By Shelley Neese

Follow Bible Fiber on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts!

In Chapter 2, Joel describes another locust swarm causing terrible devastation. Scholars differ on whether Joel is describing the same locust swarm presented in the first chapter, or if the second chapter describes another, even worse invasion. Joel was assuring the people that Yahweh would repay Judah for the “years that the locust devoured” (2:25). Since he used the plural for years, he may have been hinting at more than one locust invasion.

Either way, in the second chapter, Joel lengthens his poetic stride and quickens his pace. His language grows more fervent, dramatizing Yahweh’s role as commander of what he refers to as “my great army.” Joel seems to be amplifying everything he had said in the previous chapter, because the people had yet to awaken from their spiritual stupor. His language is explicit. There was no way to explain the unprecedented locust attack other than as divine retribution. Without repentance and turning to God, the locust crisis would be insignificant compared to what would lie ahead. In the end, Joel’s petition was successful. The people repented, providing a timeless example of how a softened heart and humble spirit are the keys to renewing a relationship with our creator.

Locust armies

Other biblical authors compared foreign invading armies to plagues of locusts. The Midianite encampments were as “thick as locusts” (Judg. 6:5), and the Babylonian army was “more numerous than locusts” (Jer. 46:23). The ancients observed an orderliness to locust migrations, which was reminiscent of armies on the march: “Locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank” (Prov. 30:27).

Locusts made two different appearances in Joel. First, the prophet described locusts in their own naturalistic terms as cutting, swarming, and hopping (1:3-6). In his descriptions of infestation, the language focused on the agricultural effects of the conquest: devastated fields, destroyed grain, withered vines, and drooping fig trees. By the second locust invasion, the plague took on a military quality as it devastated not just the crops but the town (2:2-11). The watchman on Jerusalem’s walls received a command to blow the ram’s horn to alert the people of an approaching enemy. The locusts were a great and powerful army with Yahweh in command (2:2). They charged like war horses, scaled city walls, climbed into houses, and marshalled for battle.

When I read Joel, the insect image conjured up in my mind is like a cicada or flying cockroach. A locust is a species of grasshopper. They are usually harmless and solitary in their “grasshopper phase,” but when environmental conditions play to their favor, they increase in number, and something in them morphs as they sense their rise in numeric power. Their color changes and their bodies enlarge. They change from solitary insects to group swarms, numbering in the tens of billions. They migrate across farmlands, devouring everything in their path. Joel associated a locust swarm with a forest fire, the crackling of trees, a droning sound, and a darkening of the sky (2:3).

Locust invasions were commonplace in antiquity and still occur today, especially in the Middle East and Africa. In 1845, a terrible locust invasion occurred in Lebanon, and according to the diary of missionary William M. Thompson, the teeming mass of insects blackened the face of the mountain. Thompson wrote, “in every stage of their existence, these locusts give a most impressive view of the power of God to punish a wicked world.”[1]

In the 1870s, a now-extinct style of locust invaded the American Midwest. In 1988, desert locusts ravaged northern Africa. Despite technological developments to survey and control locust bands, locusts ravaged farmlands in Kenya as recently as 2020. Other countries in the Horn of Africa, already suffering from food insecurity, fear a second generation of the locust swarm may attack soon. Israel’s last locust attack was in 1915. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has a Desert Locust Watch to monitor infestations.

Joel stands out among the prophets for his focus on God’s use of natural upheavals as a tool of rebuke. Divinely orchestrated devastation harkened back to the days of Noah and the plagues of Egypt. God allows the chaotic elements of nature to issue his punishment.

Sincere prayers and petitions from the people of Israel prompted God to reverse the effects of the infestation. Grain, wine, and oil returned in abundance (2:19). The pastures were once again green, and the trees bore fruit (2:22). Even the soil and animals praised Yahweh (2:21-22). The threshing floors and wine vats that fell into disrepair were overflowing (2:24). Yahweh was no longer the commander of the locusts, but their destroyer. In militant terms, Yahweh removed the locust from the people and threw them into the sea (2:20). The stench of their rotting carcasses was all that remained.

Twice in the book, Joel uses poetic repetition describing locusts to reinforce the severity of the devastation: swarming locusts, hopping locusts, destroying locusts, and cutting locusts (2:25). Joel also uses poetic repetition about three types of rain to underscore the lavishness of God’s mercies. God sent early rain, abundant rain, and later rain (2:23).

Day of the Lord

Since the dating of Joel is unknown, it is unclear whether the “day of the Lord” motif originated with him, or whether he drew it from his predecessors. Joel references the day of the Lord five times in his short book. The whole of the Old Testament uses the phrase only 25 times, so Joel owns a disproportionate portion.

Like Isaiah and Zephaniah, prophets well-known to Joel’s audience, Joel warned that the day of the Lord was at hand, both at present and in the future. The day of the Lord, as described, would not be a singular day, but an age. God would spare the righteous who repented, but the people would face something worse if they did not obey the covenant obligations. Isaiah called: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa. 13:6). Joel portrays the locust plague as one of God’s first acts in his dreadful judgments. Only repentance and God’s mercy could stop further devastation.

The day of the Lord has a double meaning. It represents a time when God would both judge and save. Judgment was coming for the unrighteous, but the righteous would survive. The prophet Amos amplifies the judgment portion of the day of the Lord, cautioning against stressing the salvation portion and overlooking the punishment (Amos 5:18-20). Joel oscillates between salvation and punishment. According to Joel, the day is “near” (2:1) and “terrible” (2:11). The sun would darken, the earth would quake, and the heavens would tremble (2:10). At first, Yahweh would judge Judah and discipline her accordingly, but once a remnant repented and returned to the merciful Yahweh, he would restore her and place her back in a position of favor. On the ultimate day of the Lord, punishment would strike the violent enemy nations.

Prophets quoting prophets

Earlier prophets had influenced Joel, who directly quoted Obadiah 17 about sparing the remnant: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls” (2:32). This phrase “as the Lord has said” shows that Obadiah’s oracles were respected by the time of Joel’s writing. Prophets believed the day of the Lord meant judgment for the unrighteous and survival for the righteous.

Joel is proficient in his use of other prophetic idioms. His poetry echoes the words of Zephaniah, Nahum, Jonah, Micah, Amos and even Exodus. We cannot know if Joel was reading scrolls from these prophets in his own day or if he was articulate in their oral history. Perhaps there was a common phraseology that informed the Minor and Major Prophets.

Joel 2:2 parallels Zephaniah 1:15. Both prophets predicted that the earth would be overtaken by darkness on the day of the Lord. Joel 3:10 is a clever parody of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3. These famous verses about “turning swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks” predict a day of worldwide peace when the nations will turn their weapons into agricultural tools. Joel overturns the image and applies it to the coming judgment of the nations. He plays with his audience’s expectations. To confront Yahweh, they would need an abundance of weapons and must use plowshares and pruning hooks as swords and spears (3:10).

Joel alludes to other scriptures besides the prophetic books. He harkened to Exodus 34:6, the words God used to describe his own character as he passed before Moses on Mount Sinai. Joel writes, “For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13). By reaching further back in the Old Testament, Joel was reminding God that the descendants of Abraham and Moses were his heritage.

Leslie Allen, writing for the New International Commentary on Joel, describes Joel’s intended effect with the frequent scriptural allusions:

It is essential to Joel’s purpose that he should not be original. His deliberate aim is to make a deep impression by using stereotyped, well-known language to show that in the present situation venerated prophecies were on the verge of fulfillment. His newness lies in the application of the old words.[2]

Liturgy of lament

The first blow of the ram’s horn in Chapter 2 alerted the people to the coming enemy, while the second blast of the trumpet summoned everyone to the temple (2:15). Priests were to gather in the inner court and worshipers in the outer court. Fasting and intercessory prayer were incumbent on everyone. No one was exempt from the assembly, not even newlyweds, infants, or the elderly (2:16).

The priests were called upon to use a familiar lament liturgy from other parts of the Bible. They were to appeal to God’s merciful ways, to ask for forgiveness and a restoration of the relationship. As they did this, they also asked God to defend his own honor (2:17). If Yahweh did not intervene on their behalf, he risked the slandering of his name. Earlier in Israel’s history, Yahweh had displayed his might and power by protecting the nation with an outstretched hand. To the surrounding nations, Judah’s suffering would not be seen as Yahweh’s withdrawal, but as his weakness. The prophet’s intercession had a precedent. In Deuteronomy 9, after the golden calf episode, Moses had also pleaded with God to spare his idolatrous people, not because they deserved it, but to protect the divine name. Joel pleaded, “Do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations” (2:17).

Yahweh responded in kind (2:18). He promised to heal Judah’s wounds and undo the curses from the recent outbreak of locusts. Also, he promised to bless her on the coming day of the Lord. Here, Joel appears to count it his privilege to have been an eyewitness to the transformative power of genuine repentance.

God’s response to this repentance extended beyond material benefits. Great spiritual rewards awaited the righteous. Joel foretold of a day when Yahweh would perform celestial signs and pour out his spirit on all flesh. God, using Joel as his mouthpiece, said “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29). The inclusivity of this promise is astounding.

The prophetic gift faded sometime around the third century BCE. The prophets remained quiet for 400 years until Christ was born. In Acts, the apostles gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks to understand the significance of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Then, a mighty rushing wind filled the house, and tongues of fire rested on every person. Peter used the words of Joel to explain to the crowd the unusual events they witnessed. These were not the revelries of drunkards, but the realization of Joel’s vision of prophecy being actualized (Acts 2:16-18).

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes the extension of the covenant to the Gentiles as a fulfillment of Joel: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13; Joel 2:32). Joel’s prophecy became Paul’s mantra for preaching the good news throughout the world. The Gospel is a theology of inclusion, but the language of inclusion is rooted in the visions of the prophets. Joel built upon the scriptures that preceded his revelation, and the apostles built upon the Old Testament as they preached the gospel to the world. Peter and Paul knew they were part of a new thing God was doing, but they recognized that it was in line with his ongoing work. The apostles relied on Joel’s prophecies to understand their commission to spread the Good News to all nations.

[1] William M. Thomson, The Land and the Book: Or, Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land (United States, Harper & Brothers, 1868), 417.

[2] Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (United Kingdom, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 68.