Here are some tools to help you as you study the book of Joel:
Although a short prophetic book of only three chapters, Joel is an important Old Testament book. We do not know very much about the author of the book nor about its historical setting, although it seems to have been penned after the 586 B.C. exile.
Key themes found in this book include the day of the Lord, God’s sovereignty, divine judgment, repentance and restoration. A very broad outline of the book would be this:
1:1-2:17 Judgment against Judah and the day of the Lord
2:18-3:21 God’s mercy and judgment on the nations
One key hermeneutical issue is how we understand the locust plague and drought of Joel 1:1-20 and the Lord’s army of Joel 2:1-11. Is the locust plague an actual infestation in both chapters, or is it being used as a metaphor for a military attack in both? Or does one chapter refer to an actual locust outbreak, while the other chapter discusses an actual army? Scholars have been divided on this matter, with all these options (and others) being championed. The various critical commentaries will give you all the pros and cons on this.
Let me mention just one. Garrett says this: “Most scholars agree that Joel 1 describes an invasion of the land by a swarm of locusts. Joel 2:1–11, 20, however, is subject to considerable debate. At issue is whether this is further description of the locust plague or whether the prophet used the image of the locusts to describe the sacking of the city by a human army.” He looks at the interpretive options in detail and then says, “The language of 2:1-11 decisively favors reading it as an account of an assault by highly trained soldiers.”
Let me look at one main theme of the book in some more detail: God’s sovereignty over all things, including creation. Hubbard comments:
Yahweh’s sovereignty over creation is one of Joel’s strong emphases. There is no hint of any other source of the locust invasion. Yahweh is responsible both for the sending (2:11) and the withdrawing of the army (2:20). In both judgment and restoration Yahweh holds sway over the creation in such a way that the Hebrews can hold no view of nature as a set of laws or pattern that operate on their own, independent of the Lord’s control.
Joel’s picture of sovereignty has a definite polemic thrust. It reminds his hearers that there is not a vestige of truth in the Canaanite fertility cults which hold such fascination for Hosea’s contemporaries, nor in the trust in Assyrian astral deities against which Amos warned (5:21-27). The locust plagues were not only acts of judgment, they were words of revelation of the unique power of Yahweh and they were cogent calls to return to the true and living God.
Tied to this theme is how we respond to calamity in the light of that sovereignty. Baker looks at the devastating effects of locust plagues, and then says this:
This is the situation driving Joel’s prophecy. His hearers know and fear agricultural calamities. Such things also serve as the metaphorical vehicle to symbolize another rapacious catastrophe, an invading enemy army. The prophet plays off these two events in his prophecies. He likens the two events as both being catastrophic, but also as times in which Yahweh restores his people’s fortunes.
This kind of hope in the face of catastrophe is not one that sits well with many Christians today. A “health and wealth gospel” understands blessing as flowing inevitably from a right relationship with God, while suffering indicates a breach in one’s relationship with him. Joel gives a different take on this. He does not imply that blessing means elimination of obstacles and pain, but rather that God’s presence, bringing one through these events, which are a natural concomitant to all human existence, is where blessing really resides.
And Boice puts it this way:
The most important thing about Joel’s handling of disaster is that he sees God as responsible for it. This does not mean that God is the author of sin, as if he were directly responsible for the rebellion of Satan or the original transgression of Adam and Eve. But it does mean that, given the sin-sick and evil world in which we live, God himself does not hesitate to take responsibility for the occurrence of natural disasters and the resultant suffering.
This is the reason why Joel is dealing with the disaster caused by the invasion of the locusts. To be sure, the first chapter merely bemoans the disaster. But as we get farther into the book we discover that the locust invasion is a foretaste of the coming day of God’s judgment and is sent in advance of that day as a warning of it….
There will always be people who object to such teaching, arguing, as many did in Europe in the eighteenth century, that such judgments are selective and therefore unjust. “Why should Lisbon be destroyed and not other cities?” they ask. “Why should Judah be judged and not other nations?” Many would conclude that this objection presents insurmountable problems for Christianity. But it does not trouble the biblical writers, and this is because they have a far higher vision of the majesty and holiness of God and a far more accurate estimation of the sin and depravity of men and women than do those who raise this objection.
One quite well-known passage from this book is Joel 2:25: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten”. Earlier on I offered some devotional remarks about that verse. I concluded that article with these words:
Do you ever feel like you have wasted far too many years of your life? Do you ever wish you could do it all over again? Well, God is able to help us pick up from where we left off, and to carry on for him. God can restore to us what has been lost. The question is, will you let him do this for you? Do you really want to see this restoration? Are you willing to say no to self and yes to God to make it happen? billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/30/restoring-wasted-years/
Major critical commentaries
As is the norm in this series, the commentaries I feature are overwhelmingly of recent vintage, and most tend to reflect a conservative and/or evangelical point of view.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Minor Prophets 1 (NIBC)
Allen, Leslie, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah & Micah (NICOT)
Baker, David, Joel, Obadiah, Malachi (NIVAC)
Barker, Joel, Joel (ZECOT)
Craigie, Peter, The Twelve Prophets, vol. 1 (DSB)
Crenshaw, James, Joel (AB)
Dillard, Raymond, Joel, in Thomas McComiskey, ed., The Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Baker, 1992)
Garrett, Duane, Hosea, Joel (NAC)
Goldingay, John, Hosea – Micah (BCOTPB)
Hadjiev, Tchavdar, Joel and Amos (TOTC)
Hubbard, David, Joel and Amos (TOTC)
Patterson, Richard, Joel (EBC)
Prior, David, The Message of Joel, Micah, Habakkuk (BST)
Stuart, Douglas, Hosea – Jonah (WBC)
Devotional and expository commentaries:
Boice, James Montgomery, The Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Zondervan, 1983)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Amazed: Restoring an Attitude of Wonder and Worship (Victor Books, 1996)
As to my preferred commentaries, perhaps run with Garrett, Goldingay, Hadjiev, and Stuart.
Happy reading and study.