Lessons from the Book of Joel
by R.E. Slater
June 30, 2016
Over the past month or more I have been introducing myself and my readers to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha through external abstracts and Phillip Long's commentaries. Throughout the entirety of Long's review of 1 Enoch has come the realization of how closely (but not without exaggeration) this book follows the apocalyptic literature within the Old Testament (sic, Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, perhaps Joel, etc). So if the supposition is true that the writer of 1 Enoch wrote after the establishment of the OT apocalyptic literature (sometime during, or after, the Maccabbean war in the Intertestamental period) than it may also be true that there is a remarkable similarity between 1 Enoch's summary writings (of creation, of mankind's (and the angel's) spiritual history, and of the end times to come) to the apocalyptic books later to be written and included by the church into the NT (parts of the Synoptics, Paul, Peter, Revelation, for example). As such, the storytelling author of 1 Enoch borrowed liberally from the OT literature even as the NT writers borrowed liberally both from the OT literature and outside sources such as the book of 1 Enoch.
Because not only was 1 Enoch a very popular book during the pre-NT era but its imagery was vivid enough to be encapsulated and moved forward by the perceptive NT writers who were part of a growing new movement known as the first century church. More simply, popular cultural ideas were synthesized and then utilized to explain the Jesus-event within a time of turbulent societal evolution. In essence, though 1 Enoch was not a canonized OT book it related the main presumptions of the Jewish people so very well in its mythologized and very creative storytelling as to provide fertile imagery for Jesus and His apostles to tell of God's salvation to man and the coming judgment upon all those who would refuse obedience and submission to the rule of God.
Now I have been spending not a little bit of time over the past several years in examining the kind of judgment God will execute upon a sinful world. Some of this has been mentioned before when dealing with the several topics of hell, salvation, or God's character. Nevertheless, the bible itself, along with much of the literature written by mankind since time immemorial has dealt with the consequences of living in sin, the retribution that comes with causing willful oppression upon others, or ignoring the wisdoms and moralities of common life observances by a society. As such, the burden of public opinion leans in the direction that if there is a judgment for sin it will always be executed - if not in this life than in the life to come. For myself, I would prefer this judgment to be as a result of living in sin and ignoring the commands of God to live a godly, righteous life. This, as opposed to accusing God of purposely casting sinners into a tortuous hell to pay restitution for an innumerable eternity. It seems more natural to place the burden upon the willfully sinful person than upon a holy, righteous God who warns us out of love that He is incapable to spare us from sin's experience/power/seal/death should we ignore His solution of salvation through His Son and the fellowship of His holy community found in His people.
Again, this is a personal opinion. I am not denying a judgment-to-come but what I am refusing to accept is placing the cause of this judgment solely upon God alone. Yes, in some sense God is seen as Judge and Ruler of this world and His creation. We have investigated what these subjects might mean under the topics of divine sovereignty: whether God's sovereignty is beneficial (vs. harming); partnering (vs. controlling); at all times loving and good (vs. a wrathful love and duplicious goodness); and so forth. These topics would fall under the headings of Arminianism vs. Calvinism which I'll mention in my next article in a short review of Roger Olson's book, Against Calvinism.
Now back to our conversation. What does this all mean? Why this long introduction to the book of Joel? Well, let's continue on....
The Book of Joel as Apocalyptic Literature of a Future Eschaton
How then do we interpret the Book of Joel? Does it predict a divine future full of wrath and judgement? Or does it depict a Jewish congregation's (if not the suffering world's) hope for divine retribution? If it is prophetic, than the work of God in this world has lost - all God's efforts have failed to redeem, to bring shalom into His creation, except by divine force. If prescriptive (sic, dogmatic/creedal), than Israel (or Judah, or its remaining exilic remnants) had given up in witnessing to their neighbors of their glorious God and are found waiting for the coming judgment of the "Day of the Lord" to consume mankind in a great flood of apocalyptic revenge. This position would likewise make of God's divine rule one that was ineffectual, incompetent, or both, so that again, God has lost His battle with evil and must end its reign by force rather than by the Cross. And if not by the Cross, then in essence, the Cross is made weak and loses too.
How then are these two approaches to the book of Joel any different in today's churches which wait for divine judgment while praying for its imminence? When Jesus and the Apostles used the book of Joel they likewise spoke of an end time apocalyptic as remarkable for its fearful warnings as for its pleas to repent. More significantly, in their pleas for repentance each servant of the Lord - whether Jesus or the apostles - became consumed with a missional fire which unleashed God's Holy Spirit power of redemption upon a sin-torn world. They were not found sitting around commiserating on the woes of the world and praying for God's imminent return. No. They were busy praying for God's mighty work of salvation to be declared amongst the habitations of mankind and that He would delay His return just long enough until every last sinner had escaped into the ark of atonement which Jesus had provided through His death and resurrection.
So then, let us ask again, "How are we to interpret the Book of Joel?" If whether prophetically or descriptively of God's people who are scattered across this wicked world as his surviving remnant then two things must stand out:
One, the church must repent of its wickedness and do what its founders did... take up a missional fire which preaches God's word and become active in humanitarian enterprise dispensing grace, hope and healing. And secondly, to not isolate itself from the world so that the church loses its saltiness. But rather, to become deeply involved in the world in ways that will redeem the world and bring to it God's peace and love, care and nurture. The question then is not whether God is coming again, whether He judges of not, or whether sin will have its day upon the rails of God's throne. Nay. The question is whether we as believers and followers of Christ have given up and are simply waiting for God's judgment to fall upon sinful mankind to prove us right and everyone else wrong.
But hadn't this attitude of exasperation and failure been demonstrated before?
If so, then by whom?
Remember the story of Jonah and the whale? Yup, you got it. Jonah was sent by God to the wicked Ninevehites (Assyria) with a message of fearful repentance. Though he was glad to announce God's coming destruction upon their heads he actually first ran away from God's call to duty by shipping in the opposite direction across the Mediterranean Sea. At the last, upon being belched up upon the shore Jonah resigned himself to God's call and attended to his duty which was fearfully received by the Ninevehites when beholding the bleached white oracle of God spitefully pronouncing judgment throughout the plush and luxurious city walls. The people, in response, repented immediately and fell for a time under God's sparing grace. But the story doesn't end there because the last half of Jonah's tale tells of his sulking petulance over having not witnessed God's ruinous judgment fall upon the detested Assyrians. So there he sat upon an unshaded hill for a long time as God ministered to his hard heart even to the point of providing an unwanted plant for shade so angry was Jonah with God's lack of judgment. And I'm afraid today's church is no less kind to this sinful world when despairing of God's rule and falling into a stupor of rage and anger when praying for God's coming wrath.
The point? Let not God's church do this wicked thing. But let His people relent of their posture of doom-and-gloom and disinvolvent in the world but seek to reconcile the world with God in every possible way. But not simply through gospel preaching but also through humanitarian ministries giving shape and meaning to the words of Jesus vouchsafing redemptive reconciliation. Why? Because as any good parent, coach, teacher, or director will tell you - you can preach to the troops all you want but until-and-unless you become personally involved with the lives of those you wish to affect words have very little power. Preach? Yes. But not to the exclusion of working. And if wishing to preaching then first work. Let your good works preach a better sermon for you than mere words can. And what about our broken hearts yearning for God's rule and reign? Do you not suppose that in working with those we detest, or think of as sinful, or even as our enemy, we will discover how wrong we have been in our judgments? Relational ministries will do a world of good in re-righting the discriminating, or hateful, impulses of our own sinful hearts. The result? If Jesus Christ is in our ministries than the work of God through His Holy Spirit will bespeak release from sin's bondage for both parties; a greater freedom to live pleasingly for Christ; and the tasty fruits of hope, healing, and a new fellowship of community with those the church once considered condemnable. This is the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
Thus the book of Joel is to be a motivator to Christian action regardless of its prophetic content or its dialectical meaning for a congregation stuck on the perpetual wheel of waiting for divine revenge. An action that cannot come unless God's people become active in this world by sharing God's love which offers hope and healing to all who seek Him. If we believe in the power of God, and in the Cross, and in the power of the Holy Spirit which accompanies God's stunning atonement than let us not weaken it by giving up. Or praying its early end. Or by isolating ourselves by discriminating dogmas and confessions. Or by resorting to heavy-handed force to "make" disbelievers submit. We must be a people who must love and accept and help all whom we might normally not love, accept, or help. Let us not do the work of the devil but learn to do the work of God. This is true revival meted upon judgment, repentance, and restoration.
NT Notes to the Book of Joel
The Book of Joel is referred or alluded to numerous times in the New Testament. A few notable (but not exhaustive) examples:
*The Apostle Peter quotes “the prophet Joel” directly in Acts 2:16-21.
*The Lord Jesus refers to Joel 2:10, “the sun and the moon [will] grow dark and the starts lose their brightness” before the Day of the Lord, when He describes the signs of the last days in Matthew 24:29.
*The Apostle Paul cites Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved,” in Romans 10:13.
*The Apostle John alludes to Joel 2:10 when he describes events of the Tribulation in Revelation 8:12
The Apostle John alludes to the Book of Joel and language of the locust invasion in Revelation chapter 9.