Overview of the Book of Joel

Question
Overview of the Book of Joel
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Overview of the Book of Joel

Author: The prophet Joel.

Purpose:

To call God's people to repentance so they could escape judgment and enjoy blessings on the approaching day of the Lord.

Date: Unknown

Key Truths:

  • Temporary, historical judgments call for repentance.
  • Temporary judgments indicate the importance of repentance for the great day of the Lord.
  • God promises his repentant people salvation from judgment and unending blessings in the future.

Author:

The prophet Joel is identified only as "Joel son of Pethuel" (Joel 1:1). The book gives us no other information about the prophet, and he is mentioned nowhere else in Scripture.

Time and Place of Writing:

Since the book of Joel contains no clear indications as to when it was written, it is exceedingly difficult to date the book. Joel's keen interest in Jerusalem -particularly in the Temple and its functionaries (e.g., Joel 1:9, 13-14; 2:14-17, 32; 3:1, 6, 16-17) - suggests that he lived in Jerusalem when Temple services were active. Various clues have been used for dating purposes: the book's location in the canon, vocabulary, linguistic parallels to other prophetic books and historical allusions. Some interpreters date the book to the ninth century B.C. during the reign of Joash (c. 835 B.C.). Others date it to the years just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Still others prefer a postexilic date, either early (c. 520-500 B.C.) or late (c. 400 B.C.).

It has been noted that, compared to the long list of accusations in other prophetic books, the book of Joel does not catalog the sins that caused the disasters it mentions. This has caused some interpreters to suggest that Joel was purposefully written as a liturgical guide to be used at any time of crisis or threat to God's people. In this light Calvin's firm posture that one cannot know the date of the book may suit the book well.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Although the book's unity was challenged by critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (they thought that different authors had written the contemporary [Joel 1:1-2:17] and futuristic [Joel 2:18-3:21] sections of the book), most interpreters now advocate its essential unity. Such features as the repeated theme of the "day of the LORD" (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14) and verbal links between the sections (e.g., Joel 2:2 and Joel 2:31; 2:10-11 and Joel 3:16; 2:10 and Joel 3:15; 2:11 and Joel 2:31; 2:17 and Joel 3:2; 2:27 and Joel 3:17) point to this unity.

One central theological motif of the book of Joel is the concept of the "day of the LORD." In Joel 1:15 the day of the Lord is introduced in the context of Joel's depiction of the horrible devastation he believed foreshadowed a greater future judgment. In this first instance then, Joel, like Amos (Amos 5:18-20; cf. Zeph. 1:7-13), declared the day of the Lord to be a day of judgment against God's own people. Similarly, in chapter 2 Joel described the day of the Lord as a "dreadful" day (Joel 2:11), "a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness" (Joel 2:2), a day when the Lord would lead his army against Israel.

However, in the second part of the book, Joel focused on the day of the Lord as the day of judgment against the enemies of God's people, while God's people would be protected and blessed (Isa. 13; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32). On the day of the Lord the nations would be accountable for their crimes against the Lord's covenant people and would be judged accordingly (Joel 3:2-16, 19). But the people of the Lord's inheritance would be protected and spiritually and physically blessed (Joel 2:28-32; 3:16-18, 20-21).

A second central motif in the book is repentance. The call to repentance is given not merely to a select number of the covenant community, but rather to all the Lord's people who were called to return to him: young and old, men and women, leaders and followers and even those who might otherwise be exempted from community responsibilities (e.g., nursing mothers and newlyweds [Joel 1:13-14; 2:15-17]). Joel called the people to a return to God that involved the whole person. Such repentance was to be manifested externally through such actions as mourning, weeping, crying out to the Lord and fasting. He called for repentance in light of the locust plague (Joel 1:13-14) and the still future day of judgment (Joel 2:15-17). However, external or ritual manifestations of repentance were inadequate, and the Lord summoned the people to demonstrate the sincerity of their repentance by returning to him with all their heart (Joel 2:12-13). Joel also reminded God's people that the proper motivation for repentance lies firmly in the nature of God: "He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love" (Joel 2:13). At the same time, Joel stressed that the possibility of repentance lies not with the people but with God, who is free to exercise his sovereign freedom and grace in granting forgiveness to his people.

Joel poses an interpretive difficulty with regard to one of its central images: locusts. Interpreters throughout the ages have been faced with the question of whether to interpret these locusts literally or figuratively. Although the majority of interpreters throughout history have understood the locusts as symbols of future enemies-one sixth-century manuscript of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) went so far as to read the four locusts as symbolizing the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans) - most modern interpreters understand at least the locusts of chapter 1 in a literal way. To be sure, Joel moves quickly from a literal and remarkably accurate description of a contemporary crisis involving a devastation by locusts in Joel 1 to a description of the dreadful locust-like army of the Lord that blends the literal and figurative in Joel 2. It may be that Joel witnessed literal devastation by locusts, and found in the event a picture of the destruction that would take place on the impending day of the Lord. This may have motivated him to employ the imagery of locusts in describing the coming invaders.

Christ in Joel:

The book of Joel has had an important place in the life of the Church. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus and his followers were familiar with the writings of Joel, and its influence is most evident in the New Testament passages that speak of the latter days. These passages pick up on the graphic images used by Joel to describe the day of the Lord and the plague of locusts (e.g., Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25; Rev. 6:9; 9:2). Also important are the promises in Joel 2:28-32, which Peter quoted and claimed to have been inaugurated during the event at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). Paul also referred to this prophecy in Romans 10:13, where he used Joel 2:32 to substantiate his argument that "there is no difference between Jew and Gentile" (Rom. 10:12). Salvation is for all; as the prophet Joel stated: "Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved" (Joel 2:32).

The Church has continued to find Joel's teaching on the day of the Lord to be an important source of hope and comfort on the one hand and a word of warning on the other. In times of distress and trouble, Christians have found the promises regarding the ultimate blessing, protection and vindication of the Lord's covenant community to be consoling and inspiring. At the same time Joel's vivid depiction of the dreadful aspects of the day of the Lord has served as a reminder of God's holiness and judgment and as a continuing call to wholehearted repentance and holiness of life. Ultimately, the great day of the Lord is the day of Christ's return, the day when he will judge the whole world, casting his enemies into hell and blessing believers with an eternal inheritance in the new heavens and new earth.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.