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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Joel

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( 1:1 )

For the names, see JOEL B. The word of the Lord ‘came’: it is active, and even the prophet's own words are powerful because the Lord's word is acting through them.

( 1:2–4 ) The Locusts

The ‘elders’, citizens with full rights, and the entire population must listen: the prophetic word concerns everybody. ‘Has this [Heb. contra NRSV ‘such a thing’] happened in your days': no, it has never happened but it happens now, through the very word of the prophet. This newly created event is a thing to be remembered (and thus re-enacted) by future generations. v. 4 presents an unsolved riddle: do the four terms for ‘locusts’ stand for four varieties of insects, or for various stages in the development of one, or do they represent vernacular differences? Whatever the answer, it is clear that the accumulation of terms creates the certainty of total devastation.

( 1:5–14 ) Incursion of a Strange ‘Nation’

The prophetic word evokes the havoc wrought by a swarm of locusts and asks drunkards, farmers, growers of fruit-trees, and priests to ‘awake’, to fast, to assemble in the temple, and to pray. The devastation is undoubtedly attributed to locusts, none the less the swarm is called a ‘nation’ (v. 6 ), perhaps on account of its strict ‘political’ organization, but more probably in order to suggest something more than locusts: the attack by a strange power of which the locusts are but the visible forms. In 2:25 , this ‘nation’ is, in almost mythological terms, called ‘the great army of God’. ‘Sanctify a fast’ (v. 14 ): the fast is a holy rite which requires mental preparation, an attitude of prayer, and the fully assumed intention to consecrate oneself entirely to communion with God.

( 1:15–18 ) The ‘Day of the Lord’ Causes Drought and Despair

The ‘day of the LORD’, the awful manifestation of God (see JOEL C), elicits a sigh of despair even from the prophet who is compelled to evoke it: ‘Alas!’ In normal times, rich harvests fill the temple with joyful songs and dances; the manifestation of the ‘day’ transforms laughter into subdued groaning.

( 1:19–20 ) A Prayer of the Prophet

The prophet experiences pain along with all those who suffer. The desolation he had helped to bring about by his prophetic word stirs up feelings of compassion and he is moved to prayer. The prophetic ministry had two sides: to address the people in the name of God, and to talk to God on behalf of the people. Joel does not fail in this twofold task. He acts in communion with the animals (v. 20 ); prophetic prayer never ignores the moaning of the animal world (cf. Jer 14:5–6; Rom 8:19 ).

( 2:1–11 ) The Lord at the Head of his Dreadful Army

This is the most vivid description of the ‘day of the LORD’, that is, of the Lord's theophany or manifestation (see JOEL B). It is like a terrifying army marching against Jerusalem under the cover of cosmic darkness (v. 2 : the ‘thick darkness’ mentioned in another foundational theophany, Ex 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:22 ; cf. also Zeph 1:15 ). God's action and the action of his army are invisible to human eyes stricken with blindness. The army is a mysterious one. The prophet does not dare to give a clear description of it. It is anonymous, ‘like blackness spread over the mountains’ (v. 2 ), surrounded by fire burning in front of it and behind it (v. 3 ); the ‘soldiers’ are something like horses or like war-chariots (vv. 4–5 ). The prophet avoids clear terms, everything is vague and suggests an event which eludes human language. But these ghastly warriors are everywhere, on the roofs, on the walls, through the windows, in the houses (v. 9 ), everyone his own commander, resisting all attempts to halt him (vv. 7–8 ). Heaven and earth tremble, sun, moon, and stars lose their light—darkness everywhere (v. 10 ). But a voice is heard in the night and amidst the terrors: the voice of the divine commander, the Lord himself (v. 11 ). Scholars wonder whether Joel is speaking of a human army or of locusts. This question seems out of place. In the passage under discussion the prophet tries to describe or rather to provoke a supra-human and cosmic event which is beyond human imagination. In so doing, he chooses language which seems to allude to the activities of soldiers and of locusts.

( 2:12–14 ) A Sermon Based on a Word of God

This passage represents a literary form which we find elsewhere in the prophetic books: the prophet quotes a word of God (v. 12 ) and unfolds the meaning of it in his own words (vv. 13–14 ). In the midst of the terrors of his manifestation, the Lord invites his people to ‘return to him’. The repentance he is asking for is a total engagement of the human being: fasting, weeping, and mourning as over one's own death. vv. 13–14 , the prophet, expatiating on this invitation, encourages the people and develops some very pertinent theological considerations.

( 2:15–17 ) The Prophet Organizes the Ritual Mourning

Not content with a general sermon on God's mercies, the prophet orders precise action: a holy ceremony uniting the whole people, including children and infants, sanctified by holy rites and by holy intentions, assembled for prayer in the temple, under the leadership of the priests (vv. 15–17a ). The prayer he suggests (v. 17b ) corresponds to the prayers of collective mourning found in the Psalms.

( 2:18–27 ) With One Voice, the Lord and the Prophet Announce Salvation

This passage introduces the final reversal of things. The Lord who has manifested the terrible effects of his coming, announces now his mercy in favour of Judah and Jerusalem. The main thrust of his revelation comes to its end: abundant blessings and joy. The proclamation is pronounced alternately by the prophet (vv. 18, 21–4, 26a ) and the Lord (vv. 19–20, 25, 26b–27 ). The prophet introduces the statements by declaring that the Lord has felt ‘passionate love’ (rather than ‘jealousy’—a term which does not render the real meaning of the Heb. verbal root q-n᾽). His promise of blessings is the answer to the people's ritual mourning.

The Lord confirms the prophet's sayings and announces the blessings the people are waiting for. Moreover, he is going to ‘remove the northern army [northerner] far from you [from over and against you]’ (v. 20 ). The ‘northerner’ (the Heb. does not have ‘army’!) is a mythological term which designates a superhuman power (note its gigantic dimensions: from sea to sea!) residing on a mythological mountain somewhere in the ‘north’. Here, the term refers probably to the mythological forces accompanying God's theophany.

In vv. 21–4 the prophet enlarges on God's promises, inviting soil, animals, and trees (note again his solidarity with the non-human world, as in 1:20 ) not to fear but to rejoice over God's loving-kindness. He then addresses the same exhortation to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (vv. 23–4 ). In v. 25 , God declares that he will ‘repay’ (cf. 3:18–21 ) the damage caused by the swarms oflocusts, his ‘great army’, during several years: the catastrophe is not a momentary one, it strikes serious and lasting blows. In vv. 26a–27 , which may have received additions by a later hand, God reveals the true intention of all his actions: that his people may come to know him and his faithfulness. This is expressed with the ancient formula which sums up the covenental relationship: YHWH is Israel's God, none other.

( 2:28–32 ) The Outpouring of the Lord's Energy

The Hebrew word rûaḥ usually translated by ‘spirit’, means first of all ‘wind’ or even ‘storm-wind’; rûaḥ is an energy whose effects can be felt and seen. Theologically, this energy is the very life-energy of God. In OT history we learn that this divine life-energy may suddenly fall on a human—a military hero or a prophet—and enable him to work extraordinary things. Whenever God pours out his divine energy, people are transformed; they behave like madmen, they dance frenziedly; seized by ecstasy they undress and lie naked on the ground. Moreover, they have visions and enter the heavenly realms. In our text, this divine energy is poured ‘on all flesh’, on every member of the chosen people; or on all humans? perhaps even on animals? For this event is a new manifestation of the ‘day of the LORD’ (v. 31 ) and it leads up to yet another manifestation which will be the final judgement over all the nations ( 3:14 ). This universal action of God colours the outpouring of his energy ‘on all flesh’; it changes radically the mind and the behaviour of those who are touched by it. ‘Sons and…daughters’ will ‘prophesy’: possessed and pushed on by this energy, they will do strange things—things which we see Saul and his servants do when they are seized by the same divine energy (1 Sam 10:10–13; 19:20–4 ). Old people will have dreams heavily laden with meaning, and young men visions giving fresh spiritual insight (v. 28 ). The social order will be disturbed or rather abolished as everybody, including male and female slaves will suffer the same transformations of mind and behaviour (v. 29 ). While the outpouring of the divine energy produces mad behaviour and social disorder on earth, the whole cosmos undergoes frightening transformations: ‘blood, fire, and columns of smoke’ (v. 30 ); the sun loses its light and the moon is changed into blood (v. 31 ). The ‘great and terrible day of the LORD’ brings the world order to its end.

In the context of the whole passage, the outpouring of divine energy is an ambiguous event. People are filled with divine presence and God is revealed to them, but nothing is said about the contents of the dreams and visions. The prophecy inspires embarrassment and awe. Perhaps we ought to understand the story of the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2 , where our text is quoted) more in the light of eschatological revolutions than in that of the current Christian concept of the Spirit.

The revelation of the Day being terrifying, the prophet feels compelled to give some concrete advice (v. 32 ). He proposes a two-sided attitude. First, in the midst of the disturbances, continue to invoke the name of the Lord, remain faithful, and trust in YHWH. Secondly, stay in Jerusalem, for there the Lord will save those whom he chooses. Even this advice is thus tainted with uncertainty: who will be chosen?

( 3:1–8 ) The Judgement in the Valley Called ‘YHWH judges’

This passage gives concrete information about the historical background of Joel (see JOEL B). The Lord assembles ‘all the nations’ in the valley Jehoshaphat (‘YHWH judges’ or ‘YHWH is judge’): the Assyrians who have dispersed Israel, broken up the northern country, and ill-treated boys and girls; and the small nations along the Mediterranean coast who have pillaged Judah and Jerusalem and who are guilty of selling prisoners as slaves to the Greeks. God has decided to release the victims and to punish the guilty according to the principle of the lex talionis.

( 3:9–17 ) The Final Battle in the Valley Called ‘YHWH judges’

The programme mentioned in the preceding passage is being carried out: YHWH assembles the armies of all the nations and rouses them to fight against his own warriors (v. 11 ). These latter are probably the mythological soldiers described in 2:1–11 . The prophet (it is he who speaks in vv. 9–11 ) calls upon YHWH to bring down this army again, at a specific place: ‘there’. Further, he does not hesitate to reverse the prophecies announcing the transformation of swords into ploughshares (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3 ), for now the atrocious final battle is unavoidable: YHWH has decided to manifest his triumph. In v. 12 YHWH adds a word to say that he ‘will sit to judge’ while the battle is raging: the judgement determines the outcome of the fight. In vv. 13–17 the prophet gives a terrifying picture of the contest which is nothing less than the manifestation of the day of the Lord with its cosmic dimensions (vv. 14–15 ). Finally, he reminds his audience that YHWH is definitely dwelling in Zion and that he will manifest this fact to all who survive the battle (v. 17 ). In passing he quotes an exclamation which is also found in Am 1:2 , probably a liturgical formula.

( 4:18–21 ) Final Benediction

It is a message of prosperity, happiness, and peace for Judah and Jerusalem, whereas there is no hope for the enemies of the people of God (v. 19 ; see JOEL B).

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