Today we will consider the prophet Joel. The date and occasion of the book have been debated throughout the centuries. Most place Joel in pre-captivity Judah, even before the Northern Kingdom was captured by Assyria.1 Some place him right before the Babylonian captivity. Others place him after the return to the land. I fall in the latter camp. Joel prophesied upon the return to the land to show how what Judah had just endured pointed to the final judgment of God for the wicked, and to call them to repentance and obedience.
The locust swarms Joel describes (1:4) are symbolic of what God did through Babylon. Joel pictures the complete destruction of all plant life as wave after wave of locust come to eat what was left by the previous. This was God’s judgment on Judah. He took away everything in judgment: the Temple, the Land, the lives of many, the freedom of the rest, and above all He removed His presence from them. So God calls Judah to wake up and repent over what has happened (v. 5). Babylon has come and destroyed God’s land, and His vine (vv. 6-7). This vine imagery was used by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to represent Judah (Isa 5:2, Jer 2:21, Ezek 19:10-14). Here, God has killed the vine. He has rejected the physical people.
God calls for Judah to lament like a woman who has lost her new husband (v. 8). The Bridegroom is God (see Isa 62:5, Jer 7:34, Matt 9:15). In verse 9, we see that the offerings are removed and the priests mourn because God is no longer among them. Verses 10-12 pictures the destruction of the land – there is nothing left. Just as there is nothing left for he vine, God’s physical people (v. 12).
So God calls the mourning priests to repent (v 13). Verse 14 is a call for Judah to corporately seek God now that they are back in the land. See Ezra 2:70 where we left off yesterday – this is a repossession of the land. Here, in Joel 1:13-14, God is calling these people (priest, Levite, and all the people) to seek Him spiritually. There is no physical house anymore. God has done all He has done (the judgment of Babylon) to call His people to repentance before the final judgment of verse 15. He tells them to look around at the physical judgment (vv. 16-18) as a picture of spiritual judgment. In verses 19-20, Joel prays the prayer of repentance. He sees all God has done and calls to God for salvation.
Chapter 2 continues to speak spiritually, as we see by the reference to God’s holy mountain and Zion (2:1). The trumpet blast signifies a warning of coming destruction (see Jer 4:5, Ezek 33:1-6, Hos 5:8. Rev 8:6). This is describing the final judgment – the day of YHWH (vv. 1-2 – see Isa 13:6-11, Jer 46:10, Ezek 30:3). In verse 3, the fire is a symbol of God’s judgment (see Isa 66:15-16, Jer 17:4, Lam 2:3, Ezek 15:1-8, Dan 7:9-11, Matt 7:19). Note that God uses an image of the Garden of Eden – His first dwelling place with man and the birthplace of sin (and therefore judgment) – itself being destroyed by fire. Where God’s presence once was has been destroyed by the fire of His judgment. This goes for Eden, and for Judah.
Verses 4-11 describe the final judgment. The host of heaven will come with Christ to judge to wicked at the final judgment. The divine warrior will lead His army into battle (v. 11). In verse 4, the “appearance of horses” describes locusts in Revelation 9:7. In verses 7-9, Joel invokes more locust imagery (see Prov 30:27, Isa 33:4). The wicked are in anguish and their faces grow pale, a picture of the final judgment (v. 6 – see Nah 2:10). Note that in verse 9, this army comes “like a thief.” In verse 10, we have common pictures of the final judgment – the earthquake and the heavenly bodies ceasing to give light (an undoing of the creation).
Along with this warning of judgment comes another call to repentance. “Even now” – after God has forsaken the physical people – if the returning remnant of Judah would repent (v. 12) understanding that His people are a spiritual people who rend their hearts (inward repentance) and not physical garments (outward sign of repentance) – God will be Who He has always been: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed love. This is the self-revelation God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai (see Ex 34:6). But for God’s spiritual people, there is no judgment (see Ex 34:7 – this has been carried out in God’s forsaking of the physical people) because each is responsible for his own sin (see Ezekiel chapter 18), which is either paid for by Christ at the cross, or by each person at the final judgment.
In verses 15-16, the trumpet blast is now a call for the people of God to assemble and consecrate themselves unto Him. That infants who are in the middle of nursing and couples preparing for marriage are to come and do this show the urgency of doing this. It is the single most important thing anyone can do! The people are to repent and pray in God’s presence for salvation for the sake of His own name (v. 17 – see Ezek 36:22-37).
