Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE REV. S. L. WARREN, M.A.,
Late Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford
INTRODUCTION TO JOEL.
JOEL has a peculiar claim upon the attention of the Christian reader, inasmuch as he foretells the advent of the Comforter, who would hereafter carry on and complete the work of the Saviour. Joel is as emphatically the prophet of the Holy Ghost as Isaiah is emphatically of the Messiah. If, therefore, it is permissible to discover in the twenty-third verse of the second chapter (see Note) a reference to Jesus Christ, as in the third chapter there is described the coming of the Almighty Father to judge the world at the Last Day, the prophet Joel has in his short book an evidence of the doctrine of the most Holy Trinity.
We may claim for him also one of the earliest places among the sixteen prophets (see Note on Acts 2:17); but Henderson, in his Introduction to the Minor Prophets, considers him chronologically the first of all. There is absolutely nothing known of his personal history, except the name of his father, Pethuel, and his conjectured residence in Jerusalem. The condition of the kingdom of Judah, as indicated in his prophecy, suggests that he flourished in the reign of Joash. Besides, had he lived at a later period than this, in his enumeration of the imminent enemies of his country he would hardly have omitted the names of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Syrians. Dean Milman, in his History of the Jews (vol. 1, p. 370), says: “In my judgment the silence about the Assyrian power is conclusive as to this early period assigned to the prophecies of Joel.” We therefore assign to him the date of about 870 B.C.
This period of Jewish history saw a great revival of the worship of Jehovah, after the idolatrous movement under Athaliah, the queen-mother, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, had been suppressed. The protectorate of the kingdom during the minority of Joash was in the hands of the high priest Jehoiada; and he had excited immense enthusiasm in the Temple and its services. And such an enthusiasm as then existed is in a marked manner evident in the prophecy of Joel. In the vivid description of the straits to which the kingdom was reduced by the famine and locusts, the most grievous calamity is the enforced suspension of the Temple sacrifices. “Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: FOR THE MEAT OFFERING AND THE DRINK OFFERING IS WITHHOLDEN FROM THE HOUSE OF YOUR GOD” (Joel 1:13). While, on the other hand, when there is a glimpse of better days the prophet’s joy culminates in the hope that these sacrifices will be restored: “who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; EVEN A MEAT OFFERING AND A DRINK OFFERING UNTO THE LORD YOUR GOD?” (Joel 2:14). There is further teaching in the words of this inspired prophet of extreme importance at all times, and especially in these latter days—the teaching that God heareth prayer in respect of those events which are due, as it is said to the laws of nature. We are sometimes met with the argument that it is even an impertinence to endeavour to interfere with such laws by our prayers. But we have a wiser teacher in Joel. When our land is threatened with famine through excessive drought (or through excessive rain) and the natural impulse of our hearts is to offer up prayers and intercessions to Almighty God, we may turn to the striking precedent which God has given us in this prophet, for who knoweth whether (even in our emergency) He will turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him?
All the commentators who have earnestly considered the nature and the matter of this prophecy have found immense difficulty in the question whether Joel intended literally a plague of locusts to be understood as the calamity which he described, or whether he rather desired to convey under that figure a description of the human enemies of Judah. It is well known that the ravages of locusts were among the punishments of God most highly dreaded by the Jews. Solomon enumerated them among the special causes for prayer to the Lord, in his supplication at the dedication of the Temple. And, as will be found noticed in the Commentary, the Eastern nations without exception dreaded, and dread, an incursion of locusts as one of the greatest scourges of their countries. But although such a plague may, in the first instance, have aroused the prophet’s extreme apprehension, and stirred his soul to its lowest depths, still we rise up from the perusal of his words convinced that they refer to some greater anxiety yet to come—some incursion of enemies, who would inflict terrible ravages upon the land, leaving it desolate and bare behind them, after the manner of these locusts.
