In the Book of Joel, the prophet addresses a serious problem in Israel: a plague of locusts is consuming the crops. Whether the locusts are literal insects or a symbol for a foreign invader, Joel exhorts his fellow Israelites to take action. Everyone in the nation, young and old, is to appear before God in a solemn assembly. The situation is so serious that brides and grooms must interrupt their weddings to attend. There are no grain and drink offerings, since the locusts have consumed the crops, but the Israelites can still reach God without such sacrifices. God is more concerned about their hearts anyway, so Joel tells them to mourn and fast before God in humble, heartfelt repentance.
At first, Joel expresses the possibility that God might turn from his anger and restore Israel’s prosperity, but he is not absolutely certain. Then, one day, Joel gets a message: God has acknowledged the Israelites’ repentance and will cease from his wrath. He will send them grain, wine, and oil, thwart the northern invaders, and ensure that the Israelites will never again be put to shame. Then, God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh so that the sons and daughters of Israel shall prophesy.
Was Joel expecting such a dramatic restoration of Israel in his own lifetime? If he was conveying God’s message of hope in response to plague of locusts that existed in his own day, then the answer seems to be “yes.” But there is a problem with that. First of all, for Christians, many of the predictions of Joel 2 were fulfilled at Pentecost in the first century C.E., when God poured out his Spirit on the early church (see Acts 2). And, second, Joel affirms that the Israelites shall never again be put to shame. But the Israelites have continually experienced shame even after Joel’s death. The Jews have endured persecution and humiliation from all sorts of people (e.g., medieval Christians, Nazis, Communists, etc.).
What Joel does is not exactly unique, for most of the prophets discuss Israel’s ultimate restoration in light of the socio-political reality of their times. First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-35) predicts that God will use the Assyrians to execute his judgment upon his people; then, after the land of Israel has been cleansed, God will set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace. Jeremiah states that the Jews will only be exiled for seventy years; after that time, God will return the exiles, reconstitute the monarchy and priesthood, and establish a new covenant with Northern Israel and Judah. Jews and Christians have both projected these expectations onto the future. Traditional Jews say that God will one day send a Messiah who will set up a kingdom of peace, and Christians assert that this will take place at the second coming of Jesus Christ. The prophets, however, appear to have believed that such things would happen in their own day, or at least soon (since Jeremiah didn’t live seventy years after the Babylonians took Judah).
And so there appears to be a theological problem, as far as traditional Jews and Christians are concerned: The prophets seem to have predicted that restoration was imminent, and it was not exactly. So were they false prophets? What are some ways to approach this difficult issue?
One way may be to say that God was speaking to Joel’s situation in light of his overall plan. God planned to restore Israel far off into the future. His agenda was eventual restoration, and he had Joel share this with Israel to offer her hope. God’s goal was to assure Israel that he still loved her and had plans for her as a nation, even though not all of them would be realized at that particular moment. This solution may have some merit, but I have difficulty believing that a prediction about something far off into the future would offer Israel hope right then and there. They were in an emergency situation, after all. They needed assurance about something immediate.
Another possibility is that prophecy is conditional. Maybe God planned to restore Israel, but she did not repent properly, so God delayed his plans. