The book of the prophet Joel begins by informing the reader that the word of Yahweh came to Joel, the son of Pethuel (Joel 1:1). The name “Joel” means “Yahweh is God.” Nothing is known about the prophet except what the book reveals. Joel was the son of Pethuel. This is the only place in the Old Testament where the name Pethuel is mentioned.
Joel’s ministry occurred at a critical time in the life of the nation. The people of Judah were facing an unimaginable disaster, a swarm of locusts that had devastated the country. Joel’s message was about hardship and suffering, about the upside of down. Joel’s message was addressed to the elders and to the entire population of Judah, telling them that challenging times have an unexpected silver lining.
The Swarm of Locusts
According to Joel, the swarm of locusts caused great devastation to the land. “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4). Each swarm of locusts devoured what the previous swarm of locusts had left behind.
The plague of locusts was very common in the Ancient Near East and also in Israel. In his article, “Joel’s Locusts in the Light of Near Eastern Parallels,” John A. Thompson mentions locust plagues in Mari, Assyria, and Egypt. Thompson writes, “Locusts as an agricultural plague are mentioned in an Egyptian text warning of the sorrows of a farmer’s life. Egyptian artists depicted locusts attacking various plants, including the grape vine and the wheat” (Thompson 1955: 53–54).
The locust plague in Joel’s day was a devastating plague, the plague of all plagues, the swarm of all swarms. It was a big and vicious plague that caused much devastation in Judah. According to Joel, the locust destroyed the vines and peeled off the bark of the fig tree leaving their branches bare (Joel 1:7). As a result, the land was devastated, the ground dried up, the grain was destroyed, oil became scarce, and the new wine dried up (Joel 1:10).
The devastation caused by the locust and the calamity caused by the drought affected both people and animals. There was not enough food for the people and hunger prevailed in the land. Joel said that the people were deprived of food because the storehouses were destroyed, the barns were ruined, and the grain had dried up (Joel 1:16–17).
The animals were also affected by the locust and by the drought. Joel wrote that “the animals moan with hunger! The herds of cattle wander about confused, because they have no pasture. The flocks of sheep and goats bleat in misery” (Joel 1:18 NLT).
The total devastation of the land is expressed in Joel’s words to the farmers, “Despair, all you farmers! Wail, all you vine growers! Weep, because the wheat and barley – all the crops of the field – are ruined. The grapevines have dried up, and the fig trees have withered. The pomegranate trees, palm trees, and apple trees – all the fruit trees – have dried up” (Joel 1:11–12 NLT).
A Summons to the People of Judah
Confronted with the devastation left behind by the swarm of locusts, Joel calls on the elders and all the inhabitants of Judah to consider what has happened to them, “Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?” (Joel 1:2).
Twice Joel used the pronoun “this” to present his case to his audience. The second “this” refers to the calamity caused by the locust, “Has anything like this ever happened?” Joel’s question presupposes a “no” answer because the devastation caused by the swarm of locusts was without equal in the history of the nation.
In the days of the prophet Amos, locusts had devoured fig trees and olive trees (Amos 4:9), but the devastation was not as intensive as the devastation that had occurred in the days of Joel, “Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers?” (Joel 1:2).
Translators have difficulty translating the different Hebrew words for locust. Whether they were different kinds of locusts or whether they were different stages or phases of the locust (Thompson 1955:54), they were equal in their commitment to devour everything in the fields.
Joel’s Exhortation: Tell the Children
In his address to the people of Judah, Joel exhorted them to tell what was happening to them to future generations, “Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation” (Joel 1:3). Future generations must know what happened to the nation. Joel said that the story must be told even to the fourth generation.
Future generations must be told of the trials and tribulations that the people had faced, how they found themselves in a situation that was beyond their abilities to deal with it. They must be told how God came to the rescue when people believed that there would be no end to their suffering.
Joel’s exhortation to the people of Judah was an exhortation for the people to become storytellers. God wants his people to tell stories, stories of their problems, of the trials they had faced, and of the situations which were beyond their ability to deal with them, and how God came to the rescue. The people must remember the awful devastation caused by the locust and remember how God intervened to help and deliver his people.
The memory motif is present throughout the Old Testament. This theology of recital is one of the primary emphases of the book of Deuteronomy, “Remember the days of old, consider the years long past; ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). To remember means to bring to mind something from the past and then to respond with an action. From a biblical perspective, to remember means that the past is brought into the present so that the action in the present is conditioned by what is remembered.
In describing this theology of recital, Blair wrote, “It has become clear in recent years that the Bible contains a theology of recital. In both Testaments the theme is the mighty deeds of God. These are celebrated in story, sermon, and song. What God has done is regarded as offering conclusive understanding of what he is doing and what he will do” (Blair 1961:41).
According to the psalmist, the recital of God’s activities in Israel had one purpose, “For he issued his laws to Jacob; he gave his instructions to Israel. He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them – even the children not yet born – and they in turn will teach their own children. So each generation should set its hope anew on God, not forgetting his glorious miracles” (Psalm 78:5–7 NLT).
The Old Testament is filled with remembrances of what God had done for the people. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was “a day of remembrance for the people: Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 13:3). And what God had done to redeem Israel from their hardship was to be told to their children (Exodus 12:26). That day of remembrance should be remembered “throughout your generations” (Exodus 12:14).
Joel’s exhortation for the people to remember the devastation caused by the locust and for them to tell future generations of what happened to their land, is a call for the people to be witnesses of the God who came to rescue them at a time of great hardship and despair.
The story of God’s deliverance should be told to the children of future generations so that they could remember the incredible story of survival because of the saving acts of a merciful God.
Through Joel, God commands his people to be storytellers. The people of Israel had a story that must be told, an incredible story of God’s activities in the history of Israel and his love for the nations of the world.
These stories tell how God acted to save a people in distress. These stories teach about what kind of God God is. These stories teach about God’s nature, his love, and his faithfulness.
These stories about God are engaging, memorable, and powerful. These stories teach about the saving acts of God. These stories function as heralds of the good news to all peoples in the present and in the future.
On June 19, 2016, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on Joel 1:1-4 titled “Joel: The Treasure of Stories.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon. In his sermon, Jeff used Joel’s exhortation to the people of Judah to speak to God’s people today.
Joel’s exhortation encourages believers to tell their story to their children. People of faith must tell their children about their experience with God so that the new generation might know the goodness and the mercy of God in times of hardship.
Joel’s exhortation invites believers to embrace their situation. No one likes hardship, but every individual will face problems and hardships at one time or another in their lives. When confronted with problems, people of faith embrace them with the assurance that God will transform the problems and hardships into a remarkable story to be told to future generations.
Joel’s exhortation challenges believers to take risks. At the time God commanded the people to tell the story, the devastation of the locusts was at its worst; there was no deliverance and no rescue in sight. Joel encouraged the people to trust in God. He also proclaimed that God would come to the rescue.
When facing hardship, it is difficult for people to celebrate victory before deliverance comes, before there is a great intervention by God. It is the goodness and the faithfulness of God that challenges people not to fear when problems come, “Do not fear, be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things” (Joel 2:21).
A Video Presentation
“Joel: The Treasure of Stories.” A Sermon by Jeff Griffin
Other Studies on the Book of Joel
An Introduction to the Book of Joel
Previous Sermons by Jeff Griffin
Thompson, John A. “Joel’s Locusts in the Light of Near Eastern Parallels.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 no 1 (1955): 52–55.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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