2.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)
Like Obadiah, Joel does not date his book, so internal evidence must guide its dating. Liberal scholars usually place Joel in the post-exilic period. They list as evidence no mention of a king or the sin of idolatry in the book, and argue that these characteristics are typical of conditions in post-exilic Israel. Other arguments for a later date include the mention of Greeks and the supposed reference to the Babylonian captivity in the past tense (both from Joel 3:6). Generally, conservative scholars (such as Leon Wood) provide plausible, biblical-historical replies to this evidence to argue that an earlier date is more likely. Wood’s conservative dating places Joel in the ninth century during the reign of King Joash of Judah (835-796 B.C.), possibly contemporaneous to Obadiah. Evidence for such a date includes the list of enemies of Judah, which corresponds nicely to the reign of Joash: “Tyre and Sidon to the north (3:4), Philistia to the west (3:4), Egypt to the southeast (3:19), and Edom to the south (3:19).” Other facts that lend credence to an early date are its canonical placement with the earlier minor prophets and the “apparent dependence of later prophets on Joel. For instance, Amos 1:2 seems to refer to Joel 3:16, and Amos 9:13 to Joel 3:18. Further, Isaiah 13:6 seems to lean upon Joel 1:15.”
Evangelical scholars Dillard and Longman catalog twelve internal evidences that suggest a post-exilic date. Since the arguments are compelling for both the pre- and post-exilic options from a biblical-historical perspective, there can be no certainty to dating Joel. That being said, this study assumes a ninth century date.
It is instructive to note that the locust plague that constitutes the historical setting of Joel cannot be used to ascertain the date of authorship, since locust plagues in the land of Palestine have occurred “with some frequency down through the years, the last one being as recent as [A.D.] 1915.”
2.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)
If Joel was a ninth century prophet, then the historical milieu in which he ministered immediately followed that of Obadiah, and was therefore similar being only a generation later. King Joash followed the wicked Queen Athaliah as the new king of Israel. He was not of age to rule, so the high priest Jehoiada exerted strong influence as Joash’s advisor. Wood writes,
As long as Jehoiada continued as high priest, Joash remained a true follower of God; when he died the king changed. He then began to listen to new advisors who were more sympathetic to the deposed cult of Baal-Melqart (II Chron. 24:17, 18)…One may think of Joel living all through this stormy period of time. He would have known of Athaliah’s despicable action in slaying her grandchildren, of her own wicked rule and the Baal worship she imported, and of the great relief experienced when young Joash was made king in her place…Joel apparently wrote his book a few years after this change had come, when the sinful ways she had instituted were no longer existent.
2.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)
Nothing is known of Joel the man outside of his prophetic book. He tells us that his father was Pethuel. We can guess that Pethuel feared the God of Israel, for he named his son Joel (literally, “Yahweh is God”). We may also speculate that Joel, as a prophet during the monarchical period, dutifully served as a spokesman for God to the rulers of the house of Israel, bringing charges for breaking the laws of the covenant. But it is certain that Joel was a well-educated man by observing the polished literary style of his book, complete with stark imagery and figures of speech. Wood also perceives Joel as a prophet concerned about the future and the judgment that will befall Israel for her sin. His literary tone reveals a passion for true worship of Israel’s redeemer and covenant Lord, demonstrating his holy character as a “man of God.”
2.4 The Book (abbreviated outline and brief summary)
I. Superscription (1:1)
II. Crises Demanding Repentance (1:2-2:17)
A. Recent Devastation by Locust and Drought (1:2-20)
B. Future Devastation on the Day of the Lord (2:1-17)
III. Divine Responses to Repentance (2:18-3:21)
A. Promise of Renewal (2:18-32)
1. Renewal of the Land (2:18-27)
2. Renewal of God’s People (2:28-32)
B. Final Judgment and Blessings (3:1-21)
1. Judgment on the Nations (3:1-16)
2. Blessings for God’s People (3:17-21)
The book contains literary and structural hints that it was “either a liturgical text intended for repeated use on occasions of national lament or at least a historical example of one such lament.” The vagueness (or lack) of historical details characteristic of the book’s contents may be explained by such an intended liturgical purpose, which in turn would provide an adequate reason for the difficulty of dating Joel.
Robertson provides an excellent summary of the primary thematic elements of Joel.
Building solidly on the unifying theme of the coming Day of the Lord, Joel’s message moves dramatically toward its crescendo. First God’s own people undergo a “scorched earth” judgment as a consequence of a devastating plague of locusts (1:4-2:11). But beyond the defoliation of the Lord’s own land is nothing less than a miraculous restoration, when the Lord returns all that the locusts have eaten (2:25). Yet the Lord’s concern is not merely for his own Israel. It extends to all the nations. Just as the sky was blackened by the cloud of little creatures so that sun, moon, and stars were darkened, so the coming Day of the Lord will bring about a universal blackening of the skies above all the nations (2:10, 31; 3:15). Multitudes will be gathered in the Valley of Decision—not so that the peoples of the world may decide for or against God, but that God may render his judgment over all humanity (3:14). In that great and terrible coming Day of the Lord, a finalizing divine judgment will set the stage for the inauguration of a new age.
16. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 267.
17. Ibid., p. 268.
18. Many evangelicals opt for a later, post-exilic date. These scholars usually rely on evidence in line with the Christian analogy of faith (as opposed to the Enlightenment’s suspicious principle of analogy). Examples of such include Willem Van Gemeren, W.F. Albright, Raymond B. Dillard, and Tremper Longman III.
19. Wood, Prophets of Israel, pp. 266-67.
20. Ibid., p. 267.
21. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 365-67.
22. See Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 270 fn. 3, which cites a National Geographic report of a modern Jerusalem locust plague.
23. Ibid., pp. 269-70.
24. Ibid., p. 270.
26. “Joel,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, p. 1426.
27. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 367.
28. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, pp. 241-42.