The book of Joel may properly be separated into three distinct parts: A call for repentance to God’s people because the day of the Lord is soon to come with judgment against them (Joel 1:2-2:17), God promises his covenant restoration with His people (Joel 2:18-2:32), and judgment is rendered to the nations and blessings to His covenant people. A helpful way of understanding the prophetic mission of Joel is to divide the texts into different categories: prosecute, persuade, and predict. As suggested by Sandy.1 The book is a solemn reminder that sin will not be tolerated by God. However, their present hopelessness is not overseen by God; God has remembered His covenant promises to their forefathers. This is consistent with the Bible’s overarching story: Man has fallen in the sin of Adam, but God has made a covenant to save mankind through the cross of Christ, the second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:45). It may then be argued that Joel’s primary message is to point us to Jesus Christ as a judge and a savior. Hence, the chief mission of the Book of Joel is to warn Israel of the impending day of the Lord, which is not only a message of judgment so that Israel will repent from their sins, but is also a message of God’s covenant promises which are ultimately fulfilled in Christ, in order that His people may have faith.
A Christ-centered hermeneutic. Firstly, the idea of Jesus Christ as the central message of the Old Testament needs to be defended. Although this essay will utilize much of D. Brent Sandy’s hermeneutical methodology in Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic, 2 one additional form of interpretation that is of great significance that will be employed is a Christ-centered hermeneutic of the Bible, 3 which includes the genre of prophecy and apocalyptic. All prophecy and apocalyptic languages are ultimately pointers to the Messiah of God. This hermeneutical proposition essentially argues that the proper interpretation of the Old Testament requires a New Testament perspective. 4 The New Testament gives to us a greater revelation redemptive history. A post-cross lens as it were. This is the proper Christian interpretation. To demonstrate that this hermeneutical principle is not just another imaginative conception, we must consider Jesus’ and the apostolic interpretation of the Old Testament. According to the New Testament, all of the Hebrew Scriptures testify of Christ (cf. John 5:39; John 5:46; John 856; Luke 10:24; Luke 24:27; Luke 24:44-47; Heb. 11:24-26; Rom. 1:2-3; 1 Pet. 1:10-12).
One of the most compelling passages is perhaps John 5:39-40, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for committing a most erroneous interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He sternly rebukes them and says, “You search the Scriptures (the Hebrew Scriptures) because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” There are several conclusions that we can draw from this text: The Pharisees did not ‘see’ Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures are ultimately about Christ, and salvation is through Christ alone. Moreover, the New Testament tells us that Abraham anticipated the coming of Jesus. Jesus said to the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” And they responded, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" (John 8:56-57). Moses also anticipated the coming of Christ, he even wrote of Him (John 5:46). The writer to the Hebrews tells us, “He (Moses) considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26). Therefore, it is not absurd to presuppose Christ in the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Joel is no exception.
Joel 1:2-2:17. This section of the book primarily considers the wickedness of Israel and God’s righteous judgment; God calls Israel to repentance. There are manifold difficulties presented before us in this passage. The interpretation of what the locusts are in this passage is particularly challenging because the language seems to be ambiguous. As Sandy points out, the interpreter must determine whether the prophetic language is literal or figurative. 5 What are these locusts and what do they represent? For one thing, throughout the Scriptures, from both testaments, God uses locusts as literal and metaphorical utensils for executing judgment against wickedness (Deut. 28:38; Amos 7:1; Isa 33:4; Rev. 9:1-11). Locusts are one of the plagues that God utilized in the Exodus account to judge Egypt and deliver Israel. In that particular instance, the locusts are not metaphorical or figurative, but literal. However, there are also passages where locusts are used metaphorically. For instance, in the Book of Revelation, there is fantastic imagery of locusts with horse-like bodies and human faces that render punishment on those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads (Rev. 9:1-11).
In the context of Joel, the evidence for a literal interpretation is compelling: The fields are ruined, the wine is dried up, and the trees are destroyed from the locusts. The devastation of the locusts appears to be a physical calamity upon the covenant-breaking Israel. However, there is simultaneously a metaphorical description of what these locusts are like. They are described as a nation with power and numbers to destroy everything set in its path (Joel 1:6-7). The locusts should have been a luminous sign of God’s judgment against His people. Yet, in their stupidity and wickedness, they did not take heed of God’s temporal judgment. The prophet Joel calls the covenant community to turn to the Lord. This is certainly a characteristic of the prophetic mission of prosecution, prediction, and persuasion. In other words, Joel pronounces God’s utter hatred of the wicked acts in the covenant community (Joel 1:13-1:20). Then, he moves to predict an apocalyptic and metaphorical description of the locusts in the day of the Lord. It is a bone-shattering, eschatological anticipation of God’s final judgment against sin. The temporal gives insight to the conclusion. The imagery of this nation of locusts, as previously examined, is that of a conquering army. If God’s people will not consider His present judgment with actual locust, then God will threaten them with a future judgment that none can endure (Joel 2:1-2:11). Nevertheless, Joel exhorts the people of God to come and return to God, for He is gracious and merciful (Joel 2:12-17). At this point, a question arises: “How do these passages reveal to us Christ?” The answer is profoundly simple. Christ is the judge of the world (John 5:22; 2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 7:21-23; 35:31-33; Rom. 2:16). Hence, all the judgment passages are pointers to Christ’s authoritative justice against those who are disobedient.
Joel 2:18-32. The focus here are the covenant promises God has previously made with Israel. God declares his covenant restoration with His people if they will repent from their former ways and have faith in what He promises. Yet again, one of the problems of prophetic interpretation is before us. In this case, we must determine whether the promises by God are based upon human merit and obedience, or if they are unconditional in nature. 6 At this point, Sandy’s approach to the matter is not very helpful. He essentially questions whether God’s communication to man can also have hidden indications of conditionality, which are far too common within man’s communicative principles. 7 The problem is that Sandy paints God as capricious in the way He deals with His people. To properly understand the nature of the way God deals with His chosen people, we must examine the nature of His covenants given to them. In doing so, we can better interpret the passages before us.
To be brief, there are two covenants that must be taken into account. The first is a covenant based on the law (Sinaitic) to which the people of Israel responded, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exod. 24:7). It is primarily a covenant based on performance; perfect obedience is required. In contrast, there is the other covenant based on promise (Abrahamic) to which God swears an oath to be their God. 8 Both covenants serve to point us to Christ. As Michael Horton points out, “The Abrahamic covenant leads to Christ and thus the heavenly realities of everlasting liberty; the Sinaitic covenant was a ‘Schoolmaster’ (Gal. 3:24 KJV) leading to Christ by types and shadows and by showing that we could not keep it.” 9 To miss this point is fatal to understanding the big picture because it is an overarching theme throughout the Scriptures. These same covenants, underneath the surface, are present in the book of Joel. They are precisely the framework whereby the conditional and unconditional language is to be understood.
Therefore, in light of the covenantal distinctions, the judgment passages are proper consequences of Israel’s covenant-breaking; the breaking of the Sanaitic covenant. And the blessing passages are properly God’s faithfulness to His covenant; God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham. God’s promises are vindicated through His own fulfillment of the Sanaitic covenant in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son. Hence, Paul can say, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20). In the context of Joel, the promises of God are to be sought out by faith in God’s coming Messiah to do what they could not do for themselves, namely, to fulfill their covenant with God (Sanaitic covenant). According to Sandy, this is a general characteristic of prophecy. The fulfillments of certain prophecies are later fulfilled in unexpected passages. He calls it a “translucence” prediction. 10 For instance, Joel 2:28-32 gives us a prophecy concerning God’s future outpouring of His Spirit and salvation of his people. And Peter, in Acts 2:14-21, makes clear that this prophecy is fulfilled at Pentecost, after the first advent of Jesus. The significance of this is apparent: Because Christ has fulfilled for us all righteousness, all who trust in His perfect merit, including Gentiles, can be saved. Thus, we may properly conclude that Christ is the covenant satisfier that finally brings all of God’s promises, including salvation, into reality.
Joel 3:1-21. The final chapter of the book of Joel is primarily concerned with the eschatological consummation of Israel and the nations. 11 The surrounding nations are here judged by God, and as noted above, Christ has been given the authority to judge the nations. There is a twofold, contrary dispensation that takes place in this latter section of the book. To understand the metaphoric language before us, we First, God’s righteous wrath is here depicted with great detail, explained through symbolism and metaphors. The metaphors in the first half of chapter three explicate the wrath of God against idolatry. The nations are called into combat against the mighty power of the sovereign God. The nations are told, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears” (Joel 3:10). John Calvin comments, “Field labor will cease, and all will strenuously apply themselves to war.” 12 This war is essentially an invitation to enter the wrath of God. There is, however, a sense of persuasion being employed by the prophet in these passages. It is a persuasion for the idolatry and wickedness of the people to be abandoned in light of the coming judgment of God against them. Our evil provokes God to go to war with us. The imagery of going to war against God is pathetic indeed, and this is precisely the point. There is another side to this story, however. Contrary to the former dispensation, the latter deals with the future glory bestowed to God’s people. Covenant promises here are dispensed with great joy. And, once again, the clear teaching of the New Testament is that the covenant promises here find there confirmation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Conclusion. The Christ-centered hermeneutical principal applied in this brief essay fits harmoniously with the entire canonical structure and the pattern of redemptive history. All history is aimed to glorify God through Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega. The book of Joel is a segment to this end. It reminds us that sin deserves the righteous wrath of God and His promises find their culmination in Christ, who is both our judge and redeemer.
1. See Figure 6.1 Role of the Prophets in Sandy, D. Brent. 2002. Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic. Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press, p. 132.
2. Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks.
3. For further information on a ‘Christ-centered hermeneutic of the Bible,’ see Clark, R. Scott. 2007. What the Bible is All About. Modern Reformation 16 (2): 20-24. Vos, Geerhardus. 1975. Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
4. It is helpful here incorporate Christ as a ‘type’ and a ‘pre-incarnate actor’ in the Old Testament. R. Scott Clark, notes, “The question is not whether the Bible is Christ-centered but how? Following the pattern established by Jesus and the apostles, we find that Christ is revealed by an extensive series of types (illustrations of the reality to come) in the history of redemption. Jesus and the Apostles, however, have clued us in to an even more profound way of reading Scripture whereby Jesus does not simply appear typologically, but as a pre-incarnate actor in the drama of creation, fall, and redemption. He was the agent of creation.” Clark, R. Scott. What the Bible All About, p. 24.
5. See Problem 2: Literal or Figurative in Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hook, pp 37-41.
6. See Problem 4: Conditional or Unconditional. Ibid., pp. 44-47.
7. Ibid., p. 47
8. See Berkhof, Louis. 1996. Systematic Theology. New Combined Ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing Co.; Horton, Michael. 2006. God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Books, pp. 262-299; see also Paul’s argument against those who confuse the covenants in his epistle to the Galatians.
9. Horton, Michael. God of Promise, p. 38.
10. Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, pp 136-154.
11. It is important to note that the distinctions here between Israel and the nations is not national Israel and the Gentiles, but God’s chosen people, including Gentiles, over against those who do not have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
12. Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible. Biblestudyguide.org. http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol27/htm/iii.iv.v.htm. (Accessed October 20, 2008)