You Know What You Did: Joel 1 – 3

“Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged?
    No, I will not.”
Joel 3:21a (NIV)

The Book of Joel recounts a rather simple story. A swarm of locusts befalls a tribe of Jews, leading to a severe famine in the land, and there is confusion about why God allows such a plague to ravage them. Joel enters the scene and tells them: “Because of your sin, you idiots.” Then we get the standard biblical-prophecy-of-Israel’s-ride followed quickly by the traditional prophecy-of-assured-global-destruction. Finally to wrap out, God declares, “The LORD dwells in Zion!” (3:21)

Wham-bam, end of book.

So for all pomp, this is just another standard book of prophecy. The structure is the same – problems, punishments, promises, prophecies. The only odd detail is the lack of context. Joel never mentions who he addresses, and historians struggle to pinpoint the time and location of its writing. Some place it well before the exile, back when Israel and Judah thrived; others throw it after the reign of Nebuchadnezzar when the exiles returned to the holy land. Interesting? Maybe to some.

But there is something else beneath the surface here – a slow-burning taunt. The first half of this three-chapter book focuses on the sins of the little culture and their due retribution in the form of plague. “You know what you did,” he says over and over. And then, we transition rather suddenly into the end-of-the-world prophecy, told in very vivid fashion. For the first time, we are treated to some of the actual events that will lead up to the inevitable judgment of all humanity. There will be “blood and fire and billows of smoke,” and “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” (2:30-31). Then, we will all participate in a global war, ending in the “day of the Lord.”

The imagery is grotesque and violent. Darkness and fire and blood in the streets. The day of the Lord will not be a fun day.

Joel structures his testament brilliantly. First, a real-world example. Look at the locusts – now recall your sin. One resulted in the other. And then, he has the application laid out for the rest of us. “See what happened to these people when they sinned?” He asks. “Now recall your sin, and guess what will happen to you.” An effective strategy. It forces the reader into paranoiac reflection. What have I done? We ask. And do I deserve what comes next?

A taunt and a warning. End of the Book of Joel.