly where chapter two left off, talking about the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem in ‘those days’ (that is, the days of the pouring out of the Spirit). Yahweh promises to bring all of the nations to the valley of Jehoshaphat (‘Jehoshaphat’ means ‘the Lord judges’) and judge them for what they have done to Israel. Although the suffering that Israel underwent in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon was a judgment from God for Israel’s disobedience, that did not let the conquering nations off the hook for the evil things done against Israel. Another referral is made to the darkening of the sun and moon, and also to the trembling of earth and sky (an earthquake, perhaps?); but throughout all of this, says 3.16, Yahweh ‘will be a refuge for His people.’
Joel ends in triumph, with Yahweh’s chosen people returned to their former joy, the language mirroring much of Revelation 22. Yahweh promises to pardon the sin of His people, and to dwell in Zion with them.
Peter quotes 2.28 concerning the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, giving us a few hints as to how to interpret this scripture using other scripture. Obviously, Peter saw this prophecy as fulfilled in his own time, at Pentecost; and this fits, because the Spirit was poured out, people prophesied and spoke in tongues. In Old Testament prophecy, the sun and moon (the rulers of the day and night) were often symbols of rulers on earth, and the darkening of the sun or moon (or the falling of them, cf. Rev. 6.12-13, which parallels this passage surprisingly closely) referred to the downfall of earthly kingdoms.
Chapter three certainly refers to a judgment, but not necessarily to the last judgment alone. If the early date is accepted, then Joel is speaking to the people of southern Judah, after northern Israel has been taken by Assyria. In that case, then the ‘nation’ of locusts could be a symbol for Babylon swarming down to conquer Judah. In that case, then the returning exiles would have thought that the promise of deliverance from that nation had been fulfilled. However, there is no reason to assume that the judgment of Babylon was the only judgment in view here. Biblical prophecies quite often have more than one objective.
The blessings at the end of chapter three would have been partially fulfilled by the return to Judah from Babylon, but not fully, and certainly not in the literal sense. The earthly city of Jerusalem has been invaded and taken over by foreigners many times since the writing of Joel, contrary to the promise in 3.17. The wording in 3.18 is too closely related to Revelation 21-22 for this not to refer to the new Jerusalem waiting for us in heaven. Especially with the exclamation the ‘Yahweh dwells in Zion!’ finishing off the book. Yahweh will not dwell directly with His people until the coming of the new heavens and the new earth.
But even if there is disagreement about the exact timing
of the judgment and blessings, Joel makes it clear that there is no time
to waste in repenting. Judgment is coming, with Yahweh’s enemies
totally annihilated and Yahweh’s people blessed with His immediate
This paper originated as part of a term paper for Old Testament History, Missouri Baptist College, Fall, 2000.
©2000 by Jandy Stone