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Introduction to the Book of Joel

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General Info

The book of Joel begins with an agrarian catastrophe that, to the casual reader, would appear to be a natural disaster, or “Mother Nature” going wild.  Yet, anyone with a Biblical worldview would see this for what is was, a deliberate act of God.  This is made clear by the remainder of the book, that God is truly in control.  What’s more, this disaster, a locust invasion, is merely a precursor to a much worse event, the future “Day of the Lord”.

In the Protestant Canon, Joel is grouped with the other eleven books in the section called the “Minor Prophets”.  Each of the twelve books are named for its author and main character.  Joel in Hebrew (Yo’el) means “The Lord is God” or “Yahweh is God”.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, the twelve books of the minor prophets (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

The short book of Joel can be divided into two sections that are almost equal in length.  The first section could be described as “Judgment against Judah in their present day that foreshadows the future Day of the Lord” (1:1-2:17), and the second as “God’s promised Mercy for Judah and Judgment for the Nations” (2:18-3:21).

The plague of locusts that opens the book was so severe that it destroyed almost all crops (1:2-12), which could have been deadly to an agrarian nation like Judah.  Joel proclaims to the people that the plague and drought are judgment for their sins and urges the people to repent and return to the Lord (2:12-17).  The Lord then had pity on His people, and promised to send rain and restore the land in the immediate future (2:18-2:27).

Joel then moves to future events that are foreshadowed by the preceding plague.  We’re speaking of course about the future “Day of the Lord” (2:27-3:21).  In brief, the Day of the Lord consists of God’s intervention into history in which Jesus Christ returns to makes all thing right, giving justice to the guilty and glorification for the redeemed.  See the “Interpretive Challenges” chapter below for additional discussion.

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Key Verses

The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel.  Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land.  Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?  Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.  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. (1:1-4)

Put on sackcloth, O 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. (1:13-15)

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill.  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 of old nor ever will be in ages to come. (2:1-2)

“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. (2:12-13)

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. (2:25-27)

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.  I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.  The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.  And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls. (2:28-32)

Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war!  Rouse the warriors!  Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.  Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.  Let the weakling say, “I am strong!”  Come quickly, all you nations from every side, and assemble there.  Bring down your warriors, O LORD!  Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.  Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe.  Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow-- so great is their wickedness!  Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!  For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.  The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.  The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the sky will tremble.  But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. (3:9-16)

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Author and Date

As with all the minor prophets, the book of Joel is named for its human author, Joel the son of Pethuel.  Not much is actually known about his life outside of what is written in this book that bears his name.  All of the other Joels mentioned in the Bible, but outside of this book, are not the same person.  Some Bible students believe that Joel may have also been a priest due to his statements about the priesthood (1:13-14 and 2:17), and his frequent references to Zion and to the house of the Lord, but this could also mean that he may have lived in or near Jerusalem.

There is also no hard evidence within the book that allows us to precisely date his ministry.  Traditionally however, the majority of scholars place Joel’s service near the beginning of the reign of the boy-king Joash (~835 BC).  Joash was only seven years old when he became king, so Jehoiada the Priest performed the kingly duties until Joash became of age.  This might explain why there was no chronological statement tied to the reigning king.  Other suggestions for the date of the book are after the Jews return to their homeland from captivity, either ~520-510 BC (after  the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and the rebuilding of the temple), or even later, a generation or so after Ezra and Nehemiah.  In any of these cases, this would probably make Joel one of the earliest of the writing prophets, serving in the Judea during the time of the Prophet Elisha in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Israeli King Jeroboam II (793-753), or even one of the last writing prophets (around 400 BC). 

We favor the early date for the following reasons.  First, the assemblers of the early Hebrew canons placed Joel between two other ninth-century BC pre-exilic prophets, Hosea and Amos.  In addition, the various enemies of Judah mentioned by Joel (Egypt, Tyre, Philistia, Edom etc) better fit with the earlier date.  In a later period, Egypt was still somewhat hostile to Judah, but her two primary adversaries, Assyria and Babylon, are not mentioned by Joel at all.  We mentioned earlier that some believe that Joel may have also been a priest due to his statements about the priesthood, but it’s also possible that some of the statements were included because Jehoiada the Priest was carrying out the king’s duties at the time.  This would add a possible explanation as to why the typical reign of a king is not mentioned in Joel.  The multiple mentions of the Temple are not much help since they could refer to pre-exilic Solomon’s or the post-exilic temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel in the days of Nehemiah.  Finally, while we favor the early date, we certainly can’t rule out the other suggestions.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See Historical Background of the Minor Prophets, Chronology of the Minor Prophets and Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info.

