I think by now most of you know how much I love the introduction of a new teaching! The exegetic process of discovering and connecting the historical context, spiritual revelation, and present-day relevance is one of the great joys of my life and pulpit ministry. Introducing the Book of Joel is simple yet impossible – paradoxical. The book is simple in that Joel 1:1 tells us all we really know—this is a collection of the words God gave to an otherwise unknown man named Joel, whose father was an otherwise unknown person named Pethuel. The book of Joel is impossible in that many get lost in the frustration of the simplicity when sorting through the imagery of the author and the mixed signals of authenticity. Simple in its hope, impossible in its horror. We are not going to get lost there. By faith we will accept the book of Joel as the authoritative and inspired word of God. From there we will accept by faith that Joel’s prophetic voice although not completely about us, is indeed one hundred percent for us.
Joel – The Chapters and Context
Bible scholars have followed many thought threads of evidence seeking more confirmed knowledge about the book, its author, and its message. This process raises questions. The first question is how to divide the book into chapters and a logical progression. The original Hebrew text of Joel has four chapters, while the English translations for some reason follow the lead of the Latin Vulgate, placing Joel 2:28–32 at the end of chapter two rather than as a separate chapter as in the Hebrew text.
Joel – Authenticity and Authorship
The second question of Joel is that of unity. Many scholars want to find several editors adding material to the original book. These Bible students cannot see any literary, historical, or theological connection between Joel 1:1 to 2:27 and 2:28 to 3:21. Bible scholar and commentator Douglass Stuart concludes his introduction to Joel by reporting: “At present, then, virtually no consensus can be claimed for scholarship on Joel, whether as to date, or unity, or theological perspective, or even the literalness of the imagery.” That is a lot of frustration…
However, in that same commentary Stuart strongly sees the book of Joel as a significant collection of images used to describe the theological teaching about the Day of the Lord in not only a “present-day perspective”, but a “yet to come” aspect as well. The collection of Joel’s images was drawn from the experiences with locust invasions, natural disasters, and military invasion. One man by God, named as Joel in the text, collected the imagery, listened to God, and wrote the poetry and prophecy. Joel passionately impressed on his audience the horror as well as the hope connected with facing the Day of the Lord.
I personally connect with Stuart’s conclusion at the beginning of his introduction: “Joel shares its simple woe-then-well overall structure with a majority of the prophetic books.…Joel is also somewhat more tightly organized than many of the prophetic books, with such a degree of thematic and vocabulary linkage among its many parts, a logical progression from one part to the next, that it is reasonable to conclude that Joel’s message was originally composed and delivered either at one time or in a relatively short span of time – perhaps a week or a month.”
Joel – The Time and Place
That said, finding where that one day, week, or month lay in human history is virtually impossible.
As Old Testament scholars like Garrett Theological Seminary note: Probably no book of the Bible has had a wider range of dates assigned to it. Scholarly opinions for the date of Joel range from the early monarchy to the late post-exilic period, although the early post-exilic probably is the “most popular opinion today for the date of composition.
Arguments for any date are subject to great debate. The book does not refer to the Northern Kingdom (Israel). Failure to mention any of the kings of Judah, on the other hand, may be accidental and unimportant, though lack of their inclusion in the introductory title of 1:1 is significant. Reference to priests and elders (Joel 1:9,13–14) without reference to a king could also be important except for the fact that the subject of the particular text is ritual matters over which the priests presided, and the call is to elders as representatives of the citizens of the land. The literary context, not the historical context, excludes the king.
Reference to God’s people scattered among the nations (Joel 3:2) does not necessarily refer to the major exile of 586 B.C. It could just as well speak of the Northern Kingdom’s fall in 721 or the Assyrian army’s victories between 713 and 701. The call for the entire population to gather for a fast in Jerusalem (Joel 1:14) is literary hyperbole. The elders of the various villages would most likely have represented the rural citizens. This does not point to a postexilic moment when Judah was so depopulated that everyone could be expected to go to Jerusalem. That Judah’s population was ever that small is debatable.
Joel’s familiarity with the prophetic language used by Obadiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, or other prophets may reflect a prophetic tradition of using set phrases familiar to the audience to catch their attention and remind them that such language was the work of the prophets and should not be easily dismissed.
Appearance of Greeks (Joel 3:6) does not have to mirror the power of Alexander the Great or of slightly earlier Greek intrusions into the Middle East. Rather, Greek traders had long worked with Phoenician counterparts to control the trade routes of the Mediterranean area and beyond.
Joel’s references to Edom, Egypt, Philistines, and Phoenicians is no help since they had been Israel’s opponents since the time of the wilderness wandering and conquest. Even linguistic traits such as language that is related to Aramaic do not point to nearly as late a date as earlier scholars were inclined to believe. Aramaic language exercised influence in the Middle East at least from the time of the Assyrian domination. After a meticulous study of all examples of words or phrases that might depend on the Aramaic language, G. W. Ahlström concluded “It must be clear that many of the words and phrases having been used as arguments for a late date are not late at all.”
