Joel is classified as a minor prophet, the second of twelve such books canonized in the Bible. Locusts overrun Joel’s text as they do the landscape he describes, figuring prominently in two of the book’s three chapters (Joel 1:1-2:17). The prophet addresses Judah, a land ravaged by a locust invasion that has destroyed everything in its wake (Joel 1:4).
What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten;Joel likens the locusts to an invading army (Joel 2:4-11).
And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten;
And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4 NASB)
Locusts were no laughing matter and Joel’s allusion to the insects represents powerful language. James E. Smith (b. 1939) describes:
Newly hatched locusts resemble ants or tiny roaches. Fully developed, these “hoppers” as they are called form marching bands up to ten miles wide and ten miles long. These bands move forward at a slow pace of about 250 feet per hour. Within their path they consume virtually every blade of grass or legume. No obstacle can stop this irresistible insect army. (Smith, The Minor Prophets, 67)John D.W. Watts (b. 1921) adds:
Joel skilfully blends the imagery of prophecy with the realistic experience of the locust plague. Travellers who have seen such confirm the accuracy of the account. Locust swarms darken the sky like an eclipse of the sun; at dusk the low rays of the sun catch their wings, reflecting an eerie light. (Watts, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible)), 25)Joel depicts an especially harsh invasion. David Allan Hubbard (1928-1996) examines:
The devastation does not stop with the laying waste...of grapes and leaves, but includes also the splintering...of the fig tree; the bark itself is peeled off and thrown down so that the denuded branches appear white. A California agricultural official reported that ‘what they...don’t eat they cut off for entertainment.; He also noted that in the wake of the insects, fields are left ‘bare as the floor’, apple trees are stripped of every leaf and rose bushes are consumed through the green bark. During the same attack, a farmer lamented that 100 acres of his bean field had been ‘completely cleared by the hoppers. Joel’s account is not hyperbolic but factual. (Hubbard, Joel and Amos (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 45)James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) cites another historical example:
When the locust invasion of 1915 struck Palestine and Syria the desolation was as great as anyone could have possibly imagined. The first swarms appeared in March. The final stages did not depart until early summer. During that four-or-five-month period the land was stripped of every green thing: vines, fig trees, grain. Still, bad as the destruction was, the locusts did move on and in time the land recovered. (Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical Commentary, 106)Though Joel was not the first to take literary license with the destructive creatures, he adds his own unique spin. John Barton (b. 1948) chronicles:
The imagery occurs elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. In Judges 6:5 the Midianites and Amalekites used to come up against Israel “as thick as locusts” (cf. also Judges 7:12), while Jeremiah 51:14 threatens Babylon that YHWH will “fill you with troops like a swarm locusts. And James L. Crenshaw [b. 1934] cites a Sumerian text..Perhaps we should...see some originality in Joel’s reversal of the image, making locusts seem like an invading army. As so often in the prophets, a familiar trope is given new life, in this case by being reversed. I do not know of any other case inside or outside the Bible in which literal locusts become a metaphorical army. (Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 43-44)There is great debate as to whether Joel is speaking literally or figuratively. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) explains:
Many commentators agree that Joel describes a literal locust plague in the first chapter, though there is much more dispute about the second chapter. The suggestion has also been made (Douglas Stuart [b. 1943]) that even in the first chapter the locusts stand for an invading army, either the Assyrians or the Babylonians. While there may be elements of hyperbole in Joel’s description of the locust plague, as when he asks rhetorically whether anything like this has happened before, the poetic language reflects a manner of expression common among the Hebrews (cf. II Kings 18:5, 23:25). Locust plagues were greatly feared, and this particular one could have been unusually severe. (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah: An Exegetical Commentary, 26)Most modern commentators agree that Judah has experienced the devastating effects of locusts. Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) explicates:
Most scholars interpret the locusts in both chapters in strictly contemporary terms, and this is the most natural way of construing the material. Joel 1:2-4 speaks of the locusts as a present threat to Joel’s generation and the occasion of his summons to lamentation. Joel 1:16 confirms this impression of direct involvement with the ravages of real locusts. The past verbs of Joel 2:18, 19 categorize Yahweh’s response to the locust crisis and the people’s penitential cries as having already occurred. It is significant that the locusts behave in a literal manner: they ravage fields, trees, and fruit, but do not kill or plunder, or take prisoners of war. They are indeed described metaphorically as an attacking army and are compared with soldiers, but to conceive of figurative locusts who are like the soldiers they are supposed to represent is a tortuous and improbable interpretation. Moreover, the restoration promised by Yahweh in Joel 2:18-27 concerns the material damage associated with locust attacks. In Amos 7:1-3, a locust plague is certainly a symbol of coming destruction, and Revelation 9:3, 7-9 actually applies Joel’s language to an apocalyptic event, but these passages provide no warrant for detaching the theme of Joel from its historical and literary contexts. (Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 29-30)David Prior (b. 1940) rationalizes:
Such a detailed description is more likely the result of actually seeing locusts at work in such profusion. All the descriptions we have of this phenomenon substantiate the accuracy of Joel’s language. The prophet does not exaggerate the situation one bit. Probably only those who have not experienced locusts on the march cannot conceive such an appalling scenario. (Prior, Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (Bible Speaks Today), 23-24)Whether describing a swarm of locusts or an invading army, Joel’s point is clear: The catastrophe is only a sign of things to come. The people are dealing with an earthly phenomenon but soon they will contend with the day of the Lord.
