The prophet Joel is one of the most unknown characters in the entire Bible. We know that he was the son of Pethuel and that he ministered to the kingdom of Judah…and that’s about it. It’s impossible to even date the book because he doesn’t really give us any dating details. The book of Joel has been dated from 835 BC all the way to 500 BC. However, the dating of the book really doesn’t matter, because the central message is one that is timeless.
One of the things we do know about the book of Joel is that it took place during and shortly after a plague of locusts had invaded Judah. Frustratingly, even this doesn’t give us a ballpark date for the book because locusts swarms are pretty common in the Middle East. They were also one of the plagues that were announced upon Israel as a result of disobedience to the covenant that they made with God in the book of Deuteronomy. So we do know that the book took place during a time of rebellion in the history of Judah.
The book of Joel is pretty unique among the prophets. However, he does share one thing in common with almost all of the prophets. He pronounces judgment for disobedience, and blessing for repentance. If I could sum up the Minor Prophets in one description that’s exactly what it would be. First and foremost, they were charged with attempting to get people back into covenant relationship with God.
The prophet begins his book with a call to repentance. Once again, Judah found itself in rebellion against God, and once again they were being punished for it. Joel tells the people that the only way out of the mess that they have created for themselves is to repent and return to the Lord. He encourages them to weep and howl, and even proclaims a fast. Apparently this first pronouncement went unheeded, because he proceeds to announce another coming invasion at the beginning of the next chapter.
In the middle of Joel chapter 2 is where everything changes, and it is also where I want to focus. The most famous passage in Joel is at the end of chapter 2, and it is quoted by Peter in Acts chapter 2. However, that passage is not the turning point of the book. It is simply a promise of blessing that is given to the people because of their response to Joel’s second call for repentance in the middle of the chapter.
The people are told to rend their “hearts and not their garments.” A common show of despair and distress in the Middle East during this time was for someone to tear their clothes. In the eyes of Joel simply tearing one’s clothes was not a true sign of repentance. Don’t miss his emphasis here. He is telling his listeners that a show of repentance alone is not good enough. There must be a true and sincere repentance, a repentance that results in a 180 degree turn in the other direction.
I call this the turning point of the book simply because repentance is always the turning point. It should be a common practice in the life of any Christian. We should wake up every single day with the mindset of getting in line with God. If I got out of step with him the previous day, then repentance draws me back in step with him. That was essentially Joel’s message. If the people wanted the promises and blessings of God then it was imperative for them to get lined back up with him. Again, we see the consistent pattern of the prophets calling the people back into covenant relationship with God.
To me it is interesting that there are two judgments pronounced, but also two chances given for repentance in the book of Joel. Anytime that God pronounced judgment in the Minor Prophets there was always an opportunity given for repentance. God doesn’t delight in judging his people. He wants us to take our covenant relationship with him seriously. If we will repent and obey, then he will always show mercy and grace. If we don’t, then we will be judged, but even his judgment isn’t forever. In reality, his judgment is simply a means to an end. He is trying to get our attention so that we will turn back to him.
When Peter preached his sermon on the Day of Pentecost he began with repentance. He told his audience the same thing that Joel had told his audience hundreds of years before that day: they were at fault, and they needed to amend their ways. This is how all great revivals throughout history have started. It’s really not complicated. If you want God to move then turn to him in sincerity and truth.
When we fail to preach repentance we are only failing ourselves. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of this type of preaching anymore. Preachers, especially in America, would rather coddle their listeners and make them feel good about themselves. We have become way more fascinated with entertainment than actually preaching the truth of the word of God, and that is extremely dangerous. The only real way back to God is real repentance, the kind of repentance that the prophet Joel stressed over 2,500 years ago.