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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Joel

- Joel

by Peter Pett

Commentary on the Prophecy of Joel.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Who Was Joel?

All that we know of Joel which is at all dependable is found in the prophecy itself. Thus we learn that he was the son of a man called Pethuel (otherwise unknown), that he presumably prophesied in Judah (Joel 3:17; Joel 3:20), and that he had good familiarity with Temple ideas and procedures (Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:15-17). We may therefore surmise, with a good likelihood of being correct, that he prophesied in Jerusalem, either as an official Temple prophet, or simply as an independent prophet called by God. But the message that he brought was not the word of the Temple, but ‘the word of YHWH’ (Joel 1:1).

The Date Of Joel.

We have no direct evidence on which to rely in determining the date of Joel’s prophecy, apart again from what we find in the prophecy itself. But the fact that there is no mention of the Assyrians, Babylonians or Persians, and that the enemies of Judah at this time appear to have been Egypt, Philistia, in a secondary way the Ionians (Greeks) as purchasers of Judean slaves, Edom, and Tyre and Sidon, would serve to confirm a date for the prophecy prior to Amos. Amos makes clear that widespread slave trading in respect of Judean slaves was taking place in his time in Philistia and Tyre, and at that particular time there were almost certainly good connections between Ionian traders and nations around Judah (we know, for example, from Assyrian records that Assyria certainly had trading contacts with the Ionians in the 8th century BC). And this date can be seen as supported by the position of the book as second in the twelve prophets, with Hosea presumably coming first because it was the largest and one of the earliest. We would not, of course, expect those who originally ordered the Hebrew Bible to have the same precision with respect to dates as we have, but on the whole the books appear to commence with the roughly eighth century works (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah), and close with the latest 6th and 5th century works (Haggai, Zechariah Malachi). To us this might make Obadiah out of place, but there were certainly early traditions which placed him around 9th-8th centuries BC, even if they were wrong.

Arguments for a later date include reference to God’s people as ‘Israel’ in Joel 2:27 which has been seen by some as indicating a later date, although with regard to this we need to recognise that the Judean prophets did tend to see the two kingdoms as one because they belonged to YHWH, and therefore regularly thought in terms of the whole as ‘Israel’. Other arguments for a late date include the non-mention of a king, and the reference in Joel 3:2 to the scattering of Israel (but not necessarily Judah) among the nations. None of these, however, are conclusive, as Israelites were scattered among the nations by captivity in war almost from the beginning.

The early date might also be seen as supported (or otherwise) by the similarities that can be traced between Joel and the other prophets, something which we must now consider.

Similarities Between Joel And Other Prophets.

There are a number of occasions when Joel appears, either to have copied phrases from other prophets, or to have had his phrases copied by others. Consider, for example, the similarities with Amos:

· Joel 3:16 says, ‘And YHWH will roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem’, which is exactly duplicated in Amos 1:2, ‘YHWH will roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem.’

· Joel 3:18 says, ‘And it will come about in that day, that the mountains will drop down sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk.’ Whilst Amos 9:13 says, ‘Behold the days come --- and the mountains will drop sweet wine, and all the hills will melt.’

It would appear from these examples that one had unquestionably read the other, or had heard his prophecies cited.

Consider also Isaiah:

· Joel 1:15 says, And cry to YHWH, “Alas for the day!” For the day of YHWH is at hand, and as destruction from the Almighty will it come.’ We can compare this with Isaiah 13:6 which says, ‘Howl you, for the day of YHWH is at hand, as destruction from the Almighty will it come.’

· Or again Joel 3:10 says, ‘Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears.’ Compare Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3, which say the reverse, ‘And they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.’

Again it would appear that one has read the other, or heard them cited.

We can also consider Obadiah:

· Joel 2:32 says, ‘For in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape,’ whilst Obadiah 1:17 says, ‘But in mount Zion there will be those who escape, and it will be holy.’

· Joel 3:4 says, And if you recompense me, swiftly and speedily will I return your recompense on your own head?’ whilst Obadiah 1:15 says, For the day of YHWH is near on all the nations, as you have done it will be done to you, your dealing will return on your own head.’

Whilst on their own these resemblances with Obadiah could be seen as coincidence, they gain in significance in the light of his similarities with other prophets.

Further examples of similarities are:

· Joel 2:6 says, ‘At their presence the peoples are in anguish, all faces have become pale, whilst Nahum 2:10 says, ‘And anguish is in all loins, and the faces of them all are waxed pale.’

· Joel 2:17 says, ‘Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?”, whilst Psalms 79:10 says, ‘why should the heathen then say, “Where is their God.”

· Joel 2:28-29 says, ‘And it will come about afterwards, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, --- and also on the servants and on the handmaids, in those days will I pour out my Spirit,’ whilst Ezekiel 39:29 says, ‘For I have poured out my Spirit on the house of Israel.’

