Estimates for the dates of the book of Joel range from the ninth century to the second century B.C., but most scholars agree that this is a post-exilic book—written after Cyrus of Persia freed the Jewish exiles from their Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C.
The first part of the book (1:1 – 2:17) consists of the prophet’s lament over the ruin of his country (1:1-12) and his call to the people to repent and to pray for deliverance. The second part of the book (2:18 – 3:21) consists of Yahweh’s response and promise of deliverance.
The problem provoking this lament is a plague of locusts that has decimated the fields (1:2-7), threatening the people with starvation. Primitive agrarian societies have little slack to help them through this kind of crisis. Neighbors might help a farmer whose crops fail, but a crisis that affects all farmers is too large for human solutions.
Joel clearly understands this crisis as judgment by Yahweh for the sins of the people (1:18; 2:18), and calls the people to repent and petition Yahweh for relief (1:13 – 2:17). They have reason to hope, because Yahweh “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness” (hesed) (2:13). “When applied to Yahweh, hesed is fundamentally the expression of his loyalty and devotion to the solemn promises attached to the covenant…. Though the majority of the occurrences of hesed are translated ‘steadfast love,’ there are undeniable elements of ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’ that underlie each of these occurrences” (Renn, 633-634).
This hope, however, is posited on the assumption that the people will “turn to Yahweh, your God” (2:13). If they fail to respond, they have no hope.
In the verses that immediately preceded our text (2:18-22), Yahweh promised to send “grain, new wine, and oil.” Then these people will no longer be “a reproach among the nations” (2:19). Yahweh mentions a “northern army,” (2:20) which has led some scholars to question whether the plague of locusts is a metaphor for an enemy army, but that is doubtful.
JOEL 2:21-22. LAND, DON’T BE AFRAID
21 Land, don’t be afraid.
Be glad and rejoice, for Yahweh has done great things.
22 Don’t be afraid, you animals of the field;
for the pastures of the wilderness spring up,
for the tree bears its fruit.
The fig tree and the vine yield their strength.
There is a progression through verses 21-24. First, Yahweh promises relief to the soil (v. 21)—then to the animals of the field (v. 22)—and finally to the people of Zion (v. 23-24).
“Land, don’t be afraid. Be glad and rejoice, for Yahweh has done great things” (v. 21). This reverses the situation of 1:10, where the land was mourning over crops that had failed. There is no longer a need for the land to mourn, because it will become fruitful again.
“Don’t be afraid, you animals of the field; for the pastures of the wilderness spring up, for the tree bears its fruit.” (v. 22). When the land is devastated by drought or insect infestation, animals of the field suffer along with people. Animal food stocks, the plants of the field, are the first to go. While people can slaughter livestock to prolong life a bit longer, animals have no such recourse. Therefore, “the animals groan” (1:18)—even the wild animals (1:20).
But the promise here—Yahweh’s promise—is that these animals need fear no longer. The pastures will turn green and the trees will bear fruit. There will be food to eat once again.
JOEL 2:23-24. BE GLAD THEN, YOU CHILDREN OF ZION
23 “Be glad then, you children of Zion,
and rejoice in Yahweh, your God (Hebrew: elohim);
for he gives you the former rain in just measure (Hebrew: sedaqa),
and he causes the rain to come down for you,
the former rain and the latter rain,
24 The threshing floors will be full of wheat,
and the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.
“you children of Zion” (v. 23a). Zion, of course, is the mountain upon which Jerusalem and the temple were built. The Jewish people thought of the temple as the dwelling place of God, which gave Jerusalem a unique status among cities.
The Babylonians razed both city and temple and took the people of Jerusalem into exile in Babylonia. However, if our assumption is correct that Joel is a post-exilic prophet, Cyrus of Persia has allowed a remnant to return and to begin rebuilding both city and temple. These are not the people of the grand city and temple that once was, but are instead a people struggling to get a foothold in a place that, while called a land “flowing with milk and honey,” had the potential for being very difficult.
“Be glad then, you children of Zion, and rejoice in Yahweh, your God” (elohim) (v. 23b). The people’s cause for rejoicing is rooted in the character of Yahweh, the God of Israel. They are in a covenant relationship with Yahweh, and have been since the days of Abram. Yahweh has proven faithful to that covenant relationship, even when the Jewish people were undeserving. He has withdrawn his favor on occasion because of their unfaithfulness—and, indeed, that has been the recent problem. But Yahweh’s character is faithful—unchanging. They can depend on his lovingkindness to redeem them from their current situation. That, indeed, is cause for rejoicing.
“for he gives you the former rain in just measure” (sedaqa) (v. 23c). This phrase could be translated either “early rain for your righteousness” or “a teacher of righteousness.” The context favors “former rain for your righteousness,” because there has been a crop failure but no mention of a teacher. It is possible that Yahweh intends the ambiguity—that both are true—that the early rain will vindicate their righteousness—and that they will be saved by a teacher of righteousness.
The word sedaqa is often translated righteousness and is often paired with mispat, which means justice. Sedaqa involves right behavior, the natural outgrown of a right relationship with God, who is the ultimate righteous one. In the case of Israel, righteousness grows naturally out of the covenant relationship that exists between Yahweh and Israel, and involves the establishment of justice.
“and he causes the rain to come down for you, the former rain and the latter rain, as before.“ (v. 23d). This reverses the curse of 1:16-18, which speaks of shriveled seed and desolate storehouses.
Rain means life—even prosperity. In this part of the world, early rains take place in the late fall, October and November, and cause the seed to germinate. Late rains come in springtime, March and April, and are responsible for bringing the plants to full growth.
No mention is made here of the recent invasion of locusts. Rain would be of no use if locusts would decimate the fields. However, this promise of rain suggests that the pestilence must also be past (see also 2:20).
“The threshing floors will be full of wheat, and the vats will overflow with new wine and oil” (v. 24). The edible portion of grain comes inside an inedible husk. Threshing is the process by which the grain is separated from the husk. Threshing usually took place on a threshing floor where the grain was spread. Oxen would pull a sled designed to crush the husks and free the edible grain. The threshed grain would then be tossed in the air with large paddle-like implements so that the breeze would carry away the lighter husks, leaving the edible portion to fall back to the floor.
This verse confirms that these people need fear neither drought nor pestilence. Yahweh guarantees a bountiful harvest and a prosperous future.
JOEL 2:25-27. YOU WILL HAVE PLENTY TO EAT, AND BE SATISFIED
25 I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
the great locust, the grasshopper, and the caterpillar,
my great army, which I sent among you.
26 You will have plenty to eat, and be satisfied,
and will praise the name of Yahweh, your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you;
and my people will never again be disappointed.
27 You will know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am Yahweh, your God, and there is no one else;
and my people will never again be disappointed.
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the great locust, the grasshopper, and the caterpillar, my great army, which I sent among you” (v. 25). This reverses the events of 1:4.
Apparently the pestilence has extended over multiple years. Yahweh mentions several kinds of insects, and identifies them as his army, which he sent against these people. He sent this infestation as punishment, but its aim was not solely punitive. Its overarching goal was to drive these people back into Yahweh’s waiting arms. Now that the people have responded, Yahweh promises to repay them for their years of suffering—to restore what they lost.
“You will have plenty to eat, and be satisfied, and will praise the name of Yahweh, your God, who has dealt wondrously with you” (v. 26a). Most people today take food for granted. Not many people take time to give God thanks prior to eating a meal. These people, however, are in a very different situation. They know what it means to be hungry. They have known starvation. It would be natural for them to praise God for relieving them of the pain of their hunger—for restoring their lives.
