By Shelley Neese
Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel. Joel is a slim three-chapter book, but there is a lot going on. This week we are studying the second chapter of Joel.
Joel 2:1-11 describes the terrible devastation visited upon the land by a locust swarm. Scholars differ on whether or not Joel is describing the same locust swarm that was presented in the first chapter, or if the second chapter is describing another even worse invasion. Joel 2:25 states that Yahweh will repay Judah for the “years that the locust devoured.” That verse points to more than one invasion.
Either way, in the second chapter, Joel lengthens his poetic stride and quickens his pace. His language in chapter two is more fervent, dramatizing Yahweh’s role as commander of what He refers to as “my great army.” It almost feels like Joel is amplifying everything he said in the first chapter because the people have yet to awaken from their spiritual stupor. This time Joel is explicit. There is no way to explain the unprecedented locust attack other than divine retribution. Joel 2 warns about the future Day of the Lord. If the people do not repent and turn to God, the present crisis will pale in comparison to what is coming. Joel quotes heavily from other prophets, which raises the question: how were the prophets influenced by each other? In the end, Joel’s petition was successful. The people repented, providing a timeless example of how a softened heart and humble spirit are the key to renewing a relationship with our Creator.
Locusts and armies
In other parts of the Bible, foreign invading armies are compared to teems of locusts. Judges 6:5 describes the Midianite encampments as “thick as locusts” and Jeremiah 46:23 portrays the Babylonian army as “more numerous than locusts.” The ancients also observed an orderly quality to locust migrations that seemed reminiscent of armies on the march. Proverbs 30:27 observes: “Locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks.” Joel, in the second chapter, writes in the reverse. Joel likens locust invasions to conquering armies.
Locusts are the focus of both Joel 1:3-6 and 2:2-11, but in the first chapter the locusts are described in their own naturalistic terms as cutting, swarming, and hopping. In his descriptions of infestation in chapter one, the language focuses on the agricultural impacts of the conquest: devastated fields, destroyed grain, withered vines, and drooping fig trees. In chapter 2, the locust invasion takes on a military quality as it devastates not just the crops but the town. Even at the start of the chapter, a watchman on Jerusalem’s walls is commanded to blow the ram’s horn to alert the people of an approaching enemy. The locusts have more complex actions and are described as a great and powerful army with Yahweh in command (2:2). They charge like war horses, scale city walls, climb into houses, and marshal for battle.
When I read Joel, the insect image conjured up in my mind looks like a cicada or flying cockroach, probably because I live in the Southeast. A locust is a species of grasshopper. Most of the time, they exist in what is called a “grasshopper phase” where they are solitary unthreatening creatures. But when environmental conditions play to their favor, they begin to increase in number, and something in them morphs as they sense their rise in numeric power. The locust’s color changes, its body enlarges, and its instincts switch. They change from solitary insects to group swarms, numbering in the tens of billions. They migrate across farmlands, devouring everything in their path. Joel associates a locust swarm with a forest fire, the crackling of trees, the droning sound, and a darkening of the sky (2:3).
The phenomenon of locust swarms is not in itself unusual. Locust invasions were commonplace in antiquity and still occur today, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. In a memoir about his travels in the Middle East, William MacClure Thompson describes a locust invasion in Lebanon in 1845 where the face of the mountain was blackened by the teeming mass of insects. Thompson wrote, “in every stage of their existence, these locusts give a most impressive view of the power of God to punish a wicked world.”
In the 1870s, the American Midwest suffered under an invasion of the now extinct Rocky Mountain Locust. In 1988, desert locusts ravaged Northern Africa. Despite technological developments to survey and control locust bands, locusts ravaged farmlands in Kenya as recently as 2020. Other countries in the Horn of Africa already suffering from food insecurity fear a second generation of the locust swarm may attack soon. Israel’s last locust attack was in 1915. The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization has a Desert Locust Watch to monitor infestations, but they are limited in how they can intervene.
Joel stands out among the prophets as being uniquely focused on God’s use of natural upheavals as a tool of rebuke. The focus on divinely orchestrated devastation harkens back to the days of Noah and the plagues of Egypt. God allowed the chaotic elements of nature to issue his punishment.
The prayers and petitions of the people must have been sincere in chapter two, because God restores Israel by reversing the effects of the infestation. Grain, wine, and oil return in abundance (2:19). The pastures are once again green and the trees bear fruit (2:22). Even the soil and animals are called upon to lift their praise (2:21-22). The threshing floors and wine vats that fell into disrepair during the drought are now overflowing (2:24). Yahweh is no longer the commander of the locusts, but rather their destroyer. In militant terms characteristic of chapter 2, Yahweh removes the locust from the people and throws them into the sea (2:20). The stench of their rotting carcasses is all that remains.
Twice in the book, Joel used poetic repetition describing locusts to reinforce the severity of the devastation: swarming locusts, hopping locusts, destroying locusts, and cutting locusts (2:25). In chapter 2, Joel used poetic repetition about three different types of rain to reinforce the lavishness of God’s mercies. God sent early rain, abundant rain, and later rain (2:23).
Day of the Lord
Because we don’t know the dating of Joel, it is impossible to know if he was the first prophet to use the “Day of the Lord” motif or if he was building on the language and imagery of his predecessors. Joel writes with the Day of the Lord in clear focus, referencing the event five times in his short book. The whole of the Old Testament uses the phrase only seventeen times, so Joel owns a disproportionate portion.
Like Isaiah and Zephaniah, prophets probably well-known to Joel’s audience, Joel warns that the Day of the Lord is at hand, both at present and in the future. The Day of the Lord, as described, is not a singular day, but rather an age. If the people repent, the righteous will be spared, but if they fail to keep the covenant obligations, something worse is in store for them. Isaiah called on the people: “Wail, for the Day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa. 13:6). Joel portrays the locust plague as one of God’s first acts in his dreadful judgements. Only repentance and God’s mercy can stop further devastation.
The Day of the Lord had a double meaning. It represented a time when God would both judge and save. Judgement was coming for the unrighteous, but the righteous would survive. The prophet Amos amplified the judgement portion of the Day, cautioning against stressing the salvation portion and overlooking the punishment (Amos 5:18-20). But Joel goes back and forth. According to Joel, the day is “near” (2:1) and “terrible” (2:11). The sun will darken, the earth will quake and the heavens tremble (2:10). At first, Judah will be judged harshly and disciplined accordingly. But once a remnant repents and returns to the merciful Yahweh, they will be restored and placed back in a position of favor. In the final Day of the Lord, it is the violent enemy nations that will be punished.
Prophets Quoting Prophets
Joel was extremely influenced by the prophets preceding him. Joel 2:32 explicitly quotes Obadiah 17 about the salvation of a remnant: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.” This phrase “as the Lord has said” shows Obadiah’s oracles were already seen as divinely sanctioned by the time of Joel’s writing. Both prophets believed that the Day of the Lord involves judgement for the unrighteous and survival for the righteous remnant.
Joel is proficient in his use of other prophetic idioms. His poetry echoes the words of Zephaniah, Nahum, Jonah, Micah, Amos and even Exodus. We cannot know if Joel was reading scrolls from these prophets in his own day or if he was well-versed in their oral history. Perhaps, there was a common prophetic phraseology that informed all the Minor and Major Prophets.
Joel 2:2 parallels Zephaniah 1:15. Both predict a spreading thick darkness that will overtake the earth on the Day of the Lord. Joel 3:10 is a clever parody on Isa. 2:4 and Mic. 4:3. Those famous verses about “turning swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” predict a day of worldwide peace when the nations turn their weapons into agricultural tools. Joel 3:10 reverses the image and applies it to the coming judgement of the nations. He is playing with his reader’s expectations. They will need so many weapons at their disposal to come against Yahweh that they have to beat their “plowshares into swords” and “pruning hooks into spears.”
Joel does not point only to other prophets. He also quotes from Exodus 34:6, the words God used to describe his own character as he passed before Moses on Mount Sinai. Joel 2:13 says, “For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” By reaching further back in the Hebrew scriptures, Joel reminds God that the descendants of Abraham and Moses are His heritage.
Leslie Allen, writing for the New International Commentary on Joel, describes Joel’s intended effect with so many scriptural allusions:
“It is essential to Joel’s purpose that he should not be original. His deliberate aim is to make a deep impression by using stereotyped, well-known language to show that in the present situation venerated prophecies were on the verge of fulfillment. His newness lies in the application of the old words.”
Liturgy of Lament
While chapter two started with the ram’s horn being blown to alert the people about the coming enemy, Yahweh invites a second blast of the trumpet to summon everyone to the Temple (vs. 15). The priests gather in the inner court while the worshipers congregate in the outer court. Fasting and intercessory prayer are incumbent on everyone in the community. No one is exempt from the assembly, not even newlyweds, nursing infants, or the elderly (2:16).
The priests follow a liturgy of lament that is familiar from other portions of the Bible. They appeal to God’s merciful ways, asking for forgiveness and a restoration of the relationship. They also ask God to defend His own honor. If Yahweh does not intervene on their behalf, His name is at risk of being slandered. Yahweh had displayed his might and power by protecting His people with an outstretched hand, and now the nations would see Judah’s suffering not as a withdrawal of Yahweh’s hand but a weakening of it. Even though this seems like the prophet is appealing to a Divine ego, there was precedent for Joel’s intercession. With this same logic, Moses after the golden calf episode, pleaded with God in Deuteronomy 9 to spare His idolatrous people, not because they deserved it but to protect His name. Joel pleads, “Do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.”
In 2:18, Yahweh responds in kind. He will not only heal Judah’s wounds and reverse the curses from the recent outbreak of locusts, He will also bless her in the coming Day of the Lord. The reader gets the sense that Joel counts it his privilege to have been an eyewitness to the transformative power of genuine repentance.
The last verses in chapter 2 go beyond the material benefits of God’s provision. Great spiritual rewards are soon to be delivered to the righteous. Joel foretells a day that Yahweh will perform celestial signs and pour out His spirit on all flesh. God, using Joel as His mouthpiece, says “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” The inclusivity of this promise is astounding.
The prophetic gift started to fade sometime around the third century BCE. That is why the Bible goes silent for several hundred years before the birth of Christ. But in Acts 2, the apostles were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of weeks, still pondering the meaning of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension when the house where they were gathered filled with a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire rested on every person. Peter used the words of Joel to explain to the crowd that what they were witnessing was not the revelries of drunkards but the fulfilment of Joel’s vision.
Paul, in Romans 10:13, explains the extension of the covenant to the Gentiles as a fulfillment of Joel 2:32: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Gospel is a theology of inclusion, but the language of inclusion familiar to us as Christians in the New Testament is rooted in the visions of the prophets. Just as Joel built upon the scriptures that preceded his revelation, the apostles built upon the Hebrew scriptures as they preached the gospel to the world. Peter and Paul knew that they were a part of something new that God was doing, but they also understood that it was an extension of what God had been doing all along.
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