Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Estimates for the dates of the book of Joel range from the ninth century to the second century B.C., but most scholars agree that this is a post-exilic book—written after Cyrus of Persia freed the Jewish exiles from their Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C.
The first part of the book (1:1 – 2:17) consists of the prophet’s lament over the ruin of his country (1:1-12) and his call to the people to repent and to pray for deliverance. The second part of the book (2:18 – 3:21) consists of Yahweh’s response and promise of deliverance.
The problem provoking this lament is a plague of locusts that has decimated the fields (1:2-7), threatening the people with starvation. Primitive agrarian societies have little slack to help them through this kind of crisis. Neighbors might help a farmer whose crops fail, but a crisis that affects all farmers is too large for human solutions.
Joel clearly understands this crisis as judgment by Yahweh for the sins of the people (1:18; 2:18), and calls the people to repent and petition Yahweh for relief (1:13 – 2:17). They have reason to hope, because Yahweh “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness” (hesed) (2:13). “When applied to Yahweh, hesed is fundamentally the expression of his loyalty and devotion to the solemn promises attached to the covenant…. Though the majority of the occurrences of hesed are translated ‘steadfast love,’ there are undeniable elements of ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’ that underlie each of these occurrences” (Renn, 633-634).
This hope for relief, however, is posited on the assumption that the people will “turn to Yahweh, your God” (2:13). Apart from their repentance, they have no hope.
JOEL 2:1-2. BLOW THE TRUMPET IN ZION—SOUND AN ALARM
1 Blow the trumpet (Hebrew: shofar) in Zion,
and sound an alarm in my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of Yahweh comes,
for it is close at hand:
2 A day of darkness and gloominess,
a day of clouds and thick darkness.
As the dawn (Hebrew: sahar—dawn) spreading on the mountains,
a great and strong people;
there has never been the like,
neither will there be any more after them,
even to the years of many generations.
“Blow the trumpet (shofar) in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain!” (v. 1a). These two phrases, “Blow the trumpet in Zion” and “sound an alarm in my holy mountain,” are examples of parallelism, where a thought is repeated in different words. Parallelism is characteristic of Hebrew poetry.
The shofar is the horn of a ram (an animal suitable for religious sacrifice) that has been adapted for use as a trumpet. The shofar is used for several purposes—to announce the Sabbath or other religious observances, to call soldiers to battle, or to warn people of impending danger. In this instance (as is obvious by the phrase, “sound an alarm”) the shofar is to be used to warn people of danger.
Zion is the mountain upon which Jerusalem was built, and also became synonymous with the city itself. Zion is also the location of the temple, so the people of Israel think of Zion as the place where Yahweh dwells. In this case, assuming that our assumption is correct that the book of Joel is post-exilic, the Jewish people have worked hard to restore the walls of the city as protection against their enemies. Now the prophet is calling them to blow the shofar—presumably from watchtowers atop those walls—as a warning of danger to come.
“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of Yahweh comes, for it is close at hand:“ (v. 1b). While Yahweh might use a plague of locusts (or enemy soldiers) to carry out his judgment, the danger here is not locusts or soldiers, but Yahweh’s judgment. As the author of Hebrews will later state, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
“The Day of Yahweh” (or “the day of the Lord”) is an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some also include a note of vindication.
Now the prophet announces that the day of the Lord is near.
“a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness. “ (v. 2a). The prophets use darkness, gloom, and clouds to describe the day of the Lord (Isaiah 5:30; Jeremiah 13:16; Amos 5:18-20).
“As the dawn (sahar—dawn) spreading on the mountains” (v. 2b). The word “dawn” seems out of keeping with the darkness and gloom of the first part of this verse, so translators sometimes translate sahar as “darkness” or “blackness.” However, sahar means “dawn” or “morning,” so it seems more appropriate to think of this verse as portraying the dawn rolling back the darkness of the night to reveal the presence of a mighty army arrayed against Jerusalem. One form of darkness (the dark of night) is replaced by another (the dark prospects of a people facing a vastly superior enemy).
“a great and strong people” (v. 2c). Most scholars think of this “great and strong people” as the plague of locusts that was described so vividly in 1:4. Verse 2:25 gives credence to that interpretation, because it describes the crawling, consuming, chewing locust as Yahweh’s “great army, which I sent among you.” However, Garrett thinks of this as an army of human warriors. However, it makes little difference whether the army is composed of insects or people. In either case, it is Yahweh who sends the army to punish the people of Jerusalem for their sins.
“there has never been the like, neither will there be any more after them, even to the years of many generations” (v. 2d). Joel portrays this day of the Lord as more fearsome than anything that the people have ever experienced—or will ever experience again.
JOEL 2:3-11. NOT PART OF THE LECTIONARY READING
These verses describe in detail the depredations of the army of locusts (as noted above, some scholars see the locusts as a metaphor for human warriors) that are invading the land. They are fearsome in appearance, like war-horses. They devour everything in sight. They blot out the sun and the moon.
But the real key to understanding these verses is that they portray this invading army as belonging to Yahweh. Yahweh is sending them and leading them. Their ravages are a part of the great and terrible day of the Lord—a day of judgment (2:11).
JOEL 2:12-14. TURN TO ME WITH ALL YOUR HEART
12 “Yet even now,” says Yahweh, “turn (Hebrew: sub) to me with all your heart,
and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning.”
13 Tear your heart, and not your garments,
and turn to Yahweh, your God;
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed),
and relents from sending calamity.
14 Who knows? He may turn (Hebrew: sub) and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
even a meal offering and a drink offering to Yahweh, your God
“Yet even now, says Yahweh, turn (sub) to me with all your heart“ (v. 12a). The tone changes dramatically with this verse. The prophet, conveying Yahweh’s summons, invites these people to return (sub) to Yahweh with all their hearts—no half-hearted measures will suffice.
The word, sub, implies repentance. To return to Yahweh will require these people to change their minds and the direction of their lives. It will require them to let go of the things that have separated them from Yahweh and to embrace wholeheartedly Yahweh and Yahweh’s commandments.
“and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning” (v. 12b). Yahweh prescribes three actions to demonstrate the people’s repentance—fasting, weeping, and mourning. Fasting involves abstinence from food, and can be used to express grief or to prepare a person for worship. In this verse, Yahweh is requiring fasting as an act of contrition.
Weeping and mourning express grief. Yahweh is requiring that these people mourn their sinful ways.
“Tear your heart, and not your garments” (v. 13a). The rending of garments, like weeping and mourning, is an expression of grief—an outward sign of inward pain. However, Yahweh will not be satisfied with outward signs. He wants broken hearts—hearts full of grief at the remembrance of their sins.
“and turn to Yahweh, your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness (hesed), and relents from sending calamity“ (v. 13b). The prophet holds out hope—not that the people can convince Yahweh that they are worthy, but that Yahweh’s character inclines him toward mercy, not punishment.
The word hesed is has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Like the Greek word, agape, in the New Testament, hesed is an action word. It isn’t enough to have warm and loving feelings. Hesed requires loving acts such as withholding punishment.
“Who knows? He may turn (sub) and relent, and leave a blessing behind him” (v. 14a). In verses 12-13, the prophet relayed Yahweh’s call to repentance. Now, in this verse, he begins to speak in his own voice. Verses 12-13 sounded positive that Yahweh would respond to repentance with mercy. Now the prophet sounds less certain. He holds out hope, but hardly a guarantee.
The hope that the prophet holds out is that Yahweh will respond to the people’s turning (sub) with his own turning (sub)—that Yahweh “may turn and relent, and leave a blessing.”
“even a meal offering and a drink offering to Yahweh, your God” (v. 14b). As things stand at present, the people cannot make the sacrifices prescribed by Jewish law, because the locusts have devastated everything. The people have no grain to use for cereal offerings. However, the prophet holds out the hope that, if they repent and return to Yahweh, Yahweh will restore them so that they can once again give him offerings out of their prosperity and thanksgiving.
JOEL 2:15-17. BLOW THE TRUMPET IN ZION—SANCTIFY A FAST
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion!
Sanctify (Hebrew: qadash) a fast.
Call a solemn assembly.
16 Gather the people.
Sanctify the assembly.
Assemble the elders.
Gather the children, and those who nurse from breasts.
Let the bridegroom go forth from his room,
and the bride out of her room.
17 Let the priests, the ministers of Yahweh, weep between the porch and the altar,
and let them say, “Spare your people, Yahweh,
and don’t give your heritage to reproach (mashal—a proverb or parable),
that the nations (Hebrew: goyim—Gentiles) should rule over them.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'”
“Blow the trumpet in Zion!” (v. 15a). In verse 1, blowing the shofar was to warn of danger, but as noted in the comments on that verse, the shofar can also be used to call people to worship. That is the intent here.
“Sanctify (qadash) a fast. Call a solemn assembly” (v. 15b). The people are to observe a sacred fast and a solemn assembly—religious observances both to demonstrate their faith and to strengthen it.
Qadash involves making something clean or holy. In this verse, the people are to observe a holy fast. In the next verse, they are to make the congregation holy.
“Gather the people. Sanctify the assembly” (v. 16a). In verse 15, Yahweh called them to sanctify the fast. Now he calls them to sanctify the people—to make them holy.
“Assemble the elders. Gather the children, and those who nurse from breasts” (v. 16b). This defines the scope of the observance. Everyone is to participate, from the suckling child to oldest graybeard.
“Let the bridegroom go forth from his room, and the bride out of her room” (v. 16c). Jewish law exempts bridegrooms from military service during the period of betrothal (Deuteronomy 20:7) and for one year after the wedding (Deuteronomy 24:5). However, bridegrooms should not expect to be exempt from this call to fasting and solemn assembly.
“Let the priests, the ministers of Yahweh, weep between the porch and the altar” (v. 17a). The vestibule is a large room (20 cubits wide x 10 cubits deep x 120 cubits high) located on the east side of the temple. It spans the width of the temple and serves as the entrance to the temple. The altar of burnt sacrifices is located in the inner courtyard of the temple, and is the place where priests offer burnt offerings to Yahweh to atone for the sins of the people. This verse, then, calls for the priests to enter the temple weeping and to continue this expression of their grief until they reach the altar. Their tears are to express their contrition for the sins of the people—and their grief at the punishment that the people have experienced.
“and let them say, “Spare your people, Yahweh, and don’t give your heritage to reproach (mashal—a proverb or parable), that the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples (goyim—Gentiles), ‘Where is their God?“ (v. 17b). Once the priests have made their way to the altar, they are to plead with Yahweh to spare the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
The prophet tells the priests how to make their plea effective. He doesn’t tell them to emphasize the character of the people—to make the case that they have not sinned or that their sins were insignificant. He tells them instead to tell Yahweh that his reputation is tied inextricably to the fate of his people—his covenant people.
“The nations” (goyim) are Gentiles—those who are not Yahweh’s chosen people. If Yahweh allows his covenant people to be destroyed, the goyim will say, “Where is their God?” They will assume that Yahweh was unable to protect his people. “Their shame (will become) Yahweh’s shame” (Hubbard).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, The New Interpreters Bible: Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, The Twelve Prophets, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Allen, Leslie C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976)
Birch, Bruce C., Westminster Bible Companion: Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Dillard, Raymond Bryan, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Garrett, Duane A., New American Commentary: Hosea-Joel, Vol. 19a (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997)
Hubbard, David A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel and Amos, Vol. 25 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
Limburg, James, Interpretation Commentary: Hosea-Micah, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Stuart, Douglas, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah, Vol. 31 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan