This prophecy appears to have been written in the aftermath of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC (see Joel 3:2-6).  Frequent reference to the temple and its rituals (Joel 1:9, 13–14, 16; 2:14, 17; cf. 3:18) suggest a date some time after 515 BC, when the temple was rebuilt by those returning from exile.

The background to the book is the devastation of the harvest of more than one year by a plague of locusts, Joel 1:4; 2:25).

‘One swarm can contain up to ten billion individual locusts. As many as a thousand newly hatched hopping locusts can occupy one square foot. A single locust can travel 3,000 miles during its lifetime, stripping vegetation wherever it and its swarm land. A swarm can devour in one day what 40,000 people eat in one year. In a 1958 visitation Ethiopia lost 167,000 metric tons of grain, enough to feed more than a million people for a year.’ (NBC)

The prophet’s role was to interpret this crisis in terms of the people’s relationship with the Lord, to call the people to repentance, and to announce the Lord’s deliverance.

Joel interpreted the plague as a warning to return to the Lord (Joel 2:13, 18, 26–27; 3:2f, 16f) cf. Amos 4:9).  The prophet uses both the political name, ‘Judah’ (e.g. Joel 3:1) and the covenant name, ‘Israel’ (Joel 2:27; 3:2, 16).

God’s covenant relationship with his people involves their relationship with ‘the land’, Joel 1:2; 2:1, 14, 18.  ‘God’s gift of the land was a sensitive instrument that registered the spiritual state of the people. It was fertile in times of fellowship and obedience, but barren and lifeless in times of disloyalty. Indeed, locust plagues feature as one of the covenant curses in Dt. 28:38, 42, while agricultural prosperity is credited to Yahweh’s blessing (Dt. 28:4, 8, 11, 12.’ (NBD)

‘This close dependence of material fortunes upon doing God’s will underlies Joel’s messages. Other parts of the OT, notably the book of Job, qualify it and the NT does not often appeal to it (see Mt. 6:33; 2 Cor. 9:6–11; Phil. 4:15–19). Yet there remains a basic kinship between humanity and the rest of creation that we ignore at our peril. The environment is a human and therefore Christian concern.’ (NBD)

The concept of ‘the day of the Lord’, already prominent in Amos (see Amos 5:18-20) also features in Joel (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11).  Here, God’s judgment is mediated (in the first instance, at least) by the plague of locusts.

As a post-exilic prophet, speaking to a people restored to their own land, Joel had the task of explaining why the golden age foretold by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had not fully materialised.

Although the Book of Job and other OT scriptures remind us that human misfortune cannot always be attributed to specific human sins, nevertheless, even the NT writers maintain some sort of connection between the two, 1 Cor. 11:30–32; Heb. 12:5–11.  A prophetic warning is always to be raised against the possibility of spiritual treason, (e.g. Heb. 10:26–31; Rev 2:5; 3:3, 14–22), although tender encouragement also has its place, Joel 2:13; Heb 6:9-12.

Joel is a skilled teacher, ‘quoting Scripture and religious traditions and applying them to his own time. For instance, in Joel 2:13 he quoted the beautiful description of God found in Israelite worship (cf. Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:15) and used it as an incentive to repent. Also he was careful to pave the way for divine oracles, as when he issued his challenges to different groups of people (Joel 1:2–18) and offered a sample prayer (Joel 1:19–20) before God’s summons for the people to assemble in repentant worship at Jerusalem (Joel 2:1). Moreover, he explained oracles, once they were given: in Joel 2:13 (‘Return to the LORD …’) the divine call of Joel 2:12 is reinforced with reasons for obeying it, and in Joel 2:32 the significance of God’s intention for his people (vs 30–31) is clarified.’ (NBC)

As a sensitive pastor, ‘he was sensitive to the frustrations and heartaches of an ethnic minority. He replaced despair with hope, and a poor self-image with confidence in God’s positive purposes. God would recognize and reverse the suffering of his people at the hands of the nations (Joel 3:2–3, 5–6, 19) by vindicating and blessing them. Whenever the church feels insecure and threatened by a hostile world, it can turn to Joel for support.’ (NBC)

The Book of Joel is referred to in two distinct ways in the NT.  Firstly, the concept of ‘the day of the Lord’ is applied to the return of Christ, when God will complete his overthrow of evil  Secondly, in Acts 2:16–21, 33,  38–40, Peter applies the language of Joel 2:28-32 to the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  This dual usage ‘reflects a conviction that for the church the last days have already begun, but are not yet completed, while for the world they still lie in the future.’ (NBC)

(The above relies heavily on the relevant entry by Leslie C. Allen in NBC)

Allusions and quotations in the New Testament

Joel 1
Joe 1:6 || Rev 9:8

Joel 2
Joe 2:2 || Mt 24:21

Joe 2:4–5 || Rev 9:7

Joe 2:5 || Rev 9:9

Joe 2:10 || Mt 24:29 || Mk 13:24–25 || Rev 6:12–13 || Rev 8:12

Joe 2:11 || Rev 6:17

Joe 2:23 || Jas 5:7

Joe 2:28 || Acts 21:9 || Tt 3:6

Joe 2:28–32 || Acts 2:17–21

Joe 2:31 || Mt 24:29 || Mk 13:24–25 || Rev 6:12

Joe 2:32 || Acts 2:39 || Acts 22:16 || Rom 10:13

Joel 3
Joe 3:4–8 || Mt 11:21–22 || Lk 10:13–14

Joe 3:13 || Mk 4:29 || Rev 14:15 || Rev 14:18 || Rev 19:15

Joe 3:15 || Mt 24:29 || Mk 13:24–25 || Rev 6:12–13 || Rev 8:12

Joe 3:18 || Rev 22:1