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This whole chapter (Joel 1:1-20) relates to a terrible and destructive locust plague that came upon Israel, particularly Judah, a disaster so overwhelming that no escape was possible. The fact of it is dramatically stated (Joel 1:1-4); the prophet's admonition to the people is given in three terse commandments: (1) "Awake ..." (Joel 1:5-7), (2) "Lament" (Joel 1:8-12), and (3) "Gird yourselves with sackcloth ..." (Joel 1:13-14). Despite the fact of these appeals being directed to three different classes, namely, the drunkards, the agricultural community, and the priests, they should be understood as applicable generally to all the people, and not merely to specific groups.
As in many another human disaster resulting from natural causes, the prophets of God, and all persons with spiritual discernment, have invariable associated such things with the wrath of God, due to divine disapproval of human sin and wickedness. Joel at once concluded that the locust disaster was a harbinger of "the day of the Lord," a truth that is not nullified by the fact that the Final Judgment was not to occur for at least 2,700 years! That disaster which so long ago brought fear and despair to a portion of the earth's population was a type of the final and eternal judgment that shall overwhelm all men; and significantly, many other such natural disasters since that time (as well as before that time) should be understood in exactly the same way! We must therefore reject the superficial interpretation of the final paragraph of this chapter (Joel 1:15-20) which views it merely as Joel's foolish fear that the end of time was at hand.
"The word of Jehovah that came to Joel the son of Pethuel."
"The word of Jehovah ..." This phrase identifies the content of this prophecy as the inviolate and eternal word of Almighty God, and so we receive and interpret it. It had an immediate and compelling relevance to the first generation that received it and is no less pertinent and relevant to our own times. Great natural disasters are still taking place on earth, in the face of which men are just as powerless and helpless as were the ancient Jews who struggled against an overwhelming invasion of devastating locusts. God wanted his people to see in that natural catastrophe something far more than merely an awesome natural phenomenon; and therefore God moved to reveal through his holy prophet what the genuine significance of such an event really is. This significance still should be recognized in all physical disasters that torment and destroy men upon earth, as was beautifully discerned by Boren:
"It is my conviction that the eruption of Mount St. Helens is an awesome display of the omnipotent power of God, and one of the countless warnings of God to humankind of impending judgment! Certainly, God warns through his word; but he also warns through the observable cataclysmic happenings of the natural world."
One of the reasons, therefore, why God gave his word to Joel upon the occasion of a great natural disaster is that men of all subsequent centuries should know how to interpret such things.
It is wrong to refer the judgments and conclusions that are set forth in Joel as merely the judgments and conclusions of the prophet himself. On the day of Pentecost, an inspired apostle of Christ said:
"This is that which hath been spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth of my Spirit .... etc." (Acts 2:16-17).
Note particularly the words "spoken through the prophet Joel ... saith God ..." We may be certain therefore that no merely naturalistic origin of the great conclusions in Joel is possible. The words spoken and the conclusions given are of God Himself, and not merely based upon the prophet's fears, interpretations and discernments. For this reason, such interpretations as the following should be rejected:
"So terrible was the devastation that the prophet feared that Yahweh's Day, the judgment of Yahweh's people, was near at hand. Joel regards the locust plague as comparable to any other mighty act of Israel's history."
It was not merely Joel's fears that connected the locust plague with the Day of the Lord; it was not merely Joel's private conclusion that the locust plague was comparable to any other mighty act of God in the history of Israel. These conclusions were part of the "word of Jehovah" which came to Joel.
"Joel the son of Pethuel ..." Despite the fact of there being a dozen persons named "Joel" in the O.T., the name "Pethuel" is found nowhere else. It has the utility, thus, of dissociating Joel from others of the same name in Hebrew history. The use of expressions like, "son of ... etc." "was analogous to our use of second names."
"Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Hath this been in your days, or in the days of your fathers?"
"Old men ..." This is not a reference to some special class of leaders among the people, but merely an appeal to those of the most advanced age who could more readily confirm the uniqueness of the disaster that was upon them.
"All ye inhabitants of the land ..." The whole prophecy is addressed to all the people, and not merely, to special classes.
"Hear this ..." The prophet, having himself heard God's Word is constrained to share it with others.
God's Word is never for our selfish enjoyment; it brings with it a responsibility for others. Perhaps that is why, in the N.T., so much stress is laid on oral confession of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9)
The New English Bible is obviously correct in rendering "aged men" in this verse instead of "elders," since it is not of "the rulers" of the people that the prophet speaks here, but merely of those of great age, who neither in their own lives or that of their ancestors as communicated to them had there ever occurred anything of the magnitude of that overwhelming infestation of locusts.
"Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation."
Locust plagues were ordinary experiences in that part of the world during the times of Joel, and for centuries prior to and subsequently to his times, as indeed they still are; but this was not an ordinary locust plague.
The special significance of this one related not only to its severity, but also to the fact that it is seen as a prelude to the divine devastation the prophet envisions for the disobedient people of God, and those nations which have oppressed her.
"Tell ye your children ... etc." There is unmistakable allusion to Exodus 10:2, where the Lord charges Moses to tell Pharaoh that he will do signs," with similar instructions for Pharaoh to tell his sons, etc. This indicates that this mighty plague was comparable in gravity and origin to the plagues of Egypt and the deliverance of God's people through the Red Sea. It must not be understood as merely an extraordinary natural phenomenon, but as a direct judgment of God upon wickedness. The reason why the details of this disaster were to be remembered and passed on to succeeding generations was rightly stated by Myers, "as a deterrent to sin."
The proper understanding and interpretation of such natural disasters as that recounted in Joel must always include the discernment of God's hand in them.
"God would ever have his children recognize his hand in all such visitations. For the believer, there are no second causes. The Lord has said, "I Jehovah create peace, and create evil." And he asks the question, "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" (Isaiah 45:7; Amos 3:6).
"That which the palmer-worm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the canker-worm eaten; and that which the canker-worm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten."
The two great problems of interpretation encountered in this verse regard (1) the four different names applied to the destroying insects, and (2) the question of whether or not this was a literal infestation.
As to the four different names, they have been supposed to refer to the locust at various stages of its development, but the most thorough studies of that insect do not reveal four different phases in its life cycle. As Keil said, "These words never appear in simple plain prose," and all of them may therefore be poetic references to the same insect. "The four names are not names applied in natural history to four distinct species."
The question about whether this was a literal disaster, or perhaps a symbolical depiction of some future event prophesied by Joel, is decided by Joel 1:3, where there is an undeniable reference to Exodus 10:2, with the mandatory deduction that this disaster was comparable to the Egyptian plagues, which, of course, were literal events.
The allegorical interpretation of these locusts, however, has been very attractive to whole generations of interpreters.
On the margin of the Greek Codex Marchalianus (Q) of the sixth century, the words for locusts in Joel 2:25 are identified with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Greeks ... According to Merx, Joel's locusts are supernatural apocalyptic creatures in Joel 1, and symbols of the invading armies of the end times in Joel 2.
The denial that the locusts were a literal disaster is totally frustrated by "before our eyes" (Joel 1:16). That the recapitulation of the disaster in Joel 2 indeed has overtones of the end times can hardly be discounted, due principally to the manner of the apostle John's treatment of the locusts in Revelation 9.
The palmer-worm, locust, canker-worm, and caterpillar may therefore be understood in this chapter as saying that, "One swarm of locusts after another has invaded the land, and completely devoured its fruit."
The notion that plagues in successive years are meant is from the mention of "the years that the locust hath eaten" (Joel 2:25); but, again, from Keil:
We cannot possibly think of the field and garden fruits of two successive years, because the fruits of the second year are not the leavings of the previous year, but have grown afresh in the year itself.
Before leaving this verse, it is of interest that Deere translated the four names as, "shearer, swarmer, lapper, and devourer, describing four of the eighty or ninety species of locusts in the East." This understanding of the terms as different kinds of locusts is widely accepted; but the view preferred here is that the words are poetic descriptions of wave after wave of the devouring insects.
"Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and wail, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine; for it is cut off from your mouth."
Joel viewed the locust plague as a manifestation of God's displeasure due to the sins of his people; and, quite appropriately, he directed his first great admonition, "Awake," to a prominent class of sinners always present in any wicked society, the drunkards. Naturally, the destruction of all vegetation, including the vineyards, would have interrupted and cut off the supply of intoxicants. Notably, Joel did not address this class as unfortunates overcome by some innocent disease. Ah no. The Biblical view of drinking intoxicants and wallowing in drunkenness relates such conditions to wickedness, and not to disease. Our own current society has repudiated this view; but it is nevertheless correct. As Shakespeare put it:
O thou invisible spirit of wine,
If thou hast no name to be known by, let
Us call thee devil.
Thomas' comment on this whole verse is pertinent:
Awake, you are sleeping on the bosom of a volcanic hill about to burst and engulf you. And weep, because of the blessings you have abused, the injuries you have inflicted upon your own natures, and upon others; weep because of the sins you have committed against yourself, society, and God. Howl, all ye drinkers of wine... If you were aware of your true situation, you would howl indeed, howl out your soul in confession and prayer!
"For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number; his teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the jaw-teeth of a lioness."
"For a nation ..." This expression, of course, has been made a basis of advocating a symbolical interpretation of the locusts. Such a personification of locusts is in keeping with the Biblical description of ants and conies as "folk" and "people" (Proverbs 30:25-27), and it is interpreted here as metaphorical description of the locusts. However, there very well may be here an overtone of the wider application of the locust invasion that appears in Joel 2.
As Kennedy said, "Viewed collectively, they were like an invading army. Such indeed is the suggestion of the phrase has come up against my land (cf. 2 Kings 18:13)." Barnes was probably correct in his understanding that:
Here it is used, in order to include at once, the irrational invader, guided by a Reason above his own, and the heathen conqueror. For this enemy is come up upon my land, the Lord's land.
"He hath laid my vine waste, and hath barked my fig-tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white."
"Barked" may also be translated "splintered"; and some commentators have viewed this as hyperbole. "The locusts could not splinter the fig-tree"; but such a view is due to a failure to take into consideration what would happen to a soft and brittle branch of a fig-tree when overloaded with an incredibly large swarm of locusts which would literally break it off. Certainly the devastation of locusts is too widely known in the East to make possible any claim of exaggeration on Joel's part, even for the sake of emphasis.
"Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth."
"Like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth ..." This refers to the mourning of a virgin espoused to her husband whose life ended before the consummation of the marriage, a grief that was considered to be particularly anguished by the Hebrews. It is, of course, the Jewish ancient customs regarding marriage that appear in such a reference as this. It will be remembered that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was troubled by what he at first thought to be a reflection upon the chastity of his wife during their espousal, and before the marriage had really begun (Matthew 1:18-24).
Also, there is a reminder here that the chosen people themselves, the nation of Israel, were frequently compared to a beautiful virgin. "The real subject here is the congregation or people of Judah, as suggested in the Chaldee."
"The meal-offering and the drink-offering are cut off from the house of Jehovah; the priests, Jehovah's ministers, mourn."
Naturally, with the total destruction of all crops and vegetation, the usual sacrifices in the temple were curtailed and eliminated. Joel's speaking of the priests here in the third person is taken to indicate that he was not of their number. It is incorrect to make Joel's concern for this interruption of the sacrifices as the basis of postulating a late post-exilic date when the congregation in Judah was very small; because the total devastation inflicted by the locusts would have produced a similar effect whenever it might have occurred. The seriousness of this cessation of the daily offerings was inherent in the people's conviction that by the means of those sacrifices their fellowship with God was perpetuated and maintained. "Without those offerings, the people felt loss of contact with the Lord; and the priests, who understood their significance, mourned." In spite of the reluctance of the people to cut off the supplies necessary to the faithful observances of the sacrifices, however, "there was no food left for man or beast No wonder that the priests mourned, for their very livelihood depended upon the offerings out of which they lived.
"The field is laid waste, the land mourneth; for the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth. Be confounded, O ye husbandmen. Wail, O ye vinedressers, for the wheat and for the barley; for the harvest of the field is perished. The vine is withered, and the fig-tree languisheth; the pomegranate-tree, the palm-tree also, and the apple-tree, even all the trees of the field are withered: for joy is withered away from the sons of men."
This paragraph depicting the devastation of the locust scourge is as moving and dramatic a presentation as can be imagined. There is no need of help of any kind in understanding the full meaning of such a description; it is a classic. Something in it reminds us of that sorrowful and heart-moving speech delivered by Sir Winston Churchill at a low water mark of Great Britain's struggle against Hitler in World War II: "Singapore has fallen. The Prince of Wales is lost. The Repulse is at the bottom of the sea!" There is something of that same epic tragedy in Joel's wonderful words here. As Deane commented:
"The field is wasted; the ground mourns; the corn is wasted; the new wine is spoiled; the oil decays!" - What a scene of desolation! yet how briefly and forcibly depicted! We see it all; we want nothing more to present it to our eyes.
Not merely the fruit-bearing trees, but "even all the trees" of the field had been denuded and left bare and white in the sun, with even the bark stripped off.
Pictures taken after a locust plague in 1915 show branches of trees completely devoid of bark and glistening white in the heat of the sun.
A marvelous description of the locust plague is given in the National Geographic Magazine for August, 1969, under the title, "The Teeth of the Wind." A heavy locust flight actually darkens the sun and brings utter devastation in its wake.
"Gird yourselves with sackcloth, and lament, ye priests; wail, ye ministers of' the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meal-offering and the drink-offering are withholden from the house of your God. Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the old men and all the inhabitants of the land unto the house of Jehovah your God, and cry unto Jehovah."
This appeal for the priests of God's religion to bestir themselves upon behalf of arousing the nation to repentance, prayer, and fasting indicates that it had been the wickedness of the people which had precipitated the onset of the plague. This interpretation of great natural calamities and disasters is not superstitious, at all, but Biblical. God is still concerned with the behavior of his human creation; and, beginning with the primeval curse upon the ground for Adam's sake (Genesis 3:17-19), the Lord has continually ordered the affairs of his world in such a manner as to prevent man's becoming too complacent and comfortable in his earthly environment. It is this basic fact which underlies this appeal to the priests to stir up the people in the direction of righteousness and more whole-hearted observance of their religious duties.
The calling of a solemn public assembly, the proclamation of a fast, and the public and private prayers offered to God for the alleviation of their distress were an entirely appropriate response to the threat of starvation and death which had come upon them in the locust plague. What other response should sinful, fallible and helpless men make to a situation which is totally beyond their control? It was a very similar thing which the Ninevites did under the threat of the preaching of Jonah. This is the way that Jehoshaphat responded to the impending attack by the allied armies of Moab, Ammon, and Edom; and this is exactly what Jehoiakim and Ezra did in the face of dangers which, without the help of God, they knew would destroy them. Modern men sometimes imagine that they are able to deal with everything that may happen, feeling no need for prayers and supplications to God; but this is an erroneous and short-sighted blindness, which, historically, God has repeatedly moved to correct; and one may feel sure that he will do so again.
The priests and leaders of the people were called upon to lead the way in this national response to the threat of death and destruction; and this was probably done for two reasons. First, the priests and national leaders were sinners in exactly the same way as the rest of the nation; and secondly, their example was sorely needed in order to arouse as nearly unanimous response as possible.
The reference to meal-offering and drink-offering in this verse has been alleged to indicate a post-exilic date; but one should be very wary of such allegations. Scholars, in their enthusiasm to maintain their postulations, sometimes go overboard in making deductions from totally insufficient premises. Regarding this, Robertson wrote:
"The only ritual references (in Joel) are to the meal-offering and the drink-offering, and these were characteristically not post-exiUan. Indeed, they may be regarded as primitive forms of offerings!"
"Alas for the day! for the day of Jehovah is at hand, and as destruction from the Almighty shall it come."
In this verse, Joel went a step beyond the terrible visitation of the locusts threatening starvation and death to the whole nation; and he prophesied that "the day of Jehovah is at hand!" The Biblical use of this expression is enlightening; and we shall devote some space to a discussion of it.
"The day of the Lord" has two meanings in the prophetic use of the expression:
(1) It means any time of severe visitation inflicted upon either nations or upon all mankind by the judgment of God upon human sin and unrighteousness. In his famed Olivet discourse, the Lord Jesus clearly referred to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple as his "coming" in judgment upon Israel, a summary judgment which followed as the direct result of their terminal rebellion against God in the rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah. From this, it is clearly seen that other great historical judgments upon such wicked cities as Tyre, Sidon, Nineveh, Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah were exactly the same type of visitation that fell upon Jerusalem.
(2) The ultimate meaning of "day of the Lord" identifies it with the final and terminal destruction of the entire posterity of Adam and Eve upon the great occasion of the eternal Judgment Day, when the dead shall be raised, the righteous redeemed, and the wicked turned aside forever. These distinctively different meanings were not always clear to the prophets who used the phrase (which actually came from God); indeed, it is safe to assume that they might never have known the full meaning of what they prophesied, as detailed by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:10-12. The holy prophets were not concerned with fully understanding what the message from God might have been, but with delivering it accurately to their fellow men.
The nature of the "day of the Lord," whatever the specific situation foretold, is clearly given in this verse. "As destruction from the Almighty shall it come."
From this it is plain that the "day of the Lord" never referred to a benign and peaceful event, but to "destruction." This is what it meant for the antediluvian world which was destroyed from the face of the earth because of their wickedness; and that is what it invariably meant in all the other instances of it which have been cited. Furthermore, this is what it will ultimately mean at the Final Judgment at the Second Coming of Christ. That will be the occasion when the primeval sentence imposed upon the progenitors of the human race for their rebellion in the Garden of Eden will be finally and irrevocably executed upon them in the person of their total posterity, the unique exceptions to the universal destruction of that Day being only those who have been redeemed through the blood of Christ.
Thus, when one of the ancient prophets referred to "the day of Jehovah," it always referred, not merely to the Final Arraignment and Punishment of mankind, but to any lesser judgment that might be imposed upon specific sectors of humanity (or even upon all of it) in the period intervening before that Final Day. "For Joel, as for the other prophets, 'the day of the Lord' is always at hand." "Joel did not mean that the day of the Lord, in its full prophetic sense, of the revelation of Christ ... was really to occur in their times." However, Joel did see in that terrible locust plague "a warning of 'the day of Jehovah' which was to come." Furthermore, it was a warning that other occasions of 'the day of Jehovah' were in store for Israel. Historically, it was only a little while before the Assyrians and the Babylonians would come and execute "the day of Jehovah," not merely upon the northern kingdom, but upon the southern kingdom of Israel as well. Thus Joel very accurately foretold future judgments upon Israel, taking the locust disaster as an omen, or an earnest, of an even greater judgment (or judgments) yet to come. Deane correctly discerned this:
"The day of the Lord," first mentioned, it is said, by Joel, is the day when God inflicts punishment upon sinners, as in the present instances; it may be a presage of that judgment that brought ruin to their city, temple, and nation. It may be an emblem of that judgment that wound up their nation by the destruction of their capital, or even of the final judgment when God shall destroy the impenitent sinners and deliver his saints.
It is totally wrong to allege that Joel himself understood all that was indicated by his prophecy here of "the day of the Lord"; nor is it possible to suppose that even today students of the Holy Scriptures have any complete knowledge of all that is meant.
In view of the unmistakable overtones associated with "the day of Jehovah," full agreement is felt with Jamieson who noted that, "Here the transition begins from the plague of locusts to the worse calamities (Joel 2) from invading armies about to come on Judea, of which the locusts were the prelude." As Barnes put it, "All judgment in time is an image of the judgment for eternity."
"Is not the food cut off before our eyes, yea, joy and gladness from the house of God? The seeds rot under their clods; the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken down; for the grain is withered. How do the beasts groan! the herds of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture; yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate."
This is a further emphasis upon the severity of the plague; and it is evident that the scourge of the locusts has been compounded and multiplied by drought. The situation appeared to be utterly hopeless. Without food or pasture, the herds of sheep and cattle would soon die; a disaster of the greatest magnitude was upon them.
What with the locusts devouring all that appeared above ground, and the drought destroying the seeds sown under the surface, the havoc was complete; famine and distress afflicted both man and beast.
"O Jehovah, to thee do I cry; for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field. Yea, the beasts of the field pant unto thee; for the water brooks are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness."
We do not see any need whatever to understand "fire" and "flame" in these verses as a metaphorical reference to the locusts and the drought; the danger of fire increases in direct proportion to the dryness of the vegetation and the atmosphere, as any forest ranger knows; and with the extended devastation and drought already described, the breakout of terribly destructive fires would have been certain. If nothing else was available to set them off, a stroke of lightning would have been sufficient. For that reason, we feel it necessary to disagree with Keil, who wrote:
"Fire and flame are the terms used by the prophet to denote the burning heat of the drought, which consumes the meadows and even scorches the trees. This is very obvious from the drying up of the water brooks.
Summarizing what the chapter reveals about the cataclysmic disaster: it resulted from wave after wave of devouring locusts who ate up every green thing, and was made more complete by the ravages of a drought so severe that the very watercourses became dry, and then was climaxed by forest and dry-grass fires which raged out of control in the super-dry "trees of the field" and the "pastures of the wilderness." No greater calamity could be imagined in a society predominantly agricultural and pastoral.
"O Jehovah, to thee do I cry ..." In the last analysis, there is none other, except God, to whom the helpless and the hopeless may appeal. Even the rabbit cries out in the clutches of the hawk! Man instinctively cries to his Creator in the face of death and destruction.
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joel 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter