4 Lessons We Can Learn from Joel in the Bible
- Joel Ryan Contributing Writer
- 2022 22 Apr
Joel is one of several divinely appointed prophets called by God to warn the people of Judah of God’s coming judgment and subsequent restoration for those who repent. Though not much is known about Joel, his ministry contains important spiritual truths regarding the sovereignty of God, God’s promise of judgment, and the hope of restoration and outpouring of God’s spirit on those who call on the name of the Lord.
Who Is Joel and What Do We Know about Him?
Like several authors of the Old Testament, not much is known about the prophet Joel. Of course, like all the biblical prophets, the focus of Joel’s ministry and message should always be on the one who called him to prophesy and minister. We know, of course, that it was Yahweh who commissioned Joel, empowered Joel, and gave Joel the words to speak and the authority to deliver them to the elders of Judah (Joel 1:1-2).
That being said, there are several things we can learn from the ministry, the mission, and the message of Joel that are applicable to believers, especially today. Most of what we know about the prophet Joel comes almost exclusively from the relatively short and concise book of the Old Testament that bears his name. Many readers also tend to skip over later portions of the Old Testament, which is where we find the book of Joel and books written by many of the prophets. However, though the book of Joel is commonly classified as one of the twelve “minor” prophets of the Bible, there is nothing minor about Joel’s ministry or message.
The major/minor label is not a grade or ranking of the quality of Joel’s writing or the significance of his ministry. The use of the term “minor” is only applied to the length of Joel’s book (3 chapters) in comparison to some of the longer writings of Jeremiah (52 chapters), Isaiah (66 chapters), and Ezekiel (48 chapters). In fact, the message of Joel is arguably one of the most timely and applicable messages of the Old Testament for believers of all generations.
But who is Joel and what do we actually know about him? Joel, whose name in Hebrew means “Yahweh is God”, was called by God to minister to the southern kingdom of Judah, most biblical scholars agree, around 835 B.C. when the then seven-year-old Joash sat on the throne. If that date is accurate, Joel would have been a contemporary of the prophet Elisha, who ministered to the northern kingdom of Israel around the same time.
In his book, Joel identifies himself as the son of Pethuel. However, this is a name not mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament (Joel 1:1). Some scholars believe that Joel may have been a priest of the tribe of Levi, given his passion for talking about temple sacrifices (Joel 1:9; 2:13-16). However, his familiarity with pastoral and agricultural life (Joel 1:13-14; 2:17) suggests he probably was not a Levite or a priest, whose sole occupation centered around temple life, not the kind of labor described by Joel.
Beyond the Bible, some historical records suggest that Joel might have been from the tribe of Reuben and lived in the town of Bethom (or Bethharam), north of the Dead Sea, however, the context of Joel’s prophecy suggests he was from Judea and lived near or around Jerusalem, a city he seems familiar with. Regardless, what we ultimately know about Joel, who he was, and when he ministered are probably less important than the message he delivered.
What are the Themes of Joel’s Message?
At the time Joel prophesied to the southern kingdom, Judah was in a state of disarray and decline. Rival nations such as Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia had made frequent incursions into Israel, leaving the nation politically fragile. More importantly, a recent locust plague had devastated Judah’s economy (Joel 1:4). It was a time of national mourning, where, as Joel writes, “all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men.” (Joel 1:12)
Unlike many of the Old Testament prophets, however, Joel does not address specific sin or idolatry, though we know from the other prophets and books of the Bible that this was a recurring issue. Rather, Joel uses the recent calamity of the locust plague to teach a prophetic lesson.
What was that lesson? Speaking to the elders of Judah (Joel 1:2), Joel calls all members of Judah to take seriously their current hardship. Why? Because as devastating as the locust plague has been, it would be nothing compared to what was to come from God if the people did not repent and turn their hearts back to God.
Throughout the book of Joel, disaster is a prominent theme. As Judah worked to pick up the pieces and recover from a physical disaster, Joel challenges the people to take seriously God’s call to repentance to avoid an even greater spiritual disaster in the form of God’s inevitable judgment.
This is what Joel refers to as the great and terrible day of the Lord, a phrase mentioned nineteen times by eight different Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi, and Joel.
4. Lessons We Can Learn from Joel
Again, not much is known about the prophet himself other than what we learn from his writing, which is bold, succinct, grim, and in places hopeful. Though Joel ministered to Judah at a specific time and delivered a specific message, there are several things about this message that are timeless and applicable to believers of all generations.
