Hosea and his other chums among the minor prophets are easy to date, but Joel is harder. The main story is about the nation being attacked by a locust plague so devastating that to the prophet it feels as though the apocalypse has started. You can see why, with the sun blocked out across the land, vegetation completely destroyed (and remember that this isn’t just about food now, it’s also about seeds for next year), and relentless armies still coming. What is unclear, though, is whether this was an actual physical plague or one merely seen in a vision or dream. Sadly history tells us nothing which would help us to locate this plague in a particular era, and scholarly opinion as to the dating ranges for several centuries from the 9th to the 2nd.
However, the message of Joel is not dependent on us getting the date exactly right. With prophetic insight he saw this plague of locusts as a picture of the coming judgement of God on an apostate nation, judgement which would be equally severe and all-encompassing. But he not just a messenger of doom: he suggested practical action which could avert the disaster, and he saw beyond it to future hope for a repentant people.
The first two chapters alternate between descriptions of the tragedy and calls to penitence. The first account of the locust-storm describes its effect on the land and its produce, but ends in v 12 with a deeper interpretation: the withered land is also a picture of the withered hearts of the people. Drunkards are called to weep because there will be nothing more form them to drink, but the more serious call to action is aimed at the priests, whose responsibility is twofold: to cry to God in penitential and desperate prayer, and to summon the people to do the same. This is priestly ministry indeed, as they stand between the people and God to intercede for them, but so great is the disaster that the people too must tear open their hearts in shame and fervent prayer.
In chapter 2 there is a further description of the locusts, but now they have taken on a much more sinister and apocalyptic look, as they are painted as a great conquering army, leaving not just devastation but also fire in their wake. What is worse, it is the Lord himself who is leading them in their mission of punishment.
The solution, then, is radical and heartfelt penitence, but in somewhat agnostic fashion the prophet suggests that there might just be hope (v 14). But in 2:18 the Lord indeed responds, and promises not just physical restoration of the land and its crops, but also a spiritual harvest, in the purple passage from this book, which was seen by Peter and the others on the day of Pentecost as a prediction of the coming of the Spirit.
But Joel’s vision is even more far-reaching, and chapter 3 looks to the final judgement of all people, when those who have remained faithful as God’s people will be rewarded with a bountiful land while those who have acted against Israel will be punished and devastated.
Joel’s words are challenging on many levels, but as a priest I find his call to take the lead in intercession and penitence very significant. The problem may be, though, that as a nation on one level we have not been threatened with the level of disaster which the locusts, real or spiritual, brought with them. We shall see next week that our land is in a place much closer to that of Amos’ time, when self-satisfaction rather than fear is the predominant mood. Far be it from me to hope for a national disaster, but there is no doubt that it would certainly focus the mind, and hopefully the prayer too.
Image: By Iwoelbern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons