A SURVEY OF THE MINOR PROPHETS, Part 2

Joel: A Cry for Repentance

Because of its location in the Hebrew Bible, sandwiched between Hosea and Amos, we might think that Joel’s ministry occurred during the same time as those prophets, sometime during the eighth century B.C. However, Joel’s little book of big prophecy gives few hints as to when he ministered or when he wrote his book. Among Bible scholars, there is great debate as to when to date this work. Some place him in the ninth century B.C while others place him as late as the Maccabean Period, between the Old and New Testaments! It seems to us that Joel probably ministered early in the 800’s B.C., during the reign of King Joash, when Jehoiada was the high priest.

However, even though the date of Joel is uncertain, his message is timeless; this prophet speaks across the centuries to all the people of God who may be facing difficult and trying times.

1. God’s judgment on the unrepentant, 1:13—20

Joel” means “Jehovah is God,” and was a common name. About all we know about this prophet Joel is what we are told in verse 1:

The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel.

That’s about it. After that briefest of introductions, Joel began his word from the Lord. It was His word, not Joel’s, and it was addressed to various groups of people, from the eldest citizen to the youngest, to give careful attention to it.

What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten. (vs. 4)

The collective memory of Judah could not recall such a devastating plague of locusts in the nation’s history. The locust swarm described in Joel was real, not symbolic, although this real locust swarm symbolized something very important. As frequently happens in the Old Testament, natural disasters are interpreted in light of God’s judgment on God’s people.

There are nine Old Testament Hebrew words for “locust,” and four of them are used in verse 4:

Gazam: cutting locusts
Arbeh: swarming locusts
yeleq: hopping locusts
chasil: destroying locusts

These are not four different species of locust, but four different stages in the life of the insect. Joel interprets this calamity as the judgment of God and he calls Judah to repentance. He challenges the seekers of pleasure to get sober so they can understand the seriousness of the plague of locusts. He warns the farmers, those most directly affected by the locusts, lament loudly their losses.

a. The Day of the Lord, vs. 13—15

Put on sackcloth, you priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God. Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. Alas for that day! For the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.

After addressing the nation as a whole, Joel turns his attention the priests. Because this locust plague foreshadowed a much more drastic judgment to come—the invasion of a great nation—the prophet called for a solemn assembly to pray and repent. This is another common component of Old Testament prophecy: even in the midst of God’s judgment, there is always a hope and an opportunity for mercy and forgiveness.

In Hebrew history, the call for a national fast was extraordinary, but these extraordinary times demanded an extraordinary response from the people, and it was up to the priests, those closest to God, to make it happen.

b. The plague of locusts, vs. 16—18

Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes—joy and gladness from the house of our God? The seeds are shriveled beneath the clods. The storehouses are in ruins, the granaries have been broken down, for the grain has dried up. How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering.

The reason Joel wanted the nation to repent was because the Day of the Lord was just around the corner. As Joel used the term, it applied to his local, historical situation. The locust plague, though not part of the Day of the Lord, was really a warning of something much worse to come. The coming Day of the Lord would be time of terrible judgment for Israel and that time was immanent.

Verses 16—18 relate to the then-current situation caused by the literal locusts. The people had to pray and repent, not only on account of the coming Day of the Lord, but also because their present situation was terrible. The locusts left nothing alive in their wake. The devastation caused by the locusts not only wreaked havoc on the physical landscape of Judah, but it affected the worship in the “house of God.” There were no animals to sacrifice and no oil and no wine.

c. The need for intervention, vs. 19—10

To you, LORD, I call, for fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness.

In the face of the darkness around him, Joel cried out to God from his heart for help. Notice that Joel does not blame the Devil for the dire circumstances Judah found itself in, nor does he expect repentance to save the nation. Instead, Joel’s prayer stresses the fact that in the midst of trial and tribulation, God was the only One the people could turn to. This may seem odd because Israel’s impending judgment is coming directly from God! But God’s judgment of His people is never cold or callous or a result of rage or hatred. God’s judgment always has a purpose, and in this case, He wanted His people to turn to Him.

2. Evidences of true repentance, 2:12—17

Joel begins this part of his prophecy with a description of the Day of the Lord:

Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. (vs. 1, 2)

Many Bible scholars believe that the prophet Joel actually coined the phrase “Day of the Lord.” It is an eschatalogical phrase, referring to a great day of judgment afar off in the future of mankind. For Joel, as he watched the plague of locusts, his mind looked forward, to a time in the future of his people. The locusts of Joel’s day foreshadowed a mighty army, probably the Assyrians, which God would use to judge His rebellious people.  But it meant even more than that.

a. Return to the Lord, vs. 12—14

Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.

