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by Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch
Person and Times of the Prophet Joel. - Joel ( יואל , i.e., whose God is Jehovah, Ἰωήλ ) is distinguished from other men of the same name, which occurs very frequently (e.g., 1 Samuel 8:2; 1 Chronicles 4:35; 1 Chronicles 5:4; 1 Chronicles 8:12; 1 Chronicles 6:21; 1 Chronicles 7:3; 2 Chronicles 29:12; Nehemiah 11:9), by the epithet “son of Pethuel ” ( פּתוּאל , the open-heartedness or sincerity of God). Nothing is known of the circumstances connected with his life, since the traditional legends as to his springing from Bethom ( Βηθών , al. Θεβυράν in Ps. Epiph.), or Bethomeron in the tribe of Reuben ( Ps. Doroth.), are quite unsupported. All that can be inferred with any certainty from his writings is, that he lived in Judah, and in all probability prophesied in Jerusalem. The date of his ministry is also a disputed point; though so much is certain, namely, that he did not live in the reign of Manasseh or Josiah, or even later, as some suppose, but was one of the earliest of the twelve minor prophets. For even Amos (Amos 1:2) commences his prophecy with a passage from Joel (Joel 3:16), and closes it with the same promises, adopting in Joel 9:13 the beautiful imagery of Joel, of the mountains dripping with new wine, and the hills overflowing (Joel 3:18). And Isaiah, again, in his description of the coming judgment in ch. 13, had Joel in his mind; and in v. 6 he actually borrows a sentence from his prophecy (Joel 1:15), which is so peculiar that the agreement cannot be an accidental one. Consequently, Joel prophesied before Amos, i.e., before the twenty-seven years of the contemporaneous reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam II. How long before, can only be inferred with any degree of probability from the historical circumstances to which he refers in his prophecy. The only enemies that he mentions besides Egypt and Edom (Joel 3:19), as those whom the Lord would punish for the hostility they had shown towards the people of God, are Tyre and Zidon, and the coasts of Philistia (Joel 3:4); but not the Syrians, who planned an expedition against Jerusalem after the conquest of Gath, which cost Joash not only the treasures of the temple and palace, but his own life also (2 Kings 12:18.; 2 Chronicles 24:23.), on account of which Amos predicted the destruction of the kingdom of Syria, and the transportation of the people to Assyria (Amos 1:3-Deuteronomy :). But inasmuch as this expedition of the Syrians was not “directed against the Philistines, so that only a single detachment made a passing raid into Judah on their return,” as Hengstenberg supposes, but was a direct attack upon the kingdom of Judah, to which the city of Gath, that Rehoboam had fortified, may still have belonged (see at 2 Kings 12:18-Psalms :), and inflicted a very severe defeat upon Judah, Joel would surely have mentioned the Syrians along with the other enemies of Judah, if he had prophesied after that event. And even if the absence of any reference to the hostility of the Syrians towards Judah is not strictly conclusive when taken by itself, it acquires great importance from the fact that the whole character of Joel's prophecy points to the times before Amos and Hosea. We neither meet with any allusion to the sins which Hosea and Amos condemn on the part of Judah, and which brought about the Assyrian judgment; nor is idolatry, as it prevailed under Joram, Ahaziah, and Athaliah, ever mentioned at all; but, on the contrary, the Jehovah-worship, which Jehoiada the high priest restored when Joash ascended the throne (2 Kings 11:17.; 2 Chronicles 23:16.), is presupposed with all its well-regulated and priestly ceremonial. These circumstances speak very decidedly in favour of the conclusion that the first thirty years of the reign of Joash, during which the king had Jehoiada the high priest for his adviser, are to be regarded as the period of Joel's ministry. No well-founded objection can be brought against this on account of the position which his book occupies among the minor prophets, since there is no ground for the opinion that the writings of the twelve minor prophets are arranged with a strict regard to chronology.
2. The Book of Joel. - The writings of Joel contain a connected prophetic proclamation, which is divided into two equal halves by Joel 2:18 and Joel 2:19. In the first half the prophet depicts a terrible devastation of Judah by locusts and scorching heat; and describing this judgment as the harbinger, or rather as the dawn, of Jehovah's great day of judgment, summons the people of all ranks to a general day of penitence, fasting, and prayer, in the sanctuary upon Zion, that the Lord may have compassion upon His nation (Joel 1:2-2:17). In the second half there follows, as the divine answer to the call of the people to repentance, the promise that the Lord will destroy the army of locusts, and bestow a rich harvest blessing upon the land by sending early and latter rain ( Joel 2:19-Daniel :), and then in the future pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28-Jonah :), and sit in judgment upon all nations, who have scattered His people and divided His land among them, and reward them according to their deeds; but that He will shelter His people from Zion, and glorify His land by rivers of abundant blessing (ch. 3). These two halves are connected together by the statement that Jehovah manifests the jealousy of love for His land, and pity towards His people, and answers them (Joel 2:18-Psalms :). So far the commentators are all agreed as to the contents of the book. But there are differences of opinion, more especially as to the true interpretation of the first half, - namely, whether the description of the terrible devastation by locusts is to be understood literally or allegorically.
(Note: The allegorical exposition is found even in the Chaldee, where the four names of the locusts are rendered literally in Joel 1:4, whereas in Joel 2:25 we find hostile tribes and kingdoms instead; also in Ephraem Syrus, Cyril of Alex., Theodoret, and Jerome, although Theodoret regards the literal interpretation as also admissible, and in Abarb., Luther, and many other expositors. And lately it has been vigorously defended by Hengstenberg in his Christology (i. p. 302 translation), and by Hävernick ( Introduction, ii. 2, p. 294ff.), who both of them agree with the fathers in regarding the four swarms of locusts as representing the imperial powers of Chaldea, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. On the other hand, Rufinus, Jarchi, Ab. Ezra, Dav. Kimchi, support the literal view that Joel is describing a terrible devastation of the land by locusts; also Bochart, Pococke, J. H. Michaelis, and in the most recent times, Hofmann and Delitzsch.)
The decision of this question depends upon the reply that is given to the prior question, whether Joel 1:2-2:17 contains a description of a present or a future judgment. If we observe, first of all, that the statement in Joel 2:18 and Joel 2:19, by which the promise is introduced, is expressed in four successive imperfects with Vav. consec. (the standing form for historical narratives), there can be no doubt whatever that this remark contains a historical announcement of what has taken place on the part of the Lord in consequence of the penitential cry of the people. And if this be established, it follows still further that the first half of our book cannot contain the prediction of a strictly future judgment, but must describe a calamity which has at any rate in part already begun. This is confirmed by the fact that the prophet from the very outset (Joel 1:2-Numbers :) described the devastation of the land by locusts as a present calamity, on the ground of which he summons the people to repentance. As Joel begins with an appeal to the old men, to see whether such things have happened in their own days, or the days of their fathers, and to relate them to their children and children's children, and then describes the thing itself with simple perfects, יתר הגּזם אכל וגו , it is perfectly obvious that he is not speaking of something that is to take place in the future, but of a divine judgment that has been inflicted already.
(Note: “Some imagine,” as Calvin well observes, “that a punishment is here threatened, which is to fall at some future time; but the context shows clearly enough that they are mistaken and mar the prophet's true meaning. He is rather reproving the hardness of the people, because they do not feel their plagues.”)
