Joel: The Rending of Hearts
Key Text: Chapter 2:13
“And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.”
Joel’s Time and Place
Hebrew scholars identify Joel’s name as meaning, “The Lord is God”.
The combination of the letters “Jo” (abbreviation for Jehovah) and “el” which always signifies God, would certainly warrant that conclusion. Therefore this man, with his very name proclaimed an important message, that there only is one God, Jehovah the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jehovah He is God.
In 1:1 two vital facts are presented, authenticating this man’s ministry. The “Word of the Lord” came to him. He did not present his own ideas because his ministry was a revelation of divine truth. The second important fact that the introduction presents is that Joel was “the son of Pethuel”. Therefore Joel was a literal figure whose lineage is identified.
It is believed that Joel was the earliest of the Minor Prophets. As he served God before the Major Prophets also, this makes him the earliest of the written prophets in the prophetic section of the English Bible. While the book does not state the King who reigned at the time of writing the general thought is that he served in the days of King Joash (2nd Chronicles 22:10-2nd Chronicles 24). Certainly the tone of the book would indicate that Joel ministered to the southern Kingdom, known as Judah, as opposed to Israel, the northern Kingdom. He writes about the priests and the House of God (1:9), the trumpet blowing in Zion (2:1), Judah and Jerusalem (3:1).
Joel’s ministry in Judah pre-dated Amos’ prophecy which took place in the days of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam 2nd of Israel. In Amos 1:2 the language of Joel is employed, “The Lord will roar from Zion (Joel 3:16). Also Amos’ closing promise employs poetic language that is strikingly similar to that of Joel (compare Amos 9:13 with Joel 3:18). The question, remains, how much earlier was Joel’s ministry to that of Amos? The clue is found in the omission of the King’s name from the autograph. At the beginning of Joash’s reign the throne was usurped by the wicked and murderous Queen Athaliah. At this time the people looked to the priests especially Jehoiada, the High Priest. When Joash finally received his crown, at seven years of age, Jehoiada played a key role in the leadership of the nation. He was in effect “The King-maker”. Therefore Joel directs words from the Lord to the priests urging them to provide spiritual direction to the nation (1:9, 13, 2:17).
Joel’s ministry belongs to a time long before the Babylonian and Assyrian threat to Judah’s, and Israel’s, independence. Joel rather makes mention of enemies who were problematic in an earlier time, which is broadly consistent with the days of Joash. The Phoenicians, Egyptians and Edomites are referred to by this prophet (3:4, 19). This is verified at least in part in 2nd Kings 8:20-22 and 2nd Chronicles 21:16-17.
Joel was called by God to present a message against a background of economic despair. In 1:4 he informs us that that the land had been infested with insects (palmerworm, locusts, cankerworm and caterpillar) which stripped vines, the fig, apple and pomegranate trees as well as decimating the wheat and barley harvests (1:7-12).
What were these insects that caused such devastation? In 1915 a plague of locusts invaded Palestine and Syria. These insects were observed to develop in four stages. The swarm of locusts descended in a cloud so thick the sun was darkened. The females laid eggs that were thought to number 65,000 per square metre. Six weeks later when the eggs hatched the young locusts crawled like large ants devouring all vegetation. When their wings developed they continued walking and devouring as they went. It was only when they molted once more that they became the adult locusts that had descended upon the land in the first instance. At every stage of development they laid waste to all organic growth including the very bark of the trees. All of this is consistent with what Joel described. Almost certainly the four fold development of the locust is what Joel has in mind in 1:4.
Interpreting The Calamity
As God’s messenger it was Joel’s duty to explain this calamity that had afflicted the nation. In 2:25 this infestation of locusts is described by God as “my great army which I sent among you.” Therefore Joel was pointing out that this disaster was not a mere natural phenomenon, the hand of God could be delineated in the unfolding of events. In several places he describes the sun being darkened as the day of God’s judgement descended (2:2, 31, 3:15), which depicts the first feature of the arrival of the locusts. We are loath to attribute national disasters to the hand of God lest we are seen to be unpatriotic and judgemental. If we believe in a sovereign God, however, we are obliged to see His handiwork in all circumstances. At the very least we must declare that when our land, or our church, is beset by difficulties that God is leading us this way to teach us serious lessons. While society refuses to acknowledge God’s providences, let us not fall into the same humanistic trap of unbelief.
The Call for Repentance
As the land had suffered nationally Joel’s prophecy calls for national repentance.
In 1:13-14 he urges the priests to call a fast day and bring the people together for a solemn assembly. He calls upon them to open their eyes and observe the devastation and turn to the God, because he alone can remedy the situation (1:13-20).
In 2:12-27 Joel takes up this theme once again. He calls upon the people to turn unto the Lord with all their hearts with fasting weeping and mourning, rending their hearts and not their garments (2:12-13). The phrase rending the heart would clearly show that formal religion was not what God required. He desired true repentance, true faith and true prayer. This phrase is deeply relevant for the evangelical church today. We emphasise purity of worship but the format is worthless if we do not draw near to God with our hearts.
The call to the priests to pray on behalf of the nation is indicative that sin had caused this plague to descend on their crops, “Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them, wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?”.
The Promise of Encouragement
The promise most often quoted from Joel is found in 2:25, “And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten.” This certainly applies to the physical destruction that had occurred as a consequence of the infestation. This recovery, however, is directly attributed to the power of prayer. It is also linked to the mercy and forgiveness of God (2:13-14). The primary matter that needed addressed was the relationship with God that had failed. The descent of the locusts, on a wind from the north, was emblematic of the sins of formalism and dead religion that had beset the devotional spirit of the nation. God at times chastens his people for their spiritual coldness. He causes material problems to afflict us in order that we might turn unto the Lord. He provides inducements in order that we might be turned to prayer. With the restoration of fellowship with God the physical barrenness was then addressed. Whatever our problems we must first of all develop a true and genuine walk with God trusting in Him to meet our other various needs.
The Glory of the New Testament Church
In his prophecy Joel predicts the spiritual fervour and enlargement of the New Testament, even though he in all probability did not appreciate what he was writing. He writes of the Spirit being poured out upon all flesh with all those who called upon God’s name being converted (2:28-32). This passage is explained by Peter in his remarkable sermon on the day of Pentecost when he quotes Joel’s words being fulfilled at that time (Acts 2:14-21). This interpretation, inspired by the Holy Ghost, teaches us that many of the images in the prophets are spiritual and not physical. The sun being darkened and the moon becoming as blood are symbols of spiritual events of enormous moment. The events of the Day of Pentecost transformed the history of the world as the New Testament emerged.
This provides the necessary basis for understanding the third chapter. While this part of Joel’s message has some application to Judah in his times, as the mentions of the various enemies illustrates, much of it is a follow on from the final part of chapter two, which relates to the New Testament Church. He writes of all nations being gathered together in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, also called the Valley of Decision (3:2, 14-16). Peace would descend as the weapons of war are smelted down and remade as agricultural tools. Judah’s captivity would be reversed, the Lord would dwell in Jerusalem and the people would enjoy peace and prosperity (3:1, 17-21). If the Second Chapter closes by predicting the New Testament Church, why argue that this third chapter represents anything different. The New Testament Church emerged in Jerusalem with a message that would be extended to every nation. The Jews today are a spiritually captive people on account of their spiritual blindness to Jesus as their Messiah. One day, however, they will be restored, emancipated from this darkness joining with the multitudes of Gentiles who have already confessed Christ. This will usher in a new day of blessing for the world of men when peace shall reign on earth, the blessed peace of the Gospel. Therefore while this third chapter relates to the New Testament Church part of it is yet to be fulfilled.
There is a message of hope here, which must be transmitted from one generation to the next: “Tell ye your children…and let their children tell their children, and their children another generation” (1:3).