Book Overview - Joel
by Joseph Exell
I. In What Period Should Joel’s Activity Be Placed?--Before we can get a true idea of any man who played an important part on the stage of the world in past days, it is essential that we should know something of his environment--what the character of his age was, who his contemporaries were. This knowledge is of peculiar value in connection with the prophets; for, more than anything else, they were God’s messengers and missionaries to those among whom they lived and moved and had their being. They preached first to the generation and the epoch in which their lot was cast. No doubt their words had other applications, because God’s truth, like God from whom it comes, may fulfil itself in many ways. But we shall hold a very unnatural and a very inadequate theory of prophecy if we think of it as dealing solely, or even principally, with the future. It is the philosophy of history, unveiling its meaning and pointing its lessons. If the prophet had had to do only or mainly with the distant future, it would have mattered little to us in what particular age he chanced to live. Because he was linked very truly and vitally to his own days and his own people, it is most needful that we should try to understand his surroundings. What, then, did Joel preach and labour? We cannot say that there is anything like unanimity in the reply to the question. That he belonged to the kingdom of Judah and dwelt in Jerusalem itself--these facts are admitted by all, and are indeed rendered indisputable by the prophet’s frequent references to Zion, to the house of Jehovah, to the porch and the altar, the priests and the ministers, the meat-offering and the drink-offering. His date, however, is not so easily determined as his home. Opinions have varied from the middle of the tenth century before Christ down to the late days of the Maccabees. But, after all, it is pretty certain that Joel is among the very oldest of the prophets. Amos, himself one of the first in that goodly fellowship, knew his writings and loved them, and regarded their author as a teacher, at whose feet he was willing to sit and listen. The herdsman of Tekoa, to whose soul the breath of the Spirit came impelling him to speak, opened his prophecy with the awful declaration with which Joel had closed his--“The Lord shall roar out of Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem.” Isaiah, too, though he was so great and original, was not ashamed to glean from the son of Pethuel sonic of those spirit-stirring thoughts which he uttered in the ears of his people.£ Evidently Joel was more ancient than these two. Something may be learned, too, from the silences of his prophecy as well as from its positive declarations; for there are significant omissions in his writings. He does not so much as allude to Assyria, the terrible power, whose armies, having menaced Israel often, at last carried its tribes into captivity, and whose might and cruelty and doom are frequent themes with the prophets. No doubt there are interpreters who find Assyria and its people everywhere latent under Joel’s glowing language; but they are the exponents, as we shall see, of a theory which is not the wisest or the best. Nor has our prophet anything to say even of Syria, a nearer neighbour of Israel and Judah, with whom they were often at war. We may conclude that its people did not harass his during the time when he fulfilled his mission, else he would surely have had some message from God regarding them. And so the invasion under Hazael, when, because King Joash had forgotten the lessons which he had learned from the godly priest Jehoiada, and had acted foolishly, and unlike a king of Jehovah’s holy nation, “the host of Syria came up against him to Judah and Jerusalem, and destroyed all the princes of the people from among the people, and sent all the spoil of them unto the king of Damascus,”--this invasion, so glorious for Syria but so ignominious for Judah, could hardly have fallen within the years when Joel lived and preached. But it took place about the middle of the ninth century before Christ; and we are constrained therefore to fix his age before that time. Yet not very long before; for he could exult in the brilliant victory which, in the opening years of this century, Jehoshaphat had gained over the forces that combined themselves against him and against his God; and could speak of it as the picture in miniature of a still nobler triumph which the Lord would win in the latter days. “I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will contend with them there for my people and for My heritage Israel.” Such considerations help us to a decision--to this decision, that Joel prophesied nearly nine hundred years before the advent of Christ, perhaps in the days when Joash was still a child, and when the kingdom of which he was the nominal sovereign was managed by others in his stead. For the preacher’s counsel is not addressed to any king, but to the old men, and to the inhabitants of the land, and above all to the priests, who were the real rulers during the regency; and why should he have so much to say to these classes, if not because they were more prominent in his time than the monarch himself? The reign of Joash commenced about 877 b.c., when he was but seven years of age; and in the years just succeeding his accession we may imagine Joel coining forth in the presence of the people to utter the prophecies of which we have some fragments in the book which bears his name. One other proof, confirmatory of this date, may be added. Names, we know, were significant among the Hebrews. Jewish fathers and mothers were very careful what they called their children. And Joel means “Jehovah is God.” But that had been the cry of the Israelites on Mount Carmel, on the memorable day when Elijah triumphed over the prophets of Baal, and slew them with his own hand until Kishon ran red with their blood. “Jehovah, He is the God,” they exclaimed, “Jehovah, He is the God.” Now, the birth of Joel, if he belonged to the period to which I have assigned him, would fall just about the time when on Carmel Elijah waxed valiant in fight, and turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Joining this link of evidence to all the rest, have we not a chain comparatively strong?