It is true that the prophets frequently employ preterites in their description of future events, but there is no analogous example that can be found of such a use of them as we find here in Joel 1:2-Numbers :; and the remark made by Hengstenberg, to the effect that we find the preterites employed in exactly the same manner in ch. 3, is simply incorrect. But if Joel had an existing calamity before his eye, and depicts it in Joel 1:2., the question in dispute from time immemorial, whether the description is to be understood allegorically or literally, is settled in favour of the literal view. “An allegory must contain some significant marks of its being so. Where these are wanting, it is arbitrary to assume that it is an allegory at all.” And we have no such marks here, as we shall show in our exposition in detail. “As it is a fact established by the unanimous testimony of the most credible witnesses, that wherever swarms of locusts descend, all the vegetation in the fields immediately vanishes, just as if a curtain had been rolled up; that they spare neither the juicy bark of woody plants, nor the roots below the ground; that their cloud-like swarms darken the air, and render the sun and even men at a little distance off invisible; that their innumerable and closely compact army advances in military array in a straight course, most obstinately maintained; that it cannot be turned back or dispersed, either by natural obstacles or human force; that on its approach a loud roaring noise is heard like the rushing of a torrent, a waterfall, or a strong wind; that they no sooner settle to eat, than you hear on all sides the grating sound of their mandibles, and, as Volney expresses it, might fancy that you heard the foraging of an invisible army; - if we compare these and other natural observations with the statements of Joel, we shall find everywhere the most faithful picture, and nowhere any hyperbole requiring for its justification and explanation that the army of locusts should be paraphrased into an army of men; more especially as the devastation of a country by an army of locusts is far more terrible than that of an ordinary army; and there is no allusion, either expressed or hinted at, to a massacre among the people. And if we consider, still further, that the migratory locusts ( Acridium migratorium, in Oken, Allg. Naturgesch. v. 3, p. 1514ff.) find their grave sometimes in dry and barren steppes, and sometimes in lakes and seas, it is impossible to comprehend how the promise in Joel 2:20 - one part of the army now devastating Judah shall be hurled into the southern desert, the van into the Dead Sea, and the rear into the Mediterranean - can harmonize with the allegorical view” (Delitzsch).
(Note: Proofs of this have been collected in great numbers by Sam. Bochart ( Hieroz.), and both Oedmann ( Vermischte Sammlungen, ii. 76ff. and vi. 74ff.) and Credner (appendix to his Commentary on Joel) have contributed abundant gleanings gathered from the reports of travellers.)
The only thing that appears to favour the idea that the locusts are used figuratively to represent hostile armies, is the circumstance that Joel discerns in the devastation of the locusts as depicted by him, the drawing near or coming of the day of the Lord (Joel 1:15; Joel 2:1), connected with the fact that Isaiah speaks of the judgment upon Baal, which was accomplished by a hostile army, in the words of Joel (Joel 1:15; see Isaiah 13:6). But on closer examination, this appearance does not rise into reality. It is true that by the “day of Jehovah” we cannot understand a different judgment from the devastation of the locusts, since such a supposition would be irreconcilable with Joel 2:1. But the expression, “for the day of Jehovah is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty does it come,” shows that the prophet did not so completely identify the day of the Lord with the plague of locusts, as that it was exhausted by it, but that he merely saw in this the approach of the great day of judgment, i.e., merely one element of the judgment, which falls in the course of ages upon the ungodly, and will be completed in the last judgment. One factor in the universal judgment is the judgment pronounced upon Babylon, and carried out by the Medes; so that it by no means follows from the occurrence of the words of Joel in the prophecy of Isaiah, that the latter put an allegorical interpretation upon Joel's description of the devastation by the locusts.
