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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Joel

- Joel

by Daniel Whedon

JOEL

INTRODUCTION.

The Prophet.

THE second book in the collection of the Minor Prophets is ascribed to Joel, the son of Pethuel (according to some of the ancient versions Bethuel or Bathuel). The Old Testament mentions thirteen other persons bearing the name Joel, but it is not probable that the prophet is to be identified with any one of these. The name signifies Jehovah is God this etymology is undoubtedly the one accepted by the Jews and, like the name Micah, contains a “brief confession of faith.”

Of the personal history of Joel nothing is known, beyond what may be gathered from the prophecy itself. His message centers around Jerusalem and Judah; and the manner in which he refers to the land and to the city, Zion (Joel 2:1; Joel 2:15; Joel 2:32; Joel 3:16-17; Joel 3:21), the children of Zion (Joel 2:23), Judah and Jerusalem (Joel 2:32; Joel 3:1; Joel 3:16-18; Joel 3:20), the children of Judah and Jerusalem (Joel 3:6; Joel 3:8; Joel 3:19), makes it probable that his home was in southern Palestine, perhaps in Jerusalem. He displays intimate acquaintance with the temple and its service, with the priests and their duties (Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13-14; Joel 1:16; Joel 2:14; Joel 2:17); but it is not probable that he himself was a priest; the character of his references to the priests would indicate that he was not one of them.

Of Pethuel nothing is known. The name of the father was perhaps added to distinguish the prophet from the other men bearing the same name. The suggestion of Professor Cheyne, that Bethuel (the form of the name in some of the versions) is a corruption for Tubal, the name of a North Arabian tribe, has nothing in its favor.

Date of the Prophet.

Perhaps no other book in the Old Testament has been assigned to so many different dates as the Book of Joel. Even during the nineteenth century, when investigation is supposed to have proceeded on scientific principles, scholars have differed regarding its date by a space of more than five centuries; in other words, the book has been dated as early as the reign of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, that is, before 900 B.C. (Bunsen, Pearson), and as late as the fourth century B.C. In addition, it has been located in every century between these extreme dates.

There are especially two periods, however, around which the most earnest attempts to fix the date of Joel may be grouped: (1) The minority of King Joash, or Jehoash, of Judah, about 830 B.C. (2 Kings 11:12). This date was first defended with great ability by Credner in 1831; he was followed by Ewald, Hitzig, Bleek, Delitzsch, Keil, and others. Among the more recent defenders of the early date are Kirkpatrick, Von Orelli, Beecher, Robertson, Sinker, Cameron, and, less positively, Baudissin. (2) On the other hand, an ever-increasing number of scholars favor a postexilic date. The first to propose a late date was Vatke, in 1835; he was followed by Hilgenfeld, in 1866, Duhm, in 1875, and since then the great majority of Old Testament scholars have declared in favor of the late date among them Kuenen, A.B. Davidson, Driver, Wellhausen, Merx, W.R. Smith, Holzinger, Farrar, G.B. Gray, Kautzsch, Cornill, Wildeboer, G.A. Smith, Nowack, Briggs, Marti, R.W. Rogers, H.P. Smith, Bennett, W.R. Harper, and others. Two other attempts to determine the date of the Book of Joel should receive mention. E. Koenig places the activity of Joel near the close of the seventh century: “Unquestionable indications point to the seventh century, and probable (indications) to the last years of Josiah, or perhaps to those immediately following.” Strack seems to favor this view, though he is not positive, and in one paragraph he speaks rather favorably of the theory about to be mentioned. J.W. Rothstein has attempted to prove that the Book of Joel is not a literary unit. He bases his argument chiefly upon the difference in the historical background which a comparison of Joel 1:1 to Joel 2:27, with Joel 2:28 to Joel 3:21 is said to bring to light. He points out that in the first part, the state and the nation are pictured in healthy political condition. The only calamity mentioned is a horrible plague of locusts and drought; more severe judgment is to be withheld if the people repent and turn to God. This section, he thinks, may come from the pre-exilic period. The background of Joel 2:28 to Joel 3:21, on the other hand, he supposes to be purely political. The nation no longer enjoys safety, the people of Jehovah are in distress, and great numbers are in exile; hence he favors for these verses a postexilic date. This view is favored also by the French scholar Vernes, who admits, however, that the arguments are not conclusive. Over against these various attempts to fix definitely the date of Joel a few are ready to admit that the date cannot be determined (Calvin, Ryle).

In view of this extraordinary diversity of opinion the question arises naturally how this lack of unanimity may be accounted for. Disagreement in conclusions based upon investigations of this character may be traced ordinarily to one of two causes either the use of faulty working principles, or lack of decisive data upon which to base a conclusion. The principle by which every careful investigator in any field of knowledge should be guided is the free and unprejudiced investigation of all the facts in the case. Surely this is a good working principle, and we are assured by every scholar that his conclusion is based upon the most careful investigation of all the facts. The difficulty, then, does not appear to be here. Many scholars readily admit that the data concerning the date of Joel are few, and that most of these are capable of more than one interpretation; And it is to this absence of decisive data that we must trace the great uncertainly concerning the point under discussion. External evidence, the most satisfactory kind of evidence, is entirely lacking, unless we regard as external evidence the place the book occupies in the series of the Minor Prophets. Jerome, arguing from this position, makes Joel a contemporary of Hosea, following his rule that, when there is no certain proof of the time in which any prophet lived, we are to be directed in our conjectures by the time of the preceding prophet whose date is better known.

It is chiefly internal evidence, therefore, that must decide the question. For convenience’ sake we may group this evidence under four heads: (1) Historical Situation; (2) Theological Ideas; (3) Literary Parallels; (4) Linguistic Features.

1 . Historical Situation Stated or Implied. The prophet speaks of a great famine (Joel 1:11-12) caused by the devastation of the land by locusts (Joel 1:4; Joel 1:6; Joel 1:16; Joel 2:4-11, etc.), by drought (Joel 1:17 ff.), and, perhaps, by conflagrations (Joel 1:20). Egypt and Edom are denounced for shedding “innocent blood” (Joel 3:19). Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia are said to have been the chief offenders in the ill treatment of the Israelites; they have taken the silver and gold of Jehovah; his “precious things” they have carried into their temples; and they have sold Jews to the Greeks as slaves (Joel 3:4-6). The “heritage” of Jehovah is described as “scattered among the nations” who have “parted” his land (Joel 3:2). The term Israel is used in the sense of Judah, as representing the entire chosen people (compare Joel 2:23, with Joel 2:27; Joel 3:1, with Joel 3:2; and Joel 3:16 b, with Joel 3:16 a, Joel 3:17). Elders and priests are prominent (Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:17). The valley of Jehoshaphat is the scene of the final conflict (Joel 3:2). The silence of Joel also may not be without significance. He makes, for example, no mention of king or princes; the northern kingdom is disregarded; the long-time enemies of the Hebrews the Syrians, the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans appear nowhere on the scene.

2 . Theological Ideas. The Law is not mentioned, but the insistence upon some of its requirements (Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:12-17) is very marked. Great consternation is expressed at the cutting off of the meal offering and the drink offering (Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13; Joel 1:16; Joel 2:14); the greatest blessing that Jehovah can give in response to the prayers of penitence is the restoration of the daily sacrifice (Joel 2:14). The formal fast and the solemn assembly play an important part (Joel 1:14; Joel 2:15 ff.). The interest in the religious cult is very prominent (Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:12-17). In summoning the people to repentance Joel calls upon the priests to take the initiative (Joel 1:13; Joel 2:17). There is no thought of the conversion of the nations; they are all doomed (chap. iii); the outpouring of the Spirit is to be limited (Joel 2:29); the day of Jehovah occupies an important place. Attention may be called also to the silence of Joel concerning specific sins, especially idol worship on the high places, and concerning a future exile as a divine means of purification.

3 . Literary Parallels. The book of Joel, containing only seventy-three verses, presents a remarkable number of parallels with other Old Testament books. The most important of these are: Joel 1:15; Joel 3:14 Isaiah 13:6; Ezekiel 30:2-3; Zephaniah 1:7; Joel 2:1-2 Zephaniah 1:14-15; Joel 2:3 Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:6 Nahum 2:10; Joel 2:17 Psalms 42:2; Psalms 42:9; Psalms 79:10; Psalms 115:2; Joel 2:27, Joel 3:17 Ezekiel 36:11, and other passages in Ezekiel, Leviticus 18:2; Leviticus 18:4; Leviticus 18:30, etc.; Joel 2:28 Ezekiel 39:29; Joel 2:32; Joel 3:17 Obadiah 1:17; Joel 3:2 Ezekiel 38:22; Joel 3:3 Obadiah 1:11; Nahum 3:10; Nahum 3:4; Nahum 3:14 Obadiah 1:15; Joel 3:10 Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 4:3; Joel 3:16 Amos 1:2; Joel 3:17 Ezekiel 36:11; Obadiah 1:17, etc.; Joel 3:18 Amos 9:13; Joel 3:19 Obadiah 1:10. Altogether about twenty parallels may be noted.

4 . Linguistic Features. Like every writer, Joel has his own linguistic peculiarities. His style is smooth and flowing, he uses peculiar constructions, gives uncommon meanings to common words, uses several words not common in Hebrew but frequent in Aramaic, and some of his words, phrases, and constructions are found again only in the later literature of the Old Testament.

On the basis of these data the date of the Book of Joel must be determined. Concerning the character and value of the evidence the most diverging opinions are held. Cornill, for example, claims, on purely internal grounds, that in the Book of Joel the question of date is less open to doubt than in the case of any other book; and he, with many others, is convinced that it belongs to a late date: “We have in the Book of Joel a compendium of the late Jewish eschatology, written about 400 B.C., rather later than earlier.” On the other hand, Pusey and others consider the internal evidence too vague to be of assistance in determining the date of Joel. Therefore the former thinks it wise to acquiesce in the tradition by which the Book of Joel is placed next to that of Hosea, and to regard Joel as “the prophet of Judah during the earlier part of Hosea’s office toward Israel and rather earlier than Isaiah.” Adam Clarke, on the basis of the same data, places Joel in the days of Manasseh; John Wesley, in the time of Amos “Amos in Israel, Joel in Judah”; Koenig, in the last years of Josiah; Kirkpatrick and many others, during the minority of Jehoash; Pearson and Bunsen, during the reign of Rehoboam, “soon after the invasion of Shishak.”

In view of this diversity of opinion it may be well to examine the evidence in detail. The fact that Joel occupies second place among the Minor Prophets may “raise a presumption in favor of an early date”; to some it may even be of sufficient value to leave out of question a postexilic date; but the position of the book is by no means conclusive, for it is generally recognized that, while in the main intended to be chronological, the arrangement of the Minor Prophets cannot be followed implicitly when a question of date is under consideration. Even those who rely upon the argument admit the uncertainty; else why should they place Joel before Hosea (in the days of Jehoash), or after Amos, Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah (in the later years of Josiah), when in the canon he occupies second place? Moreover, it is universally agreed that chronologically Amos preceded Hosea, while canonically he follows Hosea; again, there are at least good reasons for believing that the Books of Jonah and Obadiah are later productions than the Book of Micah. It is clear, then, that the argument from the position of the book lacks strength. External evidence does not take us very far.

The investigation of the internal evidence is beset with many difficulties, for almost every statement to be examined is capable of more than one interpretation. Locusts, drought, and forest fires are not uncommon in Palestine; from the earliest times to the present the land has been exposed to these calamities. Hence the prevalence of these plagues at the time the prophecies were uttered does not assist us in the attempt to fix the period of Joel’s activity. True, it is claimed that the prophet’s absorption in the ravages of the locusts reflects the feeling of a purely agricultural community, such as Israel was before the eighth century B.C., but an exactly similar condition existed in Palestine during a part of the Persian period. The silence of the prophet concerning the Syrians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans points either to a very early or to a very late period; either to a period when these nations had not yet exerted any influence upon Judah or when they had again disappeared from the scene. The minority of Jehoash would account for the absence of Assyria and Babylon; for at that time these powers had not yet come into serious conflict with. Judah.* But the latter had been drawn into conflict with Syria even before the time of Jehoash (2 Kings 8:25 ff.); and again during his reign it suffered severely at the hands of the Syrians (2 Kings 12:17 ff.); it is quite probable, therefore, that even during the minority of Jehoash the danger was threatening, and the silence concerning Syria may point to a different period. In postexilic times these nations had ceased to be world powers, and silence concerning them would be perfectly intelligible. The nations condemned are Egypt, Edom, Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia. The defenders of the early date explain the charge against Egypt by Shishak’s invasion of Judah (1 Kings 14:25 ff.), about a century before Jehoash, that against Edom by the revolt of the latter against Jehoram (2 Kings 8:20-22), about 848 B.C. “What more probable,” says Kirkpatrick, “than that the revolt was accompanied by a massacre of Israelites resident in Edom?” The condemnation of the Philistines is justified by their attack upon Israel at about the same time (2 Chronicles 21:16 ff.). The Phoenicians are not represented as enemies of Judah in the early historical books, but, since they are condemned as treacherous slave traders by Amos (Amos 1:9-10), they may have been guilty of cruelty against Hebrews at the earlier date. Amos does not state, however, that the slaves were stolen from Judah, and the theory of the early date leaves the reference to the Phoenicians obscure. In exilic and postexilic times the Edomites showed themselves intensely hostile to the Jews (Ezekiel 25:12 ff.; Psalms 137:7, etc.); Tyre and Sidon carried on an active slave trade; Egypt was an old-time enemy of Judah, and might be mentioned equally well after the exile as before. It is difficult, on this theory, to account for the condemnation of Philistia, for no expression of hostility on the part of the Philistines against the Jews is known in the postexilic period. On either theory difficulties remain which must be traced to the incompleteness of the historical material. There is no reason for believing that the biblical historians purposed to narrate every event in the nation’s history. Koenig, in order to prove his theory, must also assume “a gap in the historical records concerning the time of Jeremiah,” and place the events of Joel 3:4-7, in this gap. The Phoenicians sold their slaves to the Greeks. Intercourse between Phoenicia and Greece was more common in postexilic times than in the ninth century B.C.; we know that during the later period slave trade was carried on between the two nations; but the possibility of commercial intercourse between the two at an early date cannot be denied.

The name Yawan occurs on the Tel-el-Amarna tablets, about 1400 B.C.; the form, however, in which the name occurs in Joel seems to point to a late date. Absence of any mention of the northern kingdom might be explained by the exclusiveness of the vision and of the mission of Joel; he was the prophet of Judah, his interest was in Judah; there was no necessity that he should mention Israel. Besides, the feeling between Israel and Judah at this early time was not the friendliest. In a similar manner may be explained the use of “Israel” to designate the whole people. On the other hand, it would be perfectly legitimate to say that the silence is due to the fact that the northern kingdom was no longer in existence, and so to place the prophecy either after the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. (Koenig), or after the exile. The most important historical reference is that in Joel 3:2; Joel 3:5: “When I shall bring back the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem… I will plead with them there for my people and for my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land.… Forasmuch as ye have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried into your temples my goodly pleasant things.” Those who accept the early date give the following explanation of these expressions: “I will bring back the captivity” is a phrase used as early as the time of Amos (Amos 9:14) and Hosea (Hosea 6:11), and therefore does not necessarily presuppose the presence of the exile; besides, the phrase may be rendered, “I will restore the fortune,” with no specific reference to an exile. The dispersion of the Israelites among the nations (verse 2) refers not to the dispersion of the entire nation (in 722 or 597 or 586), but “rather to the sale of captives as slaves to distant nations” (compare Amos 1:6; Amos 1:9). The division of the land is explained by the successes of the Philistines, the Edomites, and other surrounding nations during the reign of Jehoram. These explanations, however, do not seem to do justice to the language of Joel 3:1-5; the calamity that has befallen the people of God seems to be more serious and far-reaching than this explanation would permit. True, “I will bring back the captivity” is more or less ambiguous, but the definite statement, “my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land,” presupposes a very serious calamity. In verse 5 the plunder of the temple is implied. All these expressions become perfectly intelligible if uttered after the destruction of the temple and of the city in 586, but there seems no calamity in the history of Judah before that time of which such language could be used. Another link in the historical argument is the absence of all reference to a king or to princes, while elders, and especially priests, appear to be prominent. This points to a period when there was no king, or at least when the king had retired into the background. The first condition is met by the exile; the second by the peculiar circumstances of the minority of Jehoash, who came to the throne in his seventh year (2 Kings 12:1 ff.). The silence concerning the king may, however, be purely accidental. The “valley of Jehoshaphat” is the scene of the final conflict. Jehoshaphat gained a great victory over the combined forces of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites only about a quarter of a century before the time of Jehoash (2 Chronicles 20:26); and it is thought by some that the remembrance of this recent event may account for the name given to the final battlefield. However, it is more likely that we have here no historical allusion at all, but that the name was given to the scene of the final overthrow simply because of its meaning, “Jehovah judges.”