II. Is Joel’s prophecy literal or figurative?--Does he deal with the present and the actual, or rather with events which were still in the future, and which he depicts only in the language of metaphor and imagery? Each belief has found its advocates. To all outward seeming he speaks of a solemn visitation of God’s providence, which lay heavily on the land of Judah in his own time. Swarm after swarm of locusts had spread over the country, and had permitted no green tiling to escape them. Matters were sad enough, indeed, before they showed themselves. Long-continued drought had robbed the fields of their wonted fertility. The vine was dried up, and the fig-tree languished; the pomegranate and the palm and the apple were withered; the herds of cattle were perplexed because they had no pasture; all joy was gone from the sons of men. But when the locusts appeared the crowning desolation came. How graphically and vividly Joel describes these locusts! Joel, we shall acknowledge, had manifestly an intimate acquaintance with the natural history of the locust. Then, too, in what splendid colours He paints the invasion of the insect-host! He speaks of the shadow which their number throw over the land--a shadow resembling that of the dim grey twilight of “the morning spread upon the mountains.” He tells how they advance; “ like horsemen do they come”; “like the noise of chariots they leap upon the tops of the hills”; “like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble”; “as a strong people set in battle array.” They are well disciplined, for Joel can confirm from his own observation the scientific truth which Rabbi Agur imparted to his disciples, Ithiel and Ucal--the truth that, though the locusts have no king, yet they go forth by ordered bands. “They march every one on his ways,” he assures us; “they do not break their ranks, neither does one thrust another.” Before their onset the people are powerless. “They run to and fro in the streets”; “they mount the wall”; “they climb up upon the houses”; “they go in at the windows like a thief.” How, indeed, can they be defeated and put to shame? For this is the army of Jehovah; and they are strong--they cannot but be strong, whether they be angels or men or locusts of the field--who execute His word. And so, by heaping terror upon terror, Joel leads his hearers on to the goal towards which he has been aiming. He calls on them to repent of their sin. He bids them, in the Lord’s name, rend their hearts and not their garments. At this stage, with this call to repentance, the first part of his prophecy ends. We may imagine a pause, of longer or shorter duration, during which Joel sees his commands complied with. Priest and people humble themselves, and seek the pardon of the God whom they have offended. It is not in vain that they do so. When these poor men cry, the Lord hears and saves them out of all their troubles. This joyful fact Joel commemorates when he opens his lips again, and his strain passes flora the minor to the major key. Translate the futures of the 18th verse of the second chapter, where the happier section of the prophecy begins, by imperfects, as there can be little doubt they should be translated; and you will know how true was the repentance of Judah--how seasonable was God’s succour--how thoroughly the winter passed from the prophet’s soul, and lo, the time of the singing of birds was come. And then the horizon of the prophet widens. He thinks of better blessings still which God has for His sons and daughters. He predicts the shame of those ancient foes of Israel’s youth--the only foes of Jehovah’s people with whom Joel was acquainted--Egypt, and Edom, and Philistia, and Phoenicia, and the merchants of the north who sold Hebrew children as slaves to the Greeks of Asia Minor, giving a boy for an harlot and a girl for wine. He prophesies the near approach of a day of the Lord, full of darkness like the pillar of cloud for all His enemies, of light and peace like the pillar of fire for all His friends. When he ceases to speak, this is the vision which he leaves with us--on the one side, nothing; and on the other, Judah and Jerusalem. God’s foes have become non-existent; only His people survive. “Egypt shall be a desolation, and Edom a desolate wilderness; but Judah shall dwell for ever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation.” With this note of stern triumph, of lofty intolerance, Joel draws to a close the second and brighter part of his prophecy. Such in substance is the book. Is it not strange that some interpreters should have refused to adopt what seems its plain and evident sense? The drought was not a literal drought, they say; the locusts were not the insects of the natural world which have carried ruin and destitution many a time to Eastern lands. One critic thinks that Joel intended the work of the locusts to represent “the gnawing care of prosperity and the unsatisfied desire left by a life of luxury.” And others are sure that the prophet’s words dealt with the future and not with the present, and that it was the scourge of the Assyrians of which he chiefly thought. It is true that Assyria did not vex Judah until the time of Hezekiah, many years after Joel’s day; but to the seer’s mind, gifted with the vision and the faculty Divine, are not all things, even things distant and remote, laid naked and bare. It is difficult to conceive any reason for this figurative interpretation. Surely, in God’s hand, the locusts, which destroyed the pastures and trees, and brought want and woe and grim death to many homes, were a scourge sufficiently terrible to justify the raising up of a prophet who should expound the lessons of the awful visitation. They were as worthy instruments for the execution of the Lord’s punishments upon a guilty people as the Chaldeans could be; and if Joel had them for his text his theme was sad and weighty enough. To unfold the meaning of God’s providence--to show that the world of nature, with its “tooth and claw,” its earthquakes and storms and fearful diseases, its tribes of creatures which can work the most mournful ruin, is under His government and control,--is not that as lofty and responsible a mission as any prophet could desire? Indeed, the allegorical view is the outcome of that very insufficient conception of prophecy which considers it to consist almost exclusively of prediction. Perhaps, in the case of Joel, there has been this further thought in some minds, that, being one of the firstborn among the prophets, he was bound to deal with those themes which were principally to occupy the attention of his successors. He must sketch in outline the picture which they would fill in detail. But I prefer to believe that, as the needs of men demanded, God sent out to them His servants, each at his own hour of the day and with his own allotted task to do--this servant among the rest, who had a very real and actual difficulty to grapple with, and who was sufficiently honoured in being chosen to encounter and overcome it. “Every man shall bear his own burden” is a rule which holds good in prophecy as well as in daily life. But the book itself is the best refutation of the figurative theory. It is a marvel that any could read its graphic sentences without feeling that the whole soul of the author was concerned about a present trouble--the trouble which he describes so powerfully. And it takes half of the grandeur and sublimity out of these chapters to make them deal with Assyrians. “They shall run like mighty men; they shall climb the wall like men of war; they shall run to and fro in the city; they shall climb up upon the houses,”--understand these sentences of soldiers, and they are commonplace prose; understand them of locusts, and they are throbbing, beautiful, impressive poetry. They rob Joel of his genius who abandon the literal interpretation of his prophecy.
