Introduction to Joel

By James M. Rochford

Authorship

Joel (Hebrew Yo ‘el) means “Yahweh is God,” and he served as a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah. Following in the critical tradition of Duhm,[1] critics hold that the book cannot be written by one author, because the apocalyptic portions must be late dated. However, the style and vocabulary fits a single author,[2] and critics beg the question when they assume that the apocalyptic genre couldn’t exist this early.

Date

The book never gives a clear timeframe for its date. Scholars base their views of the date of the book based on internal evidence.

Archer places his ministry in the time of King Joash (835-796 BC).[3] He gives the following reasons for this dating:

(1) The king isn’t very active, which fits with Joash. Joash was crowned at age seven (2 Kings 11:4).

(2) Amos and Joel borrow from each other. Both prophets mention the mountains dripping with sweet wine (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18). Both mention Yahweh roaring like a lion (Joel 3:16; Amos 1:2). Archer writes, “While Joel might possibly have quoted from Amos, the contextual indications are that it was the other way around.”[4] Since Amos was an eighth century prophet, this would put Joel at the same time.

(3) Israel’s enemies are Egypt—not Assyria or Babylon. Joel states that Israel’s enemies are Phoenicia, Philistia, Egypt, and Edom (Joel 3:4, 9). He doesn’t even have Assyria or Babylon on the radar, which would imply an early dating.

Patterson uses many of the same arguments as Archer, but favors a date in the reign of Uzziah (792-740 BC).[5]

Critics also argue that Joel never mentions idolatry or high places, which would place it after the Exile. At the same time, Archer retorts that Nahum and Zephaniah do not mention these either, and “both of them are admitted by the critics to date from the seventh century, prior to the Babylonian Exile.”[6]

Joel 1 (Literal locust plague?)

(1:1) Joel claims to have been divinely inspired.

(1:2-3) The locust plague is not in the future, but “in your days” (v.2). But the plague was so serious and severe that people would talk about it for generations (v.3).

(1:4) Joel uses four Hebrew words for locusts, which may describe the intensity of this plague on the people.[7]

Weep and wail!

(1:5) Joel calls on the people to turn back to God. He pictures them as drunkards who are inebriated. Apparently, drunkenness was a problem in the northern kingdom of Israel (Hos. 4:11-19; 7:5, 13-14). Wine was actually a sign of God’s blessing (Joel 2:23-24).

(1:6-7) Are these literal or symbolic locusts? Joel states that a “nation” has invaded the land, and he describes this nation like locusts. On the other hand, locusts were known to cut through wood according to Pliny (Natural History 1.2.12). These trees were a sign of God’s blessing, but they were stripped down.

Wail!

(1:8) The imagery is of a woman on her wedding day, but she is thrown from happiness into mourning, because her groom died.

(1:9) These refer to the meal and drink offerings (Ex. 29:38-42; Lev. 2; 6:14-18; 9:16-17; 23:18, 37; Num. 15:5; 28:3-8).

(1:10) These commodities (“grain… wine… oil”) were all signs of God’s blessing (Num. 18:12; Deut. 7:13; 11:14; 28:51; 2 Kin. 18:32; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19; Hag. 1:11).

Be ashamed!

(1:11-12) The farms, figs, and forests were signs of a thriving economy. The fact that these were being dried up showed that they were being cursed by God.

(1:13) The priests were told to put on sackclothes to mourn God’s judgment.

(1:14) The priests and elders were supposed to gather to “cry out” to God in repentance.

(1:15) The “day of the LORD” was a day of judgment (Amos 5:16-20). The words “destruction” and “almighty” come from “the same Hebrew root.”[8]

(1:16-18) An addition reason for repentance was the fact that the people’s food was destroyed, and they were going through a time of famine.

(1:19-20) If the animals have cried out for God, then how much more should the people?[9]

Joel 2 (Metaphorical locust plague: locust = armies)

Patterson holds that the locust army was literal in chapter 1 (i.e. actual insects), but metaphorical in chapter 2 (i.e. an invading army). He list several reasons why:[10] First, the ancients often compared locusts to invading armies. Second, both locusts and armies were known to be agents of God’s judgment (Deut. 28:38–39; 1 Kin. 8:35–39; Isa. 45:1; Amos 4:9). Third, and most importantly, the description of the locust plague goes beyond a literal plague of locust.

(2:1) The “trumpet” (šôp̱ār) signified imminent battle or imminent danger.[11]

(2:2) These are called “people,” not insects. Moreover, there will never be anything like this army ever again (“There has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it”).

(2:3) The size and power of this army is unparalleled in its destructive force.

“The land is like the garden of Eden before them…” This might refer to the fact that the land is innocent like the garden. Or perhaps that the land is waiting to be ruined, as in the account of Genesis 3.

(2:4-6) This is an a fortiori argument: If the locusts were bad, how much more would the Assyrian army be devastating?[12]

(2:7-9) The imagery of locusts and humans is being used interchangeably here.[13] Sometimes, it is unclear whether Joel is using the locust army to describe a human army or vice versa. The context suggests that this is a human army, but the difficulty with that interpretation is the language of simile (“They run like mighty men, they climb the walls like soldiers…”). We understand this to be a human army based on the context and the fact that (obviously!) no swarm of locust could cause this much destruction. Later, this swarm of locust is described as a “great army” (v.25).

(2:10-11) This language harkens back to the Exodus.[14] Here, however, it is the Jewish people who are being judged—not the Egyptians.

Repentance is offered

(2:12) This is the type of prayer that David offered God (Ps. 51:17). Notice that God wants the heart, rather than outward religiosity.

(2:13) This refrain (“He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness”) is seen throughout the OT (Ex. 34:6). For comments on God “relenting,” see Genesis 6:6 and also Exodus 32:11-14.

(2:14) This is not put in the form of a question because God is capricious or untrustworthy. Rather, since God’s judgment is conditional on the people’s repentance, Joel leaves open the question over whether the people will find forgiveness.

(2:15-17) Joel tells the people to blow another trumpet to get the people’s attention (cf. Joel 2:1). The reason so many types of people are mentioned is because all of the people should turn back to God. Even the priests should repent, turning the people back to God.

God’s response

(2:18-19) God promises to forgive the people and protect them if they turn to him.

(2:20) The “northern army” most likely refers to Assyria.[15] Instead of driving the Jewish people into the desert (i.e. a second Exodus), God promised to drive the Assyrians into the desert.

(2:21-22) God doesn’t want them to fear any of these external threats. He promises to protect them, so there is no reason to fear.

(2:23-25) God would give them material prosperity on their crops, wine, and oil. God will restore them to a place that is better than before the time of the “locusts.”

(2:26-27) Joel twice repeats the expression that the people will “never be put to shame.” This cannot be fulfilled yet for obvious reasons.

(Joel 2:28-3:2) Does Peter misuse this passage in Joel? (Acts 2:16-21).

Joel 3 (Judgment for the Nations)

(3:1-2) While Israel will be secure, the nations will not. This is the Tribulation, where God will bring judgment on the nations. The valley of “Jehoshaphat” is later called the “valley of decision” (v.14). Various prophets mention a valley of judgment like this (Jer. 7:30-34; 19:1-7; Isa. 22:1-13; Ezek. 39:11; Zech. 14:3-5).

(3:3) The nations would be judged for the buying and selling of people—lowering the value of human life.

(3:4-8) Regarding the sins of these peoples, Patterson writes, “Theirs had been the most inhuman of all crimes—that of dealing in human merchandise.”[16] They sold the children of Jerusalem to the Greek slave-traders (v.6). These moral crimes occurred in Joel’s day, but they would serve as reasons for God’s judgment at the end of history.[17]

(Joel 3:6) How could Joel mention the Greeks in the 8th century BC?

(3:9-12) This seems to be a taunt to the nations. Joel is writing that the nations could come forward to be judged.

The reference to “mighty men” might be sarcastic (v.10). Compared to God’s almighty power in judgment, these “mighty men” look like weaklings. This would explain why these men have farming equipment for weapons.

(3:13-15) This seems to align with Revelation 14:14-20 and Isaiah 63:3. The apocalyptic imagery continues, describing world-ending events.

(3:16-17) God is pictured as a powerful lion (Amos 1:2). God’s roar will shake the entire planet (!).

The war is over!

(3:18) The location of Shittim is uncertain.[18]

(3:19) Egypt and Edom will be destroyed because of what they did to Israel.

(3:20) Judah and Jerusalem will be “inhabited forever.” This cannot have been previously fulfilled.

(3:21) God is pictured as both a God of love and judgment.

[1] B. Duhm, “Anmerkungen zu den zwolf Propheten,” Zeitschrift far die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 31 (1911): 1–43, 184–88.

[2] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 230). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 339.

[4] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 339.

[5] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 229). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[6] Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (3rd. ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 340.

[7] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 237). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[8] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 243). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[9] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 245). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[10] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 246). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[11] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 246). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[12] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 248). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[13] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 248). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[14] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 249). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[15] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 253). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[16] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 261). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[17] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 261). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[18] Patterson, R. D. (1986). Joel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel and the Minor Prophets (Vol. 7, p. 265). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.