But even if there are no conclusive indications or hints, that can be adduced in support of the allegorical interpretation, it cannot be denied, on the other hand, that the description, as a whole, contains something more than a poetical painting of one particular instance of the devastation of Judah by a more terrible swarm of locusts than had ever been known before; that is to say, that it bears an ideal character surpassing the reality, - a fact which is overlooked by such commentators as can find nothing more in the account than the description of a very remarkable plague. The introduction, “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? Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children the following generation” (Joel 1:2-Leviticus :); and the lamentation in v. 9, that the meat-offering and drink-offering have been destroyed from the house of Jehovah; and still more, the picture of the day of the Lord as a day of darkness and of gloominess like the morning red spread over the mountains; a great people and a strong, such as has not been from all eternity, and after which there will be none like to for ever and ever (Joel 2:2), - unquestionably show that Joel not only regarded the plague of locusts that came upon Judah in the light of divine revelation, and as a sign, but described it as the breaking of the Lord's great day of judgment, or that in the advance of the locusts he saw the army of God, at whose head Jehovah marched as captain, and caused His voice, the terrible voice of the Judge of the universe, to be heard in the thunder (Joel 2:11), and that he predicted this coming of the Lord, before which the earth trembles, the heavens shake, and sun, moon, and stars lose their brightness (Joel 2:10), as His coming to judge the world. This proclamation, however, was no production of mere poetical exaggeration, but had its source in the inspiration of the Spirit of God, which enlightened the prophet; so that in the terrible devastation that had fallen upon Judah he discerned one feature of the day of judgment of the Lord, and on the ground of the judgment of God that had been thus experienced, proclaimed that the coming of the Lord to judgment upon the whole world was near at hand. The medium through which this was conveyed to his mind was meditation upon the history of the olden time, more especially upon the judgments through which Jehovah had effected the redemption of His people out of Egypt, in connection with the punishment with which Moses threatened the transgressors of the law (Deuteronomy 28:38-Malachi :, Deuteronomy 28:42), - namely, that locusts should devour their seed, their plants, their fields, and their fruits. Hengstenberg has correctly observed, that the words of Joel in Joel 2:10, “There have not been ever the like,” are borrowed from Exodus 10:14; but it is not in these words alone that the prophet points to the Egyptian plague of locusts. In the very introduction to his prophecy (Joel 1:2-Leviticus :), viz., the question whether such a thing has occurred, and the charge, Tell it to your children, etc., there is an unmistakeable allusion to Exodus 10:2, where the Lord charges Moses to tell Pharaoh that He will do signs, in order that Pharaoh may relate it to his son and his son's son, and then announces the plague of locusts in these words: “that thy fathers and thy fathers' fathers have not seen such things since their existence upon the earth” (Exodus 10:6).
As the basis of this judgment of God which fell upon Egypt in the olden time, and by virtue of a higher illumination, Joel discerned in the similar judgment that had burst upon Judah in his own time, a type of the coming of Jehovah's great day of judgment, and made it the substratum of his prophecy of the judgment of the wrath of the Lord which would come upon Judah, to terrify the sinners out of their self-security, and impel them by earnest repentance, fasting, and prayer, to implore the divine mercy for deliverance from utter destruction. This description of the coming day of Jehovah, i.e., of the judgment of the world, for which the judgment inflicted upon Judah of the devastation by locusts prepared the way, after the foretype of these occurrences of both the olden and present time, is no allegory, however, in which the heathen nations, by whom the judgments upon the covenant nation that had gone further and further from its God would be executed in the time to come, are represented as swarms of locusts coming one after another and devastating the land of Judah; but it has just the same reality as the plague of locusts through which God once sought to humble the pride of the Egyptian Pharaoh. We are no more at liberty to turn the locusts in the prophecy before us into hostile armies, than to pronounce the locusts by which Egypt was devastated, allegorical figures representing enemies or troops of hostile cavalry. Such a metamorphosis as this is warranted neither by the vision in Amos 7:1-Leviticus :, where Amos is said to have seen the divine judgment under the figure of a swarm of locusts; nor by that described in Revelation 9:3., where locusts which come out of the bottomless pit are commanded neither to hurt the grass nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only to torment men with their scorpion-stings: for even in these visions the locusts are not figurative, representing hostile nations; but on the basis of the Egyptian plague of locusts and of Joel's prophecy, they stand in Amos as a figurative representation of the devastation of the land, and in the Apocalypse as the symbol of a supernatural plague