And God will answer such a prayer! God will have pity on His (spiritual) people (v. 18). He will provide for them what He has taken from the physical people (v. 19), and remove judgment from them (v. 20). He will turn the wasteland into a lush and plentiful land (vv. 21-27). And Zion (where God’s presence is – among His spiritual people) will rejoice (v. 23) because He is among them (v. 27). And His people will “never again be put to shame” (v. 27). History tells is that this is clearly not a promise for the physical people.
We now come to the most famous portion of Joel’s prophecy. The focus has not shifted. Joel is still prophesying of the end times. From where he stood, this was all one event. From where we stand, we know that this began at Christ’s First Coming and will not be completed until His Second Coming. Peter quotes this prophecy as already fulfilled at Pentecost (see Acts 2:16-21 and Peter’s following exposition). Joel is predicting a day when the prayer of Moses (Num 11:29) would be fulfilled. This is the church.
However, we see in verses 30-31 that the final judgment at Christ’s Second Coming is joined with His finished work at His First Coming (culminating in the sending of the Spirit). The fire and the heavenly bodies ceasing to give light (see above) speak of the coming “day of YHWH,” as Joel says in verse 31. But Joel gets to the point after that. God will save. He will send His Spirit. He will come in judgment. All of His people will be anointed as prophets – male and female, young and old. How? It shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of YHWH shall be saved (v. 32).
This is exactly what God just called for the remnant to do (see 1:14, 19, 2:12-14, 17): call upon Him for salvation! To understand the spiritual requirements of true Temple worship; the fact that there was no Temple made no difference. And as Peter makes clear in Acts 2:21-36, and as Paul makes clear in Romans 10:5-13, the name of YHWH is the name of Jesus! And all of this judgment that Joel speaks of – that he calls the remnant to avoid through repentance and faith – he says that those in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem (the church – God’s spiritual people) will be those who escape. And among the survivors (the physical remnant) there will be a spiritual remnant. Out of them, the physical people, God will call some to be His spiritual people.2
Future salvation and judgment is still in view in chapter 3. The restoration of the fortunes of His people is the salvation of His spiritual people (3:1). The gathering of the nations is the final judgment (v. 2 – see Rev 16:12-16). Jehoshaphat means literally “YHWH judges.” The Valley of Jehoshaphat is a symbol of God’s physical judgment of the wicked (just as Armageddon is a symbol of God’s spiritual judgment of the wicked, as we will see when we get to Revelation), in particular for how they have treated YHWH through how they treat His people.
God then pronounces judgments on the nations (as we have seen in other prophetic books): Tyre and Sidon and the Philistines (v. 4). They will be paid back for taking and mistreating what is God’s: both the physical treasures of His physical Temple (v. 5), and the spiritual treasures of His true Temple (v. 6). God will gather His people and then judge the nations (v. 7), and we will reign over the nations (v. 8).
God now calls out the wicked. Like the trumpet was a warning of judgment, and then a call to gather, here, God calls the nations to gather for war against Him (which will result in the final judgment – v. 9). The call to the wicked to prepare for war (v. 10) is in contrast to God’s promise to His people that they will be ultimately saved and never war again (see Isa 2:4 and Mic 4:3). This is a picture of final judgment as opposed to final salvation.
In verses 11 and 12, we have the picture of the nations gathering against God in the “valley of YHWH’s judgment” combined with the picture of the coming divine warrior. In verse 13, we see that it isn’t much of a battle. As a harvester picks grapes, so will Christ harvest the earth in judgment (see Rev 14:14-20, Isa 62:3). In verse 14, we see that the valley of YHWH’s sovereign judgment is the valley of decision. Those who oppose Him have done so by choice. At the final judgment (pictured again by the darkening of the heavenly bodies – see Matt 24:29-30) YHWH will roar and the earth will quake (see 2:10-11), but His people – spiritual Israel – will be saved.
In verses 17-18 we have a picture of our final destination, the New Heaven and the New Earth, where we will dwell with God forever. It is pictured as Zion (see also v. 21), God’s holy mountain, and Jerusalem (v. 17). In that day (a marker of the Second Coming, remember), God will finally and forever provide for our every need (v. 18). Note the flowing water from the “house of YHWH” (see Ezek 47:1-12, Rev 22:1-5). By contrast, the wicked nations will become a wasteland (v. 19) for what they have done to God’s people (vv. 20-21).
1 Hence its place in the order of the twelve minor prophets, which were intended to be ordered chronologically.
2 Note the “as YHWH has said” in verse 32. In Mount Zion and Jerusalem there shall be those who escape as YHWH has said. When has He said this? See Obadiah 17. This is the only other reference to those in Mount Zion being those who escape (and Obadiah 18 makes it clear this is talking about escaping judgment). If this is what Joel is referencing, then he had to have written after Babylon destroyed Judah.