“and will praise the name of Yahweh, your God” (v. 26a). In this culture, people consider a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believe that something of the person’s identity is tied up in the name—that the name expresses something of the person’s essential character. They also believe that a name—at least some names—possess something of the power of the one who bears that name.
While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person. A person’s reputation also conveys a certain power or lack of it.
In this situation, many people would assume that Yahweh must not be a powerful God if his people were starving. Once they have received relief from their hunger, these people can help to set the record straight by the devotion that they show to Yahweh.
“and my people will never again be disappointed” (v. 26b). Honor and shame are significant values in any society, but especially so in the Middle East. In Biblical times, honor was a virtue associated primarily with men, defining their identity and self-worth. Honor had less to do with feelings and more to do with clout—influence—power. People would pay attention when a man of honor spoke.
That is still true today. The next time you attend a board meeting, note how people listen more intently to some people and less intently to others. Those whose opinions they value are people who possess honor in the Biblical sense.
In Biblical times, men vied for honor in every interaction, and one man’s gain would be another man’s loss. It reminds me of a political environment today—a situation where people jockey moment-by-moment for status, influence, and power, and one person’s gain is another person’s loss.
Shame was the absence of honor—the absence of good reputation, influence, and power. A man could be shamed by acting shamefully, failing to uphold his own in an interaction with another man, losing a battle, or sustaining other kinds of losses. In this situation, where the people of Judah have sustained years of pestilence and hunger, they have been shamed by their powerlessness even to feed themselves.
“You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Yahweh, your God, and there is no one else; and my people will never again be disappointed” (v. 27). By restoring Judah’s prosperity, Yahweh will put to rest any question of his power or his commitment to these people. It will soon be clear that Yahweh is, indeed, their God and is committed to their welfare. The people’s renewed prosperity will restore their good name—and Yahweh’s good name as well.
JOEL 2:28-29. I WILL POUR OUT MY SPIRIT ON ALL FLESH
28 “It will happen afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit (Hebrew: ruah) on all flesh;
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams.
Your young men will see visions.
29 And also on the servants and on the handmaids in those days,
I will pour out my Spirit.
“It will happen afterward” (v. 28a). What does “afterward” mean here? It could mean “after the nation recovers from the pestilence”—or it could mean “when God ushers in a new era”—or it could mean both.
“that I will pour out my spirit (ruah) on all flesh” (v. 28b). The words “pour out” suggest that Yahweh will give his spirit in abundance to all flesh. This is no small gift, but is instead a magnificent investiture of God’s spirit.
The word spirit (ruah) in this verse has to do with Yahweh’s vitality and power. At creation, God’s ruah was the agent of creation (Genesis 1:2). God’s ruah endowed prophets with authority and inspired them to speak and act (Numbers 11:17, 25; 24:2 ff; 1 Samuel 10:6; 2 Samuel 23:2; etc.).
“on all flesh” (v. 28b). What does “all flesh” mean? Does it mean that Yahweh will pour out his spirit upon Gentiles as well as Jews? The remainder of this verse shows that Joel would not have understood it that way—and there is ample evidence that Peter would not have understood it that way when he quoted this verse in Acts 2:17.
However, neither Joel’s limited understanding nor Peter’s constitute the final answer to this question. In a later vision, Peter’s eyes will be opened to an expanded understanding that will include Gentiles (Acts 10).
“and your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions” (v. 28c). In a patriarchal culture, male is superior to female and old is superior to young. Women defer to men, and young people defer to their elders. This verse, however, shatters that careful construct. Yahweh promises that women as well as men—young as well as old—will enjoy the gift of his spirit.
Earlier, God had placed his spirit on seventy elders. Then the spirit was removed from most of those elders, but continued to rest on Eldad and Medad. A young man brought news to Moses that Eldad and Medad were prophesying, and Joshua entreated Moses to make them stop. Moses, however, responded:
“Are you jealous for my sake?
I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets,
that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)
Joel’s prophecy in this verse, then, fulfills Moses’ dream that the Lord would put his spirit on all the people.
Dreams and visions are both channels by which God makes his will known. The primary difference is that dreams take place while the person is asleep and visions take place while the person is awake.
“And also on the servants and on the handmaids in those days, I will pour out my Spirit” (v. 29). This demonstrates the extremes to which Yahweh is taking the inclusiveness of the gift of his spirit. In the social order, slaves represent the lowest rung—and female slaves represent the bottom half of that rung.
In the New Testament, Paul will take that one step further. He says: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
JOEL 2:30-32. I WILL SHOW WONDERS IN THE HEAVENS AND IN EARTH
30 I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
blood, fire, and pillars of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned into darkness,
and the moon into blood,
before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes.
32 It will happen that whoever will call on the name of Yahweh shall be saved;
for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape,
as Yahweh has said,
and among the remnant, those whom Yahweh calls.
“I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood, fire, and pillars of smoke” (v. 30). Portents are signs—in this case signs from God. Blood, fire, and smoke sound ominous, as do a darkened sun and moon. However, God used blood and fire as instruments to free Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 7:14-19; 9:23-24), and a smoke-enshrouded Sinai gave evidence of God’s presence (Exodus 19:18).
“The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes” (v. 31). These signs will announce the coming of the Day of the Lord, an eschatological event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5; see also Mark 13:24-27; Revelation 6:12-14). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some also include a note of vindication.
“It will happen that whoever will call on the name of Yahweh shall be saved;” (v. 32a). What does “whoever” mean here? Does it mean Gentiles as well as Jews? My comments on “all flesh” in verse 28b above are applicable here as well. Joel would not consider “whoever” to include Gentiles, but God has probably inspired him to say more than he realizes.
The salvation to be realized here is not universal, but is limited to those who call on the name of Yahweh. As noted in the comments on verse 26a above, the people of that time and place thought of names as more than labels. A name expressed the person’s essential character—something of the person’s power or authority. To call upon the name of Yahweh, then, means something more than appealing for help in a crisis. It means identifying with Yahweh in such a way that one’s identity is tied together with Yahweh’s identity. Calling on the name of Yahweh requires allegiance—commitment—faith.
“for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as Yahweh has said” (v. 32b). “As Yahweh has said” might indicate that this is an allusion to Obadiah 1:17—although that depends on whether the book of Obadiah was written earlier than the book of Joel.
As noted above, Mount Zion is the mountain upon which Jerusalem and the temple were built. The Jewish people thought of the temple as the dwelling place of God, which gave it a unique status among cities. The portents of verses 28-31 raised the question of survival, but this verse indicates that at least some people in Jerusalem will escape the judgment that lies ahead.
“and among the remnant, those whom Yahweh calls” (v. 32c). In verse 32a, the promise of salvation was to “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.” In this part of the verse, it is “those whom Yahweh calls.” Presumably, those who have called on the name of the Lord by committing their lives to him are those whom the Lord has called.
Throughout scripture, we find God calling particular people for particular missions. In the Old Testament, God chose Abram and Abram’s descendants, bringing them into a covenant relationship that made Israel known as God’s chosen people. In the New Testament, we find the idea of election (John 15:16; 17:6; Ephesians 1:4; 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). This might offend our modern sensibilities, but I like the way that Charles Spurgeon dealt with the doctrine of election. He prayed, “Lord, save all the elect, and then elect some more.”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, The New Interpreters Bible: Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, The Twelve Prophets, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Allen, Leslie C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976)
Birch, Bruce C., Westminster Bible Companion: Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Dillard, Raymond Bryan, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Garrett, Duane A., New American Commentary: Hosea-Joel, Vol. 19a (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997)
Goldingay, John, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Hubbard, David A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel and Amos, Vol. 25 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
Limburg, James, Interpretation Commentary: Hosea-Micah, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Stuart, Douglas, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah, Vol. 31 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan