The Vision Of Joel
Exposition of the Book of Joel
3. The Lord's Great Army
"Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain.....for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near," (Joel 2.1 RSV).
This is the second stage of the prophecy, and Joel's spiritual vision is becoming keener; he begins to see farther into the future. The language employed in the first part of this chapter is still fitting to the plague of locusts that formed the opening theme of chapter 1. The words and terms used are so much stronger and more pointed as to leave little room for doubt that under the figure of the locust swarm a great and devastating invasion of Israel's land is depicted. There is no resisting the oncoming hosts; even the sun and moon withdraw their light and no defence that the people can offer will be of any avail. The day of the Lord, great and very terrible, has come, and who can abide it?
At this crisis, (v. 11) the prophet points to a way of escape. Turn to the Lord he cries and repent for He is gracious and merciful. Who knows but that He will turn and deliver? It is while the people are considering this message that the second alarm comes (v15). The enemy is now at the gates and the crisis is upon them. "Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly." The appeal to God for deliverance becomes a reality; priests and people make common cause in supplication and in the spirit of true repentance. Every ordinary occupation and preoccupation is suspended and the entire nation comes together in sincere and heartfelt prayer to God. He turns! From that point the danger begins to lessen. "Then will the Lord be jealous for his land, and pity his people." (v 18),. He goes forth like a man of war and drives away the alien invader. He returns then to His own people and begins to bless them in basket and store. All that they have lost is restored to them, and they know at last that He is their God and is dwelling in their midst. At that point the prophecy merges so definitely into the events of this Gospel Age Time of Trouble that there is no mistaking the application. Here is where we have the promise, quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost that God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh, and deliverance, absolute and complete, will be the portion of those who call upon the name of the Lord. Verses 21-32 of this chapter have never yet been fulfilled in the history of Israel. Their realization lies, in the future; and this is a guide to us in our interpretation of the entire chapter. At this point Joel saw, in vision, into this time in which we are now living.
Now the first part of the chapter had a primary fulfilment soon after Joel's own day, when the northern armies overran Israel and Judah, and took the people captive, leaving their land desolate. But the thread of prophecy ran its course only as far as v 14 and stopped because the people did not repent! The completion of the prophecy was postponed for many long days because of that fact. Came a day when Israel was afforded another opportunity; the Prince of Life Himself was among them, the nations again were threatening them, and again the thread of prophecy ran to v 14, and stopped again. They "knew not the time of their visitation" and they did not repent. Once more their house was left unto them desolate. Now, to-day, after these many years, the cup of suffering of God's ancient people is filling to the brim. As in the past, their enemies hem them in on every hand Once more the Lord's great army stands ready to execute judgment. But this time the prophecy will run on to its full end, for this time Israel will repent, and in faith and confidence look to God for deliverance. We must look at this chapter therefore as having its beginning in the days of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, and its ending in our own day, the day of Israel's final deliverance.
"Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the Lord comes, for it is nigh at hand," (v.1). What is this "Day of the Lord" to which the prophets so often refer? It is nearly always associated with judgment. It is the day of reckoning, of retribution, the time when the evil harvest of this world's sowing has to be reaped. There was a day of the Lord to come to Israel because of her waywardness just as there is a day of the Lord to come to the entire world because of its wickedness. Here in Joel the special application is to Israel; the time of judgment was about to come upon them and nothing could save them from its impact, although repentance and faith would bring them through it, saved "so as by fire". It is a long day too. This "day of the Lord" began with the taking of the Ten Tribes, and then, a little later, the Two Tribes into captivity and it is to last for twenty seven hundred years, until the time of "Jacob's Trouble", yet future. It endures thus long because it can only end with Israel's repentance and Israel has not yet repented. So it is that the exhortation in vv 11-14 "'Yet even now', says the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart..'" stands as an impassable barrier to the completion of the prophecy, until Israel's blindness is turned away as described by Paul in Rom.11. 23-26. Well might Joel cry the urgency of his message and call for a trumpet in Zion, for the day of the Lord whose coming he pronounced as imminent was to commence a little less than a century after his preaching. "A day of darkness and of gloom" he cries "a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains" (vs. 2). That last phrase is badly translated; the thought behind it is, that of a stormy dawn when, instead of the light of the rising sun, there are masses of black thunderclouds banked along the mountain-tops, blotting out the daylight. As Isaiah said "In that day.... if one looked to the land, behold darkness and sorrow and the light is darkened in the heavens." (Isa 5.30). Zephaniah, also, saw "a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities. (Zeph.1.15-16 RSV). As Joel said later on, the sun and the moon were darkened, and the stars had withdrawn their shining, and above all men there hung the sable curtain of Divine displeasure.
Against this black background the prophet sees the advancing army. "A great people and a strong" he cries in a fright "there has never been the like, neither shall be after it, even to the years of many generations" (v 2). In the advance guard Joel saw the Assyrians of his own day, marching relentlessly to the despoiling of Israel's fair land. Close on their heels he could perhaps, see the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, coming a hundred and fifty years later to overturn the Kingdom of Judah and bring the royal kingship to an end. Behind them, more dimly, maybe he could see Greeks and Romans and Persians and Arabs and Turks, all the forces of the Gentiles that were destined to oppress Israel down the ages and despoil their heritage continually. And it might even be that the vision of the prophet, supernaturally sharpened, saw, up against the darkness itself, behind all the others, the shadowy outlines of that greatest oppressor of all, the mysterious King of Daniel 11, and those forces of the north which are described in Ezekiel 38, the last of all these locust waves, which are appointed to ravage Israel. All these are legions of the Lord's great army which He has sent to execute His word and all these have played or will play their part in executing the Divine judgments upon that stiff-necked and wayward people that marvellously becomes God's own people of faith at the last.
The history of the ages is sufficient to reveal how true it has been of this great army. To quote the words of v.3, "a fire devours before them and behind them a flame burns: the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them". The rest of the passage, up to v 9, is a vivid description of the havoc wrought by a ruthless invader and although commentators almost invariably apply it to the devastation wrought by locusts and point to the fitness of almost every sentence to that application, it remains true that the passage even more fitly refers to the capture of a city by a hostile army, and when taken in relation to the following verses describing Divine intervention for the people's salvation, quite certainly to Gentile nations that have harried Israel in the day of her adversity and will be smitten by God in the day of her prosperity.
The section, verses 4 to 9, tells of the invasion from the first sight of the coming enemy on the far distant hills to that dread moment when the defenders, pressed back into their last stronghold within the city, behold with fear the ruthless soldiers climbing in at their windows and battering down their doors. So has it been, and will be, in Israel's long history; the enemy has continually advanced more and more closely to their total destruction until in their last days it seems as though they are appointed to utter extinction and nothing can save them. "The appearance of them is as the appearance of horses: and as horsemen, so shall they run". Here the alarmed watchers on the city walls discern the first signs of the attack, the dust clouds raised by the hoofs of the galloping horses and the following war chariots. The movements of those agile steeds may be observed before the outlines of the lumbering chariots behind them can be discerned. But not for long, for "like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devours the stubble, as a strong people set in battle array" (v.5). The chariots are now in view, bumping and rattling over the rocky ground and precipitous slopes. The likening of the advance of this host to a sheet of flame eating up the dry stubble of a field as it advances at rapid pace is very apt. Now the invaders have reached the city walls. "They shall run like mighty men: they shall climb the wall like men of war: and they shall march every one on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks" (vs. 7). They have stormed the walls and forced their way into the city, and the desperate defenders have retreated to the shelter of their houses, but to no avail. Their relentless enemies follow hard upon their heels. "They shall run to and fro in the city; they shall run upon the wall, they shall climb up upon the houses; they shall enter in at the windows like a thief" (v.9). This is the supreme crisis; the foe has besieged and taken the city and has appeared at the house doors to satiate his lust for pillage and ravage. Zechariah saw that same picture when he spoke (Zech.14) of the city being taken, and the houses rifled, and some going forth into captivity. In Zechariah the statement is made that at that crisis the Lord will go forth and deliver His people, but without indicating just why that deliverance comes about. Here in Joel the reason is stated; it is because the people, at last, repent and turn to the Lord their God in faith, and so He delivers. But let Joel tell the splendid story in his own unhurried way. "The earth shall quake before them. The heavens shall tremble; the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining. And the Lord shall utter his voice before his army; for his camp is very great; for he is strong that executes his word; for the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; and who can abide it?" (vv.10-11).
This is what the prophet sees in his vision, the utter disruption of all the normal course of nature in consequence of this calamity that has come upon the city and the people. This can be nothing else than a symbolic preview of the Last Days, and so Joel must have understood the vision; no ordinary military invasion could justify the use of such extravagant language. Here, at this point, perhaps, his prophecy passes definitely into the sphere of the times in which we live, the times of the last great trial of faith upon God's earthly people. Later in his prophecy (3.16) he sees the issue more clearly and says "the heavens and the earth shall shake; but the Lord will be the hope of his people and the strength of the children of Israel." Isaiah saw something of the same thing when he said "I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger" (Isa. 13. 13). Again, more fiercely, "the earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage..." (Isa. 24. 19-20). This is the time that the Lord rises up to judge the earth, but first of all He judges His own people Israel. That is the explanation of the strange word in v.11, the word that refers to this savage concourse of barbarian invaders as the "Lord's great army" and their camp as "his camp". The only possible explanation is that He is using them as a means of judgment, His means of testing and purifying Israel. As with Pharaoh of old, He has called them that He might display His glory by them, and when they have served His purpose to that end, pass upon them, in their turn, the judgment they too have richly deserved. So Ezekiel, speaking of much the same thing, says "I will bring you against my land, that the nations may know me, when I shall be sanctified in you, O God before their eyes" (Ezek. 38. 16). So will the crisis come upon re-gathered Israel in the latter days. In former times they failed under the test, and they went into captivity. But they will not fail this time!
(To be continued) AOH