In these days of COVID-19, plenty of people are asking if the virus is a judgment from God, if he is sending a message to us.
I recorded this conversation on the book of Joel with Paul House, professor of Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School, prior to the spread of the virus. But his points have proved timely. Disasters, he says, should cause us to ask, “What have we as a people and a nation been doing? It certainly hasn’t been looking to the Lord. . . . These are meant to get people to repent.”
House presents the book as Joel preaching on Deuteronomy 28 and Exodus 34, using vivid imagery to warn of the awful reality of God’s judgments. Joel calls the people of God to turn toward God, assuring them that “even now, if they return to the Lord with all their heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, he will be gracious and merciful and relent from disaster.” House offers insight on the locusts, the meaning of the the Day of the Lord, and how to present the mercy of Christ for sinners from the pages of Joel.
- Sermon Series on Joel by Sinclair Ferguson
- Sermon Series on Joel by Christopher Ash
- Message on Joel by John Piper
- ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel-Malachi
- The Restoration: God’s Precious Promise for the Future by Willem VanGemeren
Paul House: We also need to help believers these days find good ways to talk about judgment because my older believers, yeah, they’ve long believed in judgment. But my younger folks, it’s very difficult for them to think about judgment and it being fair. So they’re almost default universalists if they’re not careful. It is important for us to find ways to help people understand that judgment is just because it’s about a relationship with God. How do you relate to the Creator and the King and the Savior is the issue, not whether I’ve kept those set rules or not.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I am at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama in the office of Dr. Paul House. Dr. House, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
House: Well, thank you. It’s a privilege to be with you.
Guthrie: We had a conversation, gosh, it has to be a couple of years ago now. We talked through the book of Jeremiah. And one thing I remember about that was I heard some things that I hadn’t heard before in our conversation. I heard more when I was editing it, and then when I just sat and listened to the finished episode when it came out, I heard other insights that I hadn’t caught the first time. So I appreciate your depth of knowledge of God’s Word, and I thank you for being willing to help us today to know how to better teach this book, the book of Joel.
House: Well, thank you. It’s very kind of you to say those things. At least today, we have 3 chapters instead of 52. We may have to stretch out our time or stall or something compared to Jeremiah, or we can go into some depth for once. I don’t know.
Guthrie: That’s right. Well, I think, we’ll be able to fill up our time. Dr. House teaches Old Testament theology in Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School. You’re the author of a lot of books, Dr. House, I would hardly know where to start, a lot of books that get used as textbooks in seminaries and Bible schools. I think about your Old Testament Theology book, a number of others. Are you working on anything right now that you can give us some insight on?
House: Well, I know that Crossway would want me to say that we are working on a concise “ESV Study Bible.”
Guthrie: What does that mean?
House: Well, the “ESV Study Bible” as you recall is a large, thorough product.
Guthrie: I was reading it this morning actually, online, but yes.
House: That’s right. And then there was the “Student Study Bible,” which was also then used, a product called a “Global Study Bible.” Crossway distributed something like a quarter of a million copies in third-world countries through mission agencies and supporters. And so we decided we’d like to have…that was about half of the “ESV Study Bible” notes, and so what they wanted was to see if we could reduce further, add new notes where necessary and clarifying notes so that it could be used in say some of the specialty study Bibles like the “Women’s Devotional Study Bible” and also then for translation to foreign languages because the “ESV Study Bible” has now been translated into several languages, including Chinese. But because it’s so much material, it becomes rather…
Guthrie: It’s a big project.
House: … a big project. And so what we’re hoping is this will also then be a textbook for high school students and homeschoolers a little more accessible and specific than say the “ESV Study Bible,” which was meant to be and has been kind of an omnibus volume that helped a lot of different people that had more than you expected or thought you might need at this moment including lots of articles and so forth. But in this new Bible, we’re gonna try to keep a lot of the maps and other helps that are in the “Archaeology Study Bible” and the “ESV Study Bible.” So, I’m editing it. So I’m having the privilege of going through the whole Bible again and looking and learning. So, yeah, it’s been helpful because, about a year ago, I had two books come out or three really, the Book of Daniel in the Tyndale Old Testament and a two-volume commentary on Isaiah, which was a long project. So I was kind of looking for something comprehensive and doable. And this has been fun.
Guthrie: Wow, I bet so. This is not an instantaneous project. It’s a long-term.
House: Yeah, when we’re learning. All in it will be about a two-year project that we’ll be able to…
Guthrie: What do you mean you’re learning?
House: Well, I noticed things that I hadn’t learned before, for instance, two days ago, working through the notes of Esther. And I’m now to an age where I no longer say things like, “No one told me, or I’ve never seen this before.” All I can say is, “I did not recall two days ago when I went through this that I never noticed the timestamps in Esther and just know the events in that book occur over a 10-year period of time for instance.” I just never had tracked it that way, and so that was interesting to me. You see things that you hadn’t seen before or ideas that you hadn’t thought of. I find it enriching to go through the whole.
Guthrie: Well, I think it’s helpful for us to hear that someone who has done a lifetime of study really in the Bible like you have and written so much about it that you’re still making fresh discoveries. As you know, I’m here in Birmingham because I’m doing a biblical theology workshop for women at Briarwood tomorrow, and I’ve been doing these around the country. And one thing that I say at every workshop is that I remember a time in my life when I would be in situations in Bible study, and I felt like there were women around me who knew the Bible in a way that I didn’t. And they knew where stuff was, or if you mentioned a book of the Bible, they knew what it was about. And then I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I think it would take a lifetime to know the Bible like that.” And the truth is, yeah, it does.
House: It does. And that’s the part of the fun of it, isn’t it? And that’s what I want to encourage pastors and lay people alike, there will be more to learn at the time we need to learn it, and we will understand what to do with things that we’d already learned because now we’re living in a particular moment in which we see. So, the Bible really is a living Word because it lives with us, and the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writers, lives within us. It’s really an asymmetry. The Bible isn’t something you just get a set of facts, and then once you get them, it’s all done. It’s a lot more fun than that.
Guthrie: I’m so grateful that we have a book that is worthy of spending our whole lives seeking to understand. What a gift to us. Well, let’s get to talking about the book of Joel, although I have to say I feel a little intimidated already because I’m looking across the table, and the Bible you’re working from is a Hebrew Bible and not an English Bible. I do see an English Bible over there too.
House: Well, I have an English Bible too. Yes.
Guthrie: That’s great. I wish I could do that.
House: These are things I’m supposed to know. When we go to the doctor’s office, we’re not shocked if they have certain things around, and in your own life, I’m sure it’s true. And mechanics are a mystery to me. But anyway, these are tools that I have. I think of some of the early English translators of the Bible like William Tyndale and people like that. I think I have more resources on my desk than he had at his disposal and the great things they achieved with…
Guthrie: With what they had.
House: …is just amazing. So, we’re still small children compared to those giants.
Guthrie: Well, let’s talk about this book of Joel. As you mentioned, it’s just a three-chapter book, and this is probably one of those books…I don’t know that I’ve ever done a study of Joel. So, when I think of the book of Joel, probably the only passage that I immediately know is in there is the passage that Peter quotes in his sermon on Pentecost. So, maybe we should begin. Why don’t you just tell us why should we study the book of Job, or why would we want to teach it to people?
House: Well, we would begin, of course, because it’s Scripture and if we really believe 2 Timothy 3 that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for doctrine and correction. It goes on all these things. If we really believe Matthew 5 where Jesus says that he’d not come to replace the law but to fulfill it and not one jot or tittle pass away until all things pass away, which haven’t yet. So if we really believe that, it becomes an issue of us. How do we understand it? What do we do with it? How do we put it into the whole Bible? So it’s a commitment to, “Yes. I know I need this. Yes. I know I need to learn it.” So then I begin. But I think for a lot of us to your point it’ll be, “How do I do that? How do I get started?” And I think at the beginning, it doesn’t hurt to say what might Joel have expected his readers to know when he would have written up what would have been a little scroll and then either giving it to someone to read or read it in public. What would he have expected?
So, for me, I’d say, “Well, first of all, he would expect that they knew that there were prophets in the ancient world, and they had particular socio-religious roles.” Israelite prophets were not alone. There were prophets in Assyria and Babylon and other nations. So, we would be kind of surprised or suspicious or something if we encountered someone who claimed to be a prophet. It would have been less exotic in the ancient world. So that’d be first of all that these would not be weird people that you would have to suspect were trying to make a buck off of someone. There were people like that, but in the end, prophets were a fairly normal phenomenon. Second, they would have expected you to know that prophecy was an ancient near-eastern type of literature. So prophets wrote prophecies. The aspects of Biblical prophecy are that we have some very common characters and plots and themes. The common themes of Biblical prophecy are that God the Creator has made covenant with Israel that they would be a light to the nations. So the prophets addressed the nations and Israel.
The prophet is a corrective person primarily. So the prophets talked about sin, covenant-breaking, relational breaches between God and His people in very personal terms, so Hosea in terms of marriage and Joel very much so in a sense of their God who loves them is declaring other sins. So the prophets preached sin, and they preached judgment for the same reason the New Testament people do to effect repentance and change. So, it isn’t a statement of doom that nothing can be done about. It’s if you have ears to hear, as Jesus put it, listen and repent. And then the announcement of judgment and of sin will have done its work. According to the book of Hebrews, which is full of all sorts of…and in Revelation 2 and 3 full of all sorts of threats it sounds like to us, the idea is to effect repentance, so sin and judgment for the purpose of renewal because renewal always follows God’s judgment in history and will at the end of history. So they’re preaching sin, judgment, renewal.
Now, where do they get their ideas, in other words, so they’re preaching these things? So it’s a literary genre. It’s a literary type. And you would know these are the themes to be looking for. You open up any of the books of prophets. You start reading and ask yourself, “Which of these three or four themes is it talking about?” And I think you’ll see what I mean. Where do they get their ideas? They’re also covenant preachers. So they preach Moses. They’re preaching what he said. Now, for Joel, in particular, it’s important to know at least two texts from Moses. The first one’s Deuteronomy 28 because it starts with the great blessings that will happen if the people follow the Lord. That’s 28:1-14. Then it starts telling you the consequences that God will use to effect repentance if the people continue to walk away from the Lord.
Guthrie: The curses that will come upon them.
House: Right. And that’s what…the curses which I tend to call consequences because the English word curse used to bear all that, but it doesn’t anymore for most of us. So the consequences, the disciplinary actions, the curses begin to follow. And in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy verses 20-24, it begins with all sorts of agricultural disaster. Nature is God’s ally, friend, and is always on God’s side. The next thing on the agenda if there’s no repentance is military invasion, and that can occur over and over again as it does in history or then a final time as it does in history to destroy. So, when we’re reading Joel and we open up with a chapter on the need to repent and mourn because the agricultural situation’s dire. We’ve got a terrible infestation of grasshoppers. We’ve got droughts. The animals are starting to die and you have all.
So what Joel expects us to know is if nothing happens, what’s next is military invasion because that’s…he’s just reading off Deuteronomy I think. Because God’s bringing a series of events to try to get the people to repent, to return to Him and to the blessed life that He is redeemed them for. That kind of takes you through Joel 1:1 to 2:11. But again, Joel expects that you’re following along, that you know what a prophet is and how they preach Moses. Within the next text in 2:12-17 is a precious one. There Joel cites Exodus 34:5-7. God is gracious and compassionate, long-suffering, and so forth but won’t clear the guilty.
Guthrie: In chapter 2:13, “Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster.”
House: Those are the phrases that God gave Moses in Exodus 34 after the Golden Calf incident that became the basis of understanding why God would forgive them after they sinned. As verse 12 begins, and this is a great turning point, “Even now with the military invasion having occurred, yet even now, return to me, it’s not too late, with your heart and from the heart fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments.” That’s, you know, a Deuteronomy kind of phrase too. But then the precious promises of Exodus 34, and Exodus 34 appears several times in the minor prophets. It’s at the heart of why God forgives the people of Nineveh, Gentiles in Jonah 3 and 4. Micah 7 cites it. Nahum 1 cites it for God’s saying He is gracious, compassionate, but now it’s time to judge the Assyrians. So lots of variations on Exodus 34:5-7 in the minor prophets.
So, what Joel would expect is that the reader would reflect back on the first horrible situation after the Exodus. Even though they had worshipped the Golden Calf, breaking the covenant while God was talking to Moses, God is gracious and compassionate and willing to forgive. If he’s willing to forgive in that context, there is no context he is unwilling to forgive so that God’s grace and mercy is what his heart is, is what his character is. So, Joel, having walked us through Deuteronomy 28:20-24, 25 to 35 says, “Now, what’s the remedy?” What it’s always been. What it was before Deuteronomy. It is that we would turn to God’s gracious character, repent, and find His forgiveness. And so that’s what they’re doing in 2:12-17. And as expected in 2:18-27 as we just walked through the book, God then becomes jealous for His land, has pity on His people. And in verse 19, He sends grain, wine, and oil, in order that the renewal of the agricultural situation, renewal of the land, replenishment. Verse 20, removing the northerner, which is always the invading force. The trouble always comes to the North.
That’s why I think chapter 2 has moved on to an army from an agricultural image because this is an actual army that’s been removed. And then 21 to 22 saying, “Fear not to the land and fear not to the beasts.” Well, if you remember, the Noah covenant is with the families of the earth at that time, but it’s also with creation. And the fact that the Sun came up this morning is evidence that God’s promises through Noah are still relevant, still going on. So, the land is being healed. Rain is being given, verse 23, and so forth. They will know, verse 27 says, that God is in their midst. God’s Spirit is with them as He was in the exodus and as He is again. So, that’s a replenishment kind of promise. Now, Joel would have expected you knew a few other things because Deuteronomy 30 says that if the people repent even if they’ve gone into exile, God will forgive, bring them home. The prophets as a whole have the following program that is that the people will return, the land will be rejuvenated. The land will be repopulated, and Israel and Judah who have been separated since Solomon’s death will be reunited under David, which is exactly how Hosea 2 and 3 tells it. It’s how several other books. So, rather than saying, “Well, I wonder why Joel leaves that out as he had to center it.” I think he just assumes.
Guthrie: They know it already.
House: : Yeah. We’re hitting a note and you sing the rest of the song.
Guthrie: You know about the covenant promises and so…
House: Someone said, “Well, he leaves out any mention of David.” He does, but I think he would say, “Well, these renewal passages are all of a piece.” So Hosea says that they’ll be reunited under David and so does Amos and so does Micah and so does Zechariah. So, part of what Jesus is doing calling 12 disciples from different parts of the country is he’s reuniting the people under the Davidic leader. The land had long been repopulated. The land had long been rejuvenated, the work of people like Haggai and Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah. This repopulation, rejuvenation of the land that Jesus enjoyed 500 years later had come to pass through hard work and long service. None of this happened fast. So Jesus comes to a place where he didn’t have to go looking for Jews in the land. The land is filled with them, and the people are being reunited under David. A lot of them just don’t want the kind of king they get. So anyway, I think Joel expects us to know these things.
Guthrie: Let me interrupt you a second.
House: Yeah. Go ahead.
Guthrie: Yeah. So I’m thinking about someone getting ready to teach this, and they realize, “Well, Joel expects his audience to know these things, but I probably can’t expect my audience to know these things.” In a very practical way, if let’s say you were teaching Joel at your church, and I’m sure you have, are you going to start in some ways in Deuteronomy and in Exodus, or you’re just gonna wait till these things arise in the passage and refer back to them? How are you gonna get started in your teaching of Joel based on the fact, as you’ve said, there are some things our audience doesn’t inherently know that we need to know?
House: I always ask how long? How many weeks? How many hours does that make? So you start planning your teaching, and it be very different if I had…
Guthrie: Ten weeks.
House: If I had 10 weeks or 1 week or 1 day. If I had one day, I would just say to them, “Joel thought you would know the following, I tend to say too, then some of you are veteran Bible readers, and you do know these things. Some of you are not so veteran Bible readers, and so, you know, you won’t know these things. But trust us when we tell you that Moses who lived about 1450 BC was God’s instrument of teaching that when God’s people followed Him, He gave them certain benefits, what we call blessings.” In the South, you can still use blessing as a meaningful term, but I teach lots of places where it isn’t a meaningful term. So it’s God’s benefits for following Him. And also the disciplinary action God used to bring you back to Him. Difficulty in land, military invasion were the first two. Joel follows those. So I would figure out a way in three to five minutes to introduce that concept and say, “If I have more time, then yes. If I had ten weeks on Joel or more like something four to eight, I probably would start with the passages Joel expects us to know. And I would focus on Deuteronomy 28 and Exodus 34.”
Guthrie: I think another challenge if we’re gonna teach one of the prophets. A lot of people have had shaped by modern Christian media what these prophetic books are about or to even think about prophecy. And they don’t think about these prophets really like taking a text like Deuteronomy and Exodus and preaching based on this. They’re thinking primarily about some supernatural new revelation to these prophets. And certainly, these prophets are having visions, and the Holy Spirit is speaking to them. So it seems to me that’s another bit of a challenge for really any prophetical book but including this one on Joel. Because like when I looked around for teaching on Joel, so much of it comes from a dispensational kind of theology that wants to make this solely about things to look, you know, look in the newspaper. Look at the geographic and global political situation and look for evidence that Jesus is coming tomorrow. So [crosstalk 00:24:20].
House: I think I’ve tried to be gentle and kind to the years, and this is about what I’ve come to, that that approach is an abuse of Scripture. We may not know it when we’re doing it. It might have come to us from people who taught us to know Jesus, who had every reason to think they were doing us a favor by telling us that what Joel does is to give us a roadmap in chapter 3 to the different nations who will be related to the end times. This is not what the Bible is doing. It’s not what the New Testament does. This is to take an exciting system and force it on the Bible. I’m a little more rebuke-oriented these days, which is to say I can’t massage us anymore.
If you read Joel as if this is instead of being a covenant preacher the way the Apostle Paul was and the way Jesus was but rather as some future prediction from the time point of which we live, that you have to have kind of a particular mystical connection to and a system already in place that you’ve already decided it means to make work, whereas I believe Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead, that that is a literal event that’s in the future. The idea that we need to keep in our minds again is why I started with 2 Timothy 3. Is this Old Testament mainly to teach us how to know and live for God, or is it to fascinate us about items despite the fact that Jesus said no man knows the day nor the hour, without saying that these are bad people [inaudible 00:26:04]? Because a lot of folks who would have taken the approach that you mentioned were people who loved me and told me about Jesus.
Guthrie: Absolutely. Me too.
House: Part of the reason that I think that they could not and did not preach the Old Testament was because they didn’t know what to do with it. And so when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 when he says, “I wish that you all would prophesy,” I think he means I wish you all would expound the Word, which is what we’re trying to do today. And if prophecy is a gift only a few have, then it’s really kind of a problem for Paul to say such a thing. But Joel, Amos, Isaiah, and particularly Jeremiah who knew what the Bible was at that point in time backwards and forwards, or Isaiah talks about Abraham and Noah and Sarah, and he’s preaching the Bible. And the way the Lord inspires him within his own time period is the special exciting thing about it. I think we have to get settled on our mind that the prophets are about 10% prediction, and a lot of that’s been fulfilled since I believe every messianic promise is fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.
So, Joel preaches to the people, and then he offers them a future in chapter 2:20-32. So, this is a place at which based on what the Scriptures have told him, based on how the Holy Spirit’s helping him, he now starts saying to people, “Let’s imagine together the future that God has prepared.” He’s mentioned all sorts of people in the book who need to come and repent. And then in verse 28, he talks about wonders in the heavens and the earth, blood and fire, and columns of smoke. The sun turned to darkness, the moon to blood, all these great cosmic events. This imagery is used more than once in Scripture to mean that which is normal has been upended. That’s really what the metaphors are about. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Now, when Pentecost occurs, Peter starts preaching Joel 2:28-32. The tongues of fire come, and Luke mentions the different Jewish people who’ve come from all the world to be at Pentecost. He also mentions verses 10, 11 of chapter 2 of Acts some proselytes and Gentiles. They hear God’s Word preached in their own language, and they’re saying, “What is this?” Peter says, “This is the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29.” He then goes on to preach to them the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension. So he seems to be interpreting the signs that turned everything upside down. Not so much with the darkness at the cross, but with the cross, the resurrection, the ascension. What could have turned anything more upside-down than God himself dying for sinners? Resurrection from the dead, ascension into heaven, and God’s people now sharing in His work as their gospel work. Peter says that’s what’s going on. If you’re looking for this pouring out of the Spirit, it has occurred today. If you’re looking for these signs and wonders, they have occurred. And you were part of them in that you helped kill Jesus.
So verse 32, he says everyone in Mount Zion and Jerusalem, which is where they are, shall be those who escape. Do you wanna be one of those who escape, what, judgment, which he’s preaching the day of the Lord to them that judgment is coming? And the day of the Lord occurs in history when God judges sin. Those are down payments on what He will do at the end of time. So the prophets are clear. The fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, that’s the day of the Lord. Other events are called the day of the Lord that would give you an idea that the final day of the Lord is even more conclusive, more frightening, more final. So what he tells them is the day of the Lord is coming, and He can mean at least two things given what Jesus has taught. Jerusalem is gonna fall, and it does in 70 AD. Peter heard that preaching. He knew it was a fact. But also then that pales in comparison to the final day of the Lord. So, he’s asking these Jewish people and their proselytes, the Gentile converts, “Do you wanna flee from the wrath to come?” And they say, “What should we do?” And he says, “Believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” which I think…
Guthrie: Which is kind of preaching what Joel has said here, he says call upon the name of the Lord. He’s still drawing from Joel.
House: He is. And I think, again, they would have expected to figure how the David part’s in this.
Guthrie: This is so fascinating. As you’re talking, I’m thinking about that if I was teaching this, and I was trying to present this picture or make the connection between Joel and what we read about in Acts 2 in Pentecost. I think I might go back a little bit right before this in Luke’s writings at the very end of Luke 24 because right before that, the Peter who says to Jesus, “Don’t even say you’re gonna go to Jerusalem and be killed. You know, may it never be.” And Jesus says to him, you know, “You’re thinking like a man, not the things of God.” And you kind of wonder, “How does that guy who doesn’t understand anything get to where he is on Pentecost?” But then you read in Luke 24 that Jesus has spent 40 days with them, and it says, “He opened their minds to understand the Scripture.” I would love to have sat in on that Bible class to hear Jesus teaching the disciples how to understand the Old Testament Scriptures. And it seems clear to me in Acts 2 when we hear Peter preach this sermon and as you’re saying kind of on the book of Joel, he’s learned how to understand and teach the Scriptures.
House: Just like they had lived through the fulfillment of Scripture when Jesus was crucified and raised, Isaiah 53, they now realize, “Wow, we are living at the moment of this fulfillment of Scripture. We’re living this.” And so he just preached frankly verse by verse through Joel and then having introduced Jesus’s resurrection, he preaches from Psalms. And then he comes back to Joel really and says, “Do you wanna be saved? You know, today’s a day of salvation and flee from the wrath to come,” which is Joel 3.
So, I think it would help us as we teach through Joel to realize that God still uses circumstances like chapter 1 and chapter 2 to bring us to the point where we realize He’s gracious and compassionate. He has poured out His Spirit. He’s given His word. He’s urged us to flee from the wrath to come. If we’re unbelievers, have we come to Christ or not? If not, there is a wrath to come. So we urge you as Peter urged those people that day, if you’re teaching this book, you can be sure that the New Testament does some of the same things that Joel’s doing, urging people to look at their lives, see what’s going on, and ask yourself, “Aren’t these reminders that we need to repent of certain things and turn to the Lord or pray for those who do? And can we count on God’s continuing character?” We can. Will God forgive and restore? He will.
As we look forward, we do know God will judge the living and the dead. And Joel 3 is kind of an imaginative way to talk about the end of time because he says, “Now, look, the day is coming where everybody’s going to come to the valley of Jehoshaphat.” There is no such place. Jehoshaphat means Yahweh judges. So he said, “Look, everybody’s gonna come to the valley where God judges.” And then he uses contemporary nations and some reasons why they’re gonna be judged and concludes by saying, “But God’s people will be safe with Him in Zion.” So he just preaches the Gospel that the Old Testament preaches, which is that God’s taking us from where we are now in creation to new creation. He’s doing that through His work that He shares with His people. And then the text said with many other words He exhorted them to repent. He could have gone onto chapter 3 of Joel, and it would have fit his sermon.
Guthrie: Because it’s all about these nations. Judgment is being promised, and yet He’s offering to all those from many nations who were gathered in the city that day. And he’s offering them salvation. Dr. House, I wanna go back a little bit more generally and ask you to help us with a few images and terms and connections as we teach this book. I wanna talk about…you call them grasshoppers, my translation says locusts. I wanna talk about locusts a little bit. I wanna talk about the day of the Lord. And then we’ve been talking a lot about this imagery being in Acts 2, but some of this imagery we also see, again, in Revelation, so how to appropriately do it there. So let’s start with locusts.
House: It’s common imagery. This is an agricultural agrarian culture, kind of places I grew up in. Grasshoppers and locust is our best effort because I think there are four or five types of these insects, which is to say it’s a horrible infestation. Some of the people may have seen Ken Burns’s series on the Depression. As you watch the story, you know that as grain prices went up, farmers plowed up Great Plains and all sorts of land, and great dust storms resulted. Also, though, in this documentary, Burns includes this piece where they had an infestation of rabbits. See, because once you mess up the topsoil and everything else, and you’re displacing it so there’s an infestation of rabbits. They also had a massive infestation of I call them grasshoppers that settled in, and as one farmer was interviewed and said they ate the bark off fence post. They left nothing. So a lot of these people thought they were in the end times. I mean, they live in the Panhandle Texas, and they’re in Oklahoma. So, you got dust storm blowing through, and it’s dark as night, they describe it. The sun’s blotted out and all these migrations of animals that aren’t supposed to be near you, insects that eat up every green thing they can find, animals died, and so forth.
So what that tells us is the biblical writers create metaphors out of real events that are absolutely curses on our existence if they’re in our area. If they haven’t seen it, they might get on YouTube and look at the 1937 locust, grasshopper infestations in Australia because you got films of it. And they just fly in massive swarms that then blocks out the sun and stuff. So, these are agricultural images of death and despair, and they’re intended to do exactly what they did in the Great Depression, which is also part of the Burns documentary, though he doesn’t focus on it quite the way I am. It drove a lot of people to prayer and to cry out to God because they’re helpless before the onslaught. And so even if it isn’t a result of our sins, we would wanna cry out to the Lord and ask Him for His help. You have similar images in Isaiah, similar images in Jeremiah. So it’s a standard image of signs that we ought to repent or that we ought to at least turn to the Lord.
Guthrie: So when I see these locusts the fact that they’re coming in judgment, it makes me think about the plague of locusts in Egypt. And then also in Revelation, it describes a plague of locusts. So, if you were teaching this, would you…and if so, how would you connect it to those maybe more familiar pictures of God judging through plagues of locusts?
House: Yeah. They’re all the same imagery. The reason I added the other books is because when people jump from Joel to Revelation, they also have popped into their heads whatever they think about Revelation. And it makes those images abnormal instead of normal. So, in the end, what John’s using is a normal image, not an abnormal one. And if you say those locusts came out of hell, well, from any eyewitness testimony that I’ve ever heard, if you were in that, you would have thought those locusts came out of hell too. This is not a blessing. This is not a benefit. This is a horrible event that our urban world has a hard time imagining if they’ve not got a rural background.
Guthrie: I guess I wonder if the people of Joel’s day they’ve heard the stories about the plagues. I wonder if that helped them or could have helped them believe that this would really happen. I mean, because it would be hard to imagine some of the locust plagues. Like it’s even hard to imagine what you see in that documentary. But this is something that has happened before.
House: And the point is why did it happen? God sent it in Joel’s case. They knew that for a fact, and therefore they ought to repent. I don’t think necessarily the people in the Great Depression were wrong to say, “What have we as a community, as a nation been doing with our lives?” Well, it certainly hadn’t been looking to the Lord. So without going into direct causation things, these are meant to get people to repent. In Revelation, you notice over and over again, locust, plague, or whatever else was sent, and they don’t repent. Now it’s famous for, “I did this, but you didn’t repent. I blessed you, but you didn’t repent. I was kind to you, but you didn’t repent. Therefore, I did this, and you didn’t repent. And I did that, and you didn’t repent.” I forget the particular passage, but you’re exactly right because the prophecy says, “I’ll bring the plagues that I brought on the Egyptians on you.” So that would have been the register, yes. And so I think chapter 1 should have awakened them, chapter two, where they started having invasions, for instance, the Assyrians. At that point in time, you’re asking yourself, “What have we learned from this? What will we learn from it? Does your current circumstances teach us to turn to the Lord who is our only help? Those are the kind of things Joel’s trying get…
Now, fast-forward to Peter, here are these people wanting the Romans to be gone, and Peter’s point is that’s not our primary problem. Our primary problem and need is to return to the Lord, is to worship the Savior, to accept the Messiah, to get under his kingship, and then let’s see how things go. I wanna try to make this real for people that Joel is preaching prior Scripture. He’s preaching it in his time to his people in the way that John does to his people in the book Revelation. So, all of them would use these locusts to say, “These things are from God to get us to turn from sin, or these things have happened in a way that should make us wonder about our relationship with God.” I wanna make them real and talk about chewing on the fence post and stuff because if we just say, “Well, in Revelation,” we abstract this out to where it’s just something we saw in a movie as opposed to real-life people suffering through this as they would in lots of place in the world still today.
Guthrie: Absolutely. All right. So we’ve talked about locusts. Let’s talk about this term “the day of the Lord” because, if I’m teaching this book, I’ve gotta know how to handle that. There’s lots of books in the Old Testament where we read this term, a lot of times in the New Testament. Sometimes, Jesus will just talk about “the day.” Or we’ll read in the New Testament about that day, which may be about the day of the Lord. You mentioned the day of the crucifixion being in many sense the day of the Lord or the day 70 years later the temple was destroyed, that being a day of the Lord. But we know there’s a greater day of the Lord to come. So, just help us, especially in terms of teaching the book of Joel, what can we hand to…what can we say to those we’re teaching to help them really grasp how to make sense of this throughout the whole of the Bible but most specifically here in the book of Joel?
House: Yeah. I start with the day of the Lord is a term for God judging, and every believer knows that God judges in time and at the end of time. In the Bible, the day of the Lord is any particular day that God moves in history to punish sin. And so for the Israelites, the fall of Samaria in 722 is the day of the Lord. 587, Babylon conquers Jerusalem is the day of the Lord. 70 AD with the Romans is the day of the Lord. I think, though, again, this is my opinion, and I’m not a biblical prophet. I think the fall of Berlin in 1945 is the day of the Lord. It’s that kind of thing where you have this kind of concentrated systematic failure, sin or even, in that case, evil. The wrong gets righted by severe means. That can happen in history. Now, what we do know too is that those are examples, down payments on a final judgment that will include the entire earth and everybody who lives and ever has lived. The Bible says that God judges on a day of the Lord and that there is a final day of the Lord. But what a lot of people do is when they read the day of the Lord, they only think of that last one, and they forget that in time, in actual real-time in historical events in the Bible, God also acted in those ways. As bad as they were, those are but warnings of a final judgment.
Guthrie: A couple of things about that. First of all, I appreciate how you went forward to show these various days of the Lord. It seems like you could also go backwards.
House: You can, yes.
Guthrie: I mean, you can even start…
House: Sodom and Gomorrah’s kind of the…is one of…
Guthrie: Yes. That’s a big day of the Lord but maybe even in Genesis 3. You know, I think about how Meredith Kline talks about how where ESV says, “He came in the cool of the day.” Maybe it’s in the spirit of the day, like the day of the Lord so that maybe there’s been some in the past.
House: If you could get a survivor of Sodom and Gomorrah or the survivors of Jerusalem’s destruction in the book of Lamentation, you would sense that that was close enough. I know what people sometimes mean, and I’m not just sure about it. But when they talk about a particular instance, it’s often war or some horrible thing, they said, “We felt as if we were in hell.” I know what they mean. It should be that kind of feeling.
Guthrie: But I’m surprised that when you talk about the day of the Lord, you speak of it only in terms of judgment because I guess I’ve always thought about the day of the Lord being not only a day of terrible judgment on God’s enemies and on evil, but at the same time, isn’t it also a great day of salvation for the elect?
House: That’s a great point because…for a Christian, we need to be aware that, yes, that which is vindication, deliverance, and salvation for us is judgment and death and condemnation for the wicked. So when we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” the wicked do not go gently into the good night. God makes that happen. You say, “Well, make it to be as practical as you can.” I have family members who don’t know Christ. And so as an old preacher said, “Well, you know what. I got this brother over here praying for Jesus to come at any moment, then I’ve got this person over here praying that he wait a while because their son doesn’t know Jesus yet.” So God is gracious and compassionate, and long-suffering, won’t clear the guilty. What is deliverance and joy for us? Yes. We ought to work so that more people will be with that. But we should never lose the mind of Christ, which is takes no delight in the death of the wicked. But they’re intricately connected. One occurs so that the other can.
Guthrie: The day of the Lord also seems to me to provide a great opportunity to present the gospel according to the book of Joel to think about that ultimate day of the Lord, which was the day when the judgment that you and I deserve fell down on Christ. Yet because of that day, all who are joined to him by faith do experience salvation. I mean, if we wanna think about the greatest Judgment Day in history, it seems like it would have to be the cross of Christ when the judgment fell on him.
House: Yeah. I think that’s the way Peter preaches it at Pentecost, and the sign and wonder was that God did that and that he raised him and that he made him co-regent and that this is the one that we will answer to because, in the Bible, we all forget. The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. It’s all gonna be related to him. I would say in our Bible teaching, we also need to help believers these days find good ways to talk about judgment because my older believers that I talk to, yeah, they’ve long believed in judgment. But my younger folks, I’ll just use this example, used to…when I first started ministry 40 years ago or whatever, if you talk to somebody about why they were going to heaven, if they got it wrong, they would say, “Because I’ve been striving to be a good person.” They were trying to reach a standard. They thought they had to get up to something.
Today, you know, as often as not if you ask a younger person, and I’m not criticizing younger people, this is the culture they’re in. They would say, “Because I’ve not been a bad person.” That’s a default position. The default position is we’re all right with God. Yeah. There’s a hell for people like Stalin and Hitler. You don’t have to strive much to not be a bad person. It’s very difficult for them to think about judgment and it being fair and it being comprehensive. So they’re almost default Universalists if they’re not careful. And so it is important for us to find ways to help people understand that judgment is just because it’s about a relationship with God. How do you relate to the Creator and the King and the Savior is the issue, not whether I’ve kept a set of rules or not.
Guthrie: That’s one of the things I love about the book of Joel you mentioned earlier the passages. Joel is concerned about the heart. If anyone thinks that the Old Testament is all about Old Testament ritual and that then somehow only Jesus gets to the heart when we get to the Sermon on the Mount, it just isn’t so. Because he’s telling them, you know, “Don’t be tearing your clothes. Don’t rend your clothes. Rend your heart.” And he’s calling people to love the Lord their God. That to me presents us as teachers with a beautiful opportunity through the book of Joel to show what God really wants, especially in the midst of this message of judgment. Here’s what he is offering you. This returning is a returning, I think you said, to a relationship, a heart relationship to love the Lord, this one who is going to take all your shame upon himself. I love at the end of…near the end of chapter 2 it’s his promise, “You’re gonna know that I am in the midst of Israel, that I am the Lord your God, there’s none else, and my people shall never again be put to shame.” And when I read that, the first thing I think is the only reason that can be true is because somebody’s taken my shame.
House: That’s right. Joel has just some great pleading moments. But even now, many of the people we’re trying to help who will be teaching Joel, they’ll say, “I’m gonna go give a shot because my job and I appreciate the help and all this. But I think I’m gonna be a little less prepared than I’m for other texts.” That’s how we all start teaching Joel. And by the 5th or 10th time or whatever, yes, you know a little bit more and you keep at it. But even in the first instance, as you share these things, people are gonna start looking at events in their lives that are saying, “That ought to wake me up. I need to be getting back to God or I need to come to God in the first place.” And they’re gonna tend to say, “Well, maybe it’s too late.” Yet even now, God will receive you as He took those people back, or “I’ve done too much that’s wrong. The Golden Calf incident was a bad deal.” He still took them back. He received the Assyrians in Nineveh in the Book of Jonah. He’s receiving these people. So Jew, Gentile, it doesn’t matter even after they turned to him. And as that message gets through and as they start thinking about what they need to do before judgment happens in their own life or in the lives of people they know and love or since we’re supposed to love the world God made, whoever’s out there, I think you’ll do a good job of helping them see what Joel and Peter are trying to get out when they teach.
Guthrie: Well, Dr. House, thank you so much for sharing with us your insight from years of study on the book of Joel. You’ve handed us some fabulous tools to do some work in this three-chapter book. I would hope we have a bit of Joel’s pleading in our voice, right?
House: The love he had. That’s the thing. Yeah. Do we love our heroes? That’s the thing.
Guthrie: To plead with them in the confidence of the promise. If you will return, he will receive you because he is a God who is abundant in mercy and loves his people. Thank you so much.
House: Thank you.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible,” a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.