Under such circumstances as we have suggested, Joel appeared at Jerusalem with the suddenness of an Elijah before Ahab. He came, as it were, out of the darkness of the unknown to declare the wrath of God, as manifest in the visitation on the land. He exercised on the instant the office and authority of a prophet, calling upon the priests to perform their duties in a terrible emergency. He demanded of them a solemn Litany to deprecate the anger of the Lord, and to invoke His compassion on the devastated country. He described the horror of the situation in graphic details. There was an enemy in their midst, countless in number, inexorable, remorseless. Their ravages stared them in the face on every side. The foliage of the country is gone, the trees stand stark and bare, as if fired, all vegetation is destroyed; vines, fig-trees, pomegranates, palms, apple-trees—all are withered, the corn is wasted, the seed is sodden, the very beasts of the field are dying for lack of moisture. The locusts of various kinds are at work, sparing nothing; at the same time, a drought assists their ravages. The locusts found the land a Garden of Eden, they leave it a wilderness. Fields, streets, houses, walls are occupied by this terrible pest. Let the priests therefore stir themselves, proclaim a fast for high and low, that a common supplication may be made for the removal of this plague.
But there lay something still more anxious beneath the visitation, although it far surpassed all previous experience of locusts. It was in a marked manner symbolical of that scourge which David most feared, the scourge of war; so that the national Fast called for by the present overwhelming calamity was quickened by the apprehension of an invasion by foreign enemies. In this apprehension the prophetic description of Joel culminated. The unparalleled visitation of the locusts was an advanced guard of greater terrors to come. So the prophet interpreted it.
Joel then saw the submission of the people, and as its effect the plague averted. Once more plenty smiled upon the land—plenty, which was the gift of God. And the material gift was an earnest of a spiritual gift which was to come to pass “afterward.” The Spirit of God was to be poured out, as St. Peter declared it was poured out in the last days, on the Day of Pentecost. Thenceforward Joel was caught up, so to speak, into the regions of apocalyptic vision. He beheld the victory of the people completed in the eternal victory of the last day. The multitudes came together to be judged in the eponymous valley of Jehoshaphat, and the Lord was the judge. After the conflict, after the judgment, there was the vision of peace. The enemies have ceased to exist; the people of the Lord are in the mansions of eternal blessedness, and in their midst is God, blessed for ever.
The word of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.(1) Joel.—Compounded of Jehovah—El, the composite title of the God of Revelation and of Nature, which is the subject of Psalms 19. It was a favourite name among the Jews, and was borne by an ancestor of Samuel, who gave it to his elder son. There is nothing known of the personal history of Joel the prophet, except the name of his father, Pethuel, or—LXX.—Bethuel.
Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?(2, 3) Hath this been in your days.—The introduction points to the startling nature of the portent: it was unexampled; it was a cause of consternation to all who beheld it; it would be recollected as a subject of wondering comment among succeeding generations. The hand of God was evident, recalling the marvellous things he did in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten.(4) That which the palmerworm hath left.—The picture is introduced suddenly and graphically. “Behold the desolation!” “Note the cause.” The earth is bared by locusts beyond all previous experience. There were different sorts of locusts; as many as ninety have been reckoned. The four names, palmerworm, locust, cankerworm, caterpiller, indicate different swarms of the insect. The first—Gazam—points to its voracity; the second—Arbeh—its multitude; the third—Yelek—its manner of “licking up” the grass like cattle; the fourth—Chasil—its destructive effect. The number enumerated, four, draws attention to the “four sore judgments” with which Ezekiel was instructed to threaten Jerusalem, and to the four foreign invasions by the Assyrians, Chaldæans, Macedonians, and Romans.
Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine; for it is cut off from your mouth.(5) Awake, ye drunkards—i.e., awake from such an insensibility as wine causes. The people failed to see the hand of God in the terrible calamity, like an acted parable, of the locusts. Insensate, as the revellers in the halls of Belshazzar, they carried on their feasting even while the enemies were at the city gates.
It is cut off from your mouth.—Either joy and gladness, as given in the LXX., or the means of indulgence have been suddenly taken away.
For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek teeth of a great lion.(6) A nation.—It was not uncommon with Hebrew writers to apply the name people or folk to animals, as, “The ants are a people not strong;” “The conies are but a feeble folk” (Proverbs 30:25-26); but the word used by Joel is different from that in the Proverbs. He selected a word indicative of foreign nations, suggestive of attack, including both the irrational invader and the foreign conqueror. The surpassing strength of the nation is indicated by the extraordinary power of the locust’s teeth, compared to that of the lion’s jaws. The same comparison is made by St. John (Revelation 9:8): “Their teeth (the locusts) were as the teeth of lions.”
