What does Joel tell us about the promises of God?


I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible, or a theme or section of Scripture, and the ideas that it expresses. At the end of this piece I list the previous articles I have written for them. Here I explore what the prophet Joel teaches us about the promises of God.


The book of the prophet Joel sits in our Bibles between the books of Hosea and Amos, but is quite distinct from them. Hosea and Amos are our earliest prophets, speaking to the northern kingdom of Israel before its exile in 722 BC. We know something of the authors, their context, and their setting. By contrast, we know nothing about the timing, situation, or authorship of Joel. So why is it in the Bible?

To answer that, we need to understand what Joel is saying, and how his message is taken up in the New Testament. 

The day of disaster

The first chapter describes a series of environmental catastrophes that have taken place. Although there is mention of ‘fire’ and drought towards the end of the chapter, the main event appears to be devastation wrought by plagues of locusts: 

What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten (Joel 1.4)

The exact meaning of the four terms here (‘locusts…great locusts…young locusts…other locusts’) is unclear—but the overall message is plain. Even today, locust swarms represent a real threat to life, as they can devour whole crops in hours. 

But Joel adds two vital elements that take this beyond a mere lament over a natural disaster. First, in common with other Old Testament writers, he believes that God is sovereign over all that happens (v 15). Secondly, he believes that the right response to this disaster is to turn to God again in repentance. 

This opens up another puzzle about this prophet. Unlike other prophets, who are very clear in their denunciation of which sins the people have committed, how they need to change, and what they now need to do, Joel nowhere specifies the sin of the people from which they need to repent. The answer to this puzzle is to note how rooted Joel is in earlier prophets; many of his comments allude to prophets of both north (Amos and Hosea) and south (Isaiah and Ezekiel) and the books of Moses (especially Exodus). The words God spoke in the past continue to have a powerful effect in the present and for the future. 

The day of the Lord

The second chapter changes the focus. Whilst there are many parallels of language with chapter 1, there is a shift in register. What was an army of locusts now looks much more like a human army (‘they gallop along like cavalry’ Joel 2.4); where they devastated the fields, they now attack the cities too (verses 6 to 9); and there it was merely the earth that suffered, now the signs of disaster are cosmic as well (‘sun and moon are darkened; the stars no longer shine’ Joel 2.10). 

This has strong echoes of the disaster that came first on the northern kingdom and its capital Samaria, and then the southern kingdom and its capital Jerusalem. In the ancient world, there was no separation between astrology and astronomy; the heavenly bodies were believed to both influence and represent the powers on earth. These cosmic signs indicated the end of an era and the turn of the ages, as God’s people were in danger of disappearing from the land. 

But the invitation to response is repeated: ‘Even now’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart’. Repentance needs to be a true change of life, not just an empty ritual. The poetic summary ‘Rend your heart and not [just] your garments’ both echoes the call of the early prophets and anticipates the teaching of Jesus (in Matthew 5) and Paul (in Romans 2) that outward acts are worth nothing unless a sign of inner change. 

And God’s response it greater still. Not only will God restore the fortunes of his people—he will give signs to the whole world, pour out his Spirit on all, and draw the nations to Jerusalem. Through renewing the covenant with his people Israel, the whole of creation will ultimately be blessed.

The day of Pentecost

The text of Joel is best known because Peter reaches for it to explain to his Jewish listeners what God is now doing as a result of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension:

This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams’ (Acts 2.16–17)

Peter is transforming our reading of Joel in the light of Jesus in three ways. First, the day of the Lord which would see the restoration of Israel is now the longed-for Day of the Lord when the whole world changes. Secondly, the ‘latter days’ of God’s compassion have become the Last Days, because Jesus’ resurrection has signalled the beginning of the End of the World. Thirdly, Jesus’ ascension to the Father means he has poured out his Spirit—on all of his people Israel, but also on ‘all flesh’ which will include Gentiles, as the story of Acts goes on to describe. 

