Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the first part of Robb’s series from last week on the prophet Hosea.
Very little is known to us about the prophet Joel. His name means the LORD is God, and he was the son of Pethuel (Joel 1:1), but beyond that, we know nothing about him personally. Unlike Hosea, Joel does not tell us when he ministered to Israel as a prophet or where he lived, whether in the northern kingdom or in Judah. The prophet displays great familiarity with the temple and the priesthood, making it possible that he lived in or around Jerusalem. His vivid agricultural language indicates that he might have lived in the countryside or been from an agricultural family.
One fact Joel relates with stark clarity is that he lived during a national catastrophe. The setting of the book of Joel is a dreadful infestation of locusts who destroy virtually all of the crops in Israel. For contemporary Americans, such a national tragedy is almost unfathomable. We live in a time when food is readily available in abundance and great variety. The idea of a locust plague is almost laughable in a time and place when pesticides could be used to destroy the insects. But for people in the ancient world, such a plague was disastrous. It threatened not just the crops but the very survival of the nation. In addition to the plague of locusts, Joel indicates that he lived in a time of a severe drought. The trees throughout the land had dried up, and farmers had no place to lead their animals for water or pasture. The drought had become so severe that it had led to brushfires that had scorched land previously used for grazing animals. Wherever a person looked during the time when Joel wrote, all he saw was devastation brought about by natural disasters.
Joel was raised up by God to speak to the people of Israel during the time of this national tragedy. Would Israel survive the locusts, the drought, and the fire? Were these terrible events the result of the judgment of God on the nation? And if so, what could be done to avoid that judgment or to turn it away?
Joel frames his response to these questions using the mysterious concept of the Day of the Lord. Most scholars are agreed that the Day of the Lord is the major theme of the book of Joel. The phrase as such occurs five times in this brief work, once in chapter 1, three times in chapter 2, and once again in chapter 3. Joel tells his people that the difficulties and disasters they are seeing unfold before their eyes are previews of the greater judgment to come (Joel 1:15). Although these judgments might be dreadful, the people should take the opportunity to consider their ways, to repent of their sins, and to cry out to God for deliverance before God brings His final judgment to bear on the wicked. Joel compares the people of Israel to a drunken man in a stupor, who cannot assess reality correctly, who is numb to his pain and to the dire predicament in which he finds himself. If the nation of Israel is a prostitute in Hosea, she is a drunk in Joel.
Joel insightfully diagnoses humanity’s disease. Whenever national tragedy strikes, tragedy that should remind us of God’s judgment against sin and move us to repentance, our natural response is to entrench ourselves even deeper in our own idolatry. The massacre that took place in Orlando last week is a perfect example of what Joel describes. The events that unfolded that terrifying night and early into the next morning are reminders of what happens when people abandon God’s Law and sink into utter depravity. Sexual perversion, senseless murder, fear, dread, terror, and sorrow all result from rebellion against a holy God. Yet, like the people of Joel’s day, rather than taking these events as reminders of the deadliness of sin and the need for repentance, our nation has dug in its heels even deeper in idolatry and
rebellion. Waving the rainbow flag as a sign of homosexuality in the wake of these events epitomizes how humanity refuses to repent of its sin but instead flaunts its iniquity in the face of a righteous God who will bring judgment on the wicked. Churches opening their doors to accept homosexuality and calling unrepentant homosexuals brothers and sisters prostitute themselves in their spiritual adultery against the living God; instead, they should repent of their idolatry, their desire to be like the world and loved by the world. The book of Joel reminds us that the proper response to national disaster, catastrophe, and tragedy is not some nebulous concept of love or weeping devoid of speaking truth. It’s not to rend our garments with those who weep. It’s to have our hearts rent in two because of our sin, and to weep that we have fallen so far into God’s judgment that Christ is not given the honor and glory due His majestic name.
Joel reminds us that the Day of the Lord is coming. It will be a day when God brings judgment on the wicked, and when He will judge the nations who rebelled against Him, establishing their own laws rather than submitting to His Law. The Day will be one of terror and dread. But, Joel tells us, God will do something spectacular before that day comes. He will pour out His Spirit on Israel and on all the nations (Joel 2:28-32). Whoever calls on the name of the Lord, no matter their ethnicity or background, will be saved (Rom 10:12-13). Yes, God’s judgment is unavoidably coming upon the nations, but anyone from any nation who calls upon God for salvation will receive the Spirit and be delivered.
Those who refuse this salvation will find themselves destroyed by God and His holy army (Joel 2:1-11). But those whose hearts are broken over their sin and who call on God from a repentant heart of faith will dwell with God forever in His holy city, Zion.
Joel is a powerful book. Joel is book with a timely message. The only question that remains is will we heed it while there is still opportunity to call upon the name of the Lord?