The Global Message of Joel
The central message of Joel, as is so often the case in the prophets, is that of salvation amid judgment. And in Joel both judgment and salvation are worldwide in nature. Judgment is global in the sense that, throughout Joel, judgment will come upon Israel (Joel 1:15; 2:2, 11) as well as upon the nations of the world (3:2–3). Salvation is global in the sense that God will one day pour out his Spirit “on all flesh” (2:28), so that “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (2:32).
Joel in Redemptive History
The memory of Eden. In Eden, God brought forth a flourishing, vibrant paradise. Food and drink were plentiful. Plants thrived. Mankind and animals dwelt in happy unity. Above all, God dwelt in perfect fellowship with his people. After the fall, in which this flourishing shalom was broken on every level, God began the great historical work of restoring his people. When the Lord describes the Promised Land as “flowing with milk and honey,” for example (Ex. 3:8, 17), these are terms that would have been understood by the Jews as describing a restoration of Eden (see Joel 2:3; 3:18).
The undoing of creation. Accordingly, time and again throughout the prophets divine judgment is described as an undoing of what flourished in Eden. Joel’s prophecy is filled with this kind of imagery. Joel 1 describes an invasion of locusts as undoing precisely what had been done in creation: “The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes” (Joel 1:10). The cattle and the sheep are starving (1:18, 20). And just as light dawned on the world in creation, so blackness covers the earth in this undoing of creation: “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10; compare 2:2; 3:15).
The day of the Lord. All these signs of judgment are summed up in Joel’s repeated reference to “the day of the LORD” (1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). Joel identifies the day of the Lord with the invasion of locusts, which utterly destroy everything in their path. This is the judgment coming upon Israel due to their sin. Yet even amid this sin, God will spare those who repent and turn to him (2:12–14). God “will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (2:25).
Eden regained. This promise of divine restoration culminates in Joel’s prophecy that God will pour out his Spirit at some future time “on all flesh” (2:28–32). This prophecy was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, when God poured out his Spirit on a multitude of different nations (Acts 2:16–21). The prophecy will be brought to final completion and will achieve its ultimate purpose when the saints worship Christ in heaven, the “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). There, Eden will be regained once and for all (Rev. 22:1–5), this time without any possibility of corruption.
Universal Themes in Joel
Judgment on godless nations. After recounting the swarms of locusts that will plague Israel in Joel 1, and then promising final restoration for Israel in Joel 2, the prophecy turns its focus in the third chapter to the nations. The theme throughout Joel 3 is God’s righteous judgment on the godless nations of the world. “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:2). Whatever injustices the nations of the world got away with then or are getting away with today, especially injustice toward his own people, God promises to bring such evil into judgment.
God’s far-reaching grace in the midst of judgment. In Exodus 34, God revealed himself to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Ex. 34:6). This foundational description of the Lord is picked up throughout the rest of the Old Testament, including at Joel 2:13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” The promise of restoration in Joel 2 then culminates in the prophecy that God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh and that “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (2:32). Centuries later, the apostle Paul quoted Joel 2:32 in Romans to emphasize the universal scope of the gospel of grace (Rom. 10:12–13).
True repentance. As has happened so often down through the history of God’s people, Israel in Joel’s day was performing the appropriate actions for worship externally, but their hearts were far from God. “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments’” (Joel 2:12–13). The tendency to try to get by on mere ritual is common to fallen human nature, and wherever the church exists in the world it must guard against this.
The Global Message of Joel for Today
Joel’s prophecy has much to say to the global church today. Indeed, in Joel we find the message of the whole Bible in a nutshell: salvation amid judgment.
Judgment is inevitable. Indeed, in light of God’s justice and holiness, it would be wrong of God not to judge. Judgment will come both upon all those who reject God outright as well as on those who claim to know him yet who have resisted true repentance, choosing instead to worship him in a merely formal, external, and hollow way. Divine justice will overtake every unrepentant sinner, regardless of class, ethnicity, or culture. Injustice will be defeated, and the Lord will establish his righteous reign.
Yet salvation awaits all who sincerely call upon the Lord. He welcomes into his family those who truly cry out to him, whether they come from the most religious or from the most ungodly background. To all those around the world who trust in the Lord and what he has done in Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners, God will grant full and free forgiveness of sins. More than this, he will pour out his own Spirit on them. And one day God will finally bring all his people into a restored new creation, a return to Eden: “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD” (Joel 3:18).