Someone who is somewhat familiar with the Bible, knows that Joel is one of the Bible writers. It is also known then that he belongs to the twelve minor prophets whose books we can find at the end of the Old Testament. Despite that, it is still often difficult to find his book. Often it is easier to name the eleven players of your favorite football club, even with the place they occupy in the team, than to recall the names of the twelve minor prophets in the right order.
After all, we have only nine pages of Joel in the Bible. Out of a total of 1,268 pages my NASB counts, that is not much. No wonder you can easily overlook Joel if you do not know the books of the Bible by heart.
Yet the message that Joel passes on is fully worth our attention, which naturally applies to every Bible book. His book contains seventy-three verses. That is not much and it gives the impression that the content is limited. But we will see how rich the content is of what Joel on behalf of the LORD passes on to His people. We will also see how, after a description of all the misery he experiences in his days, he shows a magnificent view of the glorious future awaiting Israel.
Ger de Koning
Middelburg, May 2002 / revised March 2018 / translated September 2020
Who was Joel?
Of Joel only his name and the name of his father are known. Joel got a name from his parents that means ‘Yahweh is God’. In the NASB the name Yahweh is translated with ‘LORD’, written in capitals. In Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was originally written for the most part, it says ‘JHWH’ for this Name of God.
If his parents have consciously given him that name, we may be sure he grew up in a family that feared the LORD. The meaning of the name of his father Pethuel is not certain. According to some it means ‘young man of God’ or ‘the persuaded by God’; according to others he means ‘sincerity of God’ or ‘simplicity of God’.
What we also know about Joel is that the word of the LORD comes to him with the purpose of speaking it to the people. That says something about his relationship with God and his relationship with the people. God does not just make His thoughts known to any member of His people. God says what concerns Him to people who live with Him and for Him. The meaning of the name Joel not only shows the faith of his parents, but also that Joel himself lives by the meaning of his name. He is a God-fearing loner amidst an apostate people.
The calling of Joel
We do not know much about his calling either. A standard procedure, which you could consult to see how to act as a prophet, does not exist. But if we can rely on the meaning of his name and assume on that basis that he lives in fellowship with God, we can assume that at some point the Spirit of God has come over Joel.
The reason for his performance is to be found in the circumstances. He is born in need, called by the LORD. Suddenly he enters the public domain, but only after God has prepared him for his task. He shares in the grief of God about His people because they have become unfaithful to Him. With compassion he announces, on behalf of God, the judgment, but without rejoicing that God will judge His unfaithful people.
He does not throw the reproach at them: ‘Had you only listened to God’, but he calls for a return to the LORD. The impending judgment is the reason for him to bring the Word of God to the people at that moment, and also to call as intercessor to the LORD (Joel 1:19). With him is a burning love present for the LORD and also for the people of which he is a part.
Joel and Elijah
With Joel we find some things that remind us of Elijah. First of all, there is the meaning of his name. The name Elijah contains the same names of God as in Joel, to which the personal ‘my’ has been added. Only the order is different. Elijah means ‘my God is Yahweh’, which is the opposite of Joel.
Secondly, we see the connection between the name and the message that both bring. The name Joel, ‘Yahweh is God’, fits the message the LORD entrusts him with. Joel must by his preaching bring the people back to the acknowledgment that it is really true that the LORD is God. God Himself also points out that His people will know that “I, the LORD, am your God” (Joel 2:27; 3:17). Elijah, through his performance on Carmel, brings the people to the confession: “The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God” (1Kgs 18:39).
A third similarity between the two prophets is the reason for their performance. The occasion of Joel’s preaching is a natural disaster. This is also the case with what Elijah does at Carmel, because the reason is a drought. The testimony of Elijah on that mountain, a testimony for the Name of the LORD, puts an end to three and a half years of drought. Elijah asked God for this drought (Jam 5:17a), so that the people may return to God through it.
In addition to the similarities in the meaning of their name, their message and the reason for their performance, there is a fourth similarity between these prophets. In both cases ‘the day of the LORD’, the yom JHWH, plays a role. In Joel there are five references to this day. In Malachi Elijah is also mentioned in connection with the day of the LORD (Mal 4:5). What that day means, we will see in the continuation of our study of this prophet.
The occasion of his preaching
As said before, the occasion of Joel’s preaching is a natural disaster. In fact, there are two: locusts and drought. In these disasters, experienced as plagues, the voice of God must be heard. He speaks to His people to lead them to return to Him (2Chr 7:15; 1Kgs 8:37). The purpose of Joel’s appearance is that the people will understand the message of God through these disasters and will convert to Him.
We will also see the relationship Joel makes between the natural disasters of his days – the plagues of locusts and drought – and the future day of the LORD. By pointing out the disasters as a harbinger of or a reference to the coming day of the LORD, the prophet Joel calls upon his contemporaries not only to see the “signs of the times”, but also to take them to heart. As a preacher of the day of the LORD, Joel is a prophet who confronts his hearers with the approaching judgment.
In a general sense, this also applies to us Christians. We too must confront people with this: “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2Cor 5:11). Joel thus insists – and we too must do so – on a drastic decision: that of conversion to God.
Repent of what?
We do not hear from Joel’s mouth which sins Israel should repent of. Joel does not mention serving idols or committing and tolerating social injustice. The only sin he speaks of is drunkenness (Joel 1:5). If we include the call made in Joel 2 (Joel 2:12), we can say that the people live for their own pleasure. Judah has become a people who live for entertainment.
To what abuse of wine leads, we also hear from the mouths of other prophets. Hosea points out that excessive use of wine take away the understanding of the heart (Hos 4:11). Amos paints how the use of wine is an expression of a luxurious and decadent way of life (Amos 6:6). And when we listen to Isaiah, we hear how he describes the use of wine as a means that makes blind for “the deeds of the LORD” and “the work of His hands” (Isa 5:11-12).
It is Joel’s task to awake the people and that they focus again upon “the deeds of the LORD” which are visible in the disasters. Their heart is not fully devoted to the LORD. From a people delivered by Him from the power of the enemy, He might expect otherwise. He delivered them so that they would be His people, a people who serve Him with all that is in them and with all that they possess. If the people do not respond, He will leave no stone unturned to win them back for Himself. With that, He also has their happiness and well-being in mind. The human being who does not live completely for Him cannot be happy.
Difference with Hosea
Unlike Hosea, who addresses the ten-tribal realm – although he also sometimes mentions Judah – Joel addresses only Judah and especially the Jews in Jerusalem. He often refers to Judah and Jerusalem (Joel 2:32; 3:1,17,18,20), to their inhabitants (Joel 3:6,8,19), to Zion (Joel 2:1,15; 3:17,21) and her children (Joel 2:23; 3:6,8,20). He also mentions several times the temple or temple service with which he is very familiar (Joel 1:9,13,14,16; 2:14,17; 3:18).
The difference with Hosea is also expressed in the way of preaching. Hosea expresses himself in short and powerful statements, with sudden twists and many different actions. Joel is more even in his preaching; he has a rounded topic.
The language and style of this prophet show a strong ability to empathize with the condition of people suffering from the plagues of locusts and drought. His style is clear and fluent, linguistically beautiful.
Joel announces the judgment of “the day of the LORD”. He mentions this day five times in his prophecy; therefore he could also be called “the prophet of the day of the LORD”. He also announces the final liberation of Judah and Jerusalem and Israel.
The performance of a prophet usually presupposes that the people of God, following their unfaithfulness to Him, have fallen into a state of decay. Prophesy is then God’s special intervention. In prophecy He shows how man has specifically sinned and why his judgment must come. But in prophecy there is also the testimony of a restoration that will take place by God’s grace and whereby there will be blessing for His people.
Joel brings God’s message to the people of Judah as a sharp observer of the time in which he lives. The words in which he does this provide many prophetic building blocks. This means that in his short prophecy there is a lot present through which we can gain insight into the events of the end times.
Subject of his preaching
The theme around which his preaching moves is the invasion of the Assyrians. Joel 1 describes the invasion of locusts and the devastation that follows. This invasion and destruction are the announcement of that even more terrible invasion of the Assyrians and the destruction they will cause. This is described in Joel 2 (Joel 2:1-11). The hand of the LORD can be seen, both in the plague of locusts and in the invasion of the Assyrians.
Both invasions and the subsequent destruction are connected by Joel with the coming day of the LORD as a day when the judgment comes over His apostate people. But in the sequel of Joel 2 and in Joel 3 we see how this judgment also comes over the Assyrians and all peoples who have behaved hostile towards Israel.
Historically, we must place the invasion of the Assyrians in the time of King Hezekiah (2Kings 18-19). Prophetically it concerns the king of the north, who in the future will think he can destroy Israel, but who himself will be destroyed by the Lord Jesus (Dan 11:40-45).
When did Joel prophesy?
Joel is one of the prophets about whom opinions regarding the dating are widely different. Joel does not mention any name or other event that has taken place that could give an indication about the time in which he prophesies.
Most likely, Joel prophesied in the days of Uzziah (792-740 BC). He then is a contemporary of Hosea and Amos, who both prophesied in the days of Uzziah (Hos 1:1; Amos 1:1). Joel would not have been given his place in the Old Testament canon between Hosea and Amos for nothing.
If Amos refers to the same plague (Amos 4:9) as Joel does in his first chapter, that would be an extra indication that Joel and Amos were contemporaries. In the time of Uzziah, Israel and Judah experience a time of great prosperity. A plague of locusts results in the destruction of all that prosperity in a short period of time.
Yet God has found it better not to make known the time in which he prophesied. This puts even more emphasis on the timelessness of his message. We will see that his prophecy is also very important for the time in which we live.
Purpose of the locust plague
An unprecedented plague of locusts has struck Judah, destroying the entire harvest. This has disrupted the entire economy of the country. But not only that; worst of all is that because of this agricultural loss it is no longer possible to bring the grain offering and the drink offering into the temple (Joel 1:13). In these catastrophic circumstances Joel recognizes God’s judgment on Judah. Although God has blessed Judah abundantly in the days of Uzziah, the people have taken His blessing for granted.
After Damascus was destroyed by Assyria in 802 BC, Uzziah comes to power. He builds a powerful army and promotes trade relations. Jerobeam II is in power in the north. He conquered several areas that had previously fallen into Syria’s hands. These circumstances are the reason why a golden period is now dawning for Judah and Israel, which can only be compared to the period of King Solomon.
Economically it is going well, but the luxury and excess have weakened Judah and Israel inwardly. There is no question of any gratitude to the LORD. Their faith has become a hollow form, the performing of purely religious acts. Their life is aimed at satisfying their own needs. Guided by God’s Spirit, Joel tells the people that the plague of locusts is a warning for a greater judgment that arises. This can only be avoided if they repent and return to full fellowship with God.
Like most other prophets, we can also assume that Joel uses an actual event as the occasion for his prophecy. He does this to awaken the people’s conscience at the time of the event. He does it even more to use that event as a picture of even more dramatic events that will take place in the last days, to be precise: at the dawn of the day of the LORD. The Spirit of God warns of the judgment to come at a time when such disasters are affecting land and people. The people should heed this.
God’s voice in disasters
In natural disasters God shows His omnipotence. He has “the power over these plagues” (Rev 16:9). God does not randomly send such disasters or other catastrophes. He always has a specific goal in mind, namely that man should convert from his evil and unholy way (Rev 16:8-9).
God’s actions can often not be checked out by people. It is therefore certainly not right to judge in the sense that whoever is affected by a disaster is wrong, and to whom it bypasses is good. The Lord Jesus warns of such an unchristian view (Lk 13:1-5). The Lord makes it clear that the events that are news at that time do not give the victims the right to judge, but that they contain a call to conversion to all who hear about them.
For the Netherlands we can compare this with the fireworks disaster on May 13, 2000 in Enschede and a café burnt in Volendam during the turn of the year 2000 to 2001. Nothing needs to be added to the date of September 11, 2001 and the name World Trade Center, nor to the tsunami of December 26, 2004. National and international, all those who have heard of it are shocked by these events. To this can be added the disaster that took place during a review of this comment, that with flight MH17, on July 17, 2014. And what more imaginative disasters will happen after the publication of this comment?
In Enschede, as a result of the explosion of a fireworks factory, a residential core was completely wiped out. Dozens of people died; others suffered permanent physical and/or mental damage. In a Volendam café, on New Year's Eve a sudden sea of flames caused death and destruction and irreparable physical and mental harm to partygoers, mostly young people. In New York thousands of people died. More than two hundred thousand people died in the tsunami. Two hundred and ninety-eight people died in the disaster that struck flight MH17.
The idea that all those people somehow ‘deserve’ the disaster that hit them is reprehensible. What is good, however, is that everyone who hears about it realizes how relative life is. What you have not thought possible, can suddenly enter your life. The consequences are dramatic. The question everyone should ask themselves is: ‘If a disaster strikes me, how do I stand before God?’ God-fearing people suffer from disasters and accidents just as much as the wicked suffer, just as the wicked benefit from God’s goodness on earth.
Division of the Book of Joel
After these introductory remarks we are ready for a division of this Bible book. The book can be divided into seven parts.
1. Locust plague, drought and call for penance (Joel 1:1-20)
2. Invasion of the Assyrians (Joel 2:1-11)
3. Renewed call to repentance and penance (Joel 2:12-17)
4. The LORD’s answer to penance (Joel 2:18-27)
5. Pouring out of the Spirit in the end times (Joel 2:28-32)
6. Judgment over the enemies of Israel (Joel 3:1-16)
7. Blessing for Israel (Joel 3:17-21)
Van Leeuwen gives an interesting division in his commentary De Prediking van het Oude Testament (The Preaching of the Old Testament). This is almost entirely in line with the division just given. The interesting thing is the structure that Van Leeuwen sees, the so-called concentric structure, and the explanation of it.
A The land destroyed by locusts and drought (Joel 1:4-20)
…B The advancing army on the day of the LORD (Joel 2:1-11)
……C Call for conversion (Joel 2:12-14)
………D All called together for penance (Joel 2:15-17)
……C Hearing by the LORD, blessing and salvation (Joel 2:18-32)
…B The advancing nations and the day of the LORD (Joel 3:1-17)
A The land fertile and safe (Joel 3:18-21)
Explanation: Here we see that calling together to a day of fasting and prayer is at the center (D). Furthermore we see that the letters C, B and A below the center are the counterparts of those letters above the center. With (D) the turn from judgment to salvation for God’s people enters. So the construction is: first there is judgment for God’s people through plagues and enemies (A - C), but through repentance and penance (D) there is blessing for God’s people and judgment over the enemies (C - A).