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by Charles John Ellicott
THE REV. S. L. WARREN, M.A.,
Late Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford
JOEL has a peculiar claim upon the attention of the Christian reader, inasmuch as he foretells the advent of the Comforter, who would hereafter carry on and complete the work of the Saviour. Joel is as emphatically the prophet of the Holy Ghost as Isaiah is emphatically of the Messiah. If, therefore, it is permissible to discover in the twenty-third verse of the second chapter (see Note) a reference to Jesus Christ, as in the third chapter there is described the coming of the Almighty Father to judge the world at the Last Day, the prophet Joel has in his short book an evidence of the doctrine of the most Holy Trinity.
We may claim for him also one of the earliest places among the sixteen prophets (see Note on Acts 2:17); but Henderson, in his Introduction to the Minor Prophets, considers him chronologically the first of all. There is absolutely nothing known of his personal history, except the name of his father, Pethuel, and his conjectured residence in Jerusalem. The condition of the kingdom of Judah, as indicated in his prophecy, suggests that he flourished in the reign of Joash. Besides, had he lived at a later period than this, in his enumeration of the imminent enemies of his country he would hardly have omitted the names of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Syrians. Dean Milman, in his History of the Jews (vol. 1, p. 370), says: “In my judgment the silence about the Assyrian power is conclusive as to this early period assigned to the prophecies of Joel.” We therefore assign to him the date of about 870 B.C.
This period of Jewish history saw a great revival of the worship of Jehovah, after the idolatrous movement under Athaliah, the queen-mother, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, had been suppressed. The protectorate of the kingdom during the minority of Joash was in the hands of the high priest Jehoiada; and he had excited immense enthusiasm in the Temple and its services. And such an enthusiasm as then existed is in a marked manner evident in the prophecy of Joel. In the vivid description of the straits to which the kingdom was reduced by the famine and locusts, the most grievous calamity is the enforced suspension of the Temple sacrifices. “Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: FOR THE MEAT OFFERING AND THE DRINK OFFERING IS WITHHOLDEN FROM THE HOUSE OF YOUR GOD” (Joel 1:13). While, on the other hand, when there is a glimpse of better days the prophet’s joy culminates in the hope that these sacrifices will be restored: “who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; EVEN A MEAT OFFERING AND A DRINK OFFERING UNTO THE LORD YOUR GOD?” (Joel 2:14). There is further teaching in the words of this inspired prophet of extreme importance at all times, and especially in these latter days—the teaching that God heareth prayer in respect of those events which are due, as it is said to the laws of nature. We are sometimes met with the argument that it is even an impertinence to endeavour to interfere with such laws by our prayers. But we have a wiser teacher in Joel. When our land is threatened with famine through excessive drought (or through excessive rain) and the natural impulse of our hearts is to offer up prayers and intercessions to Almighty God, we may turn to the striking precedent which God has given us in this prophet, for who knoweth whether (even in our emergency) He will turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him?
All the commentators who have earnestly considered the nature and the matter of this prophecy have found immense difficulty in the question whether Joel intended literally a plague of locusts to be understood as the calamity which he described, or whether he rather desired to convey under that figure a description of the human enemies of Judah. It is well known that the ravages of locusts were among the punishments of God most highly dreaded by the Jews. Solomon enumerated them among the special causes for prayer to the Lord, in his supplication at the dedication of the Temple. And, as will be found noticed in the Commentary, the Eastern nations without exception dreaded, and dread, an incursion of locusts as one of the greatest scourges of their countries. But although such a plague may, in the first instance, have aroused the prophet’s extreme apprehension, and stirred his soul to its lowest depths, still we rise up from the perusal of his words convinced that they refer to some greater anxiety yet to come—some incursion of enemies, who would inflict terrible ravages upon the land, leaving it desolate and bare behind them, after the manner of these locusts.
Under such circumstances as we have suggested, Joel appeared at Jerusalem with the suddenness of an Elijah before Ahab. He came, as it were, out of the darkness of the unknown to declare the wrath of God, as manifest in the visitation on the land. He exercised on the instant the office and authority of a prophet, calling upon the priests to perform their duties in a terrible emergency. He demanded of them a solemn Litany to deprecate the anger of the Lord, and to invoke His compassion on the devastated country. He described the horror of the situation in graphic details. There was an enemy in their midst, countless in number, inexorable, remorseless. Their ravages stared them in the face on every side. The foliage of the country is gone, the trees stand stark and bare, as if fired, all vegetation is destroyed; vines, fig-trees, pomegranates, palms, apple-trees—all are withered, the corn is wasted, the seed is sodden, the very beasts of the field are dying for lack of moisture. The locusts of various kinds are at work, sparing nothing; at the same time, a drought assists their ravages. The locusts found the land a Garden of Eden, they leave it a wilderness. Fields, streets, houses, walls are occupied by this terrible pest. Let the priests therefore stir themselves, proclaim a fast for high and low, that a common supplication may be made for the removal of this plague.
But there lay something still more anxious beneath the visitation, although it far surpassed all previous experience of locusts. It was in a marked manner symbolical of that scourge which David most feared, the scourge of war; so that the national Fast called for by the present overwhelming calamity was quickened by the apprehension of an invasion by foreign enemies. In this apprehension the prophetic description of Joel culminated. The unparalleled visitation of the locusts was an advanced guard of greater terrors to come. So the prophet interpreted it.
Joel then saw the submission of the people, and as its effect the plague averted. Once more plenty smiled upon the land—plenty, which was the gift of God. And the material gift was an earnest of a spiritual gift which was to come to pass “afterward.” The Spirit of God was to be poured out, as St. Peter declared it was poured out in the last days, on the Day of Pentecost. Thenceforward Joel was caught up, so to speak, into the regions of apocalyptic vision. He beheld the victory of the people completed in the eternal victory of the last day. The multitudes came together to be judged in the eponymous valley of Jehoshaphat, and the Lord was the judge. After the conflict, after the judgment, there was the vision of peace. The enemies have ceased to exist; the people of the Lord are in the mansions of eternal blessedness, and in their midst is God, blessed for ever.
the Seventh Week after Easter