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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Joel 1



Verses 2-20


Joel 1:2-20; Joel 2:1-17

JOEL, as we have seen, found the motive of his prophecy in a recent plague of locusts, the appearance of which and the havoc they worked are described by him in full detail. Writing not only as a poet but as a seer, who reads in the locusts signs of the great Day of the Lord, Joel has necessarily put into his picture several features which carry the imagination beyond the limits of experience. And yet, if we ourselves had lived through such a plague, we should be able to recognize how little license the poet has taken, and that the seer, so far from unduly mixing with his facts the colors of Apocalypse, must have experienced in the terrible plague itself enough to provoke all the religious and monitory use which he makes of it.

The present writer has seen but one swarm of locusts, in which, though it was small and soon swept away by the wind, he felt not only many of the features that Joel describes, but even some degree of that singular helplessness before a calamity of portent far beyond itself, something of that supernatural edge and accent, which, by the confession of so many observers, characterize the locust-plague and the earthquake above all other physical disasters. One summer afternoon, upon the plain of Hauran, a long bank of mist grew rapidly from the western horizon. The day was dull, and as the mist rose athwart the sunbeams, struggling through clouds, it gleamed cold and white, like the front of a distant snow storm. When it came near, it seemed to be more than a mile broad, and was dense enough to turn the atmosphere raw and dirty, with a chill as of a summer sea-fog, only that this was not due to any fall in the temperature. Nor was there the silence of a mist. We were enveloped by a noise, less like the whirring of wings than the rattle of hail or the crackling of bush on fire. Myriads upon myriads of locusts were about us, covering the ground, and shutting out the view in all directions. Though they drifted before the wind, there was no confusion in their ranks. They sailed in unbroken lines, sometimes straight, sometimes wavy; and when they passed pushing through our caravan, they left almost no stragglers, except from the last battalion, and only the few dead which we had caught in our hands. After several minutes they were again but a lustre on the air, and so melted away into some heavy clouds in the east.

Modern travelers furnish us with terrible impressions of the innumerable multitudes of a locust plague, the succession of their swarms through days and weeks, and the utter desolation they leave behind them. Mr. Doughty writes: "There hopped before our feet a minute brood of second locusts, of a leaden color, with budding wings like the spring leaves, and born of those gay swarms which a few weeks before had passed over and despoiled the desert. After forty days these also would fly as a pestilence, yet more hungry than the former, and fill the atmosphere." And later: "The clouds of the second locust brood which the Aarab call ‘Am’dan, ‘pillars,’ flew over us for some days, invaded the booths and for blind hunger even bit our shins." It was "a storm of rustling wings." "This year was remembered for the locust swarms and great summer heat." A traveler in South Africa says: "For the space of ten miles on each side of the Sea-Cow river and eighty or ninety miles in length, an area of sixteen or eighteen hundred square miles, the whole surface might literally be said to be covered with them." In his recently published book on South Africa, Mr. Bryce writes:-

"It is a strange sight, beautiful if you can forget the destruction it brings with it. The whole air, to twelve or even eighteen feet above the ground, is filled with the insects, reddish brown in body, with bright gauzy wings. When the sun’s rays catch them it is like the sea sparkling with light. When you see them against a cloud they are like the dense flakes of a driving snow-storm. You feel as if you had never before realized immensity in number. Vast crowds of men gathered at a festival, countless tree-tops rising along the slope of a forest ridge, the chimneys of London houses from the top of St. Paul’s-all are as nothing to the myriads of insects that blot out the sun above and cover the ground beneath and fill the air whichever way one looks. The breeze carries them swiftly past, but they come on in fresh clouds, a host of which there is no end, each of them a harmless creature which you can catch and crush in your hand, but appalling in their power of collective devastation."

And take three testimonies from Syria:

"The quantity of these insects is a thing incredible to any one who has not seen it himself; the ground is covered by them for several leagues."

"The whole face of the mountain was black with them. On they came like a living deluge. We dug trenches and kindled fires, and beat and burnt to death heaps upon heaps, but the effort was utterly useless. They rolled up the mountain-side, and poured over rocks, walls, ditches, and hedges, those behind covering up and passing over the masses already killed. For some days they continued to pass. The noise made by them in marching and foraging was like that of a heavy shower falling upon a distant forest."

"The roads were covered with them, all marching and in regular lines, like armies of soldiers, with their leaders in front; and all the opposition of man to resist their progress was in vain." Having consumed the plantations in the country, they entered the towns and villages. "When they approached our garden all the farm servants were employed to keep them off, but to no avail; though our men broke their ranks for a moment, no sooner had they passed the men than they closed again, and marched forward through hedges and ditches as before. Our garden finished, they continued their march toward the town, devastating one garden after another. They have also penetrated into most of our rooms: whatever one is doing one hears their noise from without, like the noise of armed hosts, or the running of many waters. When in an erect position their appearance at a little distance is like that of a well-armed horseman."

Locusts are notoriously adapted for a plague, "since to strength incredible for so small a creature, they add saw-like teeth, admirably calculated to eat up all the herbs in the land." They are the incarnation of hunger. No voracity is like theirs, the voracity of little creatures, whose million separate appetites nothing is too minute to escape. They devour first grass and leaves, fruit and foliage, everything that is green and juicy.

Then they attack the young branches of trees, and then the hard bark of the trunks. "After eating up the corn, they fell upon the vines, the pulse, the willows, and even the hemp, notwithstanding its great bitterness." "The bark of figs, pomegranates, and oranges, bitter, hard, and corrosive, escaped not their voracity." "They are particularly injurious to the palm-trees; these they strip of every leaf and green particle, the trees remaining like skeletons with bare branches." "For eighty or ninety miles they devoured every green herb and every blade of grass." "The gardens outside Jaffa are now completely stripped, even the bark of the young trees having been devoured, and look like a birch-tree forest in winter." "The bushes were eaten quite bare, though the animals could not have been long on the spot. They sat by hundreds on a bush gnawing the rind and the woody fibres." "Bamboo groves have been stripped of their leaves and left standing like saplings after a rapid bush fire, and grass has been devoured so that the bare ground appeared as if burned." "The country did not seem to be burnt, but to be much covered with snow through the whiteness of the trees and the dryness of the herbs." The fields finished, they invade towns and houses, in search of stores. Victual of all kinds, hay, straw, and even linen and woolen clothes and leather bottles, they consume or tear in pieces. They flood through the open, unglazed windows and lattices: nothing can keep them out.

These extracts prove to us what little need Joel had of hyperbole in order to read his locusts as signs of the Day of Jehovah; especially if we keep in mind that locusts are worst in very hot summers, and often accompany an absolute drought along with its consequence of prairie and forest fires. Some have thought that, in introducing the effects of fire, Joel only means to paint the burnt look of a land after locusts have ravaged it. But locusts do not drink up the streams, nor cause the seed to shrivel in the earth. [Joel 1:20; Joel 1:17] By these the prophet must mean drought, and by "the flame that has burned all the trees of the field," [Joel 1:19] the forest fire, finding an easy prey in the trees which have been reduced to firewood by the locusts’ teeth.

Even in the great passage in which he passes from history to Apocalypse, from the gloom and terror of the locusts to the lurid dawn of Jehovah’s Day, Joel keeps within the actual facts of experience:-

"Day of darkness and murk,

Day of cloud and heavy mist,

Like dawn scattered on the mountains,

A people many and powerful."

No one who has seen a cloud of locusts can question the realism even of this picture: the heavy gloom of the immeasurable mass of them, shot by gleams of light where a few of the sun’s imprisoned beams have broken through or across the storm of lustrous wings. This is like dawn beaten down upon the hilltops, and crushed by rolling masses of cloud, in conspiracy to prolong the night. No: the only point at which Joel leaves absolute fact for the wilder combinations of Apocalypse is at the very close of his description, Joel 2:10-11, and just before his call to repentance. Here we find, mixed with the locusts, earthquake and thunderstorm; and Joel has borrowed these from the classic pictures of the Day of the Lord, using some of the very phrases of the latter:-

"Earth trembles before them,

Heaven quakes, Sun and moon become black,

The stars withdraw their shining,

And Jehovah utters His voice before His army."

Joel, then, describes, and does not unduly enhance, the terrors of an actual plague. At first his whole strength is so bent to make his people feel these, that, though about to call to repentance, he does not detail the national sins which require it. In his opening verses he summons the drunkards (Joel 1:5), but that is merely to lend vividness to his picture of facts, because men of such habits will be the first to feel a plague of this kind. Nor does Joel yet ask his hearers what the calamity portends. At first he only demands that they shall feet it, in its uniqueness and its own sheer force.

