Little is known about Joel. He appears to be a prophet to Judah and Jerusalem (3:20). The occasion of his letter is a plague of locusts that attack Judah (1:2-10). The plague of locusts augurs further judgement to come – the judgement of the eschatological Day of the Lord. The imminent Day of the Lord is a major theme of the prophecy. The terror of that coming can only be averted by a nation whose hearts are humble and contrite. For such the day of the Lord will bring salvation not judgement. Scholars find it difficult to agree on the historical setting. The believed date of the prophecy varies widely, perhaps somewhere between the 9th-5th centuries B.C. Part of the problem is the absence of datable historical events in the text. Actually, the date doesn’t really matter; what matters is the prophecy. Its message is universal; only threpentant before God will escape eschatological wrath.
A Plague of Locusts
Joel’s main theme is the impending ‘day of the Lord’ (1:15, 2:1,11, 31, 3:14). It is an eschatological day, the day when God visits the world to administer justice. A prior plague of locusts was the harbinger of this apocalyptic judgement.
Judah and Jerusalem experienced a destructive plague of locusts (1:4). The locusts devastated the land, destroying crops and vines; famine and drought follow (1:11,12, 19 , 20). With the shrivelling of the crops comes the shrivelling of human happiness (1:12). The locusts attack is like that of a ferocious destructive enemy nation (1:6). The devastation they wreak is expressed in the piled list of destroyed fruit trees (1:12). Moreover, the destruction of grape and wine has brought to an end the daily offerings signalling fellowship with God has ended (v13). Jerusalem is like a betrothed bride whose bridegroom is no more. Again a broken relationship is implied. The covenant curses included locust plagues (Deut 28:38-42). There was little doubt that the locust attack was a divine judgement. This was confirmed in the prophetic word that came from the Lord to Joel (1:1). However awful the plague of locusts is it foreshadows an imminent and much more immense judgement, namely, the day of the Lord. For a people to be experiencing divine displeasure is a dangerous place to be. It calls for immediate action.
In the light of this impending day of divine destruction there is only one recourse and Joel urges it; national self-humbling before the Lord (2:15).
Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering. are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders. and all the inhabitants of the land. to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. (1:13.14)
Only earnest crying to the Lord can possibly prevent the nation experiencing the crushing weight of ‘the day of the Lord’.
Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. (1:15).
The call for repentance grows in intensity and comes finally from the Lord himself.
Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, for the LORD your God?
How do we escape the fearful holocaust of the day of the Lord? How do we escape its foreboding, its darkness and gloom? By fasting, weeping and mourning, before God who is ’slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’. That is, by sincere repentance over sin. When we relinquish our sin God ‘relents over disaster’; he turns away from the judgement he promised. From the beginning of his relationship with Israel the Lord proved himself merciful. Even as the law was being carved on stone on Sinai, Israel was engaged in idolatry on the plain below. By covenant stipulations Israel deserved to be wiped out; she wasn’t. God relented of threatened judgement and his grace, mercy and steadfast love triumph (Ex 33,34). Joel, believes that the heart of God remains the same (2:17). Hope for Judah lies in a God who is ‘gracious and merciful’ and who responds to penitent hearts. Salvation for. Israel does not lie in national identity, or religious observance it lies in repentance and faith. God does not despise contrite hearts (Ps 51:7). When people turn from sin and call upon the Lord he is quick to respond in grace and salvation; It is this sovereignty merciful God who saves both Israel and the nations in the NT (Roms 9-11). If Israel repents of her sin then God will relent of his judgement. Joel says ‘who knows whether he will not turn and relent’ (v14) not because God’s willingness to forgive is in doubt but because God is sovereign and Joel wishes to emphasise his grace flows from his own freedom and not from obligation. Forgiveness is lavish but cannot be taken for granted. It does not exist on tap for our convenience.
We are not told by Joel why Israel is being judged. Other prophets enumerate her sins, Joel mentions only drunkenness and this only in the context of withered vines. Yet, whatever the specific sins of Israel, the solution is not in doubt – repentance and self-humbling before God in his house. It is a change in heart that is required. The nation requires fundamental spiritual renewal. Perhaps this is the point. All the privileges of the covenant do not make Israel right with God. Humanity, including Israel, naturally deserves judgement; he is born in sin. He must be born again; he requires a circumcised heart if he is to be blessed and not cursed (2L12,13). Israel must learn this if she is to endure the day of the Lord.. And so much the church today.