inflicted upon the ungodly. Lastly, another decisive objection to the allegorical interpretation is to be found in the circumstance, that neither in the first nor in the second half of his book does Joel predict the particular judgments which God will inflict in the course of time, partly upon His degenerate people, and partly upon the hostile powers of the world, but that he simply announces the judgment of God upon Judah and the nations of the world in its totality, as the great and terrible day of the Lord, without unfolding more minutely or even suggesting the particular facts in which it will be historically realized. In this respect, the ideality of his prophecy is maintained throughout; and the only speciality given to it is, that in the first half the judgment upon the covenant people is proclaimed, and in the second the judgment upon the heathen nations: the former as the groundwork of a call to repentance; the latter as the final separation between the church of the Lord and its opponents. And this separation between the covenant nation and the powers of the world is founded on fact. The judgment only falls upon the covenant nation when it is unfaithful to its divine calling, when it falls away from its God, and that not to destroy and annihilate it, but to lead it back by means of chastisement to the Lord its God. If it hearken to the voice of its God, who speaks to it in judgments, the Lord repents of the evil, and turns the calamity into salvation and blessing. It was Joel's mission to proclaim this truth in Judah, and turn the sinful nation to its God. To this end he proclaimed to the people, that the Lord was coming to judgment in the devastation that the locusts had spread over the land, and by depicting the great and terrible day of the Lord, called upon them to turn to their God with all their heart. This call to repentance was not without effect. The Lord was jealous for His land, and spared His people (Joel 2:18), and sent His prophets to proclaim the removal of the judgment and the bestowal of a bountiful earthly ad spiritual blessing: viz., for the time immediately ensuing the destruction of the army of locusts, the sending of the teacher for righteousness, and a plentiful fall of rain for the fruitful supply of the fruits of the ground (Joel 2:19, Joel 2:27); and in the more remote future, the pouring out of His Spirit upon the whole congregation, and on the day of the judgment upon all nations the deliverance and preservation of His faithful worshippers; and finally, after the judgment, the transformation and eternal glory of Zion (Joel 2:28-3:21). Here, again, the ideality of the prophetic announcement is maintained throughout, although a distinction is made between the inferior blessing in the immediate future, and the higher benediction of the church of God at a more distant period. The outpouring of the Spirit of God upon all flesh is followed, without any intervening link, by the announcement of the coming of the terrible day of the Lord, as a day of judgment upon all nations, including those who have shown themselves hostile to Judah, either in Joel's own time or a little while before. The nations are gathered together in the valley of Jehoshaphat, and there judged by Jehovah through His mighty heroes; but the sons of Israel are delivered and sheltered by their God. Here, again, all the separate judgments, which fall upon the nations of the world that are hostile to God, during the many centuries of the gradual development of the kingdom of God upon earth, are summed up in one grand judicial act on the day of Jehovah, through which the separation is completely effected between the church of the Lord and its foes, the ungodly power of the world annihilated, and the kingdom of God perfected; but without the slightest hint, that both the judgment upon the nations and the glorification of the kingdom of God will be fulfilled through a succession of separate judgments.
The book of Joel, therefore, contains two prophetic addresses, which are not only connected together as one work by the historical remark in Joel 2:18-Psalms :, but which stand in the closest relation to each other, so far as their contents are concerned, though the one was not delivered to the people directly after the other, but the first during the devastation by the locusts, to lead the people to observe the judgment of God and to assemble together in the temple for a service of penitence and prayer; and the second not till after the priests had appointed a day of fasting, penitence, and prayer, in the house of the Lord, in consequence of His solemn call to repentance, and in the name of the people had prayed to the Lord to pity and spare His inheritance. The committal of these addresses to writing did not take place, at any rate, till after the destruction of the army of the locusts, when the land began to recover from the devastation that it had suffered. But whether Joel committed these addresses to writings just as he delivered them to the congregation, and merely linked them together into one single work by introducing the historical remark that unites them, or whether he merely inserted in his written work the essential contents of several addresses delivered after this divine judgment, and worked them up into one connected prophecy, it is impossible to decide with certainty. But there is no doubt whatever as to the composition of the written work by the prophet himself. - For the different commentaries upon the book of Joel, see my Introduction to the Old Testament.
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18