The book opens with a lamentation followed with the first call to repentance. In verses 2-14 Joel recounts a historical event, a locust invasion, and calls on various groups to remember that day. The first group mentioned are the elders. These aged members of the Israelite community would’ve been those most likely to have remembered and spoke of such a calamitous event as a massive locust invasion that destroyed nearly everything. However, Joel offers a exhortation to these elders that they tell of God’s acts and not let them be forgotten from generation to generation. The fact that he exhorts them in this way indicates that perhaps they had neglected to pass on the history of God’s providence in the locust plague and how it too was likely judgment for sin. This failure to remember the past, has of course contributed to them repeating it.
The next group addressed in verses 5-7 are called drunkards. These represent a prosperous, gluttonous group that are not only ignorant of the past, but are just as ignorant of the pending calamity. They are called here to “wail”, however it does not appear to be a command to wail in repentance for sin or for mercy in the face of coming adversity. Instead, it is wailing over the possibility of losing their source of indulgence, namely the cutting off of wine. As is often the case, prosperity and ease blind the mind to the realities of danger, particularly the realities of the providence of God in bringing these dangers. The New Testament often takes the imagery of drunkenness and uses it metaphorically as a call to be “sober-minded” and alert to both the spiritual and physical realities that surround us. It is noteworthy in this group that Joel begins to blend the past event of the locusts with the future invasion of a national army.
The third section is not addressed to a particular group and as such is often considered to be a general audience address. Here in this middle passage is the first call to lament. It is brief and offers little detail other than the imagery of a wedding party where a bride mourns the loss of her bridegroom. What should have been a time of celebration and joy has turned into a time of weeping and lamentation. So too was it with Israel. The main point of the lamentation here is to note that the offerings have been cut off, no longer able to be brought to the House of the Lord. Supporting this is observations that the priests mourn and the harvests of grain, wine, and oil are destroyed.
Next, and related to the above highlight of destroyed crops, the farmers are particularly addressed. The call to “be ashamed” (ESV translation) is a word play with “dried up” from the previous section, thereby making the connection between the harvest and the harvester or farmer. All of their work had come to nothing. In a society that was heavily agricultural, this was devastating and demoralizing. In a heavily agricultural society such as Israel, it was more than that because the people were totally reliant on God to supply all of their food needs. An abundant harvest was due strictly to God and thereby He was to be praised. Indeed, many of the feasts and festivals that God had decreed were recognition of His abundant provisions. Clearly then there is a spiritual component that had been neglected with regard to their harvests, which had now come to nothing.
Finally, the group addressed last are the priests. It is towards them that Joel gives the exhortation to lead the people in a lamentation and it pulls together several of the themes mentioned in the previous sections. First we see that the priests/ministers are themselves to mourn in sackcloth because the sacrifices are no longer available. It is a remarkable point to note that God commanded the sacrifices, yet because of their abuse, neglect, and general evacuation of meaning, God also took them away. This is key for us to remember. Because the priests were to be the leaders in mediation of God’s covenant and leading the people in worship, they were also called to lead the people in repentance. God calls them here, through Joel, to consecrate a fast and assemble the people, with a special mention again of the elders. The introduction of the call to widespread, national repentance is followed by the first detailed lamentation in Joel 1:15-20
15 Alas for the day!The lamentation is introduced by a major theme in the prophecy of Joel namely, “the Day of the Lord” as it refers here to the coming calamity of military invasion and later as an eschatological day of judgment. The lamentation recounts many of the key points already discussed and broadens the effects of the locust infestation by mentioning sheep, cattle, and land.
For the day of the Lord is near,
and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.
16 Is not the food cut off
before our eyes,
joy and gladness
from the house of our God?
17 The seed shrivels under the clods;
the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are torn down
because the grain has dried up.
18 How the beasts groan!
The herds of cattle are perplexed
because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep suffer.
19 To you, O Lord, I call.
For fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness,
and flame has burned
all the trees of the field.
20 Even the beasts of the field pant for you
because the water brooks are dried up,
and fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness.
In our passage above from Joel 1, we have described for us several noteworthy calls to action in the face of coming calamity. They are summarized below:
- Remember the past actions of the Lord and rehearse them.
- Do not let prosperity, abundance, and indulgence numb you to the realities of God’s providence, including calamity and judgment.
- God often first indicates His pending judgment by addressing incorrect, invalid, or ineffective worship (1 Peter 4:17).
- The effects of warning signs for coming calamity as well as post-calamitous events bring shame and impact the basic areas of life necessities, both physical and spiritual (food and worship).
- Ultimately, and given the above, the only proper response to coming calamity is widespread, heartfelt repentance.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:2