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The Book of Joel in the Bible: the Background and Meaning
Joel as Portrayed by Michelangelo
Joel, the Prophet Behind the Book of Joel
Like several of the authors of the Books of the Minor Prophets, we know little about the prophet Joel. We know that he was from and prophesied to the Kingdom of Judah. We also know that he was the son of Pethuel. (Pethuel means vision, youthfulness or sincerity of God.) Even Joel’s name was prophetic. It means, “Yahweh is God.”
When was the Book of Joel Written?
It is hard to pinpoint when the Book of Joel was recorded. Some believe it was written as early as 850 BCE and others believe it was written after the exile as late as the 5th century BCE. Several theories are based on the Books of Amos or Isaiah quoting the Book of Joel, which would suggest the Book of Joel was written before the Book of Amos or the Book of Isaiah. (See Isaiah 13:6 and Joel 1:15, as well as Amos 1:2 and Joel 3:16) However, it is just as possible that the Books of Amos and Isaiah are quoting the Book of Joel, and the Book of Joel comes after these books. Recent linguistic analysis suggests that it was written in the pre-exilic period, or before the temple was destroyed in 586 BCE.
A Russian Icon of Joel
The Dual Nature of the Book of Joel
Like the book of Isaiah, the Book of Joel is dualistic. The major theme in the Book of Joel is the need to repent to avoid destruction at the coming day of the Lord. This was directed to the people in the Kingdom of Judah, before the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as to the people in our day, before the last day and second coming of the Lord, Jesus Christ. This theme also supports the theory that the prophecy was written just before the exile in the 6th century BCE.
Locusts in the Book of Joel Chapter 1
The Imagery of the Locust in Joel Chapter 1
In verse four of chapter one, Joel uses the imagery of different stages in the lifecycle of the locust to describe the destruction awaiting the Kingdom of Judah. Palmerworm is translated from a Hebrew word that means “gnawer.” Locust is translated from a Hebrew word that means “many.” Cankerworm is translated from a Hebrew word that means “licker.” And finally, Caterpillar is translated from a Hebrew word which means “consumer.”
Therefore, Joel is saying that just like a consumer eats what an infestation of lickers leaves behind, and an infestation of lickers eats what many gnawers leaves behind, if Judah doesn’t repent, they will be subject to defeats and conquests of increasing magnitude until they are consumed completely and entirely defeated.
Sure enough, the Medes and Persians eventually destroyed what was left by Assyrian and Babylonian invasions of the land, most of which occurred after this prophecy was written. Anything that was left by the Medes and Persians was later destroyed by the Greeks and the Romans.
This prophecy can also be applied to our day and the time before the great Battle of Armageddon, when armies from the north with gather and fight before Christ’s millennial reign. Small battles will turn to larger wars, involving larger groups of people until it can be said that peace has been taken from the earth.
The Imagery of the Vine and the Wine in Joel Chapter 1
In verses five through seven of the first chapter of the book of Joel, the image of a vine, wine, and drunkenness are used to describe the spiritual stature and future of the Jews. Verse five says that the people of the Kingdom of Judah have become drunken with the wine of iniquity. The riches of the Kingdom of Judah are compared with the vine that supplies the grapes for wine. The prophecy continues to say that the vine was going to be cut off so they could be drunken no more. In other words, they would be conquered and lose their wealth, so they would stop living in wickedness.
Vines and fig trees are the most resilient and reliable plants that grew in Ancient Israel. In these verses, Joel uses them to represent bounty the Lord had given His people. But, because they have rejected the Lord and His gifts, they would be conquered by invaders, who like lions, would not be denied. This also suggests that one of the conquerors of Judah would be Assyria, as the lion was a symbol of Assyrian power.
The Chiasmus Describing the Loss of the Temple in Joel Chapter 1
The remainder of the first chapter talks about the loss of temple worship and fertility of the land.
Verse eight tells the people that they ought to be mourning for the impending loss of their temple, lands and prosperity as a young widow would mourn for the husband of her youth after a premature death.
Verses nine and ten explain that the reason they should be mourning was because of the future loss of their temple and verses eleven and twelve tell them they are mourning for the fast approaching loss of their fields. In Old Testament times, a husbandman was someone who tended an orchard and a vinedresser was someone who tended a vineyard.
Verse 16 explains that their source of joy and gladness was the temple, which was soon to be cut off. Verse 17 continues this theme and explains that just as the seed withers when the sprout is eaten by a locust, the Jewish nation would wither when the temple was destroyed.
Verses 8-20 of Joel Chapter 1 is in the form of a chiasmus. It states the need to mourn the impending destruction of the temple in verses 8-12 and 15-20 and the solution in 13-14. This literary technique was used to impress upon the mind of the reader that the whole passage should be viewed as a whole, to repeat important concepts in the first and last section, and to focus the attention of the reader on the most important message, which was at the center of the chiasmus, verses 13 and 14 in this instance. Frequently, as in this case, the course of action to remedy a situation or claim promised blessings was discussed in the prominent position, or the center, of the chiasmus.
