The prophet himself
Apart from his
name—Joel-ben-Pethuel—nothing whatever is known about this man of
God. So here in this first paragraph is a stalwart attempt to make bricks
The name Joel could be one of the Hebrew
language’s rich collections of words for "fool", but somehow this meaning
seems a trifle unlikely here.
The obvious alternative is that this is a
commonplace combination of the divine names: "Jehovah is God" (cp.
Elijah—the same in reverse). This is almost certainly correct. There are
parallels to this; e.g., Joseph is certainly Y’hoseph (see Hebrew text of
Psalm 81:5), and similarly Jochebed is an elided form of Y’ho-chebed. But
immediately, for those who are wedded to "Yahweh" as the form of the Covenant
Name, another kind of problem arises; for whereas Yo’el derives easily
from the beginning of Y’howah, it is not exactly easy to see a link with
The prophet’s patronymic provides little
assistance, for the resemblance to Hebrew words for "deceive" and "sudden" are
not exactly helpful. However, in LXX the name is: Bethuel (an easy confusion
between B and P in Hebrew). This yields the obvious and very meaningful: "laid
waste by God" (s.w. Isa. 5:6) with reference to the main theme of the prophecy.
Such a meaning would be readily chosen by the prophet himself to prepare his
readers for what is coming, the true patronymic being the much more likely:
—"ben-Azariah" (2 Chr. 29:12). This would make Joel a Levite, and most
probably a priest. What splendid appropriateness can now be seen in Joel
When did Joel live? And where did he proclaim his
message? Guesses as to dating have been copious. The times of Jehoshaphat (3:12
is virtually the only evidence here), Athaliah, Hezekiah, and Zephaniah (some
similarities of idea and wording).
The evidence in favour of the third of these
turns out to be abundant; and when the prophecy is studied against this
background of Hezekiah and Isaiah, paragraph after paragraph lights up the
primary reference of Joel’s message.
The dominant references to Jerusalem fit
Hezekiah’s time remarkably well. And the allusions to various Gentile
neighbours of Israel chime in with all that is known of Hezekiah’s reign,
and with various Isaiah allusions. On the other hand, the marked absence of
prophetic tirade against imported paganism is appropriate to a period following
on reformation (see 2 Kgs. 18:4; 2 Chr. 30,31), and in any case would hardly be
appropriate to Joel’s main theme of invasion, destruction and salvation.
As a later chapter is developed, the reader will begin to see how readily
Joel’s prophecy fits into this niche.
The Contents of the
After a brief but eloquent introduction (1:2,3),
the rest of chapter 1 and 2:1-11 depicts in some of the finest language of the
Old Testament an invasion by a plague of locusts. The rest of chapter 2 makes
appeals for national repentance, and adds alluring promises of heavenly
Chapter 3 describes in lurid terms the massing of
an international onslaught on God’s Land and People. But the Almighty
Himself comes to the rescue. The blessedness of the Messianic kingdom and the
open assertion of God’s authority are both declared in a triumphant
The Locust Invasion
The prophet’s language is truly horrific.
Crops devastated, flocks and herds famished through lack of fodder, the sky is
darkened with the spreading cloud of irresistible devastation, the husbandman
miserable in his sense of helplessness, the inexorable advance of a hostile army
disciplined to be ever closing ranks and marching with callous indifference to
Another locust swarm, this time of commentators,
has decided that Joel saw a recent locust invasion of the Holy Land as a
judgment from God intended to warn His people of their need for
The main idea, of a lesson to be learned from a
harrowing experience, is certainly correct. But was this the horror of a locust
swarm or of an invasion of pitiless Assyrians?
When the details are considered carefully, it
becomes clear that, if indeed there was a locust invasion, the prophet meant his
people to see it as a God-provided warning of an imminent over-running of the
Land by the worst enemy they had ever encountered:
- "The fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness,
and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field...The fire
hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness" (1:19,20). Even the best-regulated
families of locusts do not burn up pasture or
- "A fire devoureth before them, and
behind them a flame burneth" (2:3). Is it permissible even to say that a
locust horde leaves the land looking as though it had been
- "The Lord shall utter his voice before his army"
(2:11): compare Isaiah 8:7,8; 10:5-7; and the same idiom in Matthew 22:7; Rev.
- "...that the heathen should rule over
them...(saying), Where is their God?" (2: 17).
- " I will
remove far off from you the northern army (no locust plague comes into Israel
from the north), and will drive him into a land barren and desolate, with his
face toward the east sea (the Dead Sea), and his hinder part toward the utmost
sea (the western sea)" (2:20). Would a locust swarm travel with the wind in two
Such details are surely decisive. The prophet may
have been building his warnings on a recent experience of locust invasion (in
precisely the way in which the apostle James exhorts against the dangers
presented by false teachers—see 3:1 RV— through the sustained figure
of an undisciplined tongue), but his main intent was to fortify his people
against the most powerful military invasion their history had ever known. This
reading of chapters 1,2 is finally settled by the "holy war" prophecy of chapter
3, couched in much more literal terms.
It will be from this angle that the rest of this
commentary will be developed, with detail after detail expounded, in the first
instance, with reference to the massive Assyrian invasion of Judah in the reign
of king Hezekiah. Then the exposition can begin all over again in fuller detail
with reference to the Last Day crisis of tribulation yet to be experienced by
heedless Jewry in their threatened state of Israel.
Modern commentators are well-satisfied that
Joel’s three chapters were written entirely with reference to contemporary
events—a literal locust plague bringing agricultural ruin and every other
kind of national collapse conceivable. According to this view, the other side of
the picture is the need to learn to take religion more seriously, accept again
the neglected religious regimen, put real trust in the Lord, and all will turn
out well: the ultimate blessings will far outweigh all the wretchedness of
Earlier commentators considered only figurative
locusts afflicting God’s faithful remnant, which were promised the glories
of a Messianic spiritual kingdom. Here, the figurative is seen as being
predominant, to the total exclusion of any literal fulfilment.
Over against these, the present writer will
attempt to vindicate in detail his conviction that, whereas there may have been
an invasion of literal locusts, these were employed by God and His prophet as a
kind of visual aid to add yet more force to the terrors of a military invasion
of Judah by the dreaded Assyrians in the time of King Hezekiah.
BUT, this is less than half the story, for the
normal pattern of Bible prophecy (with very few exceptions) is the presentation
of a two-fold message:
1. A contemporary reference to events, which have
just happened or are about to happen.
2. A Messianic reference, concerning the first or
second Advents of Christ.
The present chapter comes before the reader as an
exercise in the first of these aspects of the Book of Joel. The rest of this
commentary will follow on with a more complete exposition with reference to the
Last Days and the Kingdom of God. The pattern is virtually the same as has
already been presented in the two-fold exposition of each of Isaiah’s 66
chapters. And, as it turns out, the contemporary background is essentially the
same in both books.
It is useful to note that in the writings of some
of the prophets (and of apostles also) one encounters a fair amount of organized
dislocation and thematic disruption. This is not a complaint or criticism, but
simply a statement of fact. Joel has its share of this characteristic. So in
this chapter in order to make certain aspects of the message more clear to the
modern reader, the sequence will be according to topic. When the now much more
important Last Day theme is addressed, the study will be verse-by-verse. Thus it
is hoped to have the best of both worlds.
No modern writer of "spooky" stories has achieved
a more macabre effect than has the prophet Joel in his two brief descriptions of
the inexorable onward march or flight of his locusts.
There is helpless horror written in every face
(2:6). This insatiable irresistible enemy—they run, they climb, they fly
as a dense dark cloud, and as the most disciplined army that ever was they march
and march without ever a break in the ranks; thus they refuse to be hindered
(2:7-9). And they know the military technique of living off the land. Indeed
that is what they are there for. Always, as they go, they are eating, eating,
eating (1:4). Before them, the Land is a Garden of Eden, God’s own garden;
behind them there is only a desolate wilderness (2:3)—Vines, fig trees
(1:7), cattle and sheep (1:18), all are lost.
An invading army
These invaders are ruthless cruel empire-building
Assyrians: A nation is come up upon my Land (1:6). In fact, not one
nation only, but a confederacy of several nations willing to co-operate with the
Assyrians rather than suffer from their matchless cruelty and barbarism. "All
nations" is Joel’s phrase (3: 2). The words are not to be taken literally.
Tibetans and Red Indians do not play their part in this developing purpose of
the God of Israel. It was unnecessary to identify the leader by name. But
"having the teeth of a great lion" (1:6; a fantastic detail regarding a locust!)
makes identification of Assyria easy, for Layard and other archaeologists have
brought to light that these Assyrians thought of themselves as a pride of lions.
It was a symbol, which the Babylonians were glad to take over after the collapse
of Nineveh (Dan. 7:4). The mention of chariots provides another mark of
identification, for no other nation, not even Egypt, could rival this feature of
Assyria’s military strength.
The mention at the outset of four different kinds
of locust (1:4) is usually taken to indicate different stages of development of
these creatures. But it seems not unlikely that these four names are introduced
to suggest the four great Assyrian monarchs whose campaigns all included
onslaught on the people of God: Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmanezer V who died at
the siege of Samaria, Sargon II (Isaiah 20:1) and Sennacherib, the worst of the
Attempts have been made to turn the names of
these creepy-crawly Hebrew words into equivalent numerals, which can then
conveniently and impressively, describe the duration of the four great empires
of Nebuchadnezzar’s image. There are at least two substantial
difficulties: (a) The figures arrived at don’t fit known history: (b) This
thesis is quite irrelevant to the theme of Joel’s
Some of the nations, which joined Assyria in the
onslaught on Judah, are named: Tyre and Zidon, Edom and Egypt (3:4,19). The last
of these was an enemy of Assyria, but that did not stop a massive Egyptian army
from ravaging southern Judah before meeting with defeat at El-tekeh. Others in
the confederacy against Judah are identified in "Isaiah" (HAW), page
The phrase: "Sanctify war" (3:9mg) used about
these invaders was superbly accurate, for a mass of details brought together in
"Hezekiah the Great" (HAW), ch.14, makes clear that Sennacherib regarded this
particular campaign as a war between Ashur, the god of Nineveh, and Jehovah.
Compare also: "Wherefore should they (the Gentiles) say among the people, Where
is their God?" (2:17).
There is an obvious connection between the
exhortation to the enemy to "beat ploughshares into swords, and pruning hooks
into spears" (3: 10) and its converse in Isaiah’s prophecy of the
Messianic kingdom (2:4).
"The valley of Jehoshaphat" has persuaded some to
refer this prophecy to the time of king Jehoshaphat; but there is a lack of
supporting evidence. See also the later comments on this detail. On the other
hand, the repeated phrase "round about", which is meaningless unless it be
referred to Jerusalem, suggests that "the valley of decision" (3:14; the valley
of the Lord’s judgment) was immediately outside the Holy City. The
besieging army was encamped there and met with destruction there. "Thither cause
thy mighty ones (the angels) to come down, O Lord" (3:11,12). And God did! (Is.
Before that mighty destruction of the enemy took
place, the desolating effect of their campaign throughout the Land left the
inhabitants of Jerusalem paralysed with horror.
In the mind of Sennacherib there was evidently
such an implacable hatred of Israel and Israel’s God that his campaign of
destruction was pursued with almost lunatic ferocity. A conqueror that has his
wits about him will subjugate in order to harness the prosperity of the victim
people to the further enhancement of the civilisation of his own land and
people. Other empire builders had the sense to do this to the progressive glory
and luxury of their reigns. But not so Sennacherib on this occasion! He was set
on reducing Israel to a wilderness. He would show the world what he thought
about the God these Jews worshipped. But Isaiah and Joel knew him to be the
instrument of Jehovah (Is. 8:7,8; 10:5-7). His army was "My army"
There was, in fact, more than one army furthering
this fell purpose. Whilst a long and bitter siege was sustained against Lachish,
the key to Egypt, with Libnah as the next on the hit-list, other columns ranged
through the Land, reducing and burning to ashes no less than forty-six fortified
towns (Taylor prism). And cavalry units went unopposed throughout the Land
(e.g., Is. 10:28-32) intent on burning and destroying every sign of the
horticulture which king Uzziah had brought to such a matchless standard ( 2 Chr.