As we mentioned in the previous chapter, Joel contains no statements that would allow us to tie his ministry to a datable event or person such as a reigning king.  Dates have been suggested ranging from the ninth to the fifth century BC.  We also stated that the most common belief is that Joel prophesied during the the reign of Joash, who ascended to the throne at the age of seven (Jehoiada the Priest performed the kingly duties until Joash was older).  The timeline below assumes the early date, the most popular among Bible students (see “Author and Date” above).

931 BC Division of the Kingdom into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
931 - 910 BC Jeroboam I as first King of Northern Kingdom of Israel - Institutes Idol Worship
~870-850 BC Elijah Prophet of Israel
~853-798 BC Elisha Prophet of Israel
~835 BC Joel Prophet of Judah (Most Popular Date)
835-796 BC Joash (aka Jehoash) King of Judah (Jehoiada the Priest performed the kingly duties until Joash became of age)
~765-750 BC Amos Prophet of Judah to Israel
~755-715 BC Hosea Prophet of Israel
722 BC Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the remaining Population

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Like most of the writing prophets. the overall theme of the book of Joel is God’s righteous judgment, tempered with His mercy for the obedient.  Even though Judah (along with Israel) was his chosen people, they were not exempt for His covenant laws, laws that were put in place for their own good and prosperity.  God condemns the guilty, but provides for the righteous.  In Joel, this plays out by God sending an invasion of locusts as judgment while still offering mercy (2:12-17) and restoration (2:18-32) if the people would repent.

Regarding theological issues, Joel predicts the coming day of the Lord (2:1-11), a future time of dreadful destruction and judgment on the wicked, and the institution of the righteous rule of Jesus Christ.  The day of the Lord is predicted by Christ in Matthew 24, and the Apostle John gives a vivid and detailed description in Revelation chapter 6-18.  Joel also predicts the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (2:28-38).  A portion of these verses (2:28-32) are quoted by the Apostle Peter in his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2 (Ac 2:17-21) at the birth of the Church.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

We’ve discussed the question of the historical question of the date of Joel’s ministry in the “Author and Date” chapter above.  Almost all other questions to, and challenges about Joel pertain to the related themes of the plague of locusts and the “Day of the Lord”.  The most common question involving the locust plague is about its genre, “Was the plague a historical narrative, or was it merely symbolic?”.  We believe the answer is both.   The lucid and lifelike details in Joel’s account argues that he was a firsthand eyewitness to the destruction.  In addition, people in many parts of the world were (and still are) very familiar with various locust plagues.  Many extra-biblical historical accounts have also documented many cases.  Even in our modern day, we find the BBC reporting on The Biblical Locust Plagues of 2020 that hit East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of India.  This was also widely covered by NPR, National Geographic and others.  Just search your favorite internet search engine for “locust plagues” for more instances.  Yet, it’s also obvious that, by using war-like analogies such as “like war horses” (2:4), “like a powerful army” (2:5), and “like warriors... like soldiers... they march” (2:7), the events point to a much greater event in the future.  We might initially think that this could be pointing to the early sixth century BC conquering and exile of Judah by the Babylonians.  The final verses in this section however, verify that the plague of locusts is indeed pointing to a much greater future event.  Before them the earth shakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine.  The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys his command.  The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful.  Who can endure it? (2:10-11).

Amos also mentions the coming day of the Lord (5:16-20), a future time of dreadful destruction and judgment on the wicked.  The day of the Lord is predicted by Christ in Matthew 24, and the Apostle John gives a vivid and detailed description in Revelation chapter 6-18.  Some view the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 as fulfilling the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32.  The is particularly common among those with a Preterist view (the view that all of Scripture, even the events predicted in the Book of the Revelation, have already been fulfilled).  While all believers present at Pentecost were filled by the Holy Spirit, this initial outpouring could probably be considered as a partial fulfillment, but also as a precursor to the end-time events in which the Messiah will establish His righteous reign.

See our separate article on the Day of the Lord for additional questions and answers, as well as a brief survey on what the remainder of the Bible has to say on this great day.

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The Book of Joel can be divided into two sections, Judgment against Judah on the Day of the Lord (1:1-2:17), and God’s Mercy for Judah and Judgment for the Nations (2:18-3:21).

1:1 Introduction
1:2 - 1:12 A Devastating Plague of Locusts and Drought
1:13 - 1:20 A Call to Return to the Lord
2:1 - 2:17 The Day of the Lord - An Army of Locusts
2:18 - 2:27 God’s Response to His People’s Repentance
3:1 - 3:17 God to Judge the Nations
3:18 - 3:21 The Glorious Future of Judah

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