In this case, the remedy was sackcloth, fasting and a solemn assembly. Verse thirteen tells the people to put on sackcloth, a coarse material made of animal hair that was used to remind the people of great tragedy. Clothing made of sackcloth was very uncomfortable and was worn in time of repentance and mourning familial deaths and national tragedies.
Verse fourteen calls for a fast and a solemn assembly. Fasts were used in mourning and to turn the hearts of the people to God in either repentance or thanksgiving. Solemn Assemblies were gatherings of spiritual leaders in which spiritual matters were considered and prayer in behalf of the people were offered.
Blood Red Moon in the Book of Joel
Joel Chapter 2 Discusses the Last Days
The phrase, “day of the Lord,” is used in verse 15 of chapter 1 and is often associated with the time just before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This phrase suggests that while verses 8-20 had a direct application following Joel’s day, they will have a second application before Jesus comes again.
Joel Chapter 2 appears to focus more on the application of this prophecy to the last days. Verse three discusses fires that will burn at the last day and verse 10 describes astronomical phenomenon that will occur. Verses four and five use the symbols of horses and chariots to symbolize wars and very powerful armies that will rage upon the earth before the second coming of Christ. Verse three explains that these natural disasters and wars will find the land like the Garden of Eden before them and leave them as wilderness in their wake. In verse six, the idiom, “all faces shall gather blackness,” means all will be gloom as these events unfold.
It is possible that verses 8-9 refer specifically to Jerusalem and its surrounding nation at the last days. Verse 8 may mean that defenses against those who invade the city of Jerusalem will be ineffective. This theory is backed by verse 9, which says that the city walls will be breached and Jewish houses plundered.
Verse 11 explains that before the great and last day and the terrible battles and calamities occur, the Lord will send more messengers and will preach His gospel. It further asks, who will be able to withstand these battles and disasters without obeying the word of the Lord?
Verse 12-20 commands those at the last days to prevent falling victim to the calamities of the last days the same way the Ancient Israelites were told they could have prevented the destruction in chapter 1: fasting, solemn assemblies, and turning their hearts to the Lord. In verse 13, the Lord explains that He does not want rent clothes or sack cloth from the people of the last days, but broken, humble and meek hearts that look to Him for Salvation.
Joel Chapter 2 on Gathering
Verses 21-27 of Joel Chapter 2 describe the eventual deliverance of both the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. One of the themes in the bible is that there would be a falling away or apostasy and a restoration. This passages plays on that theme as it promises that the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah will be restored and then returns to foretelling the destruction of the last days. As the restoration is promised immediately after discussion of the destruction of the last days as well as just before the destruction of the last days, we know that this restoration is dualistic. This passage promises that the Jews will be returned to the knowledge of their Savior, Jesus Christ, before the last days and that many will be saved after the destruction of the last days as well.
Verse 28, which discusses an outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord is quoted in Acts 2:17-21 as having been fulfilled on the day of Pentecost after the Savior’s resurrection and ascension. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also believe that this passage was quoted by Moroni to Joseph Smith at the beginning of this dispensation because the gospel that was being restored through Joseph Smith would also fulfill the prophecy that the spirit of the Lord would be pour out upon all flesh. This second interpretation is also back by the belief that eventually, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be the vessel through which the Jews are restored to the knowledge of their Savior as discussed in the verses prior to 28 in Joel Chapter 2.
Joel Chapter 3
Joel Chapter 3 continues with descriptions of the destructions and judgments of God that are coming at the last days. It then explains that after being scattered among the nations, which occurred with the exile in 586 BCE and again after the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the fortunes of the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel will change. They will be gathered and retribution will come to her enemies in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. In Hebrew, the Valley of Jehoshaphat literally means, “the Valley of Decision.” It is not known exactly where this valley is located. This passage seems to refer to Christ standing on the Mount of Olives to deliver Israel as discussed in Ezekiel 38 and 39.
The final verses describe the state of Jerusalem after the final battles, calamities and destructions have occurred.
Strangeness represented impurities at the time of Joel. In verse 17, the use of the phrase “there shall no more strangers pass through her any more,” means Jerusalem, Israel and Zion will be pure at the final day.
Egypt and Edom were both known for worldliness, relying on man, and as enemies to Judah. So, when verse 19 says that, “Egypt shall be a desolation, and Edom shall be a desolate wilderness,” this tells us that the enemies of Jerusalem will not stand the final battles.
The final two verses tell us that eventually the Jews will accept their God and return to His gospel and in that day they will again be the Lord’s people.