2 Kings 22; Hebrews 4; Joel 1; Psalms 140-141
THE PROPHECY OF JOEL IS anomalous on several grounds. Most canonical Old Testament prophecies are introduced by prophets who identify the period of their ministry with reference to the reigns of kings (e.g., Hos. 1:1). Joel does nothing of the kind. Nor do we have any idea who his father Pethuel is. Estimates of the date of composition of the book vary from the ninth century B.C. to the second century B.C. Clearly the temple is in operation (e.g., Joel 1:13), but it is uncertain whether this is the first temple (built in Solomon’s reign) or the temple built after the exile.
In some ways this open-endedness is an advantage. While we lose the specificity that characterizes much Old Testament prophetic writing, we gain in a kind of timeless feel that perhaps makes application easier. Almost certainly what precipitated the crisis was a plague of locusts (though some think of the locusts as symbols for a mighty army). That experience has become the template the prophet uses to call the people to repentance in the light of judgment both past and portending. It is also the background for some of the most stirring prophecies of the future, fulfilled in the coming of the Gospel, found in all of the Old Testament canon (see especially tomorrow’s meditation).
The locust plague pictured in Joel 1 is a phenomenon well known in some parts of the world today. Once locusts have swarmed, they are almost impossible to stop. Really terrible plagues of locusts were recognized for what they were: the judgment of God. That is why Solomon in his prayer at the dedication of the temple includes the possibility that God would chasten his people with locusts—and he prescribes what to do about it (1 Kings 8:37). Joel is doing it. He invites the priests especially (“you who minister before the altar,” Joel 1:13) to put on sackcloth, mourn, and declare a holy fast, calling a sacred assembly, summoning the elders to the temple to cry out to the Lord (Joel 1:13-14). Joel himself ends the chapter with the cry, “To you, O LORD, I call” (Joel 1:19).
This is a good place to reflect for a moment on how we should think about disasters. We should not adopt the stance of fatalists. If we can stop locusts today (satellites can sometimes spot incipient swarms that are then stopped by trucks with pesticides), then we should do so—in exactly the same way that we should try to stop war, plague, AIDS, famine, and other disasters. But in a theistic world where God is sovereign, we must also hear the summoning judgment of God calling his image-bearers to renounce sin’s selfism and cry to him for mercy.