The “day of the Lord” is the dominant theme of the book of Joel. Both the nations (Joel 3:2–3) and Israel (Joel 1:15; 2:1–2) experience this judgment. However, for the repentant community, the “day” also holds out the hope of restoration (Joel 2:12–14). Ultimately, the Lord’s covenant faithfulness is expressed in his promises of abundance and protection (2:23–26; 3:1), which evidence his dwelling in the midst of his people (Joel 2:27; 3:17, 21). This is epitomized in the great promise of “my Spirit” that would be poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28, 29; cf. Acts 2:17–21).
1. Day of the Lord. This is the major theme of Joel. The exact expression, yom yhwh (Hb., “day of the Lord”), is found five times in Joel (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14) and 13 times in seven other prophetic books (Isa. 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Amos 5:18–20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5; see ESV Study Bible note on Amos 5:18–20). Other ways of referring to the “day” found throughout prophetic literature (e.g., “a day,” “those days,” “that day”) are used by Joel as well (Joel 2:2; 3:1, 18). Within Joel, the “day” refers not only to a final day of judgment upon the nations (Joel 3:2) but also to God’s ongoing judgment of Israel, both past and future (Joel 1:15; 2:2, 11), and instances of his intervention between Israel and the nations (Joel 3:1–2, 12, 14, 16). In each case, the “day of the Lord” indicates a time when the presence of the Lord brings judgment and/or deliverance and blessing, depending on the circumstances (see ESV Study Bible note on Joel 1:15). Therefore, although the “day” heralds destruction for the nations, it also functions as a time of salvation for God’s people; the Lord remains a refuge amid the chaos of judgment (Joel 3:15–16).
2. Repentance. If the whole community would cry out to the Lord (Joel 1:13–20) and look to him—not merely with external actions but in sincerity with their whole persons (Joel 2:12–13)—then judgment may be averted. However, the Lord is not bound by the acts of the community (Joel 2:14); it is his prerogative to send or withhold the destruction by the locusts (Joel 1:15), just as the army is his to command (Joel 2:11).
3. The Lord in their midst. It is, of course, crucial that the people have a living faith and repentance; however, the reason the Lord will turn from judgment to blessing is to express his covenant-keeping character (Joel 2:13, 18–26; 3:18). His promise to dwell in the midst of his people is prominent not only in Joel (Joel 2:27; 3:17, 21) but also throughout the OT (Num. 35:34; Deut. 6:15; 7:21; Isa. 12:6; Hos. 11:9; Zeph. 3:15, 17; Hag. 2:5; Zech. 2:10–11; 8:3). God’s restoration of what the locusts have destroyed (Joel 2:27) and his protection of Israel as the cosmos crumbles (Joel 3:16–17) both have the same goal: knowledge of his presence. This theme concludes the book (Joel 3:21), highlighting its importance for Joel.
4. These themes—the day of the Lord, repentance, and God dwelling amid his people—converge in the promise of the future outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–32). This outpouring is associated with the day of the Lord (Joel 2:31) in both its judgmental (Joel 2:30–31; cf. Joel 2:10; 3:15) and its saving (Joel 2:32) manifestations. It is related to repentance in that those who are saved are those who call “on the name of the Lord” (Joel 2:32). Finally, the giving of the Spirit, crossing all boundaries of gender, generation, social class, or nationality (Joel 2:28–29), is the ultimate evidence of God “in the midst of them” (Isa. 63:11; see Hag. 2:5).
Joel calls all the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem to lament and return to the Lord during a time of national calamity. This crisis is precipitated in the first instance by a locust plague that has destroyed both wine (Joel 1:5, 7, 12) and grain (Joel 1:10) and therefore threatens the ability of the people of God to present offerings in the temple (Joel 1:9, 13, 16). Given this background, Joel may have served as a lament in the ongoing life of God’s people during other times of national tragedy.
History of Salvation Summary
God called his ancient people in love and mercy, he preserved them to be the vehicle through which he poured out his Spirit on all kinds of people (Joel 2:28–32), and he will preserve them against all who seek to destroy them (ch. 3). In all of his care for them, he aims for “torn” hearts, and not just torn garments, from his people (Joel 2:12–14), that they might love him with their whole hearts.