Joel, Theology of

Joel, Theology of

The Book of Joel has been dated by conservative scholars from the ninth to the fifthcenturies b.c.: more recent scholars tend to date the book to the latter end of thespectrum. Particularly important in supporting this later date are Joel's apparentquotations from earlier Old Testament literature. Because of the relative uncertaintyregarding the date, this article discusses the book's theology without heavy dependence onthe question of its date.

Nothing more is known concerning Joel than what is given in the book: that he was theson of Pethuel and that he lived in or near Jerusalem. There is not reason to connect himwith any of the other Joels mentioned in the Old Testament.

Like that of other prophets, Joel's theology is not set forth systematically.Nevertheless, it will be convenient and appropriate to trace a selection of his themes,giving particular prominence to his most distinctive theological contribution: theexpected outpouring of God's Spirit on all flesh.

God. God is both the Lord God of Israel and the Judge of all nations. As theAlmighty, Shaddai ( 1:15 ),he controls the invading, destructive locusts, which are his army obeying his command ( 2:11 ). Likewise, hetakes them away ( 2:20 ),doing great things ( 2:21 )and wonders ( 2:26 ).He moves the powers of the heavens to do his will ( 2:31 ; 3:15 ) and bringsthe nations into judgment ( Joel 3:2 Joel 3:12 ). Thereis no one like God ( 2:27 ).

The People of God. For Joel, as for the Old Testament generally, the Lord has aspecial relationship with the people of Jerusalem and Judah. They are his people ( Joel 2:17-19 Joel 2:26-27 ; Joel 3:2-3 Joel 3:16 ),and he is their God ( 1:16 ; 2:13-14 ; 3:17 ). They are hisinheritance ( 2:17 ; 3:2 ), and theirpossessions are his ( 3:5 ).Their land is his land ( 1:6 ; 2:18 ; 3:2 ), and its cropsbelong to him ( 1:7 ).

It is true that Joel does not dwell on specific great Acts of God in the pastassociated with the patriarchs, the bondage in Egypt, the exodus, the theophany at MountSinai, and the conquest of Canaan. Nor does he mention the law, animal sacrifice, theking, the sages of the wisdom tradition, or other well-known aspects of Old Testamentreligion. This silence, however, should not be overly stressed, as if he did not hold tothe realities involved, or as if such elements either did not yet exist or no longerexisted in his day. Joel does draw on the teaching of his sacred literature, particularlythe books of Deuteronomy and Obadiah, and he clearly embraces the traditions surroundingGod's dwelling in Zion, his holy mountain ( 2:1 ; Joel 3:16-17 Joel 3:21 )and in its temple ( Joel 1:9 Joel 1:13-16 ).Moreover, the Zion-Jerusalem tradition is seen in the context of the larger and olderIsrael tradition ( 2:27 ; Joel 3:2 Joel 3:16 ).

Joel exhibits a striking understanding of solidarity within his community and betweenhis people and the natural environment in which they live. The locust plague affects humanbeings ( 1:5 ), theground ( 1:10 ),and the beasts ( 1:18-20 ).Correspondingly, the restoration comes to them all ( 2:21-22 ; 3:18 ). The call forrepentance encompasses the whole population ( 2:16 ), just as thelocusts had affected all ( 1:2 ).

The Day of the Lord. The fact that the first mention of this theme in the bookcalls it simply "the day" ( 1:15 ) probablyindicates that it was an established concept, that Joel was drawing on earlier propheticvoices such as Amos ( 5:18-20 ), Obadiah( 15 ), orZephaniah ( Zephaniah 1:7 Zephaniah 1:14 )in his depiction of the crisis present to his people. Moreover, it is perhaps debatablewhether Joel, in the final analysis, viewed the devastating locust plague as actually theday of the Lord or as merely its harbinger. At least the plague did not exhaust the day ofthe Lord concept. For beyond the present calamity, however terrible it was, would be yetanother, more awesome manifestation of God's judgment, this time affecting not merelyJudah, but all the nations ( 3:14 ), the Lord'speople being spared ( 2:32 ; 3:16 ).

In spite of this difference in time, the present calamity and the future day of theLord are described in strikingly similar terms, including irregular cosmic phenomena ( Joel 2:10 Joel 2:30-31 ; 3:16 ) and temporalimminence ( 2:1 ; 3:14 ). The apparentnearness of the future day of the Lord is probably to be explained as a foreshortening oftime from the prophet's perspective. The cosmic phenomena theme comes to expression againin the New Testament, as, for example, in the Lord's prediction of future events ( Mark 13:24 ; Luke 21:26 ) and inthe Apocalypse ( Rev6:12 ).

Sin and Repentance. Joel does not appear to castigate his people for theirsinfulness, as do other prophets. But this is only appearance. Joel clearly recognizes thesins of the nations ( Joel 3:2-7 Joel 3:19 ). Hisfailure to be explicit about the sins of Judah is probably due to his being thrust intothe crisis situation of the plague, in which causal explanations were assumed rather thanstated. Furthermore, some would argue that the three groups addressed in chapter 1 areselected because of sins they were committing: drunkards ( 1:5 ), farmers ( 1:11 , perhapsinvolved in fertility rites), and priests ( 1:13 , who fail tolead the nation faithfully). And, of course, the appeal to repentance makes no sense apartfrom presupposing national sin. Perhaps it is chiefly the sin of mere formality inreligion, since Joel urges an inward repentance of the heart and not merely an outwardrending of garments ( 2:13 ).

True repentance, then, must come from a sincere heart, must consist in a return to theLord and presumably to his standards for living ( 2:13 ), and is basedon the possibility that God will respond to such turning to him. That he would respond torepentance is consonant with his nature as a gracious and merciful God ( 2:13 ), but it isnot a necessity that he do so ("Who knows? 2:14 2:14 ). Ultimately God is sovereign in his response to evensincere human repentance. Moreover, Joel's emphasis on repentance of the heart should notbe understood to render the more formal aspects of religion unnecessary or wrong. Therepentance he urges flows from the heart but is to be expressed in the religious forms ofweeping ( 2:12 ),fasting ( Joel 2:12 Joel 2:15 ),assembling at the temple ( 2:15 ), and communalprayers led by officiants ( 2:17 ).

Salvation. In this case God responded to the people's repentance and restoredtheir material losses ( 2:23-26 ). It isnoteworthy, however, that the prophet still holds to God himself as the ultimate good forhis people, not their material possessions. It is in the Lord that they are to rejoice ( 2:23 ) and it is hisname they are to praise ( 2:26 ).

Joel's further statement ( 2:32 ) that all whocall on the Lord will be saved probably refers initially to a deliverance from thephysical terrors of the day of the Lord. Yet in light of the foregoing appreciation of theneed for a deep experience of repentance, one cannot exclude the possibility that adeliverance from the Lord's judgment on sin may also be involved. This certainly appearsto be the way the passage is understood and applied in Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13.

God's Spirit. Joel's announcement of God pouring out his Spirit ( 2:28-29 ) can beanalyzed under three aspects.

Its Degree. It is probable that the word "pour out" draws attention toGod's generosity and graciousness. Throughout its usage in the Old Testament it tends tospeak of a pouring out that is complete, or at least abundant or extravagant because it isunnecessary.

Its Recipients. These are indicated not only by the words "all flesh"but also by the word "your." It is, therefore, not possible that expressionslike "your sons and daughters" could refer to all humankind indiscriminately.Rather, this refers initially to Judah, whether all Israelites, all kinds or classes orIsraelites, or primarily Israelites but extending to some Gentiles as well. Of these threealternatives, the last depends on the assumption that the servants mentioned in verse 29would be non-Israelite. But this may be assuming too much. Non-Israelite slaves wouldnormally be assimilated into the nation and so become virtually Israelite. Moreover, atsome points in history, Israelites may themselves have been enslaved to fellow Israelites.This may in fact have been the case in the postexilic period ( Nehemiah 5:5 Nehemiah 5:8 ), andthis would be especially relevant if the commonly adopted postexilic date for the Book ofJoel is correct. If the third alternative seems weak, the other two remain grammaticallypossible.

Its Results. The recipients of the Spirit are said to prophesy and have dreamsor visions, words capable of a wide variety of interpretation, largely due to the factthat Joel's announcement comes rather abruptly, having no apparent conceptual connectionwith earlier material in the book. Therefore, the explanation of Joel is often sought inother passages, such as Numbers 11:29, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:26-27, or Acts 2. Butsince this method risks importing extraneous elements into Joel's thinking, the presentapproach will be to probe the actual statements before relating them to other passages.

On the assumption that dreams and visions represent merely poetic variation, there aretwo phenomena said to result from the Spirit's outpouring: prophecy and dreams/visions,the former referring to the proclamation of God's message, the latter to its reception. Itis doubtful that the reception is to be emphasized, since prophesying would presumably notbe listed first if it were a subordinate element. Moreover, in the Old Testament the exactmode of receiving the message was not as important as the fact that it was from the Lordand that it was faithfully proclaimed. Joel was announcing, then, that the people of Godwould faithfully proclaim God's Word.

This bare description is not elaborated in terms of who are addressed by theproclamation. Presumably it could be either the people of God or the nations or both. Somesupport for the idea of a proclamation to the nations may be found in the reference tothose who find security through the Lord's call ( 2:32 ) and the factthat sometimes God is said to extend his call through the work of prophets ( Jer 35:15-17 ).On the other hand, it must be admitted that, since many interpreters do not see 2:32 asreferring to the nations, such a reference is at best tentative, although supported by theapplication of the verse in the New Testament. Furthermore, any interpretation of 2:32 hasto struggle with the roughness of its syntax. Still, a reference to proclaiming God's Wordto the nations is possible.

The content of prophetic proclamation in the Old Testament varies according to context.Quite exceptionally, prophesying may be thanksgiving and praise to the Lord ( 1 Chron 25:3 ).Typically, however, it refers to delivering words of threat and warning ( Jer 26:9 ; 28:8 ; 32:3 ), or ofencouragement and hope ( Jer 37:19 ; Ezek 13:16 ; 37:4 ). Its meaningin Joel should be sought along these lines. On the basis, therefore, of 2:28-32 alone, theSpirit's outpouring can be said to produce the faithful proclamation of God's word ofwarning and encouragement.

A great many interpreters, making a connection with Numbers 11:29, see Joel asannouncing the realization of a wish of Moses that all of the Lord's people be prophetshaving God's Spirit. The value of this appeal, however, may be questioned. First, thenature of the elders' prophesying may be atypical, there being nothing in Numbers toindicate that their prophecy was proclamation: furthermore, it is not clear thatinterpreters are correct in holding that this is in fact a real wish or hope on the partof Moses. It may be simply Moses' attempt to renounce any heavy-handed means of defendinghis authority, as Joshua appears to have asked him to do.

A connection with Ezekiel 36:26-27 is often affirmed. However, in Ezekiel the effect ofthe Spirit's presence is obedience to God's Word, whereas in Joel it is proclamation ofGod's Word. True, the two are not mutually exclusive; but neither are they identical.

The same difficulty exists in attempting to define Joel's prophecy in terms of Jeremiah31:31-34, in addition to the fact that Jeremiah's prophecy does not explicitly concern theSpirit. Nor do other Old Testament passages ( Isa 44:3 ; Ezek 39:29 ; Zech 12:10 ) offersufficient help in interpreting Joel, being themselves quite general and not specific interms of the results of the Spirit's outpouring.

Joel and the New Testament. Joel's prophecy is quite widely quoted or alluded toin the New Testament, occasionally being transformed in its application. The primarypassage, of course, is Acts 2:16-39, where the words of Joel are seen to be at leastpartially fulfilled in the proclamation of the mighty works of God (v. 11) by the band of120 ( Acts 1:5 ; 2:1 ), whichpresumably included women ( Acts 1:14 ), theyoung, and the humble poor. But now it is the risen and exalted Jesus who pours out thegift ( 2:33 ). Theecho of Joel 2:32 in Acts 2:39 brings together the gift of the Spirit and the calling ofGod, although the call is not yet seen here as extended to Gentiles ( Ac 2:5 ). Things aredifferent, however, in Acts 10:45, where the Holy Spirit is "poured out" onGentile converts. Their speaking in tongues and praising God (v. 46) may be a transmutedform of Joel's "they shall prophesy." The words of Joel are again applied toGentiles in Romans 5:5, which, though somewhat wordy, means that God, out of his love, haspoured his Spirit into all believers' hearts. And the same general thought is present inTitus 3:6. In Romans 10:13 a different aspect of Joel's passage has likewise been extendedto Gentile believers; the promise that "every one who calls on the name of the Lordwill be saved" applies equally to Jews and Greeks (v. 12). Finally, Galatians 3:28generally echoes Joel's thought in saying that possession of God's Spirit is notrestricted by considerations such as one's religious or ethnic background, socialposition, or sex.

David K. Huttar

See also Day;HolySpirit; Israel;Prophet,Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography. L. C. Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah; T. J. Finley, Joel,Amos, Obadiah; D. A. Hubbard, Joel and Amos; D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah; H.G. M. Williamson, ISBE, 2:1076-80.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Joel, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.