So vineyards became useless and desolate, fig
trees (the sign of a prosperous Israel) were ruthlessly killed off; every
orchard was devastated (1:12). The crops were burnt, whatever stage of growth
they had reached. And barns, whether full or empty, were savagely destroyed
(1:17). The oxen and sheep which could not be commandeered by the Assyrian
commissariat went untended and starving for lack of fodder (1 : 18). In savage
despite crops were fired, and a pall of smoke ascended up to heaven (1:19,20).
Gloom both in spirit and atmospheric fact, hung over the whole Land. But there
was no fire of sacrifice ascending up to God, nor any of the tokens of
thanksgiving with which a good harvest would normally fill the temple
It was the total eclipse of Israel. Their sun and
moon and stars were darkened. All glory gone (2:10).
And those miscreant neighbours of Israel, who had
thrown in their lot with the Assyrians, as a means of saving their own skins,
took a special pleasure in rounding up captives (besides the two hundred
thousand whom Sennacherib’s men had marched off to Nineveh and Babylon;
Taylor Prism) in order to sell them off to slave-dealers and those who
specialised in catering for the lustful appetites of the legionaries
Except for Jerusalem—and there everyone was
in fear—there was one word written across the map of Judah:
Of course, there was a reason for God being on
the side of the big brutal battalions. Apart from a faithful remnant (2:32) the
nation was well on the way to forgetting Hezekiah’s great reformation (2
Chr. 29,30) which for a time at any rate had pulled the nation back from the
brink of complete apostasy. Priests and aristocrats were a drunken worldly lot
(1:5; Is. 28:7,8).
It was high time that they read the sign of their
times spelling out their dire message: Retribution!
There was only one thing for it: The nation must
repent, and not in any half-hearted fashion either.
"Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even
to 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 the Lord
your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness,
and repenteth him of the evil" (2:12,13).
So there must be a Day of Atonement of such a
degree of sincerity and earnest prayer as none in the nation could
"Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call
a solemn assembly" (2:15).
The priests must set the example for all the
rest. Their importunity must not flag. And they must mean every word of
Even so it may be that the situation would prove
to be past mending. "Who knows if he (the Lord) will return and repent?"
But yes! There is hope. Our God is not the one to
cast off His people utterly.
"The Lord will be jealous for his Land, and He
will pity His people...(v.18).
Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord
shall be delivered: for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem (and virtually nowhere
else) shall be deliverance" (v.32).
"But I will remove far off from you the northern
army, and will drive him into a land barren and desolate, with his face toward
the east sea, and his hinder part toward the utmost sea, and his stink shall
come up, and his ill savour shall come up, because he (the Lord) hath done great
For the Lord of hosts will "shew wonders in the
heaven and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke" (2:30; cp. Is.
37:36; 30:30-33; 31:8,9)
"The Lord also shall roar out of Zion, and utter
his voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake: but the
Lord will be the hope of his people, and the strength of the children of
Israel." (3: 16).
There will be recompense (3:7b) not only on the
head of Assyria, but also upon Egypt, the false friend who persecuted harmless
Jewish refugees (3:19; Is. 19:20); and against Edom who was better at hatred
than at showing brotherly love. (Is. 63:1-4; 34:6,8).
Did Isaiah make a correct inference from the
lovely pictures of blessedness painted by Joel, or was there a separate
inspiration, which communicated to Hezekiah that the bad years would be atoned
for with the double fertility and rich blessing of a Year of Jubilee? (2:23-26;
Is. 37:30,31). In brief alluring pictures it was now made plain to God’s
stricken people that all that had been brutally snatched away from them would be
restored in abundance, "pressed down and running over".
Such a land as the Holy Land needs only the
blessing of the clouds, and nothing can restrain its fertility. Not for nothing
is it called "a land flowing with milk and honey" (grass and flowers!). So the
promised Jubilee would bring copious refreshing rains to beautify the Land and
to gladden the hearts of men and beasts alike (3:18).
Threshing floors, which had been associated with
God’s threshing wrath, were now to be full, over-full, with piles of
golden grain (2:24). The winepresses would pour forth their liquid sunshine, and
the oil presses likewise, whilst awestruck farmers would stand by, marvelling at
Nature’s God-given fecundity and lifting their eyes to heaven in praise
and thanksgiving that the Lord they had served so ill should be so kind to
such as they, the unworthy (2:18).