The heading in 1:1 gives no information about the prophet apart from his father’s name. The divine message, rather than the messenger, is what matters. So background knowledge can be gleaned only from internal evidence. It is useful to discover as much as possible about the historical and social background to prophetic writings. Then we can enter intelligently into the message of the prophet for his own times, and this helps us to apply it to our own situation.
It used to be thought that the order of books in the minor prophets was significant for the dating of Joel. Certainly there is a loose historical sequence, but we must not be locked into an early date just for that reason. The placing of the book of Joel is an interesting topic, to which we shall return later (see also the chart ‘The prophets’ in The Song of Songs).
The clearest clue for dating Joel comes from the historical information supplied in the accusations of 3:2–3, 5–6. It is now generally accepted that they fit best the terrible events of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 bc and its aftermath. The temple was destroyed at that time, but both it and its rituals are conspicuously present in the messages of Joel (1:9, 13–14, 16; 2:14, 17; cf. 3:18). Therefore a date not only after the Judeans came back from exile in Babylon but after the rebuilding of the temple in 515 bc is indicated. The Sabeans (3:8) were displaced by the Mineans as important Arabian traders by 400 bc. In line with this general time-frame is the impression that Joel cites a number of Scriptures and traditions as evidently written earlier and well known to his hearers.
We know from other post-exilic books that this period was a very difficult time politically and economically for the Judean settlers. Haggai mentions a bad harvest that devastated the community when they had insufficient resources to tide them over (Hg. 1:6, 10–11; 2:19). It was an agricultural crisis that was the burden of Joel’s ministry, one that threatened the survival of the struggling settlers. They experienced a severe locust plague that affected more than one year’s harvest (1:4; 2:25). Locusts are still a serious threat, notably in African countries, although the spraying of pesticides, especially from the air, has decreased their harmfulness by killing them before they mature and breed. To this end in a single week in September 1986 four DC-7 aircraft sprayed nearly one million acres in Senegal with malathion. One swarm can contain up to ten billion individual locusts. As many as a thousand newly hatched hopping locusts can occupy one square foot. A single locust can travel 3,000 miles during its lifetime, stripping vegetation wherever it and its swarm land. A swarm can devour in one day what 40,000 people eat in one year. In a 1958 visitation Ethiopia lost 167,000 metric tons of grain, enough to feed more than a million people for a year. (Most of these facts are taken from World Vision, Dec. 1986–Jan. 1987.)
Such an infestation meant that a large question mark was placed against the survival of the Judean community. What could they do? Religion played an important role in ancient society, and Judah was no exception. Prophets were accepted figures in Judean religion. So it was Joel’s function to interpret the locust plague in religious terms and guide the community to take suitable religious measures to cope with the problem. Joel seems to have been an official temple prophet. The crucial part played by such prophets at times of national crisis is illustrated by the narrative in 2 Ch. 20:1–20. There the prophet has authority to answer a national prayer of lament in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and to promise deliverance from the crisis. That same power is claimed by Joel. The Psalms too provide evidence of these prophets’ ministry of warning the people to mend their ways (Pss. 81:8–16; 95:7–11). This role is evident in the first half of the book of Joel.
What religious significance did Joel find in the plague? He interpreted it as a warning from God to return to him, just as Amos did at an earlier period: ‘ “Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord’ (Am. 4:9). ‘Return’ refers to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. This concept underlies the whole of Joel’s prophetic ministry. It is evident in such phrases as ‘your God’ (2:13, 26–27; 3:17), ‘my people’ (2:27; 3:2–3) and ‘his people’ (2:18; 3:16). Moreover, while the political name of the community is Judah (3:1, etc.), Joel also uses its covenant name, Israel (2:27; 3:2, 16).
In the OT the covenant is a three-sided concept that includes the land. The triangle is clearly expressed at 2:18: ‘Then the Lord will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people.’ It is also revealed in the description of the Judeans as ‘all who live in the land’ (1:2, 14; 2:1; cf. Ho. 4:3). God’s gift of the land was a sensitive instrument that registered the spiritual state of the people. It was fertile in times of fellowship and obedience, but barren and lifeless in times of disloyalty. Indeed, locust plagues feature as one of the covenant curses in Dt. 28:38, 42, while agricultural prosperity is credited to Yahweh’s blessing (Dt. 28:4, 8, 11, 12).
This close dependence of material fortunes upon doing God’s will underlies Joel’s messages. Other parts of the OT, notably the book of Job, qualify it and the NT does not often appeal to it (see Mt. 6:33; 2 Cor. 9:6–11; Phil. 4:15–19). Yet there remains a basic kinship between humanity and the rest of creation that we ignore at our peril. The environment is a human and therefore Christian concern.
The covenant system, with its delicate balance of blessing and curse, was conditional (cf. Je. 14:21). In fact God had the right to annul it, if his people refused to play their proper part, although it was up to him whether he exercised that right. There were obviously degrees of cursing, the intent of which was both to punish and to warn, as in Am. 4:6–11. The ultimate judgment is expressed in Am. 4:12, to ‘meet your God’ in a sinister confrontation that would transcend earlier providential punishments (but see on Am. 4:12).
The confrontation is further described in Am. 5:18–20 as ‘the day of the Lord’ which ironically would bring ‘darkness, not light’. This concept, which Amos related historically to the permanent destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 bc, had a strong influence on later prophets. Joel made great use of it; but whereas for Amos God was to employ human forces to wage war on his people, for Joel a natural force was to be his instrument. He strikingly interpreted the locust plague in terms of ‘the day of the Lord’, as the first stage in the annihilation of the covenant people (1:15; 2:1, 11). He had precedents in Ezekiel and Obadiah, who understood the destruction of the state of Judah, together with its monarchy and temple, in 586 bc in terms of the ‘day of the lord’ (Ezk. 7; 34:12; Ob. 8–14; cf. La. 2:21–22). However, Joel held out a chance of reprieve for post-exilic Judah, if the God-honouring rites of a public service of mourning, sincere repentance and prayer were performed (1:14; 2:16–17). Evidently these steps were taken, and through Joel a favourable response from God was delivered. It promised an end to the locust plague and also promised agricultural blessings (2:18–27).
