The Army of the Lord
“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?” (v. 11).- Joel 2:1–11
Despite God’s clear proclamation that Israel’s impenitent and flagrant violation of the covenant would result in the nation losing its homeland (Deut. 28:15–68), by the time the Babylonian exile came upon Judah, a tradition had developed that Jerusalem was inviolable. Divorcing their election from its covenantal context, the Judahites were convinced, up until Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, that the Lord would keep the city safe. We see evidence of this in Jeremiah’s ministry, when he had to tell the people on the eve of Judah’s fall that they could not trust in the fact that God put His temple in Jerusalem (Jer. 7:1–4). Even as the menace of Babylon grew, Jerusalem refused to believe God would take the kingdom from her.
Consequently, Joel’s words in today’s passage fell on ears that were desperately trying to ignore his warning. No Judahite would have denied that God would bring His judgment to bear upon the Gentiles on the day of the Lord. However, it was almost impossible for Judah to believe that God would bring His judgment to bear upon His covenant people. Yet Joel 2:1–11 proclaims the Lord’s judgment on Jerusalem. The setting is holy war. Joel likens himself to a watchman whose job is to sound the trumpet alarm from the watchtower when enemies approach the city. However, the army that was approaching was the Lord’s army (vv. 1, 11). Prophets normally played a key role in announcing or carrying out God’s battle plans against His enemies (2 Kings 13:14–20; 2 Chron. 20:14–17), and in Joel’s day, the enemies were the Judahites themselves.
There is debate as to whether Joel is still talking literally about locusts in today’s passage or is predicting Babylon’s invasion of Jerusalem. After all, Scripture often likens invading human armies to swarms of locusts (Judg. 6:1–5; Jer. 51:1–14). Nevertheless, it is clear that the prophet is seeing the events of Joel 2 as a type of the final day of the Lord to come. Locusts do not normally fly at night, so they do not darken the moon, which tells us Joel is moving to a more cosmic setting in 2:10. In fact, the ambiguity regarding whether the text is referring immediately to locusts or to human armies may be purposeful. It seems Joel wanted his text to be applied beyond his own context so that we can see all disasters as types and warnings of the cosmic and final day of the Lord to come. In so doing, we can warn people to repent before it is too late.
John Calvin comments on Joel 2:1–11, reminding us that its final end is not to preach judgment for judgment’s sake but to warn people to turn from sin: “The object of the narrative, then, is to make the people sensible, that it was now no time for taking rest; for the Lord, having long tolerated their wickedness, was now resolved to pour upon them in full torrent his whole fury.” Let us be reminded of our need to repent, and may it prompt us to share the gospel more eagerly.
Passages for Further Study