In the first half, Joel called Israel to lament and repentance, to fasting and assembly (Joel 1:1-2:17). In the second half, Joel assures Israel that their gracious and compassionate God will “restore their fortunes.”
Yahweh promised a new creation where even the soil and animals as well as the people will rejoice (Joel 2:18-27). Yahweh promised to saturate “all flesh” with the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). And in this section, Yahweh promises to hold the nations accountable for how they have treated Israel (Joel 3:1-17).
“In those days and at that time” is how the text continues the story of God’s renewal. The judgment of the nations–the judgment of evil itself (Joel 3:13)–is part of that future which renews creation and saturates “all flesh” with the Spirit. The timing, then, is dependent upon how the previous texts are interpreted. I have suggested that they have both historical and an eschatological or apocalyptic meaning. In other words, while the text addresses the situation of the original audience, it also envisions a future reality. It addresses the nations that surround Judah, but it also anticipates (even promises) a day when all the nations will be judged in the context of a new heaven and a new earth (something analogous to Revelation 20:11-21:5).
Consequently, Joel addresses Tyre, Sidon and Philistia, and alludes to Egypt and Edom, but ultimately “all nations” are in view, including present ones. God will hold all nations accountable; Yahweh will put every one of them on trial and render a verdict. In essence, then, Joel assures his audience that God has noticed how the nations have treated Israel and that God will act in judgment against them, and this assurance also carries an eschatological assurance that one day–in the coming days or the last days–God will “restore the fortunes” of Israel.
To “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (3:1) is to end the exile. The phrase literally means “return the captivity.” Exact dating is unavailable for Joel. This potentially could be the end of the Assyrian or Babylonian exiles, but the names of those peoples are absent from Joel’s account. Most likely, Joel’s work appears in the post-exilic period (after the return from Babylonian exile), but the people of Israel are still awaiting the end of the exile.
They were still waiting under Roman oppression when John the Baptist appeared to announce a new Exodus (quoting Isaiah 4o), and Jesus suffered as the Servant who was wounded for the sake of Israel (Isaiah 53), and God put out the Spirit upon a restored (renewed) Israel (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32). The appearance of Jesus the Messiah was the beginning of the end to Israel’s exile, and the appearance of the new heaven and new earth will end the cosmic exile that reaches back to when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.
The Lawsuit (3:1-8)
As Dillard’s commentary on Joel recognizes (Minor Prophets [Baker]), this lawsuit proceeds according to form:
- the accused are summoned (3:1-2a)
- the accusations are read (3:2b-3)
- the accused are interrogated (3:4a-b)
- the verdict is announced (3:4c-8)
Yahweh gathers “all the nations” to the “Valley of Jehoshaphat.” While moderns sometimes refer to the Kidron Valley (what lies between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives) as the “Valley of Jehoshaphat,” there is no ancient identification of this valley. This is an unknown geographical reference, and perhaps we are not supposed to think geographically but metaphorically. “Jehoshaphat” means “Yahweh judges.” Yahweh brings the nations to a “valley of decision” (Joel 3:14) for “judgment” (from the verb shaphat). God has summoned the accused to hear a divine verdict.
The nations are summoned because they (1) scattered Israel among themselves (the diaspora), (2) divided the land God had given Israel among themselves (annexed to their own nations), and (3) sold the people into slavery for the sake of their own immoral pursuits (prostitutes and drunkenness). The nations are judged for what they have done to Israel, and in this judgment their unjust acts also judge how they have treated others as well. When the nations scatter people (including refugees), annex land that does not belong to them (whether by fiat or violence), or empower the slave trade (including sex-trafficking), God holds nations accountable.
As an example–or, better, as a metaphor for all nations, Yahweh interrogates Tyre & Sidon as well as Philistia. These are historic, traditional enemies of Israel on their northwestern and southwestern borders. They have troubled Israel from the beginning to the time of Joel (presumably, post-exilic era; cf. Zechariah 9:1-8). The Phoenicians, particularly, were known for their slave-trading (Amos 1:6-9; Ezekiel 27:13). But who are they to Yahweh? They are not Yahweh’s heritage. Why, then, do they presume to act against Yahweh’s people so arrogantly and without fear?
Because of their injustices, God will turn their deeds back on them. As they enslaved Israel, so God will enslave them. Indeed, when Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre in 332 BCE, he enslaved 30,000 people, and the same happened to those living near Gaza (Philistia) at the time. In other words, God executes a lex talonis, that is, God does to them what they did to others. This is the verdict that God announces to the nations. This is divine justice–it permits evil to sow its own seeds of destruction.
The nations pursued violence and greed (silver, gold, and treasures), and enslaved the people of God. Yahweh, however, will not let such enslavement stand. The one who liberated Israel from Egypt will also liberate them from their forced exile.
The Oracle (3:9-17)
The prophet, given the dynamics of a trial, speaks for the court. Joel calls the opposing parties to battle.
To the Nations: “Stir up the warriors!” (Joel 3:9)
To Yahweh: “Bring down your warriors, O Lord!” (Joel 3:11)
The prophet summons each to battle (Joel 3:9-11). In one sense Yahweh gathers the nations (3:2), but in another sense they arouse themselves for battle (3:11). The nations will enlist everyone–even the weak must become warriors. Farmers must become warriors–using the language that reverses great prophetic texts that proclaim peace; they will turn their farming implements into weapons instead of the reverse (cf. Micah 4; Isaiah 2). This is a full scale effort–everyone, all the nations against Yahweh’s host.
And then Yahweh speaks (Joel 3:12-17). This section of the oracle begins and ends with the voice of Yahweh (note the first person singular).
The nations will stir–they will gather for battle, but there is no battle. It is a harvest of judgment as Yahweh “sit[s] to judge all the neighboring nations.” This is a courtroom scene rather than a battlefield. The valley is not a piece of geography, but the place where God decides the fate of the nations.
God’s judgment is uncreation–it is the reversal of creation itself. The nations may gather, but the ice will crack beneath their feet. The sun is darkened and the stars no longer give their light. The “heavens and the earth” (a la Genesis 1:1) shake! The creation convulses as the the nations fall before the voice of the Lord. This is apocalyptic language to describe the ultimate shaking of the nations on the day of Yahweh.
While the nations crumble, Zion and Jerusalem are a refuge for the people of Israel because it God’s home, God’s dwelling place. God dwells within Israel. The promise of the Exodus–that God would dwell with Israel–is fully realized when God dwells on the holy hill of Zion in Jerusalem and “strangers shall never again pass through it.”
“Never again”–similar to the promises in Joel 2:26-27–lingers in the ears of Israel. “Never again” is eschatological language among the prophets. It is the language of the new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65: “no more”…not again…will Israel hear the sound of weeping, or an infant live but a few days.
When that day comes–when the nations are judged, creation renewed, and the Spirit is fully poured out on God’s people–we will “know” that the Lord our God dwells among us.
In the new Jerusalem upon the new heavens and new earth, God will dwell with humanity. There will be no night there–nothing will be darkened. There will be no chaos, no death. And there will be no temple since God and the Lamb will make their home in that new city.