Prophets and Locusts… Oh my!

Last night was our final Table Talk of the summer. One question took 1 hour and 15 minutes to discuss! In other words, a very good question!

Question: How do we understand Joel 1:4?

There are actually two parts to the question, and so we dealt with both, but from a larger perspective. We used Joel as an example of how to look at texts like this, so that we do so not individualistically, but as a basis for use with many texts.

Step 1: What the text says

When we try to understand any text, look at the nouns and try to determine the referent of the word. In this case, we have to look at the words used in the text. In this case “locust” (גזם ). Is that a locust as we understand? We need to look at how the word has been translated. According to HALOT, the Hebrew word has been traditionally translated as “locust” but some suggest “caterpillar.” The word occurs only in Amos 4:2, Joel 1:4, and Joel 2:25. So, for the purposes of the question we can accept “locust” as an appropriate translation, and the referent is what we commonly consider a locust. For the purposes of the question and study, we only looked at this word.

In our discussion last night, I did not have opportunity to look at the Hebrew. But…

In the same verse, we have other Hebrew words that expand on that (which is not evident in most English translations). For instance, אַרְבֶּה often translated “migratory locust.” This word occurs more often, and is the one used in the Exodus account of the plague of locust (Exodus 10:4-19) as well as elsewhere in the Old Testament. Another word is “creeping locust” (יֶלֶק), one without wings. It occurs only in Jeremiah 5:1, 14.27; Joel 1:4 2:25 Nahum 3:15f; Psalm 105:34. And finally the last word is, חָסִיל, “certain stage in life cycle of locust” or even “cockroach.” It occurs in 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:28; Isaiah 33:4; Joel 1:4; 2:25; Psalm 78:46.

Note carefully: If we had only English translations it would appear that this verse used the same noun (locust) with four different adjectives. Yet the Hebrew text uses four different nouns, and no adjectives. It pays to study the original language texts.

Step 2: What is the significance of this text?

Now that we have an understanding of the text and referents for the words, we can ask, “what is the significance of this?” The context will often help us determine that. The four terms for crop failure show the devastation in the land from an invading army (Joel 1:6). But the purpose behind is begins with Joel 1:13ff, and that begins to help us understand the significance. God desires the his people “lament” and “repent”. While he begins with the leaders (“priests” in 1:13), God extends that call to “all the inhabitants of the land” (1:14).  Thus, the significance of the text is that God speaks Law to the people to show them their sins and bring them to repentance.

But beyond that speaking of the Law, God also then speaks Gospel, what he will do for the good of his people. In this case, beginning with Joel 2:18 (NAS95) God speaks words of hope and restoration:

Then the LORD will be zealous for His land and will have pity on His people. The LORD 1will answer and say to His people, “Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine and oil, and you will be satisfied in full with them…” (2:18-19a)

But I will remove the northern army far from you” (2:20)

Do not fear, O land, rejoice and be glad, for the LORD has done great things. (2:21)

Thus, the devastation as a manifestation of God’s Law of judgment is now replaced by the opposite, restoring all that is good, and removing the enemies as a manifestation of God’s Gospel.

Step 3: Larger context

Now how do we place all this within a larger, Biblical context? Sometimes people want to immediately jump to a present day application. Is that appropriate? As we look at the larger context, we have to keep in mind two key points: 1) We have to understand the prophet in his own time including what prophecy is and how to understand it, and 2) We have to see all as pointing ahead to Jesus Christ and his fulfillment of all the Old Testament.

1. Prophets and Prophecy

We didn’t have time to discuss all that is implied in these terms. But we took an overall look at what is the essence of prophecy. The prophet speaks both Law (showing what is required and demanding punishment when a person fails) and Gospel (what God does to forgive, restore, renew, etc.). But the prophet will often speak to four different times:

1. His own time (~90% of all prophecy in the Old Testament is of this kind)

2. Some future time relative to the prophet, but within the context of his own nation

3. The time of Christ’s first coming

4. The end of all times

See the diagram below for an example of Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Prophetic Perspective

And sometimes the prophet will speak to all four time periods within a few verses.

2. Fulfillment in Christ

For the prophet of Joel, we can see an example of #3, in Joel 2:28-32a (in Hebrew text 3:1-4)

It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.

And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be delivered

Here we have the advantage of the New Testament to help relate to when that applies. Peter quotes this text on the Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. In other words, what Joel foresaw and prophesied about finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ pouring the Holy Spirit on the disciples.

Obviously so much more to discuss, but in 90 minutes, we have limited time! (understatement!!!)

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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2 Responses to Prophets and Locusts… Oh my!

  1. lyndalyce says:

    Great overview. So easy to see the O.T. as separate, unrelated “stories”. Your elucidation on the prophets speaking to more than just the immediate circumstance of the nation of Israel was very helpful. I appreciated your explanation of God’s judgement and restoration of not only Israel but also the “nations”. . . continuing my research on “the Greeks” in Joel 3:6. You mentioned a footnote of “sons of Jovani”. Would that be Javan son of Japheth? On my World History Timeline 6 separate people groups trace their lineage back to Japheth; one of which is the Greeks before they were called Greek (1700 B.C.) Am I on the right track? And would that suggest that the use of the word Greek in 3:6 means “gentile nations”? Perhaps I am making too much of this?
    I am anticipating your O.T survey.

    • exegete77 says:

      It was “sons of Javan.” Here is what one source wrote: a son of Japheth, also his desc. and their land:—Greece(4), Javan(7).

      You are approaching that in the right way. Obviously more depth to get a good grasp, but you know how to proceed. And that is one of my major goals, equipping people to study on their own as well as in groups. Good job!

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