How to Read Joel Theologically: Part One
The book of Joel is the second book in the Book of the Twelve. Little is known of the prophet’s life or the context of his ministry. He ministered God’s Word after a crisis, whether it be a literal locust plague or a metaphor for an invasion of enemy forces. The book of Joel breaks up the two prophets to the Northern Kingdom, Hosea and Amos. In the middle of the eight century BC, they spoke of the exile of Israel as God’s impending judgment. Joel prophesied in the post-exilic period. Given the close association of the two books, why does Joel come in between Hosea and Amos?
Joel as Intersection of Hosea and Amos
Hosea (ca. 750 BC) and Amos (ca. 760 BC) were contemporaries (Hos. 1:1; Amos 1:1) and should be read together. Hosea’s message shapes the interpretation of the Twelve and especially the book of Amos. Why, then, does Hosea, a younger contemporary of Amos, open the Twelve and why is the book that bears his name separated from Amos? The book of Joel evidently is much later, though it lacks any chronological marker of the prophet’s ministry. Like Hosea, Joel makes a direct appeal to his prophecies being holy Writ. Compare Joel — “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1) with Hosea — “The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri” (Hos. 1:1). Because of the temporal and geographical nexus between Hosea and Amos, these books must now be read in association with Joel or, even more appropriately, Joel must be read in association with Hosea and Amos. Joel intersects with both Hosea and Amos. The three prophecies share in three prominent images: God as a lion, the return of the remnant to the Lord, and God’s forgiveness. The intersection of Joel with Hosea and Amos encourages the reading of these three books in association with each other.
In both Hosea and Joel, the lion is an image of dread and of hope. Hosea likens God to a devouring lion, “For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them. Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me” (Hos. 5:14 -15; 13:7-8). God rejects Israel’s pious liturgies (Hos. 6:1-3) and sacrifices (4:13-14; 8:3; 11:2). When God comes roaring as a lion, many will flee, but his children will return to him, “’They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. I will settle them in their homes,’ declares the LORD” (Hos. 11:10-11; cf. Isa. 31:4-5).
Joel enlarges the hope in God who as a lion provides a refuge for all who turn to him by calling on the name of the Lord (Joel 2:32). He likens the locusts (enemies?) to lions that devour everything (1:6-7), “A nation has invaded my land, powerful and without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness” (1:6). The description of the plague (Joel 1) opens the door to the prophecy of the terrifying Day. Though Yahweh roars like a lion — “The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the sky will tremble,” “the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (3:16). His children need not be afraid, because they find refuge in him.
The positive image is missing in Amos 1:2, “The LORD roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers.” All will become desolate. Amos is sent as God’s messenger to proclaim God’s judgment on the nations and on Israel and Judah (1:3-3:15). God has spoken, and Amos is his messenger of doom, “The lion has roared – who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy” (3:8). Though the prophetic usage of the lion image differs from prophet to prophet, they hold out hope for all who “return” to Yahweh. Though the prophetic usage of the lion image differs from prophet to prophet, they hold out hope for all who “return” to Yahweh. Click To Tweet
Return to Yahweh
These three books call on Israel to return to their God (Hos. 3:5; 5:4, 6, 15; 7:10, 10:12; 12:6; 14:1-2; Joel 2:12-13; Amos 4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11; 5:4, 6, 14; 9:12). They force Israel to assess the awesome truth of God’s judgment: The Day of the Lord. Though God had afflicted his people with many plagues in the past, they had not returned to him, “’Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,’ declares the LORD” (Amos 4:9). Hosea clarifies that true repentance reveals itself in a wholehearted return to the Lord, “you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always” (Hos. 12:6; cf. 10:12).
Joel begins with the awesome experience of the locust plague and transforms the experience into a transcendent message of the nearness and awesomeness of the Day of the Lord. Both the plague and the Day of the Lord occasion a renewed search for God without any pretense or self-justification. God promises his presence and vindication when God’s people seek him whole-heartedly and call on his name believing in his grace, truthfulness, and his promises. His promises are both real and spiritual. He reveals his compassionate presence in the renewal of nature, the end of adversity and shame, and an everlasting joy (Joel 2:18-27),
The invitation to taste God’s goodness is sealed with the promise of the Spirit (2:28-32), who comes on all the servants of the Lord, who call on the name of the Lord and who are called by God (2:32). As God comes down to be with his people, Zion reveals the reality of God in creation (3:17-21), She will be holy, and the sins of his people will be forgiven, “The LORD dwells in Zion!” (3:21). Wolff wisely summarizes Joel’s message “I hear the learned prophet Joel say … Let the catastrophic threat to the present and the future move you to a total reorientation towards the attested and coming compassion of God.”
Joel does not only call on people to return to the Lord and call on his name. His invitation to seek the Lord wholeheartedly is associated with a vision of God’s coming into his creation. He opens doors to another world. He appropriates the invitation to seek the Lord with the assurance that the Lord will graciously respond to his people in being present with them, in endowing them with the Holy Spirit, and in transforming them into a godly community, “And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:32). Joel associates the renewal of creation with the renewal of the new community by the power of the Holy Spirit (ch. 2). Thus, the Spirit is the token, seal, and firstfruits of the New Creation, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). The message of Joel was readily appropriated by the apostles (Peter, Acts 2; Paul, Rom. 8-11). Joel’s message most vividly opens the eyes on the spiritual nature of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ. The Spirit is the token, seal, and firstfruits of the New Creation. Click To Tweet
Hosea holds out the potentiality of forgiveness. The Lord explains to him why he should name his daughter, Lo-Ruhamah (= no [divine] compassion), “for I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them” (1:6). The judgment is lifted when the covenantal relation is restored, “I will show my love to the one I called `Not my loved one” (Lo-Ruhamah, 2:23). Hosea closes on a prayer for forgiveness and restoration upon the return of Israel, “Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously’” (14:2).
Joel expands the nature of repentance. It is a spiritual act of faith and submission to the Lord, “Even now … return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God” (2:12-13a). Joel grounds God’s forgiveness in his character as revealed to Moses, “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing” (2:13b-14a; cf. Exod. 34:6; Nah. 1:3; Psa. 103:8). The theme of God’s character and his openness to forgiveness prepares the reader for the message of Amos, who asks Yahweh to forgive Israel in the context of a locust plague and a great fire (Amos 7:1-6). Amos clarifies the history of God’s discipline of Israel and her failure to return to their God, “Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me” (Amos 4:9). Yahweh has reached out to his people, but, alas, they did not return home.
*This is part one of two on How to Read Joel Theologically. See part two here.
 On the Twelve, see Daniel C. Timmer, “The Twelve,” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised Beforehand, ed. Miles V. Van Pelt (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 321-39.
 The reference to the Greeks (Ionians; 3:6) may well indicate a late post-exilic date. See Raymond Dillard, “Joel,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas Edward Comiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 240-43.
 Christopher R. Seitz comments that “the Hosean influence on Amos, it is indeed to be felt in nearly every chapter.” (Prophecy and Hermeneutics: Toward a New Introduction to the Prophets [rand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 206).
 See Seitz, ”Joel brings the world of Hosea and Amos into the framework of his later context of exhortation, repentance, and restoration, at a time of severe natural disruption … and at the same time, the audience of Joel, however we understand that, is transported back in time to relive the testimony of two prophets of the eighth century.” (Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 242). Hans Walter Wolff calls Joel a work of literature that engages with “the earlier prophetic movement” (Joel and Amos [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977], 10). Joel incorporates earlier prophecies, while creating an authentic work giving expression in his own voice to the word of the Lord in his own time (10-11). Wolff calls him a “literary prophet” (11) who combines wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic imagery (14-15).
 Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 15.