[*The silence concerning Assyria in Amos and in the early discourses of Isaiah does not present an analogy, for, although the name Assyria is absent there, the descriptions of the enemy are so vivid that the reader cannot but feel that the Assyrians are in the minds of the prophets, while here we have absolute silence.] We see, then, that the historical references, with one exception, may be interpreted as pointing either to the minority of Jehoash or to a postexilic period. The exception is Joel 3:1-5; the expressions there receive a natural interpretation only if the fall of Jerusalem is presupposed.

We next turn to the theological ideas of the book. The Law is not mentioned, it is true, but the references in Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:12-17, clearly imply the existence of some well-defined ceremonial requirements, but they imply more, namely, that the prophet regarded the bringing of the meal offering and of the drink offering as a very essential part of the religion of Jehovah. That such or similar requirements were known in the early prophetic period cannot be doubted in view of the frequent references to them in the eighth century prophecies; but in the emphasis which Joel places upon the ritual service he differs in a very marked manner from all the early prophets. His utterances are “very unlike the way in which all the other prophets down to Jeremiah speak of the sacrificial service.” Irrespective of the date of the origin of the ritualistic and sacrificial legislation, it is a matter of history, as may be clearly seen from the unquestionably postexilic writings, that the emphasis upon the ritual on the part of the religious leaders did not become prominent until after the fall of Jerusalem in 586. While during the minority of Jehoash the priests under the leadership of Jehoiada undoubtedly occupied a very prominent position in Judah, the same may be said with even greater justice of the postexilic period. The silence of Joel concerning the specific sins of the people idolatry, and the high places presents a very strong contrast to the utterances of the earlier prophets. Not that Joel omits the moral element in his preaching; but he emphasizes the side of religion which the earlier prophets considered of little or no importance, such as the formal fast and the solemn assembly, while he puts less stress than they upon the purely ethical requirements. That he does not speak of the conversion of the heathen, but only of their destruction, may be accounted for by an early date or by the particularistic spirit of the later Judaism; in the same way either a very early or a very late date may explain the silence concerning a future exile. Thus, while the religious ideas of the book may not be absolutely decisive, they are all more easily accounted for on the hypothesis that Joel is a late prophet. For a discussion of the day of Jehovah see page 148.

The literary parallels furnish another set of data. When the parallels are as striking as they are here it becomes impossible to deny all relation of dependence, and we are shut up to one of two conclusions: Either Joel is a very early and popular book, constantly used by writers from Amos to Malachi, or it is very late and makes extensive use of earlier prophecies. In view of the extreme brevity of the book the extraordinary influence implied in the former view could be accounted for only by the presence in the book of unusual features. Why should so many prophets, whose originality is beyond question, borrow from this book of seventy-three verses? But it would be difficult to find in the Book of Joel anything calculated to give it such extraordinary influence. Certainly the possibility of the prophets borrowing from Joel cannot be denied unless a comparison of the parallels themselves should prove this to be impossible, or at least improbable. Any conclusion, however, must be based upon a study of all the passages, and not, as has been done so often, upon an examination of one or two passages that may particularly favor one’s pet theory.

In the consideration of two parallel passages it is always more or less difficult to state with certainty which one of the two is dependent on the other; and it is almost unavoidable that one should be influenced in his final decision by outside considerations. If one starts out with a theory he is very apt to find that the parallels favor his theory. G.B. Gray, who has examined this question more thoroughly, perhaps, than anyone else, reaches the conclusion that Joel is dependent upon the other prophets. On the other hand, Von Orelli insists that “decisive evidence of the pre-exilic origin of the writing is found in the literary references to it,… but the references to this prophet take us not only to pre-exilic times, but even to the time before Amos.” A study of the parallels is certainly most instructive, but I venture to say that in no case will it be possible to state apart from other considerations which writer is the borrower. Indeed, the words of Driver are very appropriate: “The parallels cannot be used for determining the date of Joel; we can only, after having determined his date on independent grounds, point to the parallels as illustrating either his dependence upon other prophets or their dependence upon him.” ( Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, p. 313.) In his Commentary on Joel, Driver, after careful examination of all the parallel passages, asserts that they confirm the conclusion, reached on other grounds, that Joel belongs to the postexilic period (pp. 19ff.).

Many scholars ridicule and reject entirely arguments based upon diction and style, while others depend almost exclusively upon linguistic features to determine the date of a writing. Both extremes should be avoided. The linguistic character of a literary production depends as much upon the individuality of the author as on the time of its composition. Nevertheless, in the history of every language may be distinguished great epochs whose peculiarities are strongly marked. This is true of the Hebrew language. In its history we may distinguish at least two such epochs, the first extending down to the Babylonian exile, the second from that event onward. To which period does the language of Joel point? The question is answered by Pearson: “Joel’s peculiar style is certainly an early one flowing, elegant, the primary meaning of the words for the most part easy to understand, while poetry and prophecy intermingle, and sometimes pass into metaphors hard to understand.” Over against this Holzinger, after the most painstaking examination of the book, thinks himself justified in saying that “the linguistic character of the Book of Joel makes its composition at an early date seem impossible; the book is rather to be assigned to the youngest layer of Old Testament literature.” With this claim in mind Kirkpatrick writes: “It is doubtful if the argument from Joel’s style and language can be laid in the scale on either side. But it is a strange misrepresentation to say that ‘the language of Joel plainly bears the character of the latest period of Hebrew literature.’ If any argument can be drawn from it it is in favor of an early date.” Koenig also finds evidence in the language of the book to support his theory. Again we have a case in which the data do not seem to be very decisive. The style of Joel is smooth and flowing, but that may be due either to a date during the golden age of Hebrew literature or to an intimate acquaintance with earlier writers. The diction of Joel is in the main pure and classical, but Holzinger has satisfactorily shown that there are peculiarities in the use of words and in grammatical constructions which manifest considerable Aramaic influence and thus point rather to the second period of Hebrew literature in other words, to the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

The examination of the data for the determination of the date of Joel is complete. With the exception of a very few they are indecisive so indecisive, indeed, that for some time to come universal agreement need not be expected. It seems, however, that the few exceptions, namely, the historical references in Joel 3:1-5, the emphasis on the more external elements of religion, and some of the linguistic peculiarities, favor a postexilic date. The exact date during this period it may be impossible to determine, though a date subsequent to the final establishment of the law under Nehemiah (444-432 B.C.), perhaps about 400 B.C., is the most probable.

Contents and Outline of the Book of Joel.

The utterances of Joel were called forth by what seems to have been a threefold calamity: locusts (Joel 1:4), drought (Joel 1:16-18), and conflagrations (Joel 1:19-20). But, while this calamity furnished the occasion for the prophet’s declaration, his horizon was not limited by it; on the contrary, his chief interest is with a manifestation of Jehovah still in the future, yet in the prophet’s conception near at hand, the day of Jehovah, and during the entire discourse he keeps this day prominently before his hearers and readers.

The prophecy falls naturally into two parts, Joel 1:1 to Joel 2:17, and Joel 2:18 to Joel 3:21. The first section of the first part, Joel 1:1-20, deals mainly with the present condition that rouses the prophet’s emotions. He begins by calling the attention of the hearers to the present calamity, which is without parallel in the memory of even the oldest inhabitant. The whole country is waste and desolate (Joel 1:2-4). In view of this calamity he calls for a universal lamentation (5-12), because (1) all luxuries are cut off ( 5-7), (2) the worship of Jehovah is threatened with interruption (8-10), (3) all means for the sustenance of life are destroyed (11, 12). But this is only the beginning of the great final blow, the judgment of the day of Jehovah.

Is there no escape? Jehovah alone can save; but communion with him is at an end, or is at least threatened. If, however, he is approached rightly he may yet have mercy (13, 14). The prophet continues by giving the reason for his earnest appeal; he sees looming up in the near future the “day of Jehovah as destruction front the Almighty” (15). In justification of his terror he calls attention once more to the awful condition of the land, and closes with a petition to Jehovah for mercy and deliverance (16-20).

The second section, Joel 2:1-17, presents the thought of chapter i from a somewhat different viewpoint. Now the prophet, while starting again from the present unparalleled calamity, looks upon it chiefly as the harbinger of the day of Jehovah, near at hand (Joel 2:1-3). The next paragraph presents a word picture of the plague of locusts in “the strongest language of Eastern hyperbole.” The appearance of locusts is “as the appearance of horses.… Like the noise of chariots on the tops of the mountains do they leap.… At their presence the peoples are in anguish.… They run like mighty men; they climb the wall like men of war.… They leap upon the city; they run upon the wall; they climb up into the houses; they enter in at the windows like a thief” (4-11). This scourge introduces the terrible day itself. Though near at hand it is not too late to avert it, and his summons to repentance is even more earnest than before (12-17).

With verse 17 closes the first division of the book. Here we must assume an interval during which the assembly was held, and solemn rites of penitence and humiliation were observed (18).

The second part, Joel 2:19 to Joel 3:21, is marked by an entirely different tone. Jehovah is introduced as replying to the petitions of the penitent people.

He will remove the plague and grant abundant temporal prosperity (19-26). The temporal blessings will be surpassed by the wonderful spiritual gifts, the presence of Jehovah in the midst of Israel (27), and the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh (28, 29). Although temporarily postponed, the day of Jehovah will surely come as a terrible day, inaugurated by wonders in the heavens and in the earth; its terrors, however, will not fall upon the Jews, “for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those that escape” (30-32), but upon the nations that have cruelly wronged the “heritage of Jehovah” (Joel 3:1-3). Of the doomed nations, Tyre, Sidon, and the Philistines are singled out on account of special hostility to Judah (4-8).

The judgment scene is continued in verse 9. The nations are challenged to muster their forces, only to be utterly annihilated in the “valley of decision,” under darkened sky, while “Jehovah roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem.” But the day of judgment upon the nations will be a day of triumph for his people, for “Jehovah will be a refuge unto his people, and a stronghold to the children of Israel” (9-16). The crisis passed, “Jerusalem shall be holy, and there shall no stranger pass through her any more.” Then the land will be blessed with extraordinary fertility, while Egypt and Edom lie waste “because they have shed innocent blood in their land.” Judah, on the other hand, “shall abide forever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation” (17-21).

OUTLINE.

TITLE THE AUTHOR OF THE PROPHECY. Joel 1:1.

A. THE HARBINGER OF THE DAY OF JEHOVAH Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:17.

I. THE SCOURGE OF LOCUSTS, DROUGHT, AND FIRE Joel 1:2-20

1. Graphic description of the scourge Joel 1:2-4

2. Call upon various classes to mourn Joel 1:5-12

Because

(1) All luxuries are cut off Joel 1:5-7

(2) The worship of Jehovah is interrupted Joel 1:8-10

(3) Means for the sustenance of life are lacking Joel 1:11-12

3. Exhortation to repentance Joel 1:13-14

4. The awful calamity the forerunner of the day of Jehovah Prayer for mercy Joel 1:15-20

II. THE SCOURGE THE FORERUNNER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT; HIGH TIME FOR REPENTANCE (expansion of Joel 1:14-15) Joel 2:1-17

1. More vivid description of the calamity Joel 2:1-11

2. Urgent exhortation to repentance Joel 2:12-17

B. THE DAY OF JEHOVAH A DAY OF BLESSING TO ISRAEL, A DAY OF TERROR TO THEIR ENEMIES Joel 2:18 to Joel 3:21.

I. THE PEOPLE’S REPENTANCE (IMPLIED); JEHOVAH’S GRACIOUS CHANGE OF PURPOSE Joel 2:18

II. BLESSINGS PROMISED Joel 2:19-29

1. Temporal blessings Joel 2:19-26

2. Spiritual blessings Joel 2:27-29

(1) Restoration of Jehovah’s presenceJoel 2:27; Joel 2:27

(2) Outpouring of the Spirit Joel 2:28-29

III. SIGNS OF APPROACHING JUDGMENT Joel 2:30-31

IV. ESCAPE OF A REMNANT Joel 2:32

V. JUDGMENT ON THE NATIONS Joel 3:1-16 a

1. All wrongs committed against the people of Jehovah to be avenged Joel 3:1-3

2. The bitterest enemies to suffer the severest punishment Joel 3:4-8

3. Description of the judgment scene Joel 3:9-16 a

VI. GLORIFICATION OF THE PEOPLE OF JEHOVAH Joel 3:16-21

Israel’s final felicity contrasted with the desolation of her enemies.

Interpretation of the Book.

As the date of the Book of Joel has been and still is a matter of dispute, so the interpretation of the first part of the prophecy (Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:17), and in this section the description of the plague of locusts presents the chief difficulties.

The view commonly accepted in ancient times and supported by a few moderns regards the description as allegorical. The locusts symbolize hostile armies, the four swarms four successive attacks either by one enemy or by successive world powers. A second view interprets the picture of the locusts, especially that in Joel 2:1-11, as an apocalyptic description of the terrors of the last days. This view understands the locusts of chapter ii to represent locusts, not, however, the locusts of the desert, but “weird supernatural creatures, a mysterious host of unearthly warriors.” A third view interprets the description literally. The locusts are locusts such as may be seen in the East today, though in chapter 2 they are described with a touch of poetic imagination and Oriental hyperbole.

Another question that enters into the interpretation of the book is whether the prophet describes in Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:17, a plague present to the eyes of his hearers or predicts a future calamity. Again the answers vary. The defenders of the allegorical view disagree here. Hilgenfeld thinks that the four swarms are to be explained by four attacks of the Persians upon the Jews, in 525, 484, 460, 458, and he locates the prophecy near the last-mentioned date. Pusey, Hengstenberg, and others regard the calamity as still in the future. The former sees the fulfillment in the ravages of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Macedonians, and Romans; the latter, in the attacks of the Assyrian-Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman armies. The apocalyptic view makes the book, with the possible exception of chapter i, a prediction; the plague of chapter 2 will come as a sign or accompaniment of the day of Jehovah. The historical theory sees in the plague an event of history and experience which formed the occasion for the prophecy; the day of Jehovah alone is still in the future.

Two questions are, therefore, involved in this discussion: 1. Is Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:17, to be understood literally or not? 2. Are these verses to be regarded as descriptive or predictive? In favor of the allegorical view Pusey, following Hengstenberg, advances eight distinct arguments, supplemented by some minor considerations: (1) The expression the northerner (Joel 2:20) cannot refer to locusts, since they never invade Palestine from the north. (2) The prayer, “Give not thine heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them” (Joel 2:17), obviously points to fear of subjection by a foreign foe. (3) The enemy is alluded to as possessing moral responsibility (Joel 1:6; Joel 2:18; Joel 2:20). (4) The prophet speaks of fire, flame, and drought (Joel 1:19-20), which proves that he has in mind something more than a plague of locusts. (5) The imagery would be too extravagant, if used of a mere plague of locusts: (a) nations (plural) are terrified; (b) the sun and moon are darkened, the shining of the stars is prevented; (c) towns are devastated, while in reality fields are the scenes of the devastation of the locusts; in towns they are destroyed. He adds that, since locusts are a common scourge, no one would use such extravagant imagery in describing their destructiveness. (6) The effects of the scourge are such as do not result from mere locusts: (a) The quantity used for the meal offering and drink offering (Joel 1:9) was so small that even a famine could not occasion their discontinuation; (b) The promise, “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten” (Joel 2:25), cannot refer to locusts, because locusts are only a passing scourge; they destroy the fruit of only one year, not that of several years; (c) The exhortation to the beasts of the field to rejoice because the tree beareth her fruit (Joel 2:22) must be a metaphor, for trees are not food for cattle; (d) The scourge is spoken of as greater than any which they or their fathers knew of, and as one ever to be remembered (Joel 1:2-3), “but Israel had many worse scourges than any plague of locusts, however severe.” (7) “The destruction of this scourge of God is described in a way taken doubtless in its details from the destruction of locusts, yet as a whole physically impossible in a literal sense.” (8) Pusey regards the day of Jehovah as identical with the scourge described by the prophet, but “the day of Jehovah includes more than any plague of locusts.”

The weakness of some of these arguments is self-evident. For instance, it is nowhere stated that the locust plague is the only calamity (4); the prophet in all probability means just what he says, that drought and fires accompanied the plague of locusts. The prophet, in pointing out the severity of the plague of locusts, does not compare it with all kinds of calamities (6, d); he simply says that it was the severest plague of locusts. In a similar way the identification of the plague with the day of Jehovah (8) rests upon misinterpretation (compare Joel 1:15; Joel 2:1, etc.). Several of the other arguments lose their force when we consider that the description of an historic event by no means excludes the use of poetic or imaginative language. Joel’s style is highly poetic and imaginative; this explains the apparent endowment of the locusts with rational powers, and accounts for the description of the devastation wrought by the locusts, which Pusey considers “physically impossible.” It is difficult to understand how this eminent commentator could make this statement, in view of the fact that he quotes in his commentary a large number of extracts from reports of travelers describing the ravages of locusts in the East. If the following accounts are true and we have no reason to doubt their accuracy we must readily admit that Joel does not exaggerate unduly: “They seemed to march in regular battalions, crawling over everything that lay in their passage, in one straight front. They entered the inmost recesses of the houses, were found in every corner, stuck to our clothes, and infested our food.” “But their number was astounding; the whole face of the mountain was black with them. On they came like a disciplined army. We dug trenches and kindled fires, and beat and burned to death heaps upon heaps, but the effort was utterly useless. They charged up the mountain side, and climbed over rocks, walls, ditches, and hedges, those behind coming up and passing over the masses already killed.… While on the march they consumed every green thing with wonderful eagerness and expedition” (Thomson). Scores of travelers have given similar testimony. There is not one feature in the description of Joel that is not supported by the testimony of one or more travelers. Only three arguments in favor of the allegorical view remain: the use of the term northerner, the prayer which seems to imply fear of subjugation by a foreign invader, and the implication that the plague continued for more than one year. It is readily admitted that ordinarily locusts do not appear in successive years, but this is not a universal rule; and the plague described by Joel was one of unusual severity. The designation the northerner may also be explained. While locusts do invade Palestine generally from the south or the southeast, there is not sufficient ground for saying that they never come from the north (see on Joel 2:20). But this is not the only solution possible. It is quite probable that the term was applied to the locusts to designate “their office as heralds of the last day.” According to Jeremiah 1:11, and Ezekiel 38:6; Ezekiel 38:15, the instruments of Jehovah’s wrath in the final judgment are to come from the north. From these passages the term might have received a typical meaning, typical of doom, and in this sense Joel applies the word to his locusts.

The only argument remaining receives its entire force from a misinterpretation, or even a mistranslation. Certainly the original may be rendered “that the nations should rule over them,” but, as suggested in the margin of A.R.V., another translation is within the range of possibility: “that the nations should use a byword against them.” “The calamity which had befallen them would seem to be due to the unwillingness or inability of Jehovah to protect them, so that the heathen would mockingly ask, Where is thy God?” But, granting the correctness of the common translation, Pusey’s argument is not justified. The passage reads not, “Give not thy heritage to the nations to rule over them,” but “give not thy heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them.” In other words, the prophet recognizes an intermediate stage between the calamity and the nation’s subjugation. A scourge of locusts such as is described in these chapters would exhaust the resources of the country, and an alert enemy might improve the opportunity to overwhelm the nation.

Not only are the arguments in favor of the allegorical view inconclusive; the terms of the description itself make this interpretation impossible. The locusts are compared to an army; it is hardly like that any writer would compare a symbol with the reality it is intended to symbolize. Moreover, to speak of a victorious host as entering the conquered city like a thief (Joel 2:9) would be an indication of considerable thoughtlessness. Even a modified form of the allegorical view, which admits that the references in chapter 1 are to real locusts, but insists that in chapter 2 we must see an army of soldiers, is untenable, since a comparison of Joel 2:11, “Jehovah uttereth his voice before his army; for his camp is very great,” with Joel 2:25, “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you,” with Joel 1:4, “That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten,” proves that the army of chapter ii is expressly identified with the locusts of chapter 1.

To this should be added that the prophet speaks (Joel 2:25) only of such acts of devastation as are actually wrought by locusts. There is no hint of ravages wrought by a human army, of bloodshed, destroyed cities, and captives.

The weakness of the apocalyptic argument is revealed by the arguments advanced against the allegorical view; its absolute untenableness will be seen as we pass to the consideration of the second question: Is Joel 1:2 to Joel 2:17, descriptive or predictive?

The answers to this second question are determined very largely by the attitude of the student toward the first question. It is not necessary to discuss in detail the arguments advanced in favor of the predictive interpretation. All that is needed is to call attention briefly to the indications which seem to put the descriptive interpretation beyond question.

1 . The General Character of Prophecy. The horizon of the prophet is not limited by his own immediate future; he may, and very often does, look forward to events even beyond our own time; but the prophet, if we judge from the prophecies whose dates are fixed with certainty, always starts from the circumstances of his own day. The prophecies are not abstract productions of the study; they are direct messages to the people for the purpose of meeting a present crisis. If, now, the plague is removed into the future the occasion for the message disappears, and the prophecy becomes a “mere learned study or midrash on preceding prophetical literature.”

2 . But we need not depend upon a priori reasoning alone. The impression made by the appeal, “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 another generation. That which the palmer-worm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten,” is certainly that the hearers have experienced the calamity of which he speaks. Or read the exhortation to the priests in verse 13, or the utterances of the prophet in 15-20. Surely the only natural interpretation is that which recognizes that the prophet addresses the priests and the people out of an actual, present experience. The same is true of Joel 2:12 ff.: “Turn ye unto me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto Jehovah your God.” There is, indeed, no feature of the description of the plague that would indicate that this part of the book is to be regarded as predictive.

We may conclude, then, that the most probable, yea, the only natural, interpretation of the Book of Joel is that which regards the references to the locusts as descriptive of an actual plague of locusts, accompanied, as is the case frequently, by drought, and perhaps by forest fires. This calamity formed the occasion for the prophecy and influenced the prophet’s conception of the day of Jehovah; in return his description of the plague cannot have remained uninfluenced by the thought of the terrible day toward which the present calamity was thought to point.

Teaching of the Book.

Whatever the date of the Book of Joel, and whatever the interpretation of individual parts, its teaching is obvious, since it expresses no essentially new or mysterious truths. “If the prophecy were very ancient it would be interesting as being a kind of prophetic chart which subsequent writers followed. If it be late, as modern writers are inclined to conclude, though it still has its interest, it loses the originality and novelty which would otherwise belong to it.”

The teaching of the prophet centers, as already indicated, around the day of Jehovah, the great, future crisis in which Jehovah will manifest his majesty and power in the destruction of his enemies and in the deliverance of those who trust in him; the day which marks the beginning of the Messianic age. Concerning this day he teaches: (1) Its approach is marked by great convulsions and extraordinary phenomena in the sphere of nature. This thought is implied in the prophet’s interpretation of the significance of the calamity that called forth his prophecy; and it is expressed definitely in Joel 2:30-31. (2) The character of the day will be determined by the attitude of heart and life toward Jehovah. It will be a day of terror to all the people if they continue in their present spiritual condition (Joel 1:15; Joel 2:11); but it may be a day of blessing if they truly repent (Joel 2:12-14; Joel 2:19-29). (3) When the day of Jehovah finally does come those who call upon the name of Jehovah shall be delivered (Joel 2:31), but the enemies of the people of Jehovah, and as such the enemies of Jehovah himself, will be annihilated (chapter 3).

Now, while all the essential features of the eschatological vision of Joel are found in other prophetic writings (for example, Amos 9:13; Hosea 2:21-22; Isaiah 4:2-6), it must not be thought that Joel simply repeats the messages of the earlier prophets. He is acquainted with them, yet he impresses upon them the stamp of his own personality, and, in some cases at least, he enlarges upon them.

1 . He differs from other prophets in his emphasis upon the outpouring of the Spirit. That in the new age the Spirit of Jehovah will be more prominent is announced by others, but nowhere else do we meet a promise so comprehensive, the fulfillment of which would mean the realization of the wish of Moses, “Would that all Jehovah’s people were prophets, that Jehovah would put his Spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). This promise will live in the hearts and thoughts of Christians forever because of the use made of it by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14 ff.), and because that day actually marked the beginning of the era during which the promise has been and is being fulfilled with ever-increasing fullness, and in a manner far superior to the expectation of our prophet.

2 . Another point deserving special mention is the absence of the universalism of Messianic prophecy, such as we have, for example, in Isaiah 2:3-4: “And many peoples shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mount of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of Jehovah from Jerusalem. And he will judge between the nations, and will decide concerning many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Joel apparently sees no salvation for the nations; Israel is to be saved and glorified, the nations are to be judged and destroyed. Even the promise concerning the outpouring of the spirit upon all flesh is, on closer study, seen to be limited to the descendants of Abraham. The promise is to “your sons and your daughters,… your old men,… your young men.” But it would not be proper to condemn the prophet for this seeming exclusiveness. It was this very limitation during the centuries following the exile that made possible the existence of the religion of Jehovah in unadulterated form, so that the promise, “and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), might be fulfilled. That Israel remained Israel in spite of the attempts of the Samaritans and other surrounding nations, in spite of the influence of the Persians, “in spite of the Greek arms and the Greek mind, was due to the legalism of Ezra and Nehemiah, and to what we may call the narrow enthusiasm of Joel.” That a later generation failed to see that the crisis had passed, that it was time to “go into all the world” to spread the knowledge of Jehovah to “every creature,” that an illegitimate exaggeration and a false interpretation of the utterances of men of God, such as our prophet, was responsible even for the rejection by the Jews of the Messiah when he actually appeared among men, surely cannot be made a basis of accusation against the prophet Joel.

3 . In another feature of his representation Joel differs from some of the prophets that preceded him. Isaiah predicted that the kingdom of God was to be established under the rule of a “shoot out of the stock of Jesse” (Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1); Jeremiah announced that Jehovah would at the time of the restoration “cause a branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Isaiah 33:15). In a similar manner other prophets speak of an earthly, personal representative of Jehovah. According to Joel’s conception, when the final crisis arrives it is Jehovah himself who interferes, both in judging the nations and in delivering his children. It is he who in his own person will rule in Zion: “I am in the midst of Israel” (Joel 2:27), “I am Jehovah your God dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain” (Joel 3:17), “Jehovah dwelleth in Zion” (Joel 3:21). There is no reference to a Messianic king.

4 . On account of his emphasis on the externals of religion (Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:12-17), in which attitude he differs from the pre-exilic prophets, Joel has sometimes been accused of neglecting entirely the “weightier matters” of the law. Here, as always, we must guard against extremes. That his attitude toward sacrifice is not that of Amos 5:21 ff., or of Isaiah 1:11 ff., may be readily admitted; that he entirely lacked interest in the fulfillment of moral requirements is not true. For he promises deliverance to the people not on the basis of the painstaking observance of the form of religion, but on the basis of “godly sorrow that worketh repentance for salvation” (compare especially Joel 2:12-13).