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I. INTRODUCTION 1:1
Yahweh’s word (message) came to Joel (lit. "Yahweh is God"), the son of Pethuel. ("Elijah" also means "Yahweh is God.") Therefore what follows demands careful attention and appropriate response. We do not know anything about Joel or Pethuel’s personal backgrounds, even when they lived. This title does not tell where they lived either, though references that follow suggest that Joel lived in Judah. Hosea, Micah, and Zephaniah introduced their prophecies similarly.
Joel called on everyone, from the most respected ruling elders of the land (cf. 1 Samuel 30:26-31; 2 Samuel 19:11-15; 2 Kings 23:1; Ezra 10:8; Proverbs 31:23; Jeremiah 26:17; Lamentations 5:12; Lamentations 5:14) to the ordinary inhabitants, to pay attention to what he had to say. Nothing like what he was about to describe had happened in their lifetime or in that of their recent ancestors. He urged them to retell the devastating news to their descendants for generations to come.
A. An initial appeal 1:2-4
II. A PAST DAY OF THE LORD: A LOCUST INVASION 1:2-20
The rest of chapter 1 describes the effects of a severe locust plague that had recently destroyed the agriculture of the land.
Several waves of locusts had consumed all the agricultural produce of the land. What one wave of these voracious insects had left uneaten, other subsequent waves had destroyed. The devastation of the land had been complete (cf. Amos 4:9). God had threatened locust plagues as punishment if His people proved unfaithful to Him (Deuteronomy 28:38; Deuteronomy 28:42).
Four different words for "locusts" appear in this verse (and in Joel 2:25), but a total of nine occur in the Old Testament. These words have led some interpreters to conclude that four types of locust are in view or that locusts in four stages of their maturity are. [Note: E.g., J. A. Thompson, "Joel’s Locusts in the Light of Near Eastern Parallels," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 (1955):52-55; idem, "Translation of the Words for Locust," Bible Translator 25 (October 1974):405-11.] It seems better, however, to view the locusts as coming in waves, gnawing, swarming, creeping, and stripping as they devoured the vegetation. [Note: See H. W. Wolff, Joel and Amos, pp. 27-28; and Keil, 1:181-82. For eyewitness accounts of devastating locust plagues, see S. R. Driver, The Books of Joel and Amos, pp. 40, 89-93; G. A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, 2:391-95; and John D. Whiting, "Jerusalem’s Locust Plague," National Geographic, December 1915, pp. 511-50. For more detailed discussions of locusts and locust plagues, see Stanley Baron, The Desert Locust; L. V. Bennett, "Development of a Locust Plague," Nature 256 (1975):486-87; Lev Fishelson, Fauna Palestina: Insecta. Vol. 3: Orthoptera, Acridoidea; Ovid R. Sellers, "Stages of Locust in Joel," American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 52 (1935-36):81-85; and Z. Waloft and S. M. Green, "Regularities and Duration of Regional Locust Plagues," Nature 256 (1975):484-85.] Four waves of invasion picture a thorough devastation (cf. Jeremiah 15:3; Ezekiel 14:21). Though the prophets sometimes used locusts as a figure for horses (e.g., Jeremiah 51:27), most interpreters have concluded that Joel described a real locust invasion rather than a military invasion by soldiers on horses.
Joel urged the drunkards of the land to weep because the locusts had destroyed all the grapevines. There would be no grapes to produce sweet (the most favored) wine for them to drink (cf. Isaiah 5:11-12; Isaiah 5:22; Isaiah 22:13; Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 28:7; Isaiah 56:12; Hosea 4:11-19; Hosea 7:5; Hosea 7:13-14; Amos 2:6-8; Amos 6:6; Amos 9:13; Micah 2:11; Acts 2:13; Acts 2:15).
"Sweet wine (’asis) was made by drying the grapes in the sun for a short time and then allowing the juice to ferment for five to seven days instead of the more usual nine." [Note: Hubbard, p. 44. Cf. Driver, p. 225.]
Normally drunkards laugh, with no concern for what goes on around them, but now they should wail. The locusts had invaded the land like a hostile army. The teeth of these invaders were like lions’ teeth in that they destroyed their prey. They had stripped the vines and fig trees so thoroughly that their branches stood bare. The vine and the fig tree were symbols of God’s blessings on Israel and symbols of Israel itself, so Joel probably also meant that the locusts had left the whole nation bare.
"All that remained of shady, fruit-laden bowers were skeletonized wrecks of trees with their barkless branches gleaming white." [Note: Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, p. 52.]
B. A call to mourn 1:5-13
Joel called on four different entities to mourn the results of the locust invasion: drunkards (Joel 1:5-7), Jerusalemites (Joel 1:8-10), farmers (Joel 1:11-12), and priests (Joel 1:13). In each section there is a call to mourn followed by reasons to mourn.
The next entity called to mourn appears to be Jerusalem. The gender of "Wail" is feminine (singular), and Jerusalem is often compared to a virgin daughter in the Old Testament (e.g., 2 Kings 19:21; Lamentations 1:15; cf. Joel 2:1; Joel 2:15; Joel 2:23; Joel 2:32). This virgin (Heb. bethulah) was to weep in sackcloth, clothing appropriate for such an occasion, as though she had lost her bridegroom in death. The Hebrew word suggests that this virgin was a presently unmarried woman who anticipated union with her betrothed. The reason for Jerusalem’s mourning was the locusts’ destruction of grain, wine, and oil, blessings from God and the products needed to worship Him in the daily temple burnt offerings (cf. Exodus 29:38-42; Leviticus 2; Leviticus 6:14-18; Leviticus 9:16-17; Leviticus 23:18; Leviticus 23:37; Numbers 15:5; Numbers 28:3-8). Grain, wine, and oil represent the three major types of vegetation in Israel: grasses, shrubs, and trees. Used together, as they often are in the Old Testament, they stand for all agricultural products. [Note: Dillard, p. 262.] This appears to be a merism, a figure of speech in which selected prominent parts represent all parts, the whole. The grain offerings required flour and oil (Numbers 28:5), and the drink offerings necessitated wine (Exodus 29:40; Numbers 28:7).
"These offerings spoke of the very heart of the believer’s daily walk before God: the burnt offering, of a complete dedication of life; the meal offering, of the believer’s service that should naturally follow; and the drink offering, of the conscious joy in the heart of the believer whose life is poured out in consecrated service to his God." [Note: Patterson, p. 240.]
The result was that the priests and the whole nation mourned. It was bad enough that the people did not have food and drink for their own enjoyment, but it was worse that they could not worship Yahweh.
Joel next turned from city-dwellers to country folk. He called the farmers and vine growers, those most directly affected by the locust invasion, to despair because the fruits of their labors had perished. These fruits included wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, and apples: all the fruits of trees. These Israelites would not be able to rejoice in an abundant harvest, which every farmer and viticulturist anticipated (cf. Psalms 4:7). Not only the symbols of divine blessing but also the joy of divine blessing had departed.
The prophet turned again to the priests (cf. Joel 1:9) and urged them to lament in sackcloth because the grain and wine used in their offerings were no longer available. Joel’s second call to the priests underlines the tragedy of curtailed worship in Judah’s life. Since there were no offerings to bring to the Lord, the nation could not approach Him as He had directed at the very time she needed Him most. This closing reference to priests in this section contrasts with the opening reference to drunkards (Joel 1:5-7), from the most ungodly to the most godly (ideally). This merism has the effect of including all the citizens of Judah in Joel’s call. Joel’s reference to "my God" and "your God" in this verse ties him closely to the priests; their concerns and their relationship to Yahweh were ideally the same.
C. A call to repent 1:14
Joel called on the priests not only to mourn (Joel 1:13) but also to assemble all the people at the temple for a solemn fast. Such fasts indicated national repentance in Israel’s history (cf. 1 Samuel 7:6; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Jeremiah 36:9; Jonah 3:5). Here, as usual, fasting combined with praying to the Lord. The people would pray to Him for mercy and for renewed blessing and would demonstrate their sincerity and urgency by going without food while they prayed.
The locust plague had destroyed (Heb. shadad) the fields and fruits of Judah, but Joel announced that things would get worse. Another day of destruction (Heb. shod) would come from the Lord, the Almighty (Heb. shadday). A locust plague was not only an evidence of God’s judgment (cf. Deuteronomy 28), but it had been a harbinger of future worse destruction in the past. A locust plague had preceded the plagues of darkness and death in Egypt (cf. Exodus 10-11). Thus, rather than seeing the locust plague as the end of the people’s troubles, Joel saw it as a prelude to something worse.
The day of the Lord is a term that appears frequently in the Old Testament, especially in the Prophets. It refers to a day in which the Lord is working obviously, in contrast to other days, the day of man, in which man works without any apparent divine intervention. Specifically, it is a day in which the Lord intervenes to judge His enemies. Gerhard von Rad argued that this term was originally associated with the Israelite concept of holy war, [Note: Gerhard von Rad, "The Origin of the Concept of the Day of the Lord," Journal of Semitic Studies 4 (1959):97-108.] but other scholars have disputed this aetiology. Most agree, however, that it had early associations with battles and conquest. Here the day of the Lord is obviously one of destruction, though elsewhere it also refers to a day of blessing. The eschatological day of the Lord that the prophets anticipated includes both judgment (in the Tribulation) and blessing (in the Millennium and beyond). Here Joel spoke of an imminent day of the Lord; it was coming on Judah relatively soon (cf. Isaiah 13:6; Ezekiel 30:2-3; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:7-13).
D. The significance of the plague 1:15-20
"This section moves much closer to the form of the descriptive lament found in the lamenting psalms than did the descriptions earlier in the chapter." [Note: Allen, p. 59.]
We move, then, from summonses to lament to a lament itself.
Joel described the effects of the recent locust plague to encourage his hearers to gather for prayer and fasting. He suggested that similar conditions would accompany the day of the Lord that he had just predicted. The people’s food supply and, therefore, their occasion for rejoicing, had disappeared (cf. Deuteronomy 12:7). Drought had followed the denuding of the land by the locusts. Seeds were not germinating due to the lack of moisture. Barns and silos had become empty and had fallen into disrepair, and domesticated animals were starving. Grazing cattle wandered aimlessly looking for vegetation, and even the sheep, which require less grass, were going hungry.
Joel cried out to Yahweh in prayer in the distress that he shared with his countrymen. Fire had burned the dried pastures and trees, or perhaps drought like a fire had done so. The brooks were dry, and even the wild animals panted for water. Joel could say they panted for Yahweh because the Lord was the provider of the water these animals sought (cf. Psalms 42:1). By panting for Yahweh these animals set a good example for the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joel 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany