Getting to Know Joel, Old Testament Prophet

Every Ash Wednesday this Old Testament prophet sets the tone for Lent.

Are you going through a tough time? Does your heart need some joyful renewal? Would a touch of hope help your spirits? Or are you a struggling farmer or feeling careworn in the food industry? If so, the Old Testament prophet Joel might be a good person to get to know. Because we hear him only a few times at Mass, many Catholics probably feel a weak connection to him. Even so, this “minor prophet” is worth knowing.

The son of Pethuel, Joel probably lived in Jerusalem about 400 years before the birth of Christ. His prophetic book is only four chapters long, but it shows that he was a prophet for the Lord, passionate for the good of the people of Judah. Joel used highly dramatic, metaphorical writing. For example:

His teeth are the teeth of a lion . . . (1:6b).

Their appearance is that of horses; like steeds they run (2:4).

The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood (3:4a).

The mountains shall drip new wine (4:18a).

Although Joel’s writings may be unfamiliar, they continue to offer valuable spiritual insights.

A Glimmer of Hope amid Despair

The field is ravaged,
the earth mourns (1:10a).

Joel opens his book with a scene of devastation: locusts have devoured the land, leaving the inhabitants of Judah destitute and in a state of severe famine. Misery, despair, and anguish are at every corner.

Americans might not experience the same sort of overwhelming experiences as Judah’s ancient people: a debilitating locust invasion, much-needed grapes dying on the vine, going without grain, withering fig trees needed for sustenance, and similar losses. Although we Americans have plenty of poverty in our country, most people can get to a grocery store, food pantry, or soup kitchen to keep from starving.

However, we all experience times of misery, despair, and anguish. We all know what it is like to suffer—sometimes very deeply. Recalling difficult times in your life may yield a heartbreaking list of bad experiences—perhaps a flood, hurricane, divorce, postwar stress, drug dependency, or other tragedy. We still hurt—on occasion, horribly. Our circumstances of despondency may differ, but we have all shared the similar sentiments of angst that Joel’s contemporaries felt over 2,400 years ago.

Within his long and elaborate description of Judah’s difficult state, Joel works in a snippet of powerful advice. He briefly presses the people of Judah to stop and think, to look to God for solutions, and to make sacrifices in God’s honor.

Again, our lives differ radically from life in 400 BC. Wearing sackcloth might (or might not) be the best way to go, and calling an assembly to address our problems might or might not be appropriate. Turning to God in times of trouble, making some sort of sacrifice (for example, Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) is never a bad idea. Actually, performing penitential acts on Fridays is a habit recommended by the Church, whether there is currently anguish in your life or not (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438).

From Warning to Hope

Let all who dwell in the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming (2:1b).

Joel introduces his second chapter with a frightening scene: gloom, somberness, devouring, stubble, and exceedingly terrible events appear among his desperate and descriptive words. He describes the “Day of the Lord” as a time when God will pass judgment upon all mankind. Joel compares this possibility to Judah’s devastating locust invasion and drought. Joel’s words may feel staggering and worrisome, but chapter 2 offers encouragement: by turning our hearts toward the Lord and living for the Lord, all will be well.

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people (2:18).

This chapter can also speak to current feelings of misery over financial insecurity, children with learning struggles, a spouse with a terminal illness, lost homes, mental illness, or similar challenges. As Joel reminds us, however, God can help with such difficult problems. God can give us what we need to cope or possibly make our situations wondrously better if we call on and accept God’s help.

God’s Spirit Poured Out Generously

Then everyone shall be rescued who calls on the name of the LORD (3:5a).

In this chapter, devoured pastures, blighted trees, withered fruits, dried-up streams, darkness, torment, blanched faces, and a fearfully rumbling earth give way to a hope that God’s spirit will be poured upon mankind. This five-verse chapter promises hope and divine inspiration to those who call upon the Lord.

No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel (Acts 2:16).

More than 400 years later, St. Peter cited Joel 3:5a about receiving the Lord’s spirit. When the disciples were in the Upper Room after Jesus’ ascension and the Holy Spirit came upon them, Peter proclaimed in Acts 2:14–21 that this action fulfilled Joel’s words.

Despite our current personal and national troubles, these words from Joel can still offer encouragement to endure: the spirit of God is with us and will help us through life’s challenges, no matter how difficult they might be.

God, the Good Judge

For there will I sit in judgment upon all the neighboring nations (4:12b).

Joel’s intense wording here may sound vindictive, suggesting that God is out to get neighboring countries that have abused Judah. In fact, isn’t this God looking out for people who have been hurt? For those who feel taken advantage of, trampled upon, ignored, or attacked, this chapter promises that God will take care of things—in God’s own way and time. The divine techniques might not be as fierce as Joel presents them, but God has it all figured out. Joel’s fourth chapter can prompt us to persevere when others have been unjust toward us, to have faith that God knows all and will make things right.

Meeting Joel at Mass

Joel 3:1–5 is an option for the Pentecost Vigil Mass; the passage describes God’s outpouring of the divine Spirit upon mankind, the exact verses that St. Peter quoted at the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:14–21).

In Joel, despair gives way to a hope that God’s spirit will be poured upon mankind.

On Friday of Week 27 in Year I, we hear Joel 1:13–15; 2:1–2. The next day we hear Joel 4:12–21. These weekday passages occur in oddnumbered years, generally near the beginning of October. They emphasize Joel’s message to reach out to the Lord in times of trouble and of God’s redemption for all peoples.

If you happen to join in these weekday Masses and hear these passages of Joel, try to recall him as a man who presented distress and warning, but with a healthy dose of hope for those who put their confidence and trust in God.

A Message of Hope

Bad things happen. Life may frequently feel overwhelming. Sometimes we cause problems through our bad decisions, and other times, problems inexplicably come our way. But we must endure. We must keep God in our hearts, express sorrow for our sins, withstand hardships, and not shy away from prayer, penances, and sacrifices. Joel’s words also remind us of great hope through devotion to God: we should fearlessly look to the future with great confidence in the Lord.

Starting Lent Well

Joel 2:12–18 is the first reading every Ash Wednesday (February 13 in 2013). It begins: “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, offerings and libations for the LORD, your God” (vv. 12–14).

Although Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, its Masses are very well attended. Thus, this passage may sound familiar. It reminds us to work on our hearts and to keep a healthy and pious focus on God—a very appropriate thought to ponder at the beginning of Lent.

Seeking Joel’s Help

Although Joel does not appear in many saint books, he is indeed listed in the 2004 Roman Martyrology, honored on October 19: “The commemoration of the holy prophet, Joel, who announced the great day of the Lord and the mystery of the pouring forth of his Spirit upon all flesh, which on the day of Pentecost the divine majesty deigned to accomplish wondrously in Christ.”

If you are going through a difficult time and need a bit of hope, consider trying a novena to St. Joel. For nine consecutive days, ask St. Joel to pray for your intention(s) and then ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you read each day’s passage. Ponder the text, allowing God gently and softly to speak to your heart. If inspired, read the footnotes and parallel verses noted in your Bible.

Day 1: Joel 1:12
Day 2: Joel 1:14
Day 3: Joel 2:12–13
Day 4: Joel 2:18–19
Day 5: Joel 3:1
Day 6: Joel 3:5
Day 7: Joel 4:1–2
Day 8: Joel 4:12
Day 9: Acts 2:16–21

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1 thought on “Getting to Know Joel, Old Testament Prophet”

  1. Hi
    Thanks for this block on Prophet Joel. Very nice and comprehensive on the prophet message and how it is alive in all times, not just in old testament but in the new one, and now.
    I wonder the source to identify that Joel lived around 400 b.C. I see Antonio Fuentes Mendiola places Joel between VI and V b.C. centuries, and even others before Juda fall (it means about 800 b.C). It is not critical to get Joel message but wonder how experts came to such ages difference.
    God bless you all.
    Jesus A canas

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