A Joel 1:1-14 – Locust Invasion
B Joel 1:15-20 – The Day of the Lord
C Joel 2:1-11 – The LORD’s Army
D Joel 2:12-17 – Call To Repentance
A′ Joel 2:18-27 – Restoration
B′ Joel 2:28-32 – The Day of the Lord
C′ Joel 3:1-21 – The LORD’s Army
Timeline (c. 9th-5th century B.C.)
The Book of Joel
Joel is the second minor prophet in The Book of The Twelve, and it is important to remember that these twelve minor prophets (Hosea-Malachi) were meant to be read as one book (see Acts 7:42). Think of them as different chapters within one longer book, instead of twelve separate books that are unrelated. Often a book will begin by picking up where the previous one left off. For example, Joel ends with, “For the Lord dwells in Zion” (Joel 3:21), and then Amos begins with, “The Lord roars from Zion…” (Amos 1:2). So pay attention to what came before and what comes after, and allow the surrounding books to inform and influence the context of whatever you are reading.
It is difficult to know when Joel was prophesying because he never tells us, but conservative commentators place him in either the 9th century BC, around the same time as Isaiah and Hosea, while others put him in a post-exilic context as late as the 5th century BC. Because of the canonical ordering of this book between Hosea and Amos, I lean towards an early date for Joel’s ministry, sometime in the 9th-8th century BC.
Since Joel is a short book of only 3 chapters, it’s easy to notice the literary structure of the book (see outline above). Imagine there are 7 blocks of material in this book, and they follow this order A-B-C-D-A-B-C, where the A sections correspond to one another, B sections correspond, and so on, and then at the center section D is the hinge and central message of the book, which is “Repent!”
Section A – Locusts
The first A section (Joel 1:1-14) deals with the locust invasion and its consequences. For example, Joel 1:12 says,
“The vine has dried up,
And the fig tree has withered;
The pomegranate tree,
The palm tree also,
And the apple tree—
All the trees of the field are withered;
Surely joy has withered away from the sons of men.”
The second A section (Joel 2:18-27) describes how when God’s people repent, the land is healed. For example, Joel 2:23-24 says,
“Be glad then, you children of Zion,
And rejoice in the Lord your God;
For He has given you the former rain faithfully,
And He will cause the rain to come down for you—
The former rain,
And the latter rain in the first month.
The threshing floors shall be full of wheat,
And the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil.”
Notice especially the correspondence between the vine, the wine, and joy. These are all linked together and can signify either the blessing or judgment of God upon a people. Joel plays with this theme starting at the beginning of the book, “Awake, you drunkards, and weep; And wail, all you drinkers of wine, Because of the new wine, For it has been cut off from your mouth” (Joel 1:5). The pattern of Israel’s history has been: 1) obedience to God which leads to 2) blessing (ie. an abundance of wine), 3) Israel gets drunk on the blessing and forgets God, which then provokes 4) God’s wrath. So wine that leads to drunkenness is a sign of judgement, but wine that leads to gladness of heart is a sign of God’s blessing (Ps. 104:15).
The New Testament picks up on this theme of new wine as it becomes a sign of the New Covenant and an element in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus begins his ministry by turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2), and then when the Holy Spirit is given at Pentecost, some people mock the disciples saying, “They are full of new wine” (Acts 2:13). This leads Peter to stand up and say, “These are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh…” (Acts 2:15-17). Pentecost is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy. The Spirit is the giver of life and joy, He is the new wine that inhabits the people of God.
Before this new wine can come, the land must first be cleansed, and new vines planted. This was the job of John the Baptist, to prepare a way for the Messiah. We are told in Matthew 3:4, that John’s food was “locusts and wild honey.” John is a locust destroyer. He devours the locusts who are devouring the land and has come to inspect the trees of Israel. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism he says to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance…even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:7-8, 10). Right after this, John prophesies of Pentecost, a coming baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire. John brings Joel’s prophesy to life.
Section B – The Day Of The Lord
In the B sections of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 1:15-20 and Joel 2:28-32), we are given a picture of The Day of the Lord. This is a day of both judgment and salvation where God’s wrath and God’s grace come to a climax (think of the Cross). It is the second B section that Peter quotes in his sermon at Pentecost which gives us a clear timestamp for when this prophecy is fulfilled. Joel says that before this great day, God’s spirit will be poured out, and then there will be signs in the heavens and on earth, the sun turned to darkness and the moon into blood, etc. “before the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31). Jesus uses similar language in the Olivet Discourse (see Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This leads us to section C.
Section C – The Lord’s Army
Joel 2:1-11 and Joel 3:1-21 both describe the Lord as the leader of armies. In the first section, God leads an invincible army against Judah. The (literal) locusts of chapter 1 have now become an army of men (metaphorical locusts) devouring the land. In the second section, God enters into judgment with Judah but also with the nations, he gathers them all to the Valley of Decision. This is a prophecy of the wars and rumors of wars in the 1st century. Jerusalem is destroyed, but God also judges Rome and the surrounding nations as well. When the gospel goes forth after Christ’s ascension, the days of vengeance proceed (Luke 21:22). Christ sits as king over all the earth, and all the nations are commanded to confess that Jesus is Lord. Those who repent and believe will be saved, and those who refuse will be crushed (Psalm 2). The great and awesome day of the Lord culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the entire old creation in 70 AD. Which means that we now live in an era where the LORD dwells in Zion (Joel 3:21), not the earthly city in the middle east, but the heavenly Zion and New Jerusalem above (Heb. 12:22-24). The new wine (Joel 3:18) of the Holy Spirit is now available throughout the whole world as the gospel is preached, the sacraments are administered, and God’s people are fed.
Section D – Repentance (Joel 2:12-17)
The central message of this book is a call to repentance, Joel 2:12-14 says:
12 “Now, therefore,” says the Lord,
“Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
13 So rend your heart, and not your garments
Return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
14 Who knows if He will turn and relent,
And leave a blessing behind Him—
A grain offering and a drink offering
For the Lord your God?
The language here is reminiscent of the language in Jonah 4:2, and some commentators believe that Joel is alluding to Jonah in this section (or vice versa). In Jonah a message of immanent judgment is announced, and the Ninevites mourn in sackcloth and ashes, and God relents from destroying them. Here in Joel, the message is the same but it is aimed at Israel. God is going to cut off the land with famine and locusts and foreign armies, but if Israel repents, who knows, perhaps God will relent. The irony of course is that while Nineveh repents at Jonah’s preaching, Israel does not listen to the prophets, and eventually Nineveh, which was the Assyrian capital, will conquer Israel.
This is one of those times in history where the Gentiles are more receptive to God’s Word than God’s own people, and this anticipates the New Testament era when the Jews will stone and reject the apostles, while many Gentiles gladly receive them. Paul discusses this in Romans 11 as part of the plan of salvation, “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:11). God uses Nineveh and other repentant Gentiles to magnify the graciousness of grace. If salvation was by bloodline or any other fleshly factor, man would have something to boast in, and this would diminish the glory of God. The glory of salvation is that God will be merciful to whomever he wants to bestow mercy, and so Joel pleads with his people to remember the Divine Name, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger of a great kindness, and he relents from doing harm” (Joel 2:13). We don’t know whether God will delay or stay his righteous judgments, but we do know that if we return to Him with fasting, and weeping, with broken and contrite hearts, He will not cast us off forever.