The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Joel
We know what the prophet Joel said but we don’t really know when he said it. The history of Israel might be broadly broken into three parts. The first encompasses the time of King David and Solomon and the kings after them. It is the time before the exile to Babylon in 586 BC – this is referred to as the pre-exilic period.
The Israelites lived as captives, exiles, in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) from 586 BC until the Persian king Cyrus allowed them to return in 538 BC. This second division is called the exilic period. Then, over a period of time, many Israelites returned to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and even the walls of the city. This period lasted until New Testament times and is called post-exilic, or after the exile.
It’s difficult to even date the prophet Joel to the time before or after the exile to Babylon. However, there is no doubt about what he had to say!
You’re probably getting used to hearing that we don’t know much about the prophet himself. In fact, we know nothing about Joel except he was a prophet in Jerusalem. I sometimes wonder if this lack of knowledge about the prophets is intentional on God’s part. There is nothing to draw attention away from the message God gave them. In fact, it makes me think about my role in taking the good news about Jesus to the world. I’m reminded that it’s not about me, it’s about Him!
The name Joel means ‘Yahweh is God’ and more than any other book in the Old Testament, it is the book about the Day of the Lord. The story of Joel is straightforward – Israel suffers a locust plague, an invading army is coming, God calls for repentance and promises salvation. A plague of locusts meant starvation in ancient times. Hear the urgency of Joel 1:2-4:
Hear this, you elders;
listen, all who live in the land.
Has anything like this ever happened in your days
or in the days of your forefathers?
Tell it to your children,
and let your children tell it to their children,
and their children to the next generation.
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.
A locust outbreak meant real hardship, hunger and even starvation. But as bad as they were, the locusts were an immediate catastrophe that foreshadowed an even greater one! We can almost hear the marching of the invading army in 1:6-7:
A nation has invaded my land,
powerful and without number;
it has the teeth of a lion,
the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vines
and ruined my fig trees.
It has stripped off their bark
and thrown it away,
leaving their branches white.
God calls his people to turn from their ways, to repent, in 2:12-14:
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and have pity
and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.”
And salvation appears in 2:26-27:
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.
The book of Joel is really unique because it not only talks about Israel but seems to describe Israel’s experiences as forecasting or foreshadowing the end of the world. Many of the passages in Joel sound like visions in the book of Revelation in the New Testament. For example, Joel 2:30-32 could easily be in the book of Revelation:
I will show wonders in the heavens
and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
there will be deliverance,
as the Lord has said,
among the survivors
whom the Lord calls.
And Joel 3:1-2 appears to describe God judging the world:
In those days and at that time,
when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem,
I will gather all nations
and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat.
There I will enter into judgment against them
concerning my inheritance, my people Israel,
for they scattered my people among the nations
and divided up my land.
As is so common in prophecy, the events in the life of Israel foreshadow events in the future of the world. Israel was always an example for us, a warning to turn from sin and embrace God’s salvation.
Lessons and Themes
The book of Joel anticipates the coming of Jesus. Joel not only warns Israel to turn back to God, he also predicts God’s salvation for those who do. Joel 2:28 is a sign of what they will see when God comes to deliver his people:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.”
The Jews of Joel’s time would have understood this in vague terms but really had no idea what it would mean for God’s spirit to be poured out on them.
Several hundred years later, after the resurrection of Jesus, on the day of Pentecost Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem. On that day, this scripture came true as the Holy Spirit came on them ‘like tongues of fire’. They began to speak in other languages and people were amazed. The disciple Peter stood up and explained to them what was happening. In Acts 2:17, he quoted this passage (and the following verses) from Joel. Peter declared the long-awaited prophecy was fulfilled! God has come to rescue his people – in the flesh - in the person of the risen savior, Jesus the Messiah.
The book of Joel anticipates the end times. The prophecies in Joel are not always about the same period in the future. This is normal in Hebrew prophecy and it’s likely even Joel did not completely understand God’s timetable for fulfilling the predictions. Some of the prophecy pointed to Jesus, as we saw above, but others sound more like the book of Revelation. In Revelation we read about the armies of the world surrounding God’s people and the great battle of Armageddon where God defeats those who rebel against him and persecute his people. Revelation refers to these evil forces as Babylon or Rome. Few people think this is referring to a new empire called Babylon or Rome, but there is no doubt that Revelation uses these empires as examples of great evil and opposition to God. Joel speaks about events much like Armageddon. For example, a great northern army will descend on Jerusalem according Joel 2:1-3:
“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy hill.
Let all who live in the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is close at hand—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was of old
nor ever will be in ages to come.
Before them fire devours,
behind them a flame blazes.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
behind them, a desert waste—
nothing escapes them.”
Joel also speaks of God’s response in 3:11-13:
Come quickly, all you nations from every side,
and assemble there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord!
“Let the nations be roused;
let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat,
for there I will sit
to judge all the nations on every side.
Swing the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Come, trample the grapes,
for the winepress is full
and the vats overflow—
so great is their wickedness!”
Revelation 19:15 speaks of the magnitude of God’s anger against evil and injustice as “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty!” Notice the same images in both Joel and Revelation. Isn’t it amazing how God weaves his message so consistently through the centuries, understandable to people of all times and places?
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
We talked about the uncertainty of the date of the book of Joel, but even the latest estimates date Joel’s prophecy several hundred years before Jesus. When you see a prophecy from Joel being fulfilled by the disciples of Jesus, does it increase your confidence in the Bible? What else about the Bible makes you believe it can be trusted?
When you read the prophecies and warnings in Joel, do you feel fear or hope? Is it okay for people to feel a sense of fear when reading about God’s wrath toward evil? Some would say it’s not possible to truly appreciate the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross without sensing the reality of God’s wrath toward sin. Do you agree? Why or why not?
I hope it’s become clear to you that Joel, like the other eleven prophets in our study, speaks to us just as much as to the people of his day. Joel predicts temptation and trials for God’s people. He also assures us of God’s salvation and victory over evil. How do these messages apply to our current events? How about events in your personal life?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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