III. For, turning now to the characteristics of his style, I think we must be struck most of all by the poetic cast of his thought and expression. There is no probability that this book contains all his prophetic utterances. In every likelihood it is but a sample of the words he was wont to speak to the people; but if the rest resembled these, how much we could wish that we had heard them all! If Joel wrestled with a literal trouble, he did not deal with it in a matter-of-fact way. His sentences, we might well affirm, sound in our ears “like sweet bells at the evening-time most musically rung”; only, the music is for the most part pathetic or terrible rather than joyous, and the bells, while they never lose their harmony, ring out now a plaintive and again a loud and spirit-stirring peal. If you wish an example of this sorrowful music--this mournful and yet most attractive melody--read the exquisite metaphors of the opening chapter. Joel has three different troubles to describe, each deeper and titterer than the other; but he does not depict them like a pre-Raphaelite in their unlovely reality; he throws a halo of imagination round them. First, he wishes to tell his audience how the locusts had taken away the luxuries which men enjoyed before, and he paints the picture of a drunkard whose wine has been cut off, and who weeps that he is denied his old delight. And then, advancing in his account of the griefs of the land, he narrates how God’s worship could not be fittingly observed, for the meat-offering and the drink-offering were nowhere to be found; and he paints another picture, very tenderly and feelingly, of a young wife bereaved and mourn-tug and girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth. And yet further and deeper he goes in the sad history. The very necessities of life, the things which men required for ordinary sustenance, could not now be procured. There was no family but felt the pinch of poverty; no home but learned from experience how gaunt and fierce the wolf is that comes to the door in time of famine. And, that he may portray this lowest extremity, Joel paints a third picture, the companion of the others--the picture of some disappointed husbandmen and vine-dressers, who go out to their fields and vineyards at the season when the fruits of the earth should be gathered in, and discover only waste and barrenness. In this book you may find two characteristics of true poetry--a great sympathy with nature, and a great sympathy with man, in his varied life, his hopes and fears and joys and griefs.
IV. What is Joel’s place in history and revelation?--He was the successor of Elijah and Elisha. When he opened his mouth to speak what God had put into his heart, the great warfare between Jehovah and Baal was accomplished. There was no need to insist now on the truth that the Lord alone was God. His unity and His sovereignty and His spirituality had already been placed beyond all dispute; and to Joel was entrusted the mission of unveiling and enforcing other lessons about God--lessons which followed naturally on those taught by his predecessors. That God works in the world, and that men are connected with Him, and that there is a Divine event towards which things are lending--these were the doctrines which this prophet was bidden proclaim. He made clear to iris people the meaning of two words which are very familiar to us--the words “providence” and “judgment.” He showed them that God does not sleep, and does not only start at times into spasmodic activity--that He is a constant power moving among His creatures; that with Him men have in a most real and solemn way to do. And whilst Joel was charged to deliver this message, he was honoured in being permitted to hint at other truths, to which his successors often returned. What are some of these truths which appear in his book in embryo and germ? To him there was revealed, first among the prophets, the great thought of “a day of the Lord”--dies irae dies illa--when the current of history should stand still, and this present age of the world should come to an end. This prophet, too, lays stress on the idea of an effectual Divine call, which comes to men, and which, when it comes in its majesty and grace, they cannot resist. “In Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call.” Of course, Joel did not attach to the idea the full doctrinal significance which the apostle Paul, for example, was wont to do. God’s revelation of this truth, as of all truth, was gradual A remnant, he said, called of God, would escape the desolating ruin wrought by the locusts. These illustrations of the legacy of truth which this prophet bequeathed to his successors might be multiplied; but I choose only one other. He was the first to speak of the outpouring of the Spirit, which should be characteristic of the new dispensation. They were his sayings which Peter quoted on the day of Pentecost. And his surely was a great honour, as well as a great personal happiness, who, before any other, was permitted to behold this glory of the Gospel day. And can we not fancy now, in some measure, what manner of man he was? He was very humble; for, though so high a mission was intrusted to him, he did not exalt himself. It was sufficient to him that he should publish the “word of the Lord that came to him”; that he should be a voice crying on God’s behalf, not in the desert, indeed, but in the populous city; that he should finish the work given him to do, and then go quietly back to the darkness and the silence out of which for a moment he had been raised. He was Very stern, too, towards all sin; and when he spoke of God’s displeasure against transgression, men trembled as they listened, and went straightway and did those things which he commanded. And yet he had in him a tender and loving heart, and perhaps there were tears in his eyes when he told out his story of the wrath of the Lord. For he was much affected by the miseries of the creatures, and of the men and women and little children who were in sorrow around him. (A. Smellie, M. A.)
The prophet Joel
Of Joel we know absolutely nothing but what may be gathered from his prophecy, and that tells us neither when nor where he flourished, save by hints and implications which are still variously read. That he lived in Judah, probably in Jerusalem, we may infer from the fact that he never mentions the northern kingdom of Israel, and that he shows himself familiar with the temple, the priests, the ordinances of worship; he moves through the sacred city and the temple of the Lord as one that is at home in them, as one who is native, and to the manner born. On this point the commentators are pretty well agreed; but no sooner do we ask, “When did Joel live and prophecy?” than we receive the most diverse and contradictory replies. He has been moved along the chronological line of at least two centuries, and fixed, now here, now there, at almost every point. He was probably the earliest of the prophets whose writings have come down to us. There are hints in his poem or prophecy which indicate that it must have been written in the ninth century before Christ (cir. 870-860)
, more than a hundred years before Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on His throne, high and lifted up,” and some fifty years after Elijah was carried “by a whirlwind into heaven.” Joel’s style is that of the earlier age. So marked, indeed, is the “antique vigour and imperativeness of his language “ that surely on this ground Ewald, whose fine, critical instinct deserves a respect which his dogmatism often averts, places him, without a doubt, first in the rank of the earlier prophets, and makes him the contemporary of Joash. All we can say is that, in all probability, the son of Pethuel lived in Jerusalem during the reign of Joash; that he aided Jehoiada, the high priest, in urging the citizens to repair the temple, and to recur to the service of Jehovah; and that his prophecy is the oldest in our hands, and was written in that comparatively calm and pure interval in which Jerusalem was free from the bloody rites and licentious orgies of the Baalim worship. That the prophet was an accomplished and gifted man is proved by his work. The style is pure, severe, animated, finished, and full of happy rhythms and easy, graceful turns. “He has no abrupt transitions, is everywhere connected, and finishes whatever he takes up. In description he is graphic and perspicuous, in arrangement lucid; in imagery original, copious, and varied.” Even in this early poem we find some instances of the tender refrains and recurring “burdens” which characterise much of the later Hebrew poetry. In short, there are marks both of the scholar and of the artist in his style, which distinguish him very clearly from Amos the shepherd, and Haggai the exile. It is almost beyond a doubt that he was a practised author, of whose many poems and discourses only one has come down to us. (Samuel Cox, D. D.)
Arguments for the later date of Joel
The probable date of the book of Joel is a matter of much dispute. Some Biblical critics place it as early as 837, others as late as 440 b.c. This is unfortunate, as the estimate of the value of the prophecy is directly affected by the position adopted. Joel is either at the head of the aristocracy of this famous line of prophets, or one of the less gifted who bring up the rear. He is either indebted for ideas and phrases to twelve other Old Testament writers, or they are indebted to him. When the smallness of the book is taken into consideration it seems much more likely that he borrowed from twelve than that twelve borrowed from him. Other reasons support the conclusion that the book is of late date. There is no mention of the crass tendency to idolatry, against which the early prophets declaimed. On the contrary, the people appear docile and devout. The northern tribes of Israel form no part of the body politic; direct reference is made to the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem and to the dispersed; the exile is apparently a thing of the past. Assyria as a world-power is not even darkly hinted at. There is no mention of a king. These facts favour a late date under the Persian era. Moreover, almost exceptional importance is attached to the temple ritual. That was an outstanding characteristic of the time succeeding the great reform of Ezra and Nehemiah (440 b.c.)
. The bitter hatred of the heathen shown in the idea of their utter annihilation (Joel 3:13), and the narrow, national exclusiveness revealed in the fond conception of Jerusalem as a sacred city undefiled by the foot of the foreigner (Joel 3:17), afford convincing evidence that the book belongs to the later days of Judaism. Further, the “Day of the Lord,” which in the time of Amos was popularly regarded as the dawn of blessing rather than of judgment, appears in the writings of Joel in the sharpest contrast of light and shade that the idea had yet attained in the successive stages of its development. Such stumbling-blocks as the references to Egypt and Edom (Joel 3:19) may be accounted for on the lines of Ezekiel’s visions (Ezekiel 29:9; Ezekiel 32:15). On the other hand, Greece appears on the horizon in a clear light (Joel 3:6). These and other arguments set forth by various writers afford weighty evidence, which the tone anal character of the book seem altogether to confirm. (Thomas M’William, M. A.)
the Second Week after Epiphany