The book of Joel is a prophecy divided into three chapters. The prophet begins by describing an event so singularly extreme that it has never happened before, one that demands to be related to succeeding generations, as it will never occur again. It is a warning to the people about the dangers of turning from God.
What Joel describes is an attack by invading swarms of locusts. The assault almost seems coordinated: “What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten” (verse 4). As he goes on to relate, the devastation has been so complete that nothing is forthcoming: There will be no new wine, no figs, no wheat, no barley, no pomegranates, no dates, no apples—not even anything that could be used to make an offering to God (verse 9).
So, in verse 14, the prophet urges the people to sanctify themselves, fast, and gather together to beseech the Eternal for mercy, for conditions are dire.
Joel captures the depth of the dearth, devastation, and the urgency of the moment. This is what a day of judgment from the Lord looks like: scarcity, destruction, pain, wailing, fire, and drought. Death cannot be far behind. Only a return to God and His subsequent compassion can fix such a dire situation.
Before we move on, we should consider the drought the prophet mentions in verse 20. Droughts do not come and go quickly. It takes time to dry up the rivers and streams. Judea had probably fallen on hard times caused by drought for an extended period before the army of locusts attacked. Indeed, in areas like Africa that are periodically subject to being overrun by locusts, there is invariably at least a year-long drought prior to the land being covered by uncountable millions of locusts. If the drought is part of God's punishment on an apostatizing people, their backsliding had been ongoing for a good while.
To make a nearly impossible agricultural situation even more difficult, Joel announces that a “nation” (Joel 1:6) has come upon his land, and its population is “strong, and without number.” The nation of which he speaks, as we have seen, is not made up of humans but of locusts. God says, “[That nation] has laid watste My vine, and ruined My fig tree. He has stripped it bare and thrown it away; its branches are made white” (verse 7).
What Is Joel 2 Really About?