A Message from the Lord

1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel:

2 Hear this, you elders;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children to another generation.

What the cutting locust left,
    the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
    the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
    the destroying locust has eaten. – Joel 1:1-4 ESV

As the name of the book implies, its author was an individual known as Joel. His name means “Yahweh is God,” so it would be easy to assume that his parents were faithful Israelites who raised their young son to worship the deity who had chosen the descendants of Abraham to be His prized possession. We know little about Joel, except for the name of his father, Pethuel. Joel did not come from a well-known or influential family. He had no apparent pedigree or status as a religious leader among his people. He simply introduces himself as “Joel, the son of Pethuel.”

The significant thing about Joel is not his name or his background, but the message he delivered. Even more importantly, it is the one who gave Joel the message that provides this book any weight and makes Joel someone worth giving the time of day.  He claims to be delivering “the word of the Lord.”

The Hebrew word translated as “Lord” is actually the tetragrammaton YHWH. The ancient Hebrew language in which the book of Joel was written used only consonants and no vowels. So, the name of God was written with the four letters: YHWH. When translating the Hebrew text to English, the name of God has been translated as Jehovah, Yahweh, or as it is here, Lord. The ancient Hebrews held God’s name in such high regard that they refused to speak it out loud, even when reading the Scriptures. So, when they came to a passage where the tetragrammaton YHWH was found, they would substitute the word Adonai (“Lord”).

Joel is establishing from the outset that his message has been given to him by Yahweh, the God of the Jews. And it would appear from the context of the book’s content that God’s message is directed primarily at the southern kingdom of Judah. Determining a date for when Joel penned this message is difficult and has been hotly debated over the centuries. The disagreements all revolve around the period known as the exile – referring to the time when the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by Babylonians, and the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the city destroyed. The city and its beautiful temple, built by King Solomon were ransacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 586 B.C. And it is around this year that the debate regarding the dating of the book of Joel swirls.

Basing their discussions around the exile or the time in which the people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon, some argue for an early pre-exilic dating, while others defend a mid-pre-exilic timeline. Still others promote a late pre-exilic date. But the one thing they all share in common is the pre-exilic designation. In other words, they all believe that Joel wrote his book before the nation of Judah fell, and its people were taken captive to Babylon. But there is a fifth opinion out there that puts the date of the writing of Joel after the exile, designating it as being post-exilic in terms of its timing.

It seems that many who hold to the post-exilic view do so because they reject the prophetic nature of the book. In other words, because Joel’s message contains what appear to be predictions of Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, he must have written it after the fact. Therefore, it is not really a book of prophecy, but a book of reflection, written in retrospect. Yet, one of the main themes in the book is the sovereignty of God. It is not meant to be a looking back at what God has done, but a revelation of what God is going to do. God is delivering through Joel a message of judgment against the nation of Judah for their unfaithfulness. They had repeatedly broken their covenant with Him, and now He was warning them what was going to happen as a result. If you adopt the post-exilic dating, the calls to repentance found in the book seem out of place and even unjust on God’s part, because if the people have already been taken captive and restored to the land, there is no opportunity or need for their repentance.

So, it would make much more sense to see this book as having been written before the fall of Jerusalem. It is prophetic in nature, containing God’s message for the people of Judah, warning of His coming judgment, calling them to repentance, and assuring them of His mercy should they do so.

But Joel opens his book with a stern message directed at the leaders, but intended for the ears of each and every citizen of Judah.

Hear this, you elders;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation. – Joel 1:2-3 ESV

The land of Judah had suffered from a devastating wave of successive locust infestations. Joel describes what appear to be four different kinds of locusts: cutting locusts, swarming locusts, hopping locusts, and destroying locusts. But it is likely that he is only trying to illustrate that the destruction took place over time, with the locusts doing increasing degrees of damage with each successive infestation.

And Joel poses the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?” This is a rhetorical question requiring no response. The answer is obviously, “No.” This was devastation on never-before-seen scale and Joel wants his readers to not miss the significance of what they have just experienced. They were to spread the word and retell the story for generations to come. And this command from Joel reflects the words of Psalm 78.

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders. – Psalm 78:1-4 NLT

They were not to hide the glorious deeds of the Lord from their children. And in this case, Joel commands them to tell their children about the judgments of God as well. And the Psalmist goes on to provide the rationalization behind this disclosure of God’s power and mighty wonders.

   …teach them to their children,
so the next generation might know them—
    even the children not yet born—
    and they in turn will teach their own children.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God,
    not forgetting his glorious miracles
    and obeying his commands.
Then they will not be like their ancestors—
    stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful,
    refusing to give their hearts to God. – Psalm 78:5-8 NLT

God’s people are to paint a clear and comprehensive picture of Him. He is not one-dimensional and is not to be presented in a lopsided or incomplete manner. God is love, but His wrath cannot be overlooked or ignored. He is holy and righteous and stands in opposition to all that is unholy and unrighteous. God blesses, but He also curses. His rewards can come in both positive and negative forms, depending upon the actions of the one He is rewarding. Sin brings His condemnation and judgment. Obedience brings blessing.

Joel is issuing a stern wake-up call, demanding that the people of Judah assess their circumstances and recognize that hand of Almighty God. They could allow the devastating judgment they had just endured to draw them back to God, or they could grow “stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful, refusing to give their hearts to God.”

The choice was theirs. But Joel will spend the next three chapters calling on the people of Judah to wake up and smell the coffee. He will plead with them to repent and return. He will warn of future judgment to come should they refuse. The message he was delivering was from the Lord, and it would be best if they listened.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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