The conclusion to Garrett’s commentary: “Clear pointers to the date of Joel are few and far between. Any suggested time frame for the book should be tentative, and the interpretation of the book should not depend upon a hypothetical historical setting.” Garrett points to a date in the 600s B.C. This may be correct, but the description of restoring the fortunes of Jerusalem and gathering the people from the nations (Joel 3:1–3) and looting the temple seems to point to a major catastrophe in Judah’s history, either that of 701 or one of the early Babylonian incursions into Judah between 609 and 587 before the total destruction of the temple. In Joel the temple appears still to be standing and functioning.
Joel – The Message and Meaning
Joel concentrates on one theme—The Day of the Lord. He reveals several variations past present and future in that one theme. The day is past, being experienced in a plague of locusts and in a natural drought and famine. The day is current or imminent, carried out by an enemy or military force. The day is future: immediately in the salvation of Jerusalem from current problems; long-range in the giving of the Spirit of God on all people and the deliverance of all who call on the name of the Lord; and ultimate in the eternal holiness of Jerusalem, protected from its enemies, flowing with fertility, lived in obedience to the one true covenant God, and enabled by God’s pardon of Israel’s guilt.
Joel bases his Day of the Lord theology on a theme deeply rooted in Israel’s life with God—covenant. As Deuteronomy 28 warned of curses on those who disobeyed God’s covenant, so Joel’s Day of the Lord fulfilled those curses, first for disobedient Israel and then for their unrighteous enemies. As the covenant introduced God with the words “I am the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:1), so Joel’s ultimate hope was for Israel to know and confess that “I, the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:5) live in Jerusalem. The nature of this God revealed in the covenant renewal (Exodus 34:6–7) gave Joel hope that the Lord would not totally destroy a people who turned to him in repentance (Joel 2:13–14).
Joel’s “The Day of the Lord” theme, is rooted in covenant theology, and has consequences far beyond the theological classroom and into the lives of not only the Jews but everyday believers and followers of Christ as well. Because of these consequences both groups must do more than learn about the nature of their covenant and the God of their covenant. Israel must learn once again what it means to be in covenant with God – the same holds true for Christian believers. This revolves around two simple but profound themes:
One – We must own and acknowledge or nature to sin, coming to God through Christ Jesus in true repentance.
Two – We must realize that God is now in control.
Complacency will not satisfy God – it never has and never will. Tender and open hearts will. However, such a process is not a human mechanism to control God and ensure the results that we humans want when we want them. God is not Santa, a Genie, or someone’s Grandpa!!
“Repentance is not only contrition and redirection, but also a surrender to God’s will – God’s way – God’s time.”
Repentance confesses the sin of trying to take control of our world, and repentance recognizes the sovereignty of God – that the He has been, is, and will always be in control. Such rare and spiritually mature repentance looks to God for both pardon and blessing, but it recognizes that it cannot demand or abuse such. Only the Lord knows when blessing and pardon will come.
When these do come, a new reality comes with them. God’s Spirit is poured on all nations. Everyone has opportunity to call on the name of the Lord and be delivered. This is a new type of spiritual reality never before experienced on earth. This reality was manifest at Pentecost in the Book of Acts (2:1–4), but it still awaits ultimate consummation.
Joel – What’s the Point?
Having warned his people of all the horrors and terrors that accompany the Day of the Lord, Joel finally pointed them forward to the ultimate day. Here he joined all the prophets in pointing to God’s mysterious will to make himself known to the world and to restore justice, holiness, and true worship to his creation. The end is not put on a timetable. It is not described in clear details that allow close observers of nature and history to recognize its entrance into history. It is not separated into parts or ages in which some who participate are here and others are there. Joel sets out a promise: God has a plan to protect, preserve, and bring praise to Jerusalem while bringing just punishment upon his enemies.
Recognize the call is not a pure separation of Jew and Gentile. The Spirit is promised to all people, and the call for deliverance is not limited to Jews. The central emphasis, however, remains on the rescue of Judah and Jerusalem from their enemies, the presence of the holy God in his holy residence with his holy people, and the gift of pardon from guilt for a Jerusalem inhabited by his people and by the Lord forever.
And for us today… it’s quite obvious where we fit – we fit in Christ Jesus. For all non-Jews He is our sole hope and access to God. Joel’s “Day of the Lord” is more relevant for us now than at any other point in the history of mankind – today is the day of salvation. The point is that we too need a Savior. We need hope in a day where we see the moral and biblical ideas and beliefs that we have held as right and true seem destined to collapse and vanish. The point is that as horrible as that may sound it might be the hopeful signal of all that Joel prophesied…
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.