God's Wake-Up Call
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Joel
February 1, 2002 - This continues our Bible study on the Minor Prophets. Top Bible scholars explain the major themes of these books—and show how the prophets' messages affect us today.
by Douglas Stuart
During my father's career as a radio and television newsman, he reported regularly on major developments and disasters. He gave live reports at the scenes of big news events, and he witnessed many exciting—sometimes terrifying—things up close.
The historical event he considered to be the greatest hasn't happened yet: the Second Coming of Christ. The Apostles Paul and Peter, among others, remind us that the great culminating event of history will be what the Bible calls a "day of the Lord."(1)
No Bible author writes more about the day of the Lord than Joel—using the phrase to refer both to events in his own day as well as to events yet in the future. What does Joel mean by the day of the Lord?
The concept derives from the idea that one mark of a truly great king was the speed with which he could win a war, perhaps even in a single day of battle. Since the Lord God is the greatest King, on any day of His choosing He can win not merely a war, but He can triumph over any number of foes—even all the nations of the world.
Therefore, any time that God decisively and dramatically has intervened or will intervene in human events can be termed a day of the Lord. Joel's book reveals four aspects of that great day: the challenge of facing terrible disaster, the need for repentance, the wonderful new age of the Spirit, and God's judgment on all nations.
Joel was a prophet about whom we don't know much, apart from his inspired prophecies. Fortunately, it is Joel's message, not his credentials, that counts. That message is gripping: the day of the Lord is coming, and nothing can stop it.
In reading the book of Joel, you need to keep this concept in mind: Joel prophesies a day of world-changing judgment on the nations, salvation for God's people and resulting eternal bliss. Joel's contemporaries were reminded of this by an invasion of locusts (or human foes symbolically portrayed to be as unstoppable as locusts), a day against Israel. Nevertheless, once God brings His people back to Himself via the invasion and they answer His "wake-up call,"(2) they gladly could look forward to the ultimate day in which He would rescue and protect them forever.
In Joel's time complacency was Judah's huge mistake. God's people weren't taking Him seriously. They worshiped but not in a heartfelt manner, they cared little about righteousness and paid scant attention to God's Law. From their behavior it wasn't possible to tell them apart from people in other nations. For their own good they required a day of the Lord.
The Decisive Day
There are four scenes in Joel that depict this decisive day.
In the first scene, in Joel 1:1-12, invasion, drought and desolation threaten God's people. It is difficult to tell whether Joel is describing an actual locust plague (these can be massive, devastating a region's economy for years), or whether he is describing something like the great Babylonian invasion of Judah in 588 B.C., which, from the point of view of its destructive effect and unstoppable terror, was like a locust plague.
That invasion culminated in the destruction of most of Judah and finally, in 586 B.C., of Jerusalem itself. Then began the terrible Babylonian exile. All this was God's doing, an act of divine anger against a disobedient people, and Joel calls the invaders God's "army"(3) of judgment.
What course of action is required of those devastated by forces they could not stop? Joel warns the people to lament and repent.(4) Joel's words, "Hear this,"(5) are the beginning of his wake-up call(6) for lamentation and repentance to a nation that was not paying any attention to its ways. All segments of society, including clergy,(7) need to be sorry for their sins.
Note that in Joel 1:16-20 the problem is no longer "locusts" but drought. It may have been the combination of invasion and drought-induced famine that made these events historically unusual.(8)
The second scene, in Joel 2:1-17, also depicts invasion, though this time there is no specific reference to locusts. The call to repentance is also repeated, including the need for prayer and fasting. The trumpet(9) was the means of sounding the war alarm against an invading army(10) that God has assembled to punish Israel.(11)
But it is not God's nature to punish needlessly or endlessly, and He invites repentance because of His forgiving character.(12) For the nation to repent, it had to show it—by gathering as a people in repentant worship,(13) announced again by the trumpet—this time not for war but for repentant worship.(13)
In the third scene, in Joel 2:18-32, God promises eventual removal of the "locust" invader and restoration of agricultural bounty. This scene ends with the promise of a new age of the Spirit, making things far better than ever before.
Here is a pivotal point. Up to Joel 2:18, disaster and defeat seemed inevitable. Now only positive promises come for God's people. In the end His mercy wins, no matter how firmly in the past He may have disciplined. His attacking army is removed(14) and agricultural bounty (a standard means in the prophetic books of describing the divine blessings of the age to come) ensues.
The real issue is clear in Joel 2:28-32. What Joel invites his listeners to expect is that the Holy Spirit will become available to everyone, not just to prophets or to other key leaders. Jesus Christ ushered in a new era in which God's Spirit now indwells every believer, regardless of gender, age or social status,(15) so that all who call on the name of the Lord can be saved.(16) In other words, those who are in Christ are the "survivors" recorded in Joel 2:32.
In the fourth scene, Joel 3:1-8, God defeats all the nations and judges them, but He brings fabulous blessings upon His forgiven, purified people. This is to take place in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Since Jehoshaphat means "God judges/has judged," it is an apt name for the great valley envisioned here as the place of judgment for the world.
In Joel 3:2-7 special criticism comes to nations that helped cause the dispersion of the Jews into exile. Yet another call to war(17) brings the nations to a battle that they cannot win(18) but one that rescues Israel once for all.
Joel 3:17-21 reads as an epilogue: True peace comes to God's people,(19) their enemies are eliminated,(20) and they enjoy the fruits of God's redemption forever.(21)
Trust in the Lord
Joel is a practical book with guidance for any who desire to see their lives transformed. Here are some of the book's valuable lessons: First, disaster should cause repentance. This is the cry of the opening verses directed to people who faced disaster head-on. Its principle is hardly limited to Judah in Joel's day. When failure to pay attention to God's will leads to serious trouble, the right thing to do is admit fault, confess sin and change.
Second, Israel's foes do God's will as His army. This theme of Old Testament justice challenges every believer to remember that God is always at work(22) and that He can use even hostile groups to accomplish His ends. The Babylonian invaders were one example of this; the crowds that demanded Jesus' crucifixion were another example.
Third, in our day the Holy Spirit is given to all believers. This great truth of Scripture means that no Christian—regardless of age, gender or social status—is to be denied the opportunity to use his or her spiritual gifts for God's glory. Spiritual "leadership" is found in many people, sometimes in ways that might surprise us.
Fourth, all peoples will be judged. Christ's great final Judgment at His Return will examine the lives of all who ever lived.(23) Living fully for Christ now is the only proper preparation.
Finally, God has a great future for us. Joel promises, "The Lord will be a refuge for his people."(24) No matter how hard the times, no matter how sad the personal story, God's eternal comfort and joy await all who trust themselves in faith to Him.