This is no great hindrance to the reader, for the book is largely concerned with just one incident, a severe locust plague. The setting appears to be Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside.
Background and meaning
One possible date for the book is about 835-830 BC, during the reign of the boy-king Joash. This would explain why there is no mention of oppressive enemy nations such as Syria, Assyria and Babylon, which are constantly mentioned in the other prophets, for at that time those nations had not begun to interfere in Judean affairs. It would also explain why Joel makes no mention of the reigning Judean king, for the government was largely in the hands of the priest Jehoiada (2 Kings 11:1-21; 12:1). The prominence of Jehoiada could partly account for Joel’s interest in the temple and its services (Joel 1:9,13; 2:12,15-17).
An alternative suggestion is that the book belongs to the period after Judah’s return from captivity. On this theory the most likely time of writing is either 520-510 BC, after the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple (Ezra 5:1-2,15), or about 400 BC, a generation or so after the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh 8:1-3,9; 13:30). Joel interpreted the locust plague as God’s judgment on Judah for its sin. He urged the people to repent, confident that God would renew his blessing upon them. God would not only renew their crops but also give them a greater knowledge of himself (Joel 2:12-14,23-27). According to Joel’s view, these events were symbolic of God’s future blessing upon all his people and his judgment upon all his enemies. In New Testament times Peter saw a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy in the events that resulted from Jesus’ death and resurrection. A new age had dawned, the Spirit had come upon all God’s people, and judgment had become certain for all God’s enemies (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:14- 21).
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Summary of contents
In very lively fashion, Joel describes the devastating effects of the locust plague, firstly upon the farmers and other country people (1:1-20), then upon the citizens of Jerusalem (2:1-11). He calls the people to gather at the temple and repent (2:12-17), and offers hope for renewed productivity in their fields and vineyards (2:18-27). A far greater blessing, however, will be the gift of God’s Spirit, enabling the people to know and obey him better (2:28-32). The locust plague and its removal picture the greater judgment and greater blessing yet to come (3:1-21).