Discuss the Ministry of the Prophet Joel in the Light of his Historical and Social Context'
In order to understand the meaning of the message in Joel’s prophetic “Word”, (Joel 1:1), we must consider the historic and social setting in which he lived and whom he was addressing. The study of Joel cannot be done merely from our modern perspective. We must endeavor to understand how Joel’s generation would have read and received his message, and then we will be able to acquire a biblical base that enables us to get a more accurate picture of the reason why Joel ministered his prophetic words to Judah.
This study will be divided into two parts. In the first part I will discuss who Joel was and the historical and social setting in which he was prophesying. In the second part we will discuss how Joel saw the historic cataclysmic events in Judah as an indication of the broken relationship between God and Israel. The conclusion will contain a summery of the main points and a brief reflection on how the message of Joel can also have an impact on our modern society.
The Book of Joel is a prophetic oracle. It is divided into two parts:
- 1) a summons to Judah to lament, weep and to repent because of the calamities of the locust and the famine, a symbol of the national destruction of Judah, (Joel 1: 1-4; 1:17-18);
- 2) the promise to Judah of restoration. In the future God is going to pour out His Spirit on all people, (Joel 2:28) to bless His children. He is going to punish the Nations that have come against Judah,
The two main points of Joel’s prophecies are: 1) Repentance of sins - the day of the locust called for a time of repentance (Joel 1: 4, 12); 2) The apocalyptic and eschatological significance of the Book of Joel - the day of the Lord -Joel (2: 1-11, 30-32; 3:21).
Joel, according to D. A. Hubbard, is one of the 12 “minor Prophets” in the Hebrew Bible, and he writes that Joel is placed in second place in the Book of twelve. Julie Wood suggests that “the common theme running through the Book of the Twelve is that of the day of” Adanoi and its eschatological implication”.
It is worth considering that the Book of Joel is known as one of the “minor “prophets not because his message is less important than the ones of Isaiah or Jeremiah, two of the “major” prophets in the Bible. Joel is said “minor” because his book is written in only three chapters while the book of Isaiah contains 66 chapters; the depth and the heart-felt crying against the sins of his society and a need for repentance in (Joel 2: 12-14 ) is as profound and heart rending as the call to repentance of the other “major” prophets, cfr Jeremiah 4:1, the author Leslie C. Cullen suggests that:
“The Book of Joel contains within it a clear implication that his call to repentance was recognized as a divine summons”
(Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company 1976:32)
Joel‘s personal history is narrated in one verse. (Joel 1:1) It is believed that he was a Judean, because the Temple, Jerusalem and Judah were the main concern of his prophetic ministry, Joel (1:13, 2:1, 2:18), and God spoke to him His oracle about Judah “The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Petuel”
(The Holy Scriptures Hebrew and English, The Society for distributing Hebrew Scriptures 2004:1057)
Not much is known about the Prophet. In Hebrew the name “Joel” is made of two words, Yah, which is a shorter version of the Holy Name” ....”(Adonai), and El, which signifies God, giving the meaning of “….” is God; cf. Elizabeth Achtemeier, p.120
The book of Joel does not tell us when it was written. According to some scholarly tradition it was written between 500 and 350 BC; John Drane suggests that Joel could have operated in Judah between 515 BC and 444 BC; other scholars uphold that it was written in the ninth century BC because in the canon, Joel is placed before Amos; but though the time is uncertain, John Calvin suggests that:
“But as there is not certainty, it is better to leave the time in which he taught undecided; and, as we shall see this is not of great importance.., for the importance of his doctrine is evident, though his time be obscure”
John Calvin, Commentary on The Prophet Joel by John Calvin, Calvin Translation Society Edition 1958:5
And again while teaching on Joel 3: 17 he suggests that:
“Dwelling in Zion, the mountain of my holiness: This has been designedly added, that the faithful may know, that God made not a covenant in vain with Abraham, that mount Zion had not in vain been chosen, that they may there call on God; for we must have our attention to the promises, otherwise all doctrines will be frigid”(Ibid 1958:127)
Calvin and other biblical scholars, seems to assent that the precise historical and political time in the book of Joel is not important because what is fundamental to Joel’s message is God’s promise to His chosen people that He is always purposeful in society because He has not forgotten His covenant with Israel of secure in times of calamity if they are willing to turn to Him. (Joel 2:12, 18-19, 23,). Joel wanted to remind his people that they were the Covenant people and they should live according to His righteousness and justice because God dwells amongst them.
“Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: I am the Lord your
G'd and there is no other. My people shall never be put to shame” (Joel 2:27) 07.38
Joel's ministry was to give the prophetic Word of God to an unrepentant and sinful society. We do not know what the sins were but Joel feels duty-bound to tell and do something by involving himself and to be a mouthpiece for God in the situation:
“The call to repentance was not made with regard to any specific sin but in regard to sin as a whole – nationally, a situation which parallels the time of Elijah (858 – 852 BC) and his struggle with Baalism
(Irvin A. Busenitz, Joel & Obadiah, A mentor commentary, Christian Focus Publications, 2003:33)
The people of Judah had become wealthy and had self satisfied; full of complacency. G'd was urging them to weep for their sins. We can deduce that He is asking them to stop their drunken laughter and debauchery and begin to weep for repentance and for the ominous events that were going to pass, (Joel 1:15)
Joel 1:15 parallels with the Book of Ecclesiastes 3:4” “A time to weep and a time laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Joel was confronting Judah: instead of laughing she needed to be contrite in heart, to wail and lament in great sorrow and repentance (Joel 1:5, 1: 8, 1:13, 2:12.)
We can bring to a close the first part of this analysis by concluding that Joel was a prophet who listened to G'd, and was obedient to his prophetic calling. Although his message is full of foreboding, God’s love for His people cannot be doubted because His message contain words which are also of hope and mercy; God is prepared to forgive, relent and restore, (Joel 2:25) if only Judah would turn to Him and repents.
The prophetic message of Joel’s call of repentance is centered on the divine judgement of G'd on his people and the cataclysmic event of the locust invasion is a precursor of an invasion of a foreign army as G'd’s judgment on Judah:
“ For it is at hand, a day of darkness and gloominess… .A people come, great and strong, the like of whom has never been, nor will there ever be any such after them. Even for many successive generation” (Joel 2:2; 2:20)
The prophet has a strong message for his people: “Hear this, you elders, and give ear, all you inhabitant of the land…tell your children, tell their children and their children another generation” (1:2-3). The recurrence of the word “children” repeated thrice emphasizes the catastrophic events that are unfolding in Judah; they should never be forgotten but recounted to posterity for their gravity and for purposes of admonition.
Joel continues his message by elaborating on the terrible plague of locusts (Joel 1: 4) which no one has never seen the like before (Joel 1:2).
In the time Joel’s, a plague of locusts was a common event, but the repetition of the noun “locust” five times coupled with adjectives such as “chewing, swarming, crawling (repeated twice) and consuming, emphasizes that no devastation has paralleled to the one which is unfolding in Judah and the people should wake up from their wine induced physical and spiritual slumber” ( Ibid 2003: 34) and repent.
The plague of locusts has ravaged the land, stripping it bare of its fruits, that is grapes, figs, grains, wheat, barley, pomegranate, the apple, the palm and all the tree of the fields ( Joel 1: 5, 7,9,11, 12).
The land has become barren and desolate and the consequences are terrible because the people do not have the provisions needed to sustain them and also even more catastrophic for the Nation there is no provision for the offering and sacrifice for the Priests, (Joel 1: 13) the offering to G'd for the atonement of the sins of Judah: the people are lost, society has fallen apart and Joel calls all the people to gather together and fast (Joel 1:14-15).
Judah is threatened with the invasion of a foreign army. We can find a parallel in the dread and despair of this catastrophic event (Joel 2:2) “The like of which have never been” with the invading locust (Joel 1:2) “Has anything like this happened in your days?” These words convey to Judah that the present events are as terrible and catastrophic as those that are to come unless the people are willing to fast and repent so that God will listen to their mourning and come to their aid.
G'd wants Judah to repents from its sins and turn back to Him, Joel 2:12. The calamities that have descended on Judah are an instrument of His divine judgment. Israel, the land of “milk and honey” (Deuter. 26:9) is in flame and on fire. The land of Judah is “like the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness” (Joel 2:3); Israel has become a cursed place because the Jewish people have broken “God’s law”( Deuter.27:26)
God intended blessing for Judah, but she had disobeyed Him. Society has broken down; politically Judah is in danger of an invasion from a people stronger and more powerful than them. The social order has fallen apart, “joy and gladness” have departed from the Temple, (Joel 1:16); “all faces are drained of color” (Joel 2:6) because of famine and lack of provision; the animals and the land are suffering the consequences of the sins of Judah.
The prophet was inviting his people to repent with expressions such as “ Awake,” “ weep”, “ lament”, “be ashamed “, wail”,” darkness and gloominess”, “wilderness, “ blow the trumpet and “consecrate a fast “(Joel 1: 5,8,11; 2:2,3,15). The prophet tells Judah that if she repents and turns to G'd with all the heart “The Lord will be zealous for His land and pity his people” (Joel 2:18) and He will again bless the Land and restore His covenant with Judah and the “Day of the Lord”( Joel 1: 15) instead of being a day of mourning and disaster will be for Judah a “day “of freedom, restoration, peace and prosperity
“And it will come to pass in that day that the mountains shall drop with new wine…a fountain shall flow from the house of the Lord and water the Valley of Acacias” (Joel 3:18).
Joel was interpreting the awfulness and calamities of his present time to point at the apocalyptic events which were going to unfold and the judgment of the coming of the Lord. The prophet explains that if Judah repents G'd will “relent” (Joel 2:13.) G'd will bring material and spiritual restoration; society will experience a “spiritual and material revival” and God’s justice will reign.
G'd will be “zealous “(Joel 2:18), for His people and He will protect them from their enemies (Joel 2:19)He takes “pity on them” (Joel 2:18.) The aggression of the Nations against Judah will not go unpunished, (Genesis 12:3)The Nations who have been an instrument for punishment against Judah (so that she would remember that G'd is the only one that should be glorified) will themselves be punished in the “Valley of Jehoshaphat”, also called the “Valley of Judgement” and Judah will be vindicated.
We can end the second part of this study by concluding that the prophet Joel was saying to the people that they should look at the events which were enfolding and understand that God was at work and involved in the history and life of Judah and of the Nations present and past; E. Achtemeier suggests that:
“The Bible never maintains that events interpret the word of God. Rather, the word of God interprets events, and it is the prophet’s function to tell just how and why G'd is involved in any event.
(Elizabeth Achtemeier, An international Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers 1996:121)
In summery we can suggest that that G'd was speaking through Joel about His desire for justice and righteousness. The cataclysmic events of nature were a wake-up call from G'd for Judah not to sin and to return to Him.
G'd’s call for repentance must also be obeyed these days. Today G'd is still speaking through the events which are enfolding around us. G'd uses other Countries to bring judgment. For example he used Russia to be a torn in the flesh for the West. Through the death of Y'shua Gentiles are grafted into the Jewish Nation becoming partakers of the Covenant that Adanoi made with Abraham regarding the Nations (Gen 17:4) that He is to be the G'd of both Jew and Gentile and there cannot be any kind of justice where He is not the Lord and Glory of all; Joel message is still valid today because G'd does not change.
In our present day the meaning of Joel’s message can be discerned in the words of the Apostle Peter (Acts 2: 21) when referring to Joel 2:27-29 he says that salvation can came only from G'd. In our contemporary society, like the one in Joel’s time, is materialistic and “loving of pleasure”, abounding in sins and worshiping religious idols rife with social injustices .We need to look at what is happening around us to hear G'd‘s message to us as individuals, to the Jewish people - the Nation of Israel and the Nations. He is at work in all our affairs and that if we “turn” to Him (Joel 2:12) He will “relent” (Joel 2:14) and bless us.
There are in fact, around 500 scriptures that point towards Ye'shua as being part of Messianic fulfillment and this passage is indicative of Hashem's longing for His people to return to Him with a full and repentant heart. Israel becoming a state in 1948 was part of G'd's plan for the Jewish people and the Nations. His deep desire is for Jews and Gentiles to turn to Y'shua Ha Messiach the fulfillment of the Law and Messianic Prophecy.
Achtemeier, E. New international Biblical Commentary Minor Prophets 1( Hendrickson Publishers Inc 1996)
Allen L. C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament” The Books of Joel, Obadiah Jonah and Micah, ( W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1974)
Calvin J., A Commentary on the Prophet Joel by John Calvin translated and Edited by John Owen
( Calvin Translation Society Edition 1958 )
Drane J., Introducing The Old Testament (Published Lion Publishing plc Ed. 1987 )
Fee G., &Stuart D., How to read the Bible for all its worth (Scripture Union 2001)
Mc.Conville G., Exploring the Old Testament volume 4 Prophets (Published 2002, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge)
New Bible commentary. IVP New Bible Commentary Third edition ( Inter- Varsity press 1970)
Hubbard D.A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentarie,Joel and Amos ( Inter-Varity Press 1989)
Irvin A. Busenitz Joel & Obadiah A mentor Commentary (Published 2003, Christian Publications)
The Holy Bible, NKJV., ( Ed 1982 Thomas Nelson ) The Holy Scriptures (Hebrew-English Holy Scriptures 2004)
Woods J., The West as Nineveh. How does Nahum’s Message of jidgement apply to today?
(Themelios 31:1 Oct. 2005)