Food and Salvation in the Prophecy of Joel

Food is central to the vision of Joel, defining both judgment and salvation.

I think of my own gospel community. A dozen or so people of all ages and backgrounds, eating together on a Thursday night around the table, enjoying simple food yet relishing it (as we do) as a good gift from God, celebrating together what the Spirit has been doing in our lives, praying for the needs of the world, discussing how we can bless our neighbourhood in Christ’s name – this is a fulfilment of Joel’s promised feast.

In chapter 1 Joel describes an invading army of locusts. Verse 4 describes them as locusts and verse 6 as an army. It’s unclear whether the locusts or the army are metaphorical. Is it a plague of locusts like an army or an army like a plague of locusts? What is clear is their impact on the diet of God’s people!

In verse 5 Joel calls on ‘all you drinkers of wine’ to wail ‘because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth.’ In verse 7 the fig-trees are stripped bare. The traditional image of shalom or peace in Israel is everyone man under his own fig-tree (1 Kings 4:25). But now this picture of shalom is shattered. The famine of food is so great that grain and drink offerings cannot be offered to God (1:9). The lack of food is complete:

The fields are destroyed,
the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil languishes.

Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil;
wail, O vinedressers,
for the wheat and the barley,
because the harvest of the field has perished.
The vine dries up;
the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
all the trees of the field are dried up,
and gladness dries up
from the children of man. (1:10-12)

Judgment is seen as the absence of food. And the result is ‘gladness dries up from the children of man’ (1:12). Food equals gladness. Famine equals judgment.

More specifically the foods in focus throughout the prophecy are grain and grapes, bread and wine, plus often olives and oil as well. ‘The grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.’ (1:10: 2:19, 24) And pattern is replicated in the temple where grain offerings and drink offerings can no longer be made.

The failure of the grain offerings and drink offerings in verses 9 and 13 point to a further level of salvation and judgment. Blessing is not only that God’s people can eat bread and wine, but that God’s  people can eat and drink with their God. Eating is a sign of relationship and intimacy and from the Garden onwards eating with God is a sign of our relationship with him (see, for example, Exodus 24:9-11). But now the priest must wail ‘because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God.’ (1:13) ‘Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?’ (1:16)

Fifteen of the twenty verses in chapter 1 refer to food and food is clearly implied in, for example, those like 15  which does not directly speak of food, but does speak of ‘destruction’ which must be the destruction of food supplies.

Chapter 2 begins with a vision of another locust army. Chapter 1 describes events in the past. Chapter 2 speaks of a coming day, the day of the Lord. The coming of this army is inescapable, invincible and without precedent: ‘their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.’ (2:2) It is a picture of God’s coming in judgment. In the history of Israel God used invading armies (whether of soldiers or locusts) to judge his people. But a day is coming when God himself will come in judgment against humanity. The section ends with these words:

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? (2:11)

Verse 3 describes God’s coming judgment like this: ‘The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.’ God’s judgment undoes Eden. It turns the provision and plenty of the Garden into a wilderness.

In the light of this greater, coming judgment, the Lord calls on his people to repent (to ‘return’) in 2:12-13. Once again this is defined in a food-related terms. Their repentance must take the form of ‘fasting’ (2:11; see also 1:14). Instead of feasting, there is to be fasting. Instead of gladness (1:12, 16), there is to be weeping and mourning (2:11; see also 1:5, 8, 9, 13).

Hope is found in the character of God and specifically the name he revealed to Moses after the Israelites feasted before the golden calf, the archetypal sin of Israel (Exodus 32:5-6): ‘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.’ (2:13; Exodus 34:6-7)

If the ground of hope is the story of God’s mercy in the past, the content of hope is eating with God. The following verse says: ‘Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?’ (2:14) In 2:3 God left behind wilderness, but now he will behind grain and wine so God’s people can again present their offerings and enjoy community with God.

This hope is elaborated in 2:14-27 and it is all about food and eating plus the removal of the shame of the people. This is what will happen when the Lord has pity on his people (2:14).

The Lord answered and said to his people,
‘Behold, I am sending to you
grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied,
and I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations …
the tree bears its fruit;
the fig tree and vine give their full yield …
The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.’ (2:19,22,24,26)

God’s grace is defined as an abundance of food. Salvation is a feast.

In this context Joel prophecies the coming of the Spirit:

‘And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
‘Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

‘And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (2:28-32)

Chapter 3 describes how ‘in those days’ God will gather the nations to the valley of judgment. ‘And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land.’ (3:2) God will vindicate or justify his people. There is throughout history a court case between the people of God and the people of the Serpent, expressed in the attacks on Israel, the persecution of the church and the rejection of our message. In the Israelite system of law an accusation was made by one party against another. There  was no independent prosecutor. So the vindication of one party necessarily involved the condemnation of the other. If one party was vindicated then the other must by definition be guilty, either of the crime of which they were accused or of making a false and malicious accusation (an act which incurred the same penalty as the crime stated in the false accusation). So God’s people will be vindicated as his enemies are condemned. But for God to vindicate or justify his people he must also resolve another court case: the case he himself brings against his people. How can God vindicate his people when they have wronged him? Joel does not provide an answer. For that we must wait for Romans 3. But Joel has suggested it will be grounded in God’s merciful name (2:13).

So the history-long conflict between the people of God and the people of the Serpent will be brought to a climatic conclusion. While God’s people are beating their swords into ploughshares and their spears in pruning hooks (ready to produce a harvest of food) (Isaiah 2:4), the nations must do the reverse, beating their ploughshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears, as they prepare to face God’s warriors. (3:10) While salvation for God’s people means an abundant harvest (2:19), the nations themselves become an abundant harvest of judgment in which they are cut down and trampled under foot: ‘Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.’ (3:13; see Revelation 14:14-20)

In the midst of this judgment on the enemies of God, salvation for God’s people is pictured in terms of exaggerated abundance: ‘And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water.’ (3:18)

Joel 1 describes events in the Joel’s day. God has judged the people of Israel for their sin by sending famine through a locust army. Joel 2:1-11 suggests that this judgment points to a greater judgment: a greater locust army and greater famine in which the land becomes a wasteland.

But God’s people can escape this coming judgment if they turn to him in repentance (expressed through fasting and mourning).

The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
a stronghold to the people of Israel. (3:16)

God himself provides a refuge form his own coming. Through the cross God is a refuge from his own advance (see also Psalm 2:12). He is the gracious King who comes to destroy, but provides a refuge from his own destruction through the death of Jesus on our behalf.

So God’s repentant people can look forward to a time of renewed feasting, feasting on grain and wine and oil, and feasting with God. This is salvation: to feast abundantly and to feast with God. Feasting expressions provision. It expresses security. It expresses community. It expresses a reconnection with the land and the renewal of creation (the land itself is to rejoice in 2:21). Above all, it expressed community with God.

Peter quotes from Joel 2:28-32 on the day of Pentecost, claiming that this time is being fulfilled. The new age has begun. The feat has begun. We know from the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 and Mark 4 that the kingdom of God comes into two stages. It comes first in a secret, gracious way through the invitation of the gospel message. But one day it will come in glory and judgment. The army of the Lord in Joel 2 and the climatic conflict with the peoples of the world in Joel 3 remain to be fulfilled. Twice Joel says the sun will be turned to darkness (2:31; 3:15). Peter’s use of this verse to describe the events of Pentecost suggests this was fulfilled as the Son of Man died in darkness on the cross to redeem his people, rose again to ascend on the clouds in glory to the presence of God from where he has bestowed gifts on his people through the sending of the Spirit. But there is still a great and dreadful day of the Lord.

In the meantime the feast of the new age has begun with the presence of the Spirit. It is not all fulfilled yet. The mountains do not yet drip new wine, nor do the hills flow with milk (3:18). Life in the not-yet-renewed earth can often be hard. But there is a real sense in which the feast promised by Joel has begun.

Please do not see this feast as simply a metaphor. That would be a Gnostic gospel! When  the disparate people of God come together and express community around a table, united as we are in Christ, then Joel’s promised feast finds a fulfilment. When we celebrate the goodness of creation as enjoy our food, then Joel’s promised feast finds a fulfilment and we anticipate the renewal of creation. When we  eat together in the presence of God by his Spirit, then Joel’s promised feast finds a fulfilment. All this is a powerful declaration to the world of both the coming feast of God to which all humanity is invited and that God is present with his people. Joel himself declares at the climax of his prophecy: ‘the Lord dwells in Zion’ (3:21).

I think of my own gospel community. A dozen or so people of all ages and backgrounds, eating together on a Thursday night around the table, enjoying simple food yet relishing it (as we do) as a good gift from God, celebrating together what the Spirit has been doing in our lives, praying for the needs of the world, discussing how we can bless our neighbourhood in Christ’s name – this is a fulfilment of Joel’s promised feast.

And when we share bread and wine, which Joel promises again and again we will enjoy in abundance, presenting our grain and drink offerings to God, not as an atonement for sin, but as a thanksgiving for Christ’s once-for-all atonement, eating and drinking in community with God  then Joel’s promised feast finds a fulfilment.

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