The rejection of God by Israel in Joel led to a great act of redemption by God. And yet the even greater rejection of God’s own Son by his people has led to the greatest redemption of all—one that will reach to the ends of the earth. Jesus is the ‘yes’ to all God’s promises (2 Cor 1.20), especially those found in Joel. 

So although Joel is a puzzle, and refuses to answer many of the questions we might like to ask of it, it has a sure place in the canon of Scripture as the word of God for us. The word that goes out from God ‘will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’ (Is 55.11). In the case of Joel, that includes enabling us to know that the God of Israel is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; that Jesus the Jewish messiah is saviour of all the world; and that we continue to live ‘in the last days’ where his Spirit is poured out and all nations are drawn to his love.


My previous articles have been on the themes of:


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15 thoughts on “What does Joel tell us about the promises of God?”

    • Interesting question!

      I would not claim in any way to be a Hebrew scholar. However, I have picked up my Young’s Analytical Concordance to look up which words are translated ‘promise’ in the KJV…

      The noun ‘promise’ occurs just 6 times in the OT, once from the root aleph/mem/resh (omer) and 5 times from the root dalit/beth/resh (davar). The uses of the verb ‘promise’ comes from the same two roots (6 times for the first, and 29 times for the second). These are both very common roots for speaking. The second root as a verb occurs 1148 times according to the STEP bible. The noun from the same root has quite a wide sematic range among its 1457 uses. Notably, one use is in the phrase traditionally translated “ten commandments” (Ex 34:28, Deut 10:4).

      The roots are both (mostly) about speech.

      Perhaps the bottom line is that God does what he says he will do. Whether that is a promise or not perhaps depends on what it is he says he will do.

      Reply
  1. Though I’m far from being a Hebrew scholar, are God’s words, “I will…” not constitute a promise, covenanted by Him sometimes conditional, sometimes unconditional, and ultimately fulfilled by God incarnate in Jesus.

    Reply
  2. Looking at the text of Joel 2, the first observation is that Peter is not quoting exactly the start. His “God declares” is fair enough, making clear that this is an prophetic oracle (c.f. 2:19). But his use of “in the last days it shall be…” is more interesting, placing the what is happening then in Jerusalem firmly in the eschatalogical frame.

    The actual Hebrew, and LXX, text has at the start of v28 “And it shall come to pass afterward…”. I think in both languages this is linked firmly to the preceeding verses – making the section headings in ESV and NIV problematic, in my view.

    So, Joel’s oracle seems to be a sequence of events, leading to vv26,27 (ESV):

    “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
    And my people shall never again be put to shame.
    You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
    And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

    How are we to understand this part of the oracle in relation to what follows?

    Reply
    • Joel predicts Jesus ministry, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth…” is Jesus ministry of miracles, “blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness…”is the Passion and crucifixion. Then after Jesus ascends on high the ‘Day of The Lord’ begins. We are still living in the Day of the Lord until Jesus returns.
      I don’t think Joel can be read as an exact chronological series of future events. Revelation chooses to allude to much of it, even then, Revelation does not suggest to me a timeline for the future but rather a recapitulation of the one and only Event in history— Jesus life and ministry. Revelation is about Jesus. It alludes to, and incorporates Joel to give us something to worship—Jesus. After all, Jesus said all scripture is about me. He did not say most scripture.

      Reply
    • It’s difficult to know what Joel was writing about. Literal forthcoming history, or simply a ‘spiritual’ message. Scholars even disagree as to when it was written. Did Israel, as a people, go through locust years? Were they attacked by invading armies from the north, leading to lack of food? Were they put to shame but then shame removed? It seems John alludes to Joel in Rev 9 but seems to make it a spiritual army. Though what that actually means I do not know.

      All very confusing. I sometimes wonder if the NT writers saw a bit in the OT, thought it fitted with Jesus, and completely ignored the context of the original.

      Reply
      • Looking at what we know about scripture:
        It is inspired by God.
        It is about Jesus.
        We are in Jesus.
        It speaks to every generation.
        So, it is about us in the present.
        Perhaps the different locusts are variously modern destructive influences.
        Bishops eating away everything in their path.
        But God will restore, revive, resurrect the true body after every attack is over.
        A message of hope to cling to.

        Reply
        • Steve, Im trying to understand what the text actually means, that is, what would the first readers/hearers of it have understood in the context at the time. And yes how it relates, if at all, to today.

          I dont see how the ‘locusts’ are destructive influences such as bishops, as per Joel they were lead by God himself.

          If anyone can recommend a good commentary on Joel, much appreciated.

          Peter

          Reply
          • Peter, The book of Joel, so I’m told, was written during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. It references many of the prophets. The hearers probably identified the locusts as the local authorities bent on thwarting their efforts to restart their nation. The symbolism is vague so I think Joel intended his hearers to identify locusts with their own sins. This reminds me of Ps 118:12.
            I can recommend ‘Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books’ by Tim Mackie 🙂 It’s right up my street; lots of pictures and few words!

  3. The promises in Joel speak of the Covenantal relationship that exists between God the Jews and His Church.
    All of God’s “I will’s…” are His promises’
    We experience covenantal relationship in the Marriage Vows thus covenants are between two parties.
    Thus Eccl 5:4 When thou vow a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.
    Deut. 23:21 When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee.

    Jon 2:9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.
    Pay your vows to God for why should he be angry with you?

    For the Jews Habakkuk records what God says “The just shall live by his Faithfulness”

    Thus David, Psalms 9:1-10 I will worship you, YAHWEH, with extended hands as my whole heart erupts with praise! I will tell everyone everywhere about your wonderful works! I will be glad and shout in triumph. I will sing praise to your exalted name, O Most High.
    Paul modifies Habakkuk slightly “The just shall live by Faith” The benefits and blessings of the New Covenant are enjoyed and experienced by faith for “without faith we cannot please God”. Thus the blessings are bound up in the Corn and the Wine and the Oil, The body and blood and the Spirit of Jesus.
    Which in Joel 2:19 is concomitant upon Repentance, Joel 2:16. “Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet.
    2:17 Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say,” 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 Gospel is always “repentance and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.”
    The blessing concomitantly with repentance are the blessings of the Corn and the Wine and the Oil. The body and blood and the Spirit of Jesus.
    1 John 5:8 “And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one”. These three testify that we are born of God.
    Joel 2:18 Then will the LORD be jealous for his land, and pity his people.
    2:19 Yea, the LORD will answer and say unto his people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith: and I will no longer make you a reproach among the heathen:

    Reply
  4. Joel is a difficult book for the scholars, however read alongside the whole of scripture and God’s covenant relationship, a pattern seems to emerge that God is faithful to his promises contingent upon repentance and faith.
    I wonder about Peter’s quote in Acts;
    Peter was speaking largely to a Jewish gathering, resulting in a revival amongst them, so this was a message to the Jews
    Later the Samaritans had received the message and had been Baptized and subsequently received the Holy Spirit; Acts 8:14-17 MSG
    When the apostles in Jerusalem received the report that Samaria had accepted God’s Message, they sent Peter and John down to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Up to this point they had only been baptized in the name of the Master Jesus; the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet fallen on them. Then the apostles laid their hands on them and they did receive the Holy Spirit; and of course, Cornelius /Gentiles widens the prophecy globally.
    Thus, the Gospel is magnified and established.
    This raises the question concerning the Latter Rain
    Is that a prophecy concerning the Jews and /or the Church pre or post the second coming?
    Considering other Scriptures that the end times would be a time of chaos and disintegration at the last, and perhaps that faith would be scarce [? Jesus]
    Does this indicate that the Latter Rains might be a Jewish phenomenon the church having already received the full benefits of the Gospel by repentance and faith?

    Reply
    • Rain and latter rain.
      In my reading they seem to go together. Like a horse and carriage or the Alpha & Omega. Jesus is the fulfilment of this prophecy. He is the former and ultimate refreshment. It doesnt help me much imagining a ‘special’ Latter Rain, in the future. Hard lumps of clay are the last to soften after prolonged rain. Let it rain. Who knows. Hard hearts might soften yet.

      Reply

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