David W. Baker (b. 1950) envisions:
Joel likens God’s judgment to an army of locusts that descends on us all. Like a winged AIDS infestation they destroy everything in their path. It is clear that for Joel, the locust invasion is a metaphor for what will happen on the Day of the Lord, when all righteousness accounts will be settled. To describe this judgment we are driven to metaphors of nature, the economy, or foreign armies, but Joel’s point is that the scope of God’s judgment exceeds them all. (Baker, Joel, Obadiah, Malachi (The NIV Application Commentary), 13)Lloyd J. Ogilvie (b. 1930) substantiates:
The coming day of the Lord described in chapter 2 results in a cosmic upheaval described in Joel 2:10. This is more than the effect of locusts or even a powerful human army. The language here is reminiscent especially of various theophany texts (Judges 5:4-5; Psalms 18:7-15, 68:8, 97:2-5) and also of other day of the Lord passages (Isaiah 13:10, 13). (Ogilvie, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Mastering the Old Testament), 224)In making this leap, Joel draws from tradition. Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. delineates:
That the prophet would draw the connection between the locust plague and a greater judgment to follow should come as no surprise. When the Lord judged the Egyptians prior to the Exodus, a locust plague preceded the final plagues of darkness and death (Exodus 10:1-11:10, 12:29-30). The curse list in Deuteronomy 28 associates locust plagues with death and exile (cf. Deuteronomy 28:38, 42). (Chisholm, Interpreting the Minor Prophets, 56)The desired response to all of this destruction and the looming Day of the Lord is repentance (Joel 2:12).
Do you think that Joel intended to depict a literal swarm of locusts or an invading army or both? How does making this choice influence your reading of the prophet? Why does Joel incorporate military imagery? What do you need to repent of?
As horrific as Joel’s imagery is, the locusts do not get the last word (Joel 2:25). Trent C. Butler (b. 1941) relays:
Joel ends his book on an unexpected note. No more locust plagues. No more army invasions. No more natural disasters. No more punishment. The Day of the Lord will bring salvation to God’s people—a salvation marked by his eternal presence with them. One thing made that possible. God pardoned, forgave, and annulled all the punishment they deserved. (Butler, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 155-56)Judah’s survival from the locusts provides hope for future endurance. Bruce C. Birch (b. 1941) connects:
This experience of salvation in a present crisis leads to the prophet’s vision of God’s future salvation, when the day of the Lord does come (Joel 2:31, 3:14). The prophet dares hope that this will not be a date of judgment for Judah. With relationship restored between God and God’s people that future day will be a day of salvation in all its fulness. Such a day of salvation includes, in Joel’s vision, a pouring out of God’s spirit on all people in a way that overcomes differences of gender and age and social status; men and women, young and old, slave and free alike shall be linked to God by the mutual empowerment of God’s spirit (Joel 2:25-29). This is the text and the vision that formed the basis of Peter’s sermon following the Pentecost experience [Acts 2:16-21]. (Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Westminster Bible Companion), 129)Even the worst calamity Joel can imagine is nothing in comparison to the redemptive power of God.
When has your past endurance given you hope in the present? Is there any situation so dark that God cannot brighten it?
“We must not offer people a system of redemption, a set of insights and principles. We offer people a Redeemer.” - Paul David Tripp (b. 1950), Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change, p. 8