Hence the peculiar style of the passage. Letter for letter, this is one of the heaviest passages in prophecy. The proportion in Hebrew of liquids to the other letters is not large; but here it is smaller than ever. The explosives and dentals are very numerous. There are several key-words, with hard consonants and long vowels, used again and again: Shuddadh, ‘a-bhlah, ‘umlal, hobbish. The longer lines into which Hebrew parallelism tends to run are replaced by a rapid series of short, heavy phrases, falling like blows. Critics have called it rhetoric. But it is rhetoric of a very high order and perfectly suited to the prophet’s purpose. Look at Joel 1:10 :shuddadh sadheh, ‘abhlah ‘adhamah, shuddadh daghan, hobhish tirosh, ‘umlal yishar. Joel loads his clauses with the most leaden letters he can find, and drops them in quick succession, repeating the same heavy word again and again, as if he would stun the careless people into some sense of the bare, brutal weight of the calamity which has befallen them.

Now Joel does this because he believes that, if his people feel the plague in its proper violence, they must be convinced that it comes from Jehovah. The keynote of this part of the prophecy is found in Joel 1:15 : "Keshodh mishshaddhai," "like violence from the All-violent doth it come." "If you feel this as it is, you will feel Jehovah Himself in it. By these very blows, He and His Day are near. We had been forgetting how near." Joel mentions no crime, nor enforces any virtue: how could he have done so in so strong a sense that "the Judge was at the door"? To make men feel that they had forgotten they were in reach of that Almighty Hand, which could strike so suddenly and so hard-Joel had time only to make men feel that, and to call them to repentance. In this we probably see some reflection of the age: an age when men’s thoughts were thrusting the Deity further and further from their life; when they put His Law and Temple between Him and themselves: and when their religion, devoid of the sense of His Presence, had become a set of formal observances, the rending of garments and not of hearts. But He, whom His own ordinances had hidden from His people, has burst forth through nature and in sheer force of calamity. He has revealed Himself, El-Shaddhai, God All-violent, as He was known to their fathers, who had no elaborate law or ritual to put between their fearful hearts and His terrible strength, but cowered before Him, helpless on the stripped soil, and naked beneath His thunder. By just these means did Elijah and Amos bring God home to the hearts of ancient Israel. In Joel we see the revival of the old nature-religion, and the revenge that it was bound to take upon the elaborate systems which had displaced it, but which by their formalism and their artificial completeness had made men forget that near presence and direct action of the Almighty which it is nature’s own office to enforce upon the heart.

The thing is true, and permanently valid. Only the great natural processes can break up the systems of dogma and ritual in which we make ourselves comfortable and formal, and drive us out into God’s open air of reality. In the crash of nature’s forces even our particular sins are forgotten, and we feel, as in the immediate presence of God, our whole, deep need of repentance. So far from blaming the absence of special ethics in Joel’s sermon, we accept it as natural and proper to the occasion.

Such, then, appears to be the explanation of the first part of the prophecy, and its development towards the call to repentance, which follows it. If we are correct, the assertion is false that no plan was meant by the prophet. For not only is there a plan, but the plan is most suitable to the requirements of Israel, after their adoption of the whole Law in 445, and forms one of the most necessary and interesting developments of all religion: the revival, in an artificial period, of those primitive forces of religion which nature alone supplies, and which are needed to correct formalism and the forgetfulness of the near presence of the Almighty. We see in this, too, the reason of Joel’s archaic style, both of conception and expression: that likeness of his to early prophets which has led so many to place him between Elijah and Amos. They are wrong. Joel’s simplicity is that not of early prophecy, but of the austere forces of this revived and applied to the artificiality of a later age.

One other proof of Joel’s conviction of the religious meaning of the plague might also have been pled by the earlier prophets, but certainly not in the terms in which Joel expresses it. Amos and Hoses had both described the destruction of the country’s fertility in their day as God’s displeasure on His people and (as Hosea puts it) His divorce of His Bride from Himself. But by them the physical calamities were not threatened alone: banishment from the land and from enjoyment of its fruits was to follow upon drought, locusts, and famine. In threatening no captivity Joel differs entirely from the early prophets. It is a mark of his late date. And he also describes the divorce between Jehovah and Israel, through the interruption of the ritual by the plague, in terms and with an accent which could hardly have been employed in Israel before the Exile. After the rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of the daily sacrifices morning and evening, the regular performance of the latter was regarded by the Jews with a most superstitious sense of its indispensableness to the national life. Before the Exile, Jeremiah, for instance, attaches no importance to it, in circumstances in which it would have been not unnatural for him, priest as he was, to do so. [Jeremiah 14:1-22] But after the Exile, the greater scrupulousness of the religious life, and its absorption in ritual, laid extraordinary emphasis upon the daily offering, which increased to a most painful degree of anxiety as the centuries went on. The New Testament speaks of "the Twelve Tribes constantly serving God day and night"; [Acts 26:7] and Josephus, while declaring that in no siege of Jerusalem before the last did the interruption ever take place in spite of the stress of famine and war combined, records the awful impression made alike on Jew and heathen by the giving up of the daily sacrifice on the 17th of July, A.D. 70, during the investment of the city by Titus. This disaster, which Judaism so painfully feared at every crisis in its history, actually happened, Joel tells us, during the famine caused by the locusts. "Cut off are the meal and the drink offerings from the house of Jehovah. [Joel 1:9; Joel 1:13] Is not food cut off from our eves, joy and gladness from the house of our God? [Joel 2:14] Perhaps He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, meal and drink offering for Jehovah our God." [Joel 1:16] The break "of the continual symbol of gracious intercourse between Jehovah and His people, and the main office of religion," means divorce between Jehovah and Israel. "Wail like a bride girt in sackcloth for the husband of her youth! Wail, O ministers of the altar, O ministers of God!" [Joel 1:8; Joel 1:13] This then was another reason for reading in the plague of locusts more than a physical meaning. This was another proof, only too intelligible to scrupulous Jews, that the great and terrible Day of the Lord was at hand. Thus Joel reaches the climax of his argument. Jehovah is near, His Day is about to break. From this it is impossible to escape on the narrow path of disaster by which the prophet has led up to it. But beneath that path the prophet passes the ground of a broad truth, and on that truth, while judgment remains still as real, there is room for the people to turn from it. If experience has shown that God is in the present, near and inevitable, faith remembers that He is there not willingly for judgment, but with all His ancient feeling for Israel and His zeal to save her. If the people choose to turn, Jehovah, as their God and as one who works for their sake, will save them. Of this God assures them by His own word. For the first time in the prophecy He speaks for Himself. Hitherto the prophet has been describing the plague and summoning to penitence. "But now oracle of Jehovah of Hosts." [Joel 2:12] The great covenant name, "Jehovah your God," is solemnly repeated as if symbolic of the historic origin and age-long endurance of Jehovah’s relation to Israel; and the very words of blessing are repeated which were given when Israel was called at Sinai and the covenant ratified:-

"For He is gracious and merciful,

Long-suffering and plenteous in leal love.

And relents Him of the evil"

He has threatened upon you. Once more the nation is summoned to try Him by prayer: the solemn prayer of all Israel, pleading that He should not give His people to reproach.

"The Word of Jehovah which came to Jo’el the son of Pethfl’el. Hear this, ye old men, And give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has the like been in your days, Or in the days of your fathers? Tell it to your children, And your children to their children, And their children to the generation that follows. That which the Shearer left the Swarmer hath eaten, And that which the Swarmer left the Lapper hath eaten, And that which the Lapper left the Devourer hath eaten."

These are four different names for locusts, which it is best to translate by their literal meaning. Some think that they represent one swarm of locusts in four stages of development, but this cannot be, because the same swarm never returns upon its path, to complete the work of destruction which it had begun in an earlier stage of its growth. Nor can the first-named be the adult brood from whose eggs the others spring, as Doughty has described, for that would account only for two of the four names. Joel rather describes successive swarms of the insect, without reference to the stages of its growth, and he does so as a poet, using, in order to bring out the full force of its devastation, several of the Hebrew names that were given to the locust as epithets of various aspects of its destructive power.

The names, it is true, cannot be said to rise in climax, but at least the most sinister is reserved to the last.

"Rouse ye, drunkards, and weep, And wail, all ye bibbers of wine! The new wine is cut off from your month! For a nation is come up on My land, Powerful and numberless; His teeth are the teeth of the lion, And the fangs of the lioness his. My vine he has turned to waste, And My fig-tree to splinters; He hath peeled it and strawed it, Bleached are its branches!"

"Wail as a bride girt in sackcloth for the spouse of her youth. Cut off are the meal and drink offerings from the house of Jehovah! In grief are the priests, the ministers of Jehovah. The fields are blasted, the ground is in grief, Blasted is the corn, abashed is the new wine, the oil pines away. Be ye abashed, O ploughmen! Wail, O vine-dressers, For the wheat and the barley; The harvest is lost from the field! The vine is abashed, and the fig-tree is drooping; Pomegranate, palm too and apple, All trees of the field are dried up: Yea, joy is abashed and away from the children of men."

In this passage the same feeling is attributed to men and to the fruits of the land: "In grief are the priests, the ground is in grief." And it is repeatedly said that all alike are "abashed." By this heavy word we have sought to render the effect of the similarly sounding "hobhisha," that our English version renders "ashamed." It signifies to be frustrated, and so "disheartened," "put out" "soured" would be an equivalent, applicable to the vine and to joy and to men’s hearts.

"Put on mourning, O priests, beat the breast; Wail, ye ministers of the altar; Come, lie down in sackcloth, O ministers of my God: For meal-offering and drink-offering are cut off from the house of your God."

"Hallow a fast, summon an assembly, Gather all the inhabitants of the land to the house of your God; And cry to Jehovah! ‘Alas for the Day! At hands the Day of Jehovah. And as vehemence from the Vehement doth it come.’ Is not food cut off from before us, Gladness and joy from the house of our God? The grains shrivel under their hoes, The garners are desolate, the barns broken down, For the corn is withered-what shall we put in them? The herds of cattle huddle together, for they have no pasture; Yea, the flocks of sheep are forlorn. To Thee, Jehovah, do I cry":

"For fire has devoured the pastures of the steppes, And the flame hath scorched all the trees of the field. The wild beasts pant up to Thee: For the watercourses are dry, And fire has devoured the pastures of the steppes."

Here, with the close of chapter 1, Joel’s discourse takes, pause, and in chapter 2 he begins a second with another call to repentance in face of the same plague. But the plague has progressed. The locusts are described now in their invasion not of the country but of the towns, to which they pass after the country is stripped. For illustration of the latter see above. The "horn" which is to be blown, Joel 2:1, is an "alarm horn," to warn the people of the approach of the Day of the Lord, and not the Shophar which called the people to a general assembly, as in Joel 2:15.

"Blow a horn in Zion, Sound the alarm in My holy mountain! Let all inhabitants of the land tremble, For the Day of Jehovah comes-it is near! Day of darkness and murk, day of cloud and heavy mist. Like dawn scattered on the mountains, A people many and powerful; Its like has not been from of old, And shall not again be for years of generation upon generation. Before it the fire devours, And behind the flame consumes. Like the garden of Eden [Ezekiel 36:35] is the land in front, And behind it a desolate desert; Yea, it lets nothing escape. Their visage is the visage of horses, And like horsemen they run. They rattle like chariots over the tops of the hills, Like the crackle of flames devouring stubble, Like a powerful people prepared for battle. Peoples are writhing before them, Every face gathers blackness."

"Like warriors they run, Like fighting men they come up the wall; They march every man by himself, And they ravel not their paths. None jostles his comrade, They march every man on his track, And plunge through the missiles unbroken. They scour the city, run upon the walls, Climb into the houses, and enter the windows like a thief, Earth trembles before them, Heaven quakes, Sun and moon become black, The stars withdraw their shining. And Jehovah utters His voice before His army: For very great is His host; Yea, powerful is He that performeth His word, Great is the Day of Jehovah, and very awful: Who may abide it?"

"But now hear the oracle of Jehovah: Turn ye to Me with all your heart, And with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend ye your hearts and not your garments, And turn to Jehovah your God: For He is gracious and merciful, Long-suffering and plenteous in love, And relents of the evil. Who knows but He will turn and relent, And leave behind Him a blessing, Meal-offering and drink-offering to Jehovah your God?"

"Blow a horn in Zion, Hallow a fast, summon the assembly! Gather the people, hallow the congregation, Assemble the old men, gather the children, and infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom come forth from his chamber, And the bride from her bower.

Let the priests, the ministers of Jehovah, weep between porch and altar; Let them say, Spare, O Jehovah, Thy people, And give not Thine heritage to dishonor, for the heathen to mock.

Why should it be said among the nations, Where is their God?"


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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Joel 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".

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