The prophecy of Joel begins in a jarring way. There is no introduction. There are not dates, kings, or timeframe listed. There is no warm up regarding what is happening. We are simply dropped into the prophecy. This might be a key reason for why this prophecy is not frequently taught in its entirety. But we must realize that the information God gives us through his word is intentional and not accidental. Therefore, the message of Joel is a timeless message for God’s people. Scholars argue whether this prophecy best fits as one of the earliest prophecies against Judah (around 800 BC), or just before the destruction of Jerusalem (around 600 BC), or after Judah has been set into exile and now have returned from its exile (around 450 BC). But the book does not tell us and this book was written so that every generation at any time would use the principles of this prophecy and apply it to their own day and time.
Before we look at the first chapter, it is important to have a framework for how to look at this book. The first chapter described a day of the Lord that has already been experienced. The people have suffered a terrible disaster, which we will look at in detail in a moment. The second chapter warns that another day of the Lord is coming that is worse than what they have experienced. The end of chapter 2 and the whole of chapter 3 conclude by describing a great day of the Lord that will occur after these judgments come.
Now we can immediately wonder why we would look at this short prophecy and what relevance this book could possibly have for us. First, as I mentioned earlier, this book is a timeless message because it does not have a date given to it. Everyone is supposed to learn how God operates in the world through this prophecy. Second, this book is quoted in the New Testament by the apostle Peter. Therefore, this prophecy has an important meaning to Christians. Finally, this book teaches what God is doing in our troubles, what we should do during our troubles, and how to hold on to hope during such difficult times.
A Memorable Calamity (1:1-12)
The prophecy opens telling us that the people have experienced an unprecedented calamity. In verse 2 God asks the people to consider if anything has ever happened to them like this. The calamity has been so severe that they will tell their future generations about what has happened to them. It seems our news regularly tells us about how the things that are happening to us are unprecedented, particularly over the last three years. Now I want you to see what has happened. In verse 4 we read that the nation has experienced an extraordinary locust attack that is so severe that there is nothing left. Verse 4 gives the picture that wave after wave of locusts came and destroyed everything plant, grain, and green thing. Verses 6-7 describes these locusts as an invading army that have come through the land and devastated the vines and fig trees. Verse 10 records that the grain and fields have been destroyed. In short, their food is gone. Their economy is gone. Everything that they need is gone. Verse 12 restates that the vine is dried up and the fig tree withered. All the trees and their fruit are dried up. Losing the vine and fig tree in scriptures is also a symbolic way to describe the loss of the people’s prosperity. In the days of Solomon, when the nation was thriving, the scriptures record that every person sat under their own vine and under their own fig tree (cf. 1 Kings 4:25). Now those are lost and so Israel is depicted as losing God’s blessings, protection, and provisions.
You see this truth confirmed in verse 9 of chapter 1. The grain offering and the drink offering are cut of from the house of the Lord. Sacrifices cannot be made to the Lord because the elements are the sacrifices are lacking now. We might think that they still have their animals. But what are the animals going to eat if the fields, trees, and grains are destroyed? This is noted in verse 18. The animals are groaning and the cattle are confused because there is no pasture. Now I want us to fully appreciate the situation for these people. Look at verse 12. Verse 12 says that gladness dries up. The joy of the people has evaporated. No one is happy. Everyone is suffering. Everyone is experiencing the effects of this devastation. So what are the people supposed to do when gladness dries up? What does God want his people to do when your joy in your life has evaporated?
Look Up (1:13-14)
Joel begins by telling the religious leaders to put on sackcloth and mourning. They need to lead the way in crying out to the Lord. Then we see in verse 14 that Joel declares that all the people should gather at the house of the Lord and cry out to the Lord. Now I want us to think about the disaster they have experienced. Joel does not tell them that they need to stay home and deal with their problems. He does not tell them that they need to stay away from the house of the Lord because they are going through such an unprecedented calamity. Rather staying away from the temple and its worship, they need to have a holy assembly and gather at God’s house.
Now I want us to think about why it is so important for the people to gather for worship. Why is it so important that they call out to the Lord? Why do they need to look upward when calamity devastated their lives? The reason is that the people need to see that God is sovereign over what is going on in the world. I want us to think about what we would do today. We would attribute this locust attack to bad luck. We might even be able to scientifically explain the reason for this locust attack. I went online and read about why locusts do this. We can scientifically explain that locusts are more likely after heavy rains and tropical cyclones along with a boom in plant growth. It appears that locusts have a chemical attraction that cause them to act as a swarm. So we might put the pieces together and think this is the reason. But I want you to listen to how the book of Hosea framed this act.
And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. (Hosea 2:8-9 ESV)
The people are to gather for worship and cry out to the Lord because they were supposed to know that God is sovereign and he is over all things. Hosea proclaims that the people forgot that God was blessing them so he took their blessings away. Joel records this happening. The prosperity of the nation has been devastated and the people were to look upward at this time. Now there is great irony in what God commands. Remember that we read in verse 9 that worship has been cut off because of this crisis. The locust attack put an end to their worship sacrifices. God shut down their worship. So what are the people supposed to do? Joel says go to the house of the Lord and cry out in a worship assembly. The cutting off of their worship is to cause them to go worship. The cutting of their prosperity is to cause the people to go worship. The calamity was supposed to lead the people’s eyes upward to worship. When life gets hard, do not stop praying! When you are in crisis, do not stop worshiping! When you are crushed by life and gladness dries up, do not stop assembling! Our loss is to move us toward God.
Look Forward (1:15-16)
Second, Joel tells the people to not only look upward, but to also look forward. Look at verse 15. Notice that the people were to cry out to the Lord because the day of the Lord is near and will come as devastation from the Lord. I think I would have raised my hand with a question at this minute. “Joel, don’t you mean that the day of the Lord has just past and we are experiencing the pain from it? What do you mean that the day of the Lord is near?” The people were not supposed to see this calamity as a one-off, never to happen again event. The calamity had a meaning. The crisis was supposed to tell them something. A judgment can be a precursor for more judgments. We have seen this in our study of the book of Revelation. Think about how God was sending partial warning judgments (seen in the fractions of thirds and fourths judged). The people did not repent and so then a full judgment was given by God. The book of Joel is trying to show that God uses calamities to get our eyes upward and be warned of the spiritual judgment to come. To state this another way, God uses physical difficulties to get us to think spiritually before it is too late. The physical is to prepare us for the spiritual. So as a nation we are to realize that physical calamities are to awaken us as a warning for spiritual judgments. We must not think that this is only an Old Testament idea. Listen to what Jesus said in Luke 13.
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV)
Notice that Jesus says that these terrible events were not to be ignored. Instead, they were to be seen as precursors of future judgments if they did not repent. Friends, we have a nation that needs to repent. We live in a nation who does not look at the events that happen to it and think it is time to turn back to God. Calamity is to draw us closer to God and cause us to realize that more is on the way if we do not turn our lives to God. This leads us to the final point in the first chapter of Joel.
Lead The Way (1:17-20)
We need to lead the way in repentance. Notice what Joel says in verse 19. “To you, O Lord, I call.” Joel is going to lead the way in calling out to the Lord. Joel is going to lead the way in calling for the worship assembly. Joel is going to lead the way in prayer. This is our calling as God’s people. We need to lead the way in repentance because we understand that God is sovereign and in charge of nations. So here is what I want us to think about. It is not like Joel is not experiencing the same devastation and calamity. His gladness has also dried up. But he is going to lead the way through the calamity even though he is experiencing it as well. Friends, we can show people how to continue in our faith when our gladness dries up. When calamity hits us hard, we can show others how we are looking upward toward God. We will show people how we are running to God in prayer. We will show people how we are running to God in worship. We will show people we are spiritually sensitive to the work that God is doing in our lives, in our country, and in the world. What can you do to lead the way in your family when gladness dries up? What can you do to lead and teach this church when your gladness dries up? What can you do to lead and teach your friends, co-workers, and community when your gladness dries up? How will you respond when your joy is gone? What will you do when there is nothing left but pain and confusion? Cry out to the Lord. Look forward at what God is showing us in our lives. Lead the way as you go through your pain, showing that you know that your life is in God’s hands. What we will show each other and the world is what Paul proclaimed.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13 ESV)
God will give us the strength to get through this when gladness dries up.