1. The Day of the Lord Is Still Coming
The theme of judgment is unmistakable in the book of Joel, who prophesied that a day would come when the sovereign God would judge His people and the nations who rebelled against Him. We know from history, however, that Joel’s warning went largely unheeded. As a result, the day of the Lord was partially fulfilled through the Babylonian conquest, invasion, destruction, and captivity of Judah, roughly two hundred years later.
However, it is important to recognize that the day of the Lord is also a day that is still coming when Christ returns and God in His sovereignty executes a final great and terrible judgment on those who’ve rejected Him. As John MacArthur writes in his commentary, “it (the day of the Lord) is exclusively the day which unveils His (Christ’s) character – mighty, powerful, and holy, thus terrifying His enemies” (MacArthur 984)
That being said, Joel prophesies that judgment can be averted if God’s people repent, fast, return to the Lord, and “rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:13-17)
It’s not about ritual or sacrifice. God is looking for complete and total repentance and hearts that are aligned to His will, not the things of this world. Judah as a nation rejected God and God’s call to repentance and suffered the consequences. Individuals today are invited, through Christ, to make a different choice. How (or who) we choose will determine our ultimate fate.
2. God Uses Physical Suffering to Get Our Attention
Joel shares how God often uses nature and events like famine, plague, violent weather, invading armies, and celestial phenomena to get our attention (Joel 1:5). Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Furthermore, desperation, crisis, and even personal hardship can either turn our hearts to God or blind us from the truth and lead us further into despair.
God, in His sovereignty, is not afraid to use earthly suffering and physical hardship to challenge us, wake us up, and turn our hearts back to Him before it’s too late. Joel reminds us that, “the Lord will roar from Zion and thunder in Jerusalem” (3:16)
God is good, God is just, and God is sovereign. We see this throughout the book of Joel. The important thing is that God’s people (then and now) pay attention to what’s going on and contemplate how any physical hardship, suffering, or earthly disaster will ultimately pale in comparison to the day of the Lord and the judgment that awaits those who would rather face eternal separation from God than turn from their way of doing things. In this regard, God’s judgment, though fair and just, will be terrible for many.
3. The Promise of God’s Presence is Our Ultimate Hope
One of the key prophesies of the prophet Joel that came to fruition and was cited in the book of Acts was the eventual outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all believers. Joel writes, “it will come about after this that I (the Lord) will pour out my Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)
For believers, God’s presence and work in our lives should be our greatest joy.
However, the promise of spiritual restoration through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as seen on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), is only a taste of the final glory and power of Christ’s presence and kingdom that will be released after the day of the Lord.
4. God’s Judgment Is Great for Those Who Belong to God
Within Joel’s vision of coming judgment and destruction, there is also a promise of hope, restoration, blessing, and prosperity for the righteous and those who “call on the name of the Lord” (Joel 2:32). Not many would see coming judgment as something to look forward to. For the wicked and impenitent, it is not. However, for those who have been made right with God through the atoning salvation of Jesus Christ, the judgment of God is not something to dread.
Those who know God and have been right with Him will stand before the judge in confidence, knowing that He will rule in righteousness. We know that God’s judgment will be poured out on the wicked, but as a result of the day of the Lord, God’s blessing will be poured out on His people, as well as His restoration. “Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the stripping locust and the gnawing locust.” (Joel 2:25)
God’s promise of restoration, therein, is threefold, as John MacArthur summarizes:
- Material restoration through the divine healing of the land (Joel 2:21-27)
- Spiritual restoration through the divine outpouring of His Spirit (Joel 2:28-32)
- National restoration through the divine judgment on the unrighteous (Joel 3:1-21)
Joel promises that this day is coming. All should look to the physical signs and wonders of the earth as a reminder of God’s sovereignty and coming judgment. However, for those who seek the Lord, turn from their sinful ways, and “rend their hearts and not their garments”, the day of the Lord is a day to be anticipated with great joy, not terror.
God is sovereign and God is just. God is also good, and as we see through Joel’s ministry and message, He often uses calamity and hardship to win the hearts of His people back to Him.
We rarely see God’s providence in the moment, but by looking back at previous events (in Joel’s case, disaster) and pointing to the things to come (the day of the Lord and outpouring of the Holy Spirit), Joel reminds believers of all generations to see God for who He is. No matter the circumstances, God is in control and seated on His throne.
As Joel writes, “do not fear, O land, rejoice and be glad, for the Lord has done great things” (Joel 2:21) and “rejoice, O sons of Zion, and be glad in the Lord your God; for He has given you the early rain for your vindication.” (Joel 2:23)
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Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.