· Joel 2:31 says, ‘The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of YHWH comes,’ whilst Malachi says, ‘Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of YHWH comes.’

It is difficult to see all these similarities as mere coincidences, and we must therefore consider that the most likely explanation for them was that Joel either pre-dates or post-dates at least some of the other prophets (those with the closest similarities). It should further be pointed out that we have cited only those similarities which are closest, and that there are a number of other less striking similarities not included above.

This then raises the question as to which is most likely? Is it more likely that Joel had heard all these prophets cited and had utilised what he had heard? Or is it more likely that each of these other prophets had read Joel, or heard him cited? If we select the first alternative it undoubtedly has important implications as to when the other prophecies were gathered together so as to be available to Joel. It seems, however, to us, that the most likely scenario is that Joel was read by the other prophets, or that they had heard him cited. This would then indicate an early date for Joel prior to Amos. And this suggestion is supported by its early place among the twelve ‘minor’ prophets, following Hosea but coming prior to Amos.

If we accept this early date for Joel then we should possibly see him as prophesying during the reign of Joash, at a time while Joash was still young and under the guiding hand of ‘the Priest’ (2 Kings 12:1 ff). This would help to explain both the absence of any mention of the king, and the stress on the priesthood. But any time around that period is possible.

Another alternative possibility points to around the time of Haggai and Zechariah (c 500 BC), for that was at a time when there was a Temple in operation which was looked on with some favour, in contrast with Malachi’s later view of it, but this has to assume that the Persian overlordship is simply ignored, and that the Persians looked the other way at some of the activities of Israel’s neighbours. Other more radical scholars have suggested even later dates seeing it as made up of two prophecies, the one down to earth and the other eschatological, which have been combined. This argument is mainly based on the eschatological material that it contains. But that then involves removing the eschatological material from all the other earlier prophets, for they are equally eschatological in the sense that Joel is. But this appears to be a case of making decisions on the basis of a pre-determined theory. Fortunately, however, the question is not all that important for the date that we assign to it does not affect in any way the message of the prophecy. So we can leave the matter to the scholars recognising that nobody knows.

The Message Of Joel.

The first two chapters of Joel, going up to Joel 2:27, deal either with an invasion of Judah by huge swarms of locusts, or alternately, depending on whose interpretation you accept, with the approach of a huge human army which is compared with locusts, or by both, the one illustrating the other. This then leads on to YHWH’s promise of the future pouring out of His Spirit (Joel 2:28), with its consequential results, which is seen as followed at some stage by the days of judgment on the nations, although as the prophets necessarily saw everything with a foreshortened view, the one need not necessarily be seen as immediately following the other. The prophets had no idea how long the fulfilment of God’s purposes would take once He began to work, nor of the time-scale that would be involved. They spoke rather of what God would do in the future on His own time-scale. Thus we may see that the prophet in fact saw two peaks ahead in this case, the first the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, ‘the drencher with the Holy Spirit’, and at Pentecost and in the early church, and the second the coming final judgment of God in the end times, but that he had no idea of what the distance might be that lay between them. However, the final consequence of God’s judgment was to be the triumph of God’s people, who would abide ‘for ever’ (Joel 3:17-21), with those who had meanwhile opposed God’s people seriously languishing, seemingly into the long term future (Joel 3:19), (which tends to cancel out any theory of a so-called ‘millennium’ with its theoretical golden years of peace for all). Whilst therefore the prophet speaks in earthly terms because he had no other (heavenly spheres were seen as the possession of ‘the gods’) this clearly has reference, in Isaianic and New Testament terms, to life on the new Heaven and the new earth. It is only that life that can be ‘for ever’. There is then no place here for any earthly ‘millennium’ (which was a concept seemingly unknown to either Jesus Christ, Paul or Peter and is based on a wrong interpretation of Revelation 20:0). The glorious future will take place in the new Heaven and the new earth that the patriarchs will find to be their ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:10-14), and the same will be true for Israel.

Do The First Two Chapters To Joel 2:27 Refer To A Literal Plague Of Locusts Of Exceptional Size, Or Do They Also Have Human Armies In View?

An important question in interpreting the prophecy is as to whether reference in Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:27 to what appears to be a number of plagues of locusts actually refers to genuine locusts, or is merely to be seen as using locusts as a vivid metaphor for human armies. There are three main views concerning it (including inevitably a number of variations). The first refers chapters Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:27 to literal plagues of locusts that had already taken place and were taking place and which had brought Judah to a devastating halt, something which enables Joel to call God’s people to repentance, and which he sees as pointing to the final ‘day of YHWH’ when God’s final purposes will be worked out in an even more devastating way. The second refers chapter 1 to a literal plague of locusts, but considers chapter Joel 2:1-27 to refer to a human army seen metaphorically in terms of the locust plagues described in chapter 1. The third applies both chapters to a human army on a similar metaphorical basis. Sometimes the human army is then seen as approaching in the relatively near future (e.g. the Assyrians or Babylonians), and sometimes as ‘eschatological’, that is, as appearing ‘at the end times’. As this is clearly important for the exegesis of the first two chapters the question must be considered in some detail. What we need, however, to do, is rid our minds of pre-conceived conclusions so that we do not just read into it what we want to find.

The Grounds For Seeing A Reference To A Literal Plague Of Locusts In Both Chapters.

There are a number of sound arguments which support this conclusion.

The first argument for seeing the reference as to literal plagues of locusts is that Joel 1:4 and Joel 2:25 assume it. In these two verses four different ‘types’ of locust are described, either in terms of growing maturity (for which see below), or in terms of four different waves of locusts which descend one after the other upon the land. This would prima facie appear to indicate that in both cases genuine plagues of locusts are in mind. On the other hand it is said by those who dispute this that it is always possible that the descriptions were put in simply in order to build up the picture of total destruction. But there can really be no doubt that the prophet’s mind was filled with the idea of locusts, and nowhere else in Scripture are such contrasting distinctions between locusts found.

The second argument is that the actual descriptions favour reference to genuine locusts. Thus in Joel 1:6-7 we read;

Joel 1:6-7

‘For a nation is come up upon my land,

Strong, and without number,

His teeth are the teeth of a lion,

And he has the jaw-teeth of a lioness.

He has laid my vine waste,

And de-barked my fig-tree,

He has made it clean bare, and cast it away,

Its branches are made white.’

The vivid description of the ability to chew through wood, and of the laying bare of the trunk and branches is typical of locusts. It must be questioned whether it really has any relevance, even metaphorically, to human beings who would not use their teeth for chewing wood, nor lay trunks and branches bare. Thus it might be felt that if the prophet had a human army in mind he is very much over-emphasising the metaphor.

Furthermore, while certainly Joel 2:3-5 might be seen as giving the impression of an army of human beings (but see the descriptions of locusts on the march below), this would appear to be contradicted by Joel 2:6-10 where there is clear reference to the behaviour of insects and the consequences of their appearance. Consider especially in this regard verses 9-10. Thus:

Joel 2:9-10

They leap on the city,

They run on the wall,

They climb up into the houses,

They enter in at the windows like a thief.’

The earth quakes before them,

The heavens tremble,

The sun and the moon are darkened,

And the stars withdraw their shining.’

In this description we can visualise the insects running on the walls, climbing up into houses, and entering in at windows, something typical of what happens on the advance of a creeping army of young locusts, while the blotting out of the sun and moon in the heavens is a typical result of huge swarms of flying locusts, a phenomenon which is often commented on when locusts are under discussion (compare Exodus 10:15, ‘so they (the locusts) covered the whole face of the earth so that the land was darkened’). For other connections between Joel and Exodus 10:0 see the argument which follows.

It is, on the other hand, not easy to see how these details would be necessary in order to describe a human army, nor how they would add to the realism of the picture. They are deliberately taking us away from reality, for no soldiers would remotely have behaved like this. They would have entered houses by breaking down the doors, (they had not strictly come as thieves), not by running up the walls and climbing in through windows (an expertise of more modern thieves). Nor is there any metaphorical lesson to be learned from it, except in a very general way. So in our view the impression given is that it was the plague of locusts which was partly seen in terms of a human army, (the vivid picture in verses 3-5 illustrating the orderliness of the locusts, see description below in argument 4), rather than the other way round.

The third grounds for seeing the reference as being to genuine locusts are the sources from which the ideas expressed by Joel are obtained. The words in Joel 2:2, ‘There has not ever been the like, nor will be any more after them, even to the years of many generations,’ surely has in mind Exodus 10:14, ‘The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever will be again’ (incidentally demonstrating that the last idea is not to be applied too literally). Taken with our comment about Exodus 10:15 above this is certainly significant. And this connection with Exodus 10:0 is further confirmed in that Exodus 10:1-2 says, ‘Then YHWH said to Moses, --- “And that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am YHWH.” Compare with this Joel 1:2-3, ‘Hear this, you old men, and give ear, all you inhabitants of the land. Has this been in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell you your children of it, and your children their children, and their children another generation.’ It would appear that the ‘coincidences’ are too many for them to be accidental, and that Joel had the tradition in Exodus 10:0 on mind. We should further note that in Exodus 10:0 all this was connected with a genuine plague of locusts.

Thus these three clear connections between Joel’s vivid picture and Exodus 10:0 would suggest that Joel had been vividly reminded by the current plagues of locusts of that previous experience of God sending locusts as a judgment on the Egyptians, reinforcing his own view that this current plague was a kind of judgment on Judah, a ‘Day of YHWH’.

A fourth argument in favour of both chapters describing plagues of locusts comes from what can happen when a plague of locusts arrives. The initial arrival of the flying locusts can often result in the devastation of the land (described in chapter 1), but the locusts can then lay millions of eggs and in two months time those eggs hatch out and, being unable to fly, the young locusts go on the march in the search for food, devouring all before them, moving like a great army. Attempts are often made to stop them by walls of fire, but it is usually in vain. Nothing prevents their relentless march. This is what is being described in chapter 2.

Dr. Thomson in ‘the Land and the Book’ describes this eerie march from the point of view of an eye-witness. Having described a visitation of locusts who had laid millions of eggs over a large area, he says, ‘The people, familiar with the habits of the locust, looked with anxiety to the time when those eggs would be hatched, nor were their fears groundless or exaggerated. For several days prior to 1st June we had heard that millions of young locusts were on their march up the valley towards our village, and at length I was told that they had reached the lower part of it. Summoning all the people that I could collect we went to meet and attack them, hoping to stop their progress altogether, or at least to turn aside their line of march. Never shall I forget the impression produced by the first view of them --- these we now confronted were without wings, and about the size of full-grown grasshoppers --- but their number was astounding. The whole face of the mountain was black with them. On they came like a living deluge. We dug trenches and kindled fires, and beat and burned to death heaps upon heaps of them, but the effort was utterly useless. Wave after wave rolled up the mountainside and poured over rocks, walls, ditches and hedges - those behind covering up and bridging over the masses already killed. After a long and fatiguing contest I descended the mountain to examine the depth of the column, but I could not see the end of it. ---it was perfectly appalling to watch this animated river as it flowed up the road and ascended the hill above my house. --- for four days they continued to pass on towards the east, and finally only a few stragglers of the mighty host were left behind --- nothing in their habits is more striking than the pertinacity with which they all pursue the same line of march, like a disciplined army’ (see Joel 2:7-9). And it should be noted that what Dr Thomson was describing was just the result of a ‘normal’ visit of locusts, not of outstandingly exceptional ones such as happened in the days of Joel. We can only try to imagine the days of Joel when, after the land had first been visited by swarms of flying locusts, the whole land of Judah was filled from end to end with swarms of young locusts on the march, resulting from the millions of eggs that had been laid, and accompanied by the desperate burning of the land by farmers and vineyard owners in the hopeless attempt to stop them.

A fifth argument for seeing what is described as referring to an actual invasion by locusts is found in the fact that they will finally be dispersed, partly in the direction of the ‘eastern sea’ (the Dead Sea, compare Deuteronomy 11:24), and partly in the direction of ‘the western sea’ (Joel 2:20), (that is, the Great Sea, or Mediterranean). This would appear to confirm that there were a number of swarms which would finally be dispersed in different directions by the winds. But a similar kind of dispersion is not likely to have been seen as applying to human armies at that time.

A sixth argument for seeing them as genuine locusts is the emphasis on their running on the walls. No such emphasis is found anywhere else when speaking of invading soldiers, but it would be highly noticeable with insects. Furthermore one thing that is noticeable in the descriptions is that there is no suggestion of blood being shed in any way. If soldiers are being referred to in metaphor it has certainly been heavily disguised, almost as though Joel wanted us to see them as locusts.

The argument that Judah would have been so used to swarms of locusts and their effects that no prophet would have seen such a swarm as important enough to speak of it in this way is to overlook, firstly that we see such things from the perspective of history, with many parallel examples to go by, and therefore assess them on a totally different basis from someone to whom such a large plague of locusts might have been a once in a lifetime experience, never experienced before, and therefore seen as unique and overwhelming, reminding him of God’s judgment on Egypt and of the coming Day of YHWH, and secondly, that the plague was clearly quite remarkably large, covering the whole of Judah, and may indeed have come in four waves or more one after the other (Joel 1:4), so that it seemed never ending. Standing in Jerusalem, with news coming from all over Judah of a Judah totally devastated by the largest plagues of locusts ‘ever known’, both by air and by land (chapter 1), would certainly have made the prophet think, especially as they were advancing on Jerusalem chapter 2), and makes us realise why he saw in what had happened, and what was happening, a picture of the ‘day of YHWH’ (the time when God ‘has His day’ in the past, present and future), especially in the light of Exodus 10:0. There were many Days of YHWH for they occurred whenever YHWH determined on judgment. They did, however, all look forward to a final Day of YHWH when YHWH would finalise His purposes.

When we add to all this that, especially in chapter 1, there is not the slightest indication anywhere that the descriptions are intended to be speaking metaphorically of human beings, (for Joel nowhere draws any parallel), it would appear to confirm that we are to see Joel as referring to an actual plague of locusts. Without such pointers as are required to indicate metaphors we must either take Joel at face value or recognise that we can make him mean anything we like.