Saturday, September 09, 2023

Mining the Minors: Joel (4)

Prophetic scripture is full of difficult passages, and this second chapter of Joel is right up there with the most bewildering among them. Interpretations offered for the locust horde the prophet describes include: (1) literal locusts in the time of Joel; (2) the Babylonian army of 607 BC; (3) four different invading armies over a period of hundreds of years; (4) a bunch of proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses (no, I’m not kidding); and (5) the demonic affliction of apostate Christendom in some future day.

There are compelling textual reasons to reject all these interpretations (not just the patently silly ones) and look for a future fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, not in the spiritual realm, but right in the heart of Israel.

3. The Invading Army Described

Joel 2:1-2 — One Compelling Reason

“Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.”

One compelling reason to reject all historical interpretations of the locust horde is this statement in verse 2 that their like “has never been before, nor will be again”. This invasion is one of a kind. Four separate invasions over hundreds of years will not answer to it, nor will a literal locust horde. Still less could any historical Babylonian invasion match up with these details (one was repelled without any “leaping into the houses”, the second was entirely successful and resulted in Judah’s exile).

A future invasion of Israel from the north is described several places in the prophets. Ezekiel writes about an invasion from the north “in the latter years” that will be “like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes”, “a great host, a mighty army”. The similarities to Joel are notable. Daniel prophesies an invasion by the king of the north “at the time of the end” with similar features to both Joel and Ezekiel. If the words “latter years” and “time of the end” are in any way meaningful, then those invasions have yet to occur. Joel’s invasion, which is both unprecedented and never to be matched, can only be future.

This is the first of two trumpets blown in Zion, but for very different reasons. The first is a trumpet of alarm, the second will be a call to gather the people of Judah for repentance.

Joel 2:3 — A Difficulty Considered

“Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.”

Some commentators note similarities between Joel’s locust horde/army and the locust horde/army of Revelation 9. The two invasions are alike in certain respects. Both invasions involve darkness, gloom and clouds. Both precede a second and final invasion of Israel by multiple nations (compare Joel 3 with the sixth trumpet of Revelation 9). Both involve “locusts” that look like “war horses” or “horses prepared for battle”. Both cause “anguish” and “torment”. Both invasions last for significant periods. Throughout both invasions, a remnant of the Jews is preserved safely by God.

These similarities argue for a single invasion described with different though complementary details. Still, one cannot fail to note the differences. The Revelation invasion has a spiritual component absent from Joel. It is led by “the angel of the bottomless pit” (Satan) and the locusts originate in the same pit. These locusts do not just climb into houses; they sting their victims, causing them to long for death. The Revelation locusts also possess some human features not mentioned in Joel.

All these apparent differences might well amount to nothing more than complementary information. The major difficulty with merging the two invasions is that the locusts of Revelation do not harm “the grass of the land or any green plant or any tree”, while the locusts of Joel leave behind “a desolate wilderness” instead of “land like the garden of Eden”. One possible answer to this difficulty is that Joel is describing the invasion from a physical perspective and John is describing it from a spiritual perspective. In that case, the grass, green plants and trees of Revelation are metaphors for righteous Jews protected from the locust army.

This could well be. Psalm 1 describes the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked as “a tree planted by streams of water” whose “leaf does not wither”. Proverbs says the righteous “flourish like a green leaf”. Psalm 92 tells us the righteous “flourish like a palm tree”. So it’s not as if greenery has not been used figuratively in prior scriptures. Add to this the deliberate contrast drawn in the Revelation account between the protected grass and trees and “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads”, and it is possible the two invasions are really two descriptions of the same one.

Joel 2:4-5 — The Appearance of Horses

“Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.”

Revelation also talks about “locusts like horses prepared for battle”. The description in both places leads some commentators to speculate that Joel and/or John are describing future war technology in terms understandable to their own generations. That would certainly explain the devastation produced by the locust army. However, because of the “human faces” in Revelation and the “stench and foul smell” of the decaying bodies of the northern army in Joel, we should probably discount any attack that is exclusively mechanical in nature. Drones are out, but something like battle armor or even biomechanics may well be in view.

Joel 2:6-9 — Like or As

“Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall. They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another; each marches in his path; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.”

This level of detail eliminates the possibility that Joel is describing historical Babylonian invasion(s) of Jerusalem. Any invasion answering to Joel’s description must include both this initial successful overwhelming of Israel’s forces, as well as a resounding defeat for the invaders at the conclusion. No historical invasion matches up.

As mentioned last week, all these references to “like” (similes in English) are absent in Hebrew, meaning that they do not necessarily imply literal locusts being compared to human soldiers. A non-dynamic translation would read something like “warriors they charge; soldiers they scale the wall”.

Joel 2:10-11 — His Army, His Camp

“The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?”

This is the Lord’s army, but if Joel and Revelation are really parallel accounts, then it is also Satan’s army. This is not an insuperable theological problem, but one we encounter throughout scripture. Something similar is at work in Job, where Satan asks for and receives permission to inflict suffering on a righteous man, all the while being used without his knowledge to try Job and prove God right about him.

God’s purposes are continually being fulfilled even in the evil actions of men today. He uses them to execute judgment on the guilty, then judges them for their own wickedness afterward, just as the Lord sent the Babylonians against Judah, then within only a short time let them experience their own “day of the Lord” in recompense. It turns out he is able to do the same with the most powerful of spirit beings. Glory to his name!

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