There the book might have ended, but it does not. In the post-exilic period there was a keen expectation of a coming age of ultimate blessing. The divine judgment of the exile was regarded as a turning point in the people’s relationship with God. Restoration to the land was to spell restoration to divine favour and the coming of a golden age promised by Jeremiah and Ezekiel and in Is. 40–55. A major task of the post-exilic prophets was to explain why these hopes had not yet materialized. The concept of the day of the Lord was woven into these hopes, which included vindication and so political advancement for Judah at the expense of the national neighbours at whose hands it had suffered. La. 1:21 and Ob. 15–21 are expressions of this development, which Joel inherited. So the day of the Lord covered both judgment and salvation for God’s people, and the latter spelled judgment for other nations (cf. Ezk. 30:2–4). In its most complex form it also included salvation for other nations (Zp. 3:9; cf. Zp. 1:14–18; 3:8), but, as in Joel’s case, it was not always pastorally wise to think or say so.
Quite logically, then, once the theme of the day of the Lord had been applied to the locusts, it snowballed in 2:28–3:21 to include other aspects closely associated with it.
Position in the canon
In the Psalms there are sometimes pairs with related subject matter, such as Pss. 105 and 106, and 111 and 112. Among the minor prophets, which in the Jewish canon represent a single book, Joel and Amos appear to have been placed together for literary reasons. Links between the two books are the shared themes of Joel 3:16 and Am. 1:2, and of Joel 3:18 and Am. 9:13. An earthquake, mentioned in Joel 2:10 and 3:16, reappears in Am. 1:1; 8:8; 9:5. The locusts of Am. 4:9 recall Joel 1–2, while the day of the Lord theme in Am. 5:18–20 connects with the whole of Joel. Placing the books together served to shed light upon each, though more than 300 years of history separate them.
We need to overhear the message Joel brought to his contemporaries before we can hear it for ourselves. That involves appreciating the book’s own spirituality. Joel was given an insight into human experience, which enabled him to relate it to the purposes of God. God’s displeasure does not always lie behind human misfortune, as within the OT the book of Job clearly shows. But the NT sometimes sees Joel as relating believers’ misfortunes to divine judgment (1 Cor. 11:30–32; Heb. 12:5–11). The warning passages in Hebrews (e.g. Heb. 10:26–31) and the letters to the churches in Revelation, especially to Laodicea (Rev. 2:5; 3:3, 14–22) sound like Joel, as they speak in strong terms of the perils of spiritual treason. Yet, if Joel had to speak harshly to hardened sinners, he knew too when to speak coaxingly of the tender love of God (2:13), rather like Heb. 6:9–12 (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).
Joel functioned as a teacher, quoting Scripture and religious traditions and applying them to his own time. For instance, in 2:13 he quoted the beautiful description of God found in Israelite worship (cf. Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:15) and used it as an incentive to repent. Also he was careful to pave the way for divine oracles, as when he issued his challenges to different groups of people (1:2–18) and offered a sample prayer (1:19–20) before God’s summons for the people to assemble in repentant worship at Jerusalem (2:1). Moreover, he explained oracles, once they were given: in 2:13 (‘Return to the Lord … ’) the divine call of 2:12 is reinforced with reasons for obeying it, and in 2:32 the significance of God’s intention for his people (vs 30–31) is clarified.
Joel’s prophetic ministry included the role of pastor. In God’s name he was sensitive to the frustrations and heartaches of an ethnic minority. He replaced despair with hope, and a poor self-image with confidence in God’s positive purposes. God would recognize and reverse the suffering of his people at the hands of the nations (3:2–3, 5–6, 19) by vindicating and blessing them. Whenever the church feels insecure and threatened by a hostile world, it can turn to Joel for support.
The Christian interpreter of Joel must ask whether the NT made direct use of the book. As we shall see in the course of the commentary, there was a twofold use of the material which looks forward to the end times. First, in a straightforward fashion the coming of the day of the Lord was related to the second coming of Christ, when God would mount a final attack on the forces of evil. Secondly, the promise of the outpouring of the Spirit in 2:28–29 and the day of the Lord language in 2:30–32 were given a sophisticated interpretation in Peter’s speech at Pentecost in Acts 2:16–21, 33 and 38–40. The dual usage reflects a conviction that for the church the last days have already begun, but are not yet completed, while for the world they still lie in the future.
Some consider that the national and material blessing for Judah in 3:17–21 will one day be enjoyed by the Jewish people. However, there is very little support in the NT for this claim (see Lk. 21:24). The general tenor of its teaching claims for the church, composed of Jews and Gentiles, a spiritualized version of OT promises. Yet there are clues that a renewed earth is part of God’s ultimate purposes (Rom. 8:21; 2 Pet. 3:13).
M. Goldsmith, Habakkuk and Joel: God is Sovereign in History (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1982).
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
P. C. Craigie, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, DSB (St Andrew Press, 1984).
———, in USA, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 1, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).
D. A. Hubbard, Joel and Amos, TOTC (IVP, 1989).
L. C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1976).
R. Dillard, Joel, in T. McComiskey (ed.,) The Minor Propets, vol. 1 (Baker Book House, 1992).
D. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, WBC (Word, 1987).
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jl 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.