Sunday’s Uniform Series text is Joel 2:12-13, 18-19, 28-32; but here for reference is all of Joel 2:12-32:
(12) Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; (13) rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. (14) Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? (15) Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, (16) gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. (17) Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?”
(18) Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people. (19) In response to his people the Lord said: I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations. (20) I will remove the northern army far from you, and drive it into a parched and desolate land, its front into the eastern sea, and its rear into the western sea, its stench and foul smell will rise up. Surely he has done great things! (21) Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! (22) Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green, the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. (23) O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. (24) The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. (25) I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. (26) You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never be put to shame. (27) You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
(28) Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (29) Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (30) I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. (31) The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (32) Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
The very brief book of Joel is part of the “the 12,” or the “minor prophets” – minor not because they are less than important, but because their writings are shorter than those of the “major” prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The book doesn’t say much about Joel, and gives very few clues; it’s clear he’s a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah, there seems to be a consensus that the work is from the time of the divided kingdoms, although there have been some suggestions that maybe the work is post-exilic. I myself don’t see that in the text; the reference to worship “between the vestibule and the altar” led by priests, the lists of the nations in ch. 3, all seem to speak more to an earlier date to me.
The immediate context of the passage is Joel 1, which describes a plague of locusts and a drought, and the first 11 verses of Joel 2, which describes an invading army (in context, it’s easy to read this “army” as the locusts mentioned earlier), and notes that this destructive army is responding to the voice of YHWH, and brings the “day of the Lord,” which is “terrible indeed.” So the statement “Yet even now” is an immediate response to this disaster: yet even now, “return” and God could “turn” from this destructive plan. God’s “turn” is a direct response to the people’s “turn” or return
In v. 13, the return involves inward, core change rather than formal, outward signs of change: “rend your hearts and not your garments.” [tearing clothing happens many times in the Bible, in the context of loss and death; as an aside, today, kriah – tearing clothing, or using a black ribbon to stand in for actual tearing – is a part of Jewish ritual mourning for the dead, and is understood to signify grief and anger in the face of the loss of an irreplaceable human life. So tearing our hearts would go much, much deeper as an expression of grief and maybe also convey a determination to change.]
Joel does not indicate what specifically the people have been doing that they need to turn from – all we know is that it involves a departure from God. It may involve worship, because the instructions in verses 15-17 suggest worship led by the priests is part of the return. [So, it’s tempting to read “idolatry” onto the text … but maybe we ought to resist that temptation, since Joel doesn’t actually say that. All we know for sure is that people need to return to God.]
Verses 18-19 seem to announce God’s decision to relent, as v. 14 hoped, and reverse – or hold off – the disasters of ch. 1 & the first part of ch. 2. Verse 18 reports the change of motivation, and verse 19 begins direct discourse by God, including an announcement of restoration (v. 19), the disposition of the locust army (v. 20), instructions to the land and the creatures of the land (vv. 21-22), and then a detailed announcement of the restoration and its consequences for the people (vv. 23-27) – a little ambiguity about who is speaking in v. 23? Since God would be talking about himself in the third person? But otherwise, it all still seems like direct divine discourse, especially the very positive identification of God with God’s people in v. 27.
It looks to me like verses 28-29 are a chiasm:
(a) I will pour out my spirit (b) on all flesh (c) sons and daughters shall prophesy
(d) old men will dream dreams
(c’) young men will see visions (b’) male and female slaves (a’) I will pour out my spirit
Normally, we read this outpouring of God’s spirit as a good thing; like a plussing-out of the positive material consequences described in vv. 23-26, and another sign of the reality of v. 27, that God is in the midst of Israel.
But, the great and terrible day of YHWH is still coming. Verses 30-32 might raise the question: why? If the people have returned and YHWH has turned, why is the great and terrible day of YHWH still coming? Does this mean it is not necessarily associated with the misbehavior of the people of Judah? Does that day have a location? Is it restricted to Mount Zion and Jerusalem, or is it more widespread? Are “the survivors” of v. 32 only inhabitants of Mount Zion and Jerusalem who have escaped, or will it include people from elsewhere – that is, where does “everyone who calls on the name of YHWH” come from? Or is the location “Mount Zion and Jerusalem,” is being “in” that place, the equivalent of calling on the name of YHWH?
Joel 3 suggests that the day of YHWH will involve all the nations, and will involve recompense for mistreatment of Judah and Jerusalem, so that might suggest some answers to questions about vv. 30-32. In Acts 2, Peter cites the same text (Acts 2:16-21) in the context of the Christian Pentecost event, where it gets a different spin (maybe – unless the spin it gets tells us something about how 1st century readers of scripture read this text): the outpouring of God’s spirit and the idea that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” seems to signal the possibility of radical inclusive ingathering.
Overall, this passage in Joel emphasizes the determination of the YHWH to call for the people’s return, and to bless the people materially and spiritually as a consequence of that return; YHWH’s desire for the people and desire to bless people is emphatic, despite the surrounding context of disaster, and the ominous possibilities of the “day of the LORD.”