The prophet Joel had forecast a message of doom and despair for Judah and Jerusalem: a terrible plague of locusts of historic proportions (Joel 1:1-2:27). Whether the locusts were actual insects sent to ravage the land or a way of describing the Assyrian host is contested; even if Joel spoke of locusts, we know the Assyrian, and then the Babylonian, would overrun Judah as judgments from YHWH (cf. 2 Kings 18:13-19:37, 25:1-26). In those days Judah and Jerusalem would be brought low; the nations would vaunt against her.
Yet Joel did not leave Judah and Jerusalem destitute: he spoke of a promised day when YHWH would pour out His Spirit upon the remnant which would be saved (Joel 2:28-32). These days would be fully manifest after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Acts 2:14-39).
Joel continued by extending more hope for the vindication of Israel in Joel 3:1-21. YHWH promised to bring all the nations together into the “Valley of Jehoshaphat,” perhaps better “valley where YHWH judges,” in order to exercise judgment against the nations for scattering the people of God throughout their lands, enslaving others, and selling still more (Joel 3:1-3). Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia received special mention for having taken the resources of Israel and selling Judahite captives to the Greeks in order to depopulate them from the land: YHWH would recompense them on their own heads, and they would be sold into slavery (Joel 3:4-8).
Joel envisioned the judgment scene as it would play out: the nations would be summoned for war. In a reversal of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3, the nations are called to beat their plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears so as to come and fight (Joel 3:9-10). All the nations would come together for judgment, and YHWH would reap the harvest and tread the winepress of their wickedness (Joel 3:11-13). The sun and moon would be darkened on the day of the valley of decision; the heavens and earth would shake from the roar of YHWH when He would prove a refuge to His people, a stronghold to Israel (Joel 3:14-16).
In this way Israel would recognize YHWH as their God in Zion: Jerusalem would be holy, and no stranger would live there (Joel 3:17). The land would produce wine, milk, and water, while Egypt and Edom will become desolations for what they have done to the Judahites in shedding blood (Joel 3:18-19). Judah and Jerusalem would abide forever, for YHWH would cleanse them, dwelling in Zion (Joel 3:20-21).
The conclusion of Joel’s recorded prophetic message underscored YHWH’s concern for His people. Yes, He would be compelled to judge them; yes, they would be laid low in the endeavor, and for a time, the nations would gloat and exalt over Israel and YHWH. Yet they would not get the last word; they would be gathered for judgment, and they would be held accountable for what they had done. God would vindicate His people. Jerusalem and Judah would be in distress, but only for a time; the day of the valley of decision would draw near. Even though His people often proved faithless and required the sharp blow of His justice, YHWH never abandoned or gave up on them or His purposes for them. There would be a time of restoration.
Images based in Joel 3:1-21 would arise in the Revelation given to John. John would see the one like a Son of Man reap the earth; an angel would then reap the grape harvest, and it would be trodden in the winepress of the wrath of God, and blood would flow for miles (Revelation 14:14-20). John would see the nations gathered for battle against the Lord of lords and King of kings at “Armageddon,” and the Lord Jesus would overcome them with the sword proceeding from His mouth, the Word of God (Revelation 16:12-16, 19:11-21).
If we look to the history books to find some grand judgmental event somewhere in the Levant we will be disappointed. If we thus project this event into the future we would miss the point. The judgment may not have concretely taken place in a particular valley in Jewish territory, but YHWH absolutely judged those who plundered His people. Assyria was overrun in a moment by the Medes and Babylonians, just as Nahum prophesied. Babylon would fall to the Persians and ultimately become a ruin: a backwater of little consequence in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, and completely forgotten until rediscovered by Europeans professing the God of Israel in the 19th century. Edom would be conquered by the Jews under John Hyrcanus and compelled to convert to Judaism. Tyre and Sidon would lose their independence to the Persians, Macedonians, and Romans in turn. Israel would suffer another Day of YHWH and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE; the Romans, after suffering wave after wave of tragedy, would ultimately profess Christ, and their Empire would be no more.
The people of God have much to gain from Joel’s prophecies in Joel 3:1-21. Perhaps there are times when God judges His people, or allows His people to suffer tragedy, humiliation, and loss. In those days the enemies of God’s people gloat and exalt, presuming their gods or they by their strength have conquered. Yet God will have the last laugh; whatever they imposed upon the people of God will redound back to them. As they represented the poured out wrath of God, so they will drain the dregs of the cup of the wrath of God. God may have to chastise and judge His people, but He does not give up on them or His purposes in them. May we serve God in Christ to obtain the resurrection, finding cleansing in Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry