Joel and the day of Pentecost

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The scope of Joel’s prophecy and its relation to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost has come up in discussion relating to the judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It seems to me that the traditional understanding of Pentecost simply as a formative event for the church misses the narrative significance of the passage by some distance. What I want to do here is, first, set out the narrative of judgment and restoration that is found in Joel, and secondly, consider how Peter makes use of that narrative in order to interpret the Pentecost event for the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”.

The narrative of Joel

An army has come against Israel like a plague of locusts, devastating the territory around Jerusalem, destroying the crops, overrunning towns and villages, and causing great alarm in Jerusalem (1:13-14). It is quite apparent, therefore, that the “day of the Lord” is near, a day of “destruction from the Almighty” (Joel 1:15), a “day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1-2). This is a real army, causing real destruction as it approaches Jerusalem, but it is an army of the Lord, and its progress, therefore, is described in apocalyptic terms:

The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? (2:10-11)

But it is not too late. The prophet calls the people to return to the Lord—to rend their hearts and not their garments—for he is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster”. So he calls the people to consecrate a fast and the priests to pray: “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (2:15-17). In response God promises to send back the army from the north and repair the damage that was done to Israel’s agriculture (2:18-26). Then, Joel says, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).

At this point it looks as though there is a break in the narrative. Joel 1:1-2:27 reads as an account of an existing state of affairs. What follows appears to describe a later but analogous crisis.

At some point afterward the Spirit of prophecy will be poured out on all in Israel—not only Joel but many within Israel will prophesy concerning what is about to take place. There will be portents in the sky and on earth. There will be bloodshed; there will be fire and smoke, which will fill the sky, turning the sun to darkness and the moon to the colour of blood—all this in advance of, in a build up to, the “great and awesome day of the Lord” (2:30-32). This is a poetic but nevertheless realistic account of war, very much like the preceding narrative about the army from the north. There is a military threat to Jerusalem, but those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved—they shall escape destruction, and “among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls”.

At this time God will “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem”. He will gather the hostile nations together in the valley of Jehoshaphat for judgment, because they have scattered the people of Israel “among the nations and have divided up my land”, because they have robbed Israel of its wealth, and because they have “sold the people of Judah to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border” (3:1-6). Zion will be established as a secure and enduring stronghold; and the surrounding nations will be punished because of the violence they have done to the people of Israel (3:16-21).

This second part of Joel’s prophetic narrative remains firmly within the arena of history: there will be a war against Jerusalem, some of the inhabitants of the city will be saved, Judah and Jerusalem will be restored, and the nations which oppressed Israel will be punished. There is an “everlasting” part to this: “strangers shall never again pass through” Jerusalem; and “Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations” (3:17, 20). But this is still only an extension of the story about Jerusalem.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon

Peter makes use of part of this narrative—not the whole thing—in his Pentecost sermon in order to account for the extraordinary behaviour of the disciples. Having been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus has poured out the Holy Spirit, with the result that Jews from many nations hear the “mighty works of God” proclaimed in their own languages. Since this is explicitly a Spirit of prophecy, it would be reasonable to assume that these are works that God is about to do, rather than what he has done in the past.

The pouring out of the Spirit on the disciples is closely associated with the coming “day of the Lord” that Joel describes, which is a day of war against Jerusalem, when the skies will be darkened by the pall of smoke rising from the burning city. How are we to understand this association? Well, presumably Peter’s point is that a grassroots prophetic community is now emerging that will prophesy regarding the fate of Jerusalem what Jesus at first had prophesied alone—that war was coming and that only those who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (2:21). This is the reason why it is Jesus who pours out the Spirit: the disciples were commissioned and empowered to proclaim the same message of judgment and restoration.

So Peter concludes his sermon with a call to the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” to save themselves “from this crooked generation”—to save themselves from the coming “day of the Lord” that would see the destruction of the city. If they repent of their sins—on account of which the wrath of God was coming on this people—they too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and will become part of the prophetic movement of renewal.

There are other ways in which the existence of the church as communities of the Spirit may be interpreted: they are communities of a renewed covenant according to the Spirit rather than according to Torah; they are charismatic communities variously gifted for mutual support and upbuilding. But that is not what Pentecost is about. Peter draws on Joel because he understands Pentecost to be a sign of a coming day of judgment on Jerusalem and as the proliferation of Jesus’ prophetic ministry to Israel.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 02/11/2011 - 16:27 | Permalink

The alternative interpretation of Joel is that the army of locusts, described in Joel 1:1-20 - 2:1-11, is just that - a plague of locusts devastating the land and its economy. It is this view, as far as I can see, which is favoured by commentators. Andrew's interpretation depends on the less favoured view - of the locusts as an actual army, which supports the narrative of destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70, and which Andrew is promoting as an interpretation of Peter's Pentecost sermon.

The devastation caused/threatened by the plague prompts Joel's public challenges and call to prayer - Joel 1:2-20. The national call invokes the military metaphor in the face of an invasion comparable to a military invasion in Joel 2:1-11, but it's clear that the army is a metaphor for a locust invasion - Joel 2:4, 7. The only place where an actual army might be indicated is Joel 2:20, but in 2:25 this army is once again described as comprising locusts - actual, not metaphorical.

So the first question about Andrew's interpretation must be: how does he substantiate his view that Joel 1 - 2:27 describes an actual invading army in history? If it was an actual invading army, which army was it?

The difficulty which I see with Andrew's interpretation of the rest of Joel (Joel 2:28-32 - Joel 3:1-21) is that there are no historic events with which it can be connected before the coming of Jesus, and, in part, possibly even before his return (or second coming).

There is no evidence that the Spirit was poured out "on all flesh" before Peter said it had been with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The 'spirit of prophecy' is a technical intertestamental term, but it does not mean exclusively or even largely the ability to predict future events, as biblical prophecy is also commonly and wrongly defined. So the declaration of the "mighty works of God" in Acts 2 does not mean a proclamation of what God was about to do. Far more likely is that it means declaration of what God had just done, as the Spirit outpoured was proof of the ascension and reign of Jesus as king in the present.

This brings us to Joel 3:1-21. Again, in my opinion (I invite correction), there is a problem with locating the "valley of Jehoshaphat" and the "valley of decision" with any historical event in Joel's time, or subsequently. 

The "valley of Jehoshaphat" looks backwards to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, an event with which Tyre and Sidon and Philistia were complicit (Joel 3:4). In Joel's prophecy, the temple has been rebuilt, so that we are at a time following the return from exile and rebuilding of the temple in 515 BC. It's possible that the oracle is taken from an earlier period, but its position in Joel seems to relate it to a judgement yet to come. The Sabeans (Joel 3:8) were a historic people, and their enslavement of the children of Israel's former enemies, as divine retribution for Tyre and Sidon and Philistia selling Israel's children to the Greeks as slaves after 586 BC, provides some historical colour to the larger events described.

The "valley of decision", with which "the valley of Jehoshaphat" is clearly associated, paints a picture of many more people than are associated with any particular invading army in historic Israel. Egypt and Edom (Joel 3:19) function as typical enemies of Israel, rather than being associated with any particular historic act in Joel's time or beyond.

There is a problem, then, with identifying Joel's language from 2:28 onwards with any specific historic occurrences (excluding some historical detail with which the prophecies are coloured), until Pentecost provided actual fulfilment of Joel 2:28-29, and the mixture of AD 70 and final judgement prophesied in Matthew 24  pointed to a fulfilment (not a narrative reconstruction) of Joel 2:30-32.

My personal conclusion, which I cannot find echoed in other commentators I have read, but for which I can find no other explanation, is that Joel is using some imagery from Israel's history to fill out a picture which finds its unexpected fulfilment through Jesus. This fulfilment is first through the church from the outpouring of the Spirit onwards, as the place of the restoration of the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem - Joel 3:17-18, 20-21, which otherwise find no historic fulfilment at all. The second fulfilment is through final judgement, which will involve literally "all nations" being brought into "the valley of Jehoshaphat" and "the valley of decision", a place of judgement for all peoples, especially those who have opposed God's people, on a scale which is anticipated by, but far exceeds judgements which have occurred in history.

It's interesting that imagery from Joel is adopted in Revelation, eg the harvest and sickle, the winepress and vats - Joel 3:13/Revelation14:17-20. At least one interpretation of this is that the author of Revelation saw the events of Joel 3 having a far distant future fulfilment, but this of course is by no means necessarily how OT apocalyptic imagery is generally used in Revelation.

Andrew concedes that there are various ways in which the Spirit functions in Acts, but is adamant in saying "but that is not what Pentecost is about". I think the building blocks on which Andrew  interprets Peter's Pentecost sermon, in which warning of imminent historic judgement (interpreted as AD 70) dictates the function of the Spirit as being for prophetic warning, are flawed in the light of an inadequate interpretation of Joel.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, you may well be right about the locust army—though Joel 2:20 may suggest that the literal locust invasion was understood as a portent of a military invasion, perhaps the military invasion envisaged in 2:30-32. The restoration of Israel following the locust plague foreshadows the restoration of Israel following the invasion of a northern army. This would make sense of the peculiar disjunction in the text.

But my argument is about the second part of Joel, which clearly has to do with a real conflict between Israel and the surrounding nations. It may be difficult to link it to a particular historical event, but that is an issue regarding the interpretation of Joel, not of Acts 2. Your comments regarding Joel are helpful, but not strictly germane to the discussion of Peter’s sermon.

Peter seems to have thought that Joel 2:28-32 was in some sense fulfilled in the pouring out of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost and in an event like the crisis described in Joel 2:31-32. He shows no interest here in the events of Joel 3.

So my point is this: if Joel 2:30-32 is a prediction of an attack on Jerusalem by Israel’s enemies from which only those Jews who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, it seems highly likely that Peter foresees a similar disaster for the present “crooked generation”. Jesus predicted it; it actually happened; Peter makes use of an Old Testament account of just such an event; so what is the problem with supposing that, having the same Spirit as Jesus, he in effect at this point has AD 70 in mind?

The ‘spirit of prophecy’ is a technical intertestamental term, but it does not mean exclusively or even largely the ability to predict future events, as biblical prophecy is also commonly and wrongly defined.

That’s not true. That’s just a defensive manouever on the part of a squeamish modern church. Biblical prophecy is all about the prediction of future events and their significance for the relationship between YHWH and his people. Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in a climactic teaching a few weeks before the day of Pentecost. What is so absurd about the argument that the disciples repeated that prophetic announcement to the rulers in Jerusalem? 

The “valley of decision”, with which “the valley of Jehoshaphat” is clearly associated, paints a picture of many more people than are associated with any particular invading army in historic Israel. Egypt and Edom (Joel 3:19) function as typical enemies of Israel, rather than being associated with any particular historic act in Joel’s time or beyond.

The “valley of decision” is simply a place of judgment or punishment. LXX has dikē. It does not expand the original idea of the place where God will judge the nations that opposed Israel. The only reason for allegorizing Egypt and Edom as you suggest would be to accommodate it to a theological presumption that this must describe an end-time judgment. It doesn’t.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew - thank you for your response. I've made what I think is a careful case for saying that Joel is not simply looking at an event or events in history in Joel 3:1-16, and certainly not the rest of Joel 3. It simply doesn't fit with everything he says to assert that the events described have already happened - even allowing for apocalyptic hyperbole.

As you say, Peter doesn't refer to the preceding part of Joel (1 & 2), the locust army, so that does not necessarily come into the discussion. Nevertheless, it does have a bearing on the connection between the historical situations with which Peter may or may not have been drawing a parallel.

Interestingly, locusts come up again in Revelation 9:1-11. The connections with Joel are very suggestive.The locusts here are certainly not literal locusts. Attempts to locate these locusts in historical events, eg as representing barbarian armies, have been largely unsuccessful. They more probably represent spiritual forces behind historic occurrences.

Our disagreement is, first, over what Peter meant in his reference to Joel in Acts 2, which also bears upon what precisely Jesus meant in Matthew 24. My perspective is that just as Joel was looking at judgement in history as well as through history to a greater judgement to come, so Peter may have something of AD 70 in his sights, but even AD 70 was only a precursor of judgement to come. To fit Joel 3 into fulfilled historical events is, to my mind, to do violence to the language Joel is using.

'Spirit of prophecy' is a term taken from intertestamental literature, and only occurs once in the NT ("The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" - Revelation :19:10) so I'm not sure what significance you are attaching to the term. I'm mentioning it because Max Turner (The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts/Power from on High) has staked his reputation on proving a link between the term and the Spirit at Pentecost. It seemed interesting to pause over it.

I don't think biblical prophecy is simply prediction of future events. For sure, prediction is included in the word, and fulfilment of prediction is a test of a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:22. But that is far from being the sole function of a prophet.

Prediction is sometimes conditional on the response of the recipients. Jonah's prophetic warnings to Nineveh led to the prophecy being unfulfilled - and as YHWH never told Jonah that this would happen, Jonah could be accused of being a false prophet, by your definition.

When the seventy elders prophesy in Numbers 11:25, it is highly unlikely that they were predicting future events. Likewise the two who were not in the tent. Likewise when Moses says: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them" - Numbers 11:29. Likewise Saul when the Sprit of the Lord came on him - 1 Samuel 10:5-12.

The OT word is naba - to speak forth. The primary meaning of prophesy, then, is to 'speak forth' or 'speak out' God's words. This was the primary role of the prophets - not to predict the future, but to call people back to the covenant by speaking out the words God gave them. The same meaning of 'prophet/prophesy' carries over into the New Testament - prophēteuō, to speak forth/speak out (the words of God).

I'm saying this 'blind', as I can't remember how the issue came up. But it's worth talking about. A 'prophet' in the OT was not simply one who predicted the future, but a respected man of God. Abraham and Samuel were prophets. Jesus is called a prophet by the woman at Samaria because he exercises powers of insight into her life, not because he foretells the future.

Also, I wasn't allegorising Egypt and Edom in Joel 3. They were 'types' of Israel's enemies in history, in the sense that they had been enemies, and were to continue to be enemies. They do, however, take the frame of the prophecy away from a specific event or events in Joel's time, which could be said to have been fulfilled and thus 'prove' Joel was a prophet by accurate prediction. In fact, by your definition of a prophet, Joel was probably a false prophet, in the sense that the events he predicted, including the future prosperity of Judah and Jerusalem, never happened as he literally, historically predicted them.  



@peter wilkinson:

Post Script to the above - I think I've got it. Andrew is using the (intertestamental) term 'spirit of prophecy' because he wants the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost to have primarily a 'prophetic as predictive' function - to predict AD 70.

But, to the best of my knowledge, this is not how the term 'spirit of prophecy' is used intertestamentally, and it is certainly not how Max Turner sees it, in seeing an equivalence of 'spirit of prophecy' with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost - he having investigated the issue more carefully than most.

In any case, the biblical meaning of prophet/prophecy/prophesy is not exclusively or even primarily to do with prediction, as I hope I have shown. But it is helpful to understand why this definition is so important to Andrew, bearing as it does on Acts and Matthew 24 - and literalistic fulfilment of OT prophecy in history. Oddly, and Andrew isn't going to like the association, the limitation of 'prophecy' to pediction in the bible is also a characteristic of preterism.

Andrew - correct me, confute and confound these scurrilous accusations!

@peter wilkinson:

Suppose a student is asked to outline peter’s explanation of Joel’s prophecy during the day of Pentecost.

 How should the learner answer?