Here is God’s desperate plea to His people to national repentance. Israel can avert coming  judgment if only they would sincerely turn to God in repentance and mourning.

The nation was to turn with their whole collective hearts because they were all considered guilty. Every element of true repentance may be seen: fasting, weeping, and mourning. Those were external manifestations of repentance, but more was needed; the people needed to repent on the inside as well. They were to “rend their hearts.” God’s primary requirement has always been something many people seem unwilling to give Him: a broken heart.

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

Sometimes a heart must be broken so that it can be remade into the kind of heart that beats for God. Sometimes God may use the hard times to correct our ways, to refine us, and ultimately purify us. Other times, the Lord will use the tough times draw us closer to Him or equip us to serve others. One thing is certain. If you do not have a Biblical worldview, in the midst of a trial you probably won’t see any reason for it. This is why there is so much non-biblical thinking in regards to suffering. The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles understood something we had better: no Christian is exempt from hardship and life is seldom trouble-free.

b. A solemn assembly, vs. 15—17

Spare your people, LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (vs. 17)

Back in 2:1, a trumpet was blown to sound an alarm, but here it is blown to call all the people together. They were called together to hear the Word of the Lord so that they might repent and turn to Him. Joel is explicit in his demand for repentance as a condition of restoration:

  • The condition: the nation was to turn with all its heart, 2:12—13;

  • The response: the grace, mercy, and kindness of God, 2:13

  • The conclusion: the restoration of the covenant, 2:14

But all this hinged on the people genuinely coming before the Lord in repentance.

The issue was not avoidance of trouble, but returning to a right relationship with God. Here is another lesson for the modern believer. God may choose to take the threat away from you or he may choose to allow you to go through some tough times. No matter what, your only hope is in Him. When the Assyrians threatened Jerusalem, God answered King Hezekiah’s prayers and spared the city. But several generations later, the Word of God to the prophet Jeremiah was that Jerusalem was doomed; that there would be no escape this time. But even in their Babylonian exile, God’s Word through Jeremiah and other prophets was that their deliverance would come; that they had a future and their hope was in Him.

3. Repentance brings restoration, 2:18—27

a. God’s response to repentance, vs. 18—20

Then the LORD was jealous for his land and took pity on his people. The LORD replied to them: “I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations. “I will drive the northern horde far from you, pushing it into a parched and barren land; its eastern ranks will drown in the Dead Sea and its western ranks in the Mediterranean Sea. And its stench will go up; its smell will rise.”

The little word “then” is important. It means, “not now, but then.” In His Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24—25), Jesus used the word “then” to indicate that He was teaching the disciples about a time in the future: then, not now, certain things would come to pass. Joel is doing the same thing.

This group of verses contain promises of a restored economy and the restoration of Israel’s agricultural sector after the plague of locusts and the drought. As is the case with many other promises in the Old Testament, some promises were fulfilled more or less immediately in the life of the prophet, and others, often spoken right alongside, have yet to be fulfilled. These are the “then” promises.

It is clear that God has taken pity on His people, and that He will restore the land in Joel’s present, but more would happen “then,” in the far future.

b. A psalm of praise, vs 21—24

This group of verses represents Joel’s spontaneous outburst of praise.

Surely he has done great things! (verse 20b)

The “great” or “marvelous” things are what caused the prophet to pause and praise. It’s important to praise God for the good things in our lives. According to the New Testament, every good thing comes from Him. We ought never be ashamed to give thanks to God when we prosper.

c. Restoration after exile, vs. 25—27

I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.

The land would be restored, yes, but now take notice that the very real locusts are compared to an army that will march across the land. What is significant here, though, is that it will be the Lord’s army! God will use a foreign army, the dreaded Assyrians, as a tool of judgment upon the nation. But after that period of judgment, restoration will come and it will last forever.

Here is the confusing nature of Biblical prophecy. There seems to several time lines going on here with no distinction between them. The locusts were a present hardship for the people and because the people repented, the Lord would restore the land from the damage caused by those locusts. But at the same time, the locusts are compared to the Assyrian army, which would eventually destroy the land. But, the Lord’s promises of restoration include the restoration that would take place after the Exile, during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. But there is yet another, future component to the words of Joel that speak of a permanent restoration that will occur in OUR future!

The depths of God’s word are deep, indeed.

(c) 2011 WitzEnd
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