He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white.(7) My vine.—This expression might well captivate the Jewish ear. God appropriates to Himself this land on which the trouble was, by His providence, to fall, and in wrath remembers mercy. It is “my vine,” “my fig-tree,” the people of God’s own choice, that were afflicted; and the affliction, however fully deserved, was, to speak as a man, painful to the Lord, “who doth not afflict willingly.” Yet the devastation was to be complete. God’s pleasant vine was doomed, and the fig-tree was to be cut down.
Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth.(8) For the husband of her youth.—The land is addressed as a virgin betrothed, but not yet married, and forfeiting her marriage by unworthy conduct. Such was the relation of Israel to the Lord: He was faithful, but Israel unfaithful. Now let her mourn the penalty.
The meat offering and the drink offering is cut off from the house of the LORD; the priests, the LORD'S ministers, mourn.(9) The meat offering and the drink offering—i.e., all the outward and visible signs of communion with God are cut off. The means are lost through this visitation. There is a total cessation of “the creatures of bread and wine.” The immediate significance of this fact is naturally appreciated first by “the priests, the Lord’s ministers.”
The field is wasted, the land mourneth; for the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.(10) The new wine.—The necessaries and delights of life are all gone: “the wine that maketh glad the heart of man, the oil that makes his face to shine, the bread that strengthened man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15).
The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.(12) The vine is dried up.—The ravages produced by the locusts and the drought are universal. There seems to be a method in the enumeration of the trees. The vine is the favourite term for the chosen people; the fig-tree has its life prolonged at the intercession of the “dresser of the vineyard,” in our Lord’s parable (Luke 13:8); the tall and stately pomegranate is of such importance as to give its name to the idol Rimmon; yea, and the palm-tree, even that is gone; the apple also, including the lemon, citron, &c.—all joy is vanished.
Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the house of your God.(13) Gird yourselves, and lament.—The priests are exhorted to commence preparations for a national humiliation, beginning with themselves; for the visitation touches them in a vital part: they have no sacrifices to offer to the Lord.
Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD,(14) A solemn assembly.—The Hebrew word strictly means a festival day, on which the people gathered themselves together, being relieved from work. Here they are summoned for a fast. The word may also be translated, as in the margin, “a day of restraint,” its root signifying to shut, to hold back.
Alas for the day! for the day of the LORD is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come.(15) Alas.—The exclamation is repeated three times in the LXX. and Vulg., thus giving occasion to Jeremy Taylor’s comment: “When the prophet Joel was describing the formidable accidents in the day of the Lord’s judgment, and the fearful sentence of an angry judge, he was not able to express it, but stammered like a child, or an amazed imperfect person, A. A. A. diei, quia prope est Dies Domini” (“Christ’s Adv. to Judgment,” Serm. iii., pt. 3).
Almighty.—Shaddai. A title signifying the omnipotence of God, especially with reference, as here, to His power to destroy. The Hebrew preserves the alliteration, Shod Mishaddai, destruction from the destroyer. The Almighty was the general title of God. “I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob by the name of God ALMIGHTY, but by My name JEHOVAH was I not known unto them.” (See Note on Genesis 17)
The seed is rotten under their clods, the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken down; for the corn is withered.(17) The corn is withered.—The results of the terrible drought, coincident with the ravages of the locusts, are now described. The ancient versions present difficulty and variety in the exact rendering of this verse, owing to several words occurring in it being not found elsewhere in Holy Scripture. On the whole the English text seems correct and satisfactory.
How do the beasts groan! the herds of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture; yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate.(18) How do the beasts groan.—All creation is represented as sharing in the dread perplexity; the beasts are involved in it, as also in Nineveh the animals were united in the proclamation of the general fast by the king’s decree, when he had heard of the preaching of Jonah.
O LORD, to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.(19) The fire hath devoured.—This may be explained as produced by the scorching heat bringing about spontaneous combustion, or by the efforts of the people to exterminate the locusts by burning the trees, or by the mark, as of fire, left upon all vegetation after the locusts had finished their work of devastation.
The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness.(20) The beasts of the field cry also unto thee.—The prophet has cried to God; the very beasts echo that cry, “looking up” to Him. As yet, man seems dumb.