As one reads Joel, it is important to catch the changes in verb tense and in chronology. The first chapter describes a historical locust plague, one of such magnitude that the prophet sees it as a punishment from God and urges the people to fast and repent before God. Chapter 2 moves on to God's army of locusts, speaking of them in the present tense. It is easy to see the depictions of the locust plague as the testimony of a person who actually witnessed the calamity. The description is immediately followed by another call to repent from God Himself (Joel 2:12-17).
Then, in verse 18, the tense of the verb changes from present to future tense. This is significant because it signals that the locust plague of chapters 1 and 2 is a type of something similar in the end time. The language changes slightly to describe the future fulfillment, and the reader has to understand that it applies only in type to the historical fulfillment. By the time we read the end of Joel 2, the focus is primarily on the future event. In fact, the locust plague of ancient Judah is almost entirely forgotten.
We can see this in verses 26-29. In the first two of those verses, Joel writes about the post-restoration people of God: “My people shall never be put to shame.” This cannot be true of the ancient Jews, who have repeatedly been put to shame down through the centuries. The history of the Jews has been a litany of distrust, accusation, oppression, exile, exclusion, and even holocaust. Clearly, Joel is looking far into the future.
What Is Joel 2 Really About?
Joel 2 is a more complete description of this nation of insects that has overrun Judea, describing the individual soldiers and their actions. We must read these verses carefully to notice that he is describing the locusts metaphorically to raise the reader's emotional response.
Joel 2:4 says they have “the appearance of horsemen”; they do not actually look like horses or have horses, but they run as horses do, headlong and swiftly. This is also a reference to their warlike activity, since the Bible connects horses with war (see Proverbs 21:31). This exact comparison is made in Revelation 9:7, part of the description of the fifth trumpet plague: “The shape of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle.”
Verse 5 describes their assault as so exceedingly massive and heavy that the beating of their wings sounds like chariots on the move. Two verses later, Joel depicts their rush toward their prey, writing that they run “like mighty men, . . . every one marches in formation,” up and over the walls. Nothing stops or hinders them. They are a determined, unstoppable force.
In the King James Version, verse 8 reads, “. . . when they fall upon the sword, they shall not be wounded.” The translators of The Amplified Version seem to have a better grasp of the situation, rendering this as, “And they burst through and upon the weapons, yet they are not wounded and do not change their course.” Locusts certainly would not be hurt by landing on a sword, and trying to kill millions of them with ordinary hand weapons would be a futile endeavor indeed.
The following verse shows them in firm control of every part of the city, running wherever they please. They climb into houses through the windows and any other opening, covering the walls and roofs, part of the living quarters at the time. No soldier with actual weapons at the ready would try to climb through a window if a doorway were readily available! Going in through a window would be an awkward and dangerous way of entering a building. But for locusts, such an entry would be natural.
Finally, in Joel 2:11, God takes responsibility for this “nation” of insect soldiers on the march: “The LORD gives voice before His army, for His camp is very great; for strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; who can endure it?” He repeats His ownership of this army in verse 25, calling it once again “My great army which I sent among you.” He sent it as punishment for sin and breaking the covenant, and the locusts did their jobs with brutal efficiency.
What happened to God's vast army of locusts? Joel 2:20 speaks primarily of the future human fulfillment of this, describing a “northern army” removed into a barren, uninhabited area between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, where its soldiers will die and rot with a great stench. Perhaps a similar thing happened to the horde of locusts.
Joel does not record how many died as a result of this catastrophe, but it must have been significant. Because there are no crops with which to feed those left alive, God must send them “grain and new wine and oil” (verse 19). Unless He sent a miracle that caused the crops to rise up and mature overnight, as He did to the gourd that provided shade for Jonah (Jonah 4:6), it would have to be in the form of humanitarian aid from other nations. Without such an extraordinary miracle, several years must pass before the agricultural cycle returns to normal productivity.
In verse 22, the pastures are restored, as are the fruit and fig trees and grape vines. We could expect that the wheat and barley harvests would soon resume. Again, without an absolutely stunning miracle, the restoration of these crops takes time. When fruit trees have had their bark removed and eaten by locusts, those trees are dead and need to be replaced.
After fruit trees are replanted, its fruit cannot be eaten until the fifth year, as Leviticus 19:23-25 commands. So the fruit trees could not be counted on to help relieve the famine.
Nevertheless, eventually, the productivity of the land returns to normal. The former and the latter rains water the earth on schedule (Joel 2:23), a sign of God's faithfulness to His people and the covenant. Wheat fills the threshing floors (meaning that a bumper crop was harvested), and vats of new wine and oil overflow (verse 24). Actually, it appears as if conditions were improved to better than normal, with peace ample food and the resulting joy and gladness!
What Is Joel 2 Really About?
The warning has gone out to the church. God has said, "Get ready! Prepare for the worst." We are right on the threshold of the greatest period of testing and trial ever to come on mankind, and we must have something to sustain us if we are to endure it.
Jesus said to His disciples that love will wax cold (Matthew 24:12). But "he that endures to the end, the same shall be saved" (verse 13). He hints that some of His brethren will go through that terrible time. If God permits us to escape it, then great. This is why Joel 2:14 says, "Who knows? Maybe He will leave a blessing behind." We do not know for sure if that will be the case with us.
In the past, many in the church of God played an incredible game of being prudent agnostics, of believing but not being truly committed, as shown by their conduct. They were acquainted with God, but not really seeking to know Him. They were just hanging loose, hedging their bets, floating around, ready to go in any direction that offered the most comfortable, non-sacrificial solution. In that circumstance, the church often merely became nothing more than a fraternal organization.
But this is reality: Jesus Christ is our Lord and Master. He owns us. He redeemed us, bought us with a price, and He can do whatever He wants to do with us—and we committed ourselves to Him. Wholehearted commitment is part of the deal. We do not want to be like the Israelites who prostituted themselves in faithlessness, forsaking their covenant with the government of Almighty God.
We in the church are not without warning. God expects us to use the warning to be both comforted and prepared.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Trumpets Is a Day of Hope
God uses graphic language here. What is coming should not be anticipated lightly. It will be painful like no time in history has ever been painful. There will be so much fear and anxiety that it is beyond our comprehension to understand— especially when we think of this in light of the peoples of the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, countries whose entire populations have never really had to face the horrors of war. Some of our men have been involved in war, but we have never had our own shores touched by a war anything like this. It will pale the Civil War and the World Wars into insignificance when it finally occurs.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Don't Be a Prudent Agnostic
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Joel 2:12: