Harry Whittaker

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 without straw.

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 Yahweh.

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 2:12ff!

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 Prophecy

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 blessing.

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 climax.

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 every obstruction.

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 repentance.

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:

  1. "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 trees.
  2. "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 burned?
  3. "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. 9:11.
  4. "...that the heathen should rule over them...(saying), Where is their God?" (2: 17).
  5. " 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 opposite directions?

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.

Contemporary Reference

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 present tribulation.

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.

"Locust" invasion

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 lot.

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 prophecy.

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 43f.

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. 37:36).

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" (2:11).

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. 26:9,10).

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 court.

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 (3:5ff).

Except for Jerusalem—and there everyone was in fear—there was one word written across the map of Judah: DISASTER.


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).

Repent! Repent!

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 remember:

"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 it.

Even so it may be that the situation would prove to be past mending. "Who knows if he (the Lord) will return and repent?" (2:14).


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).

And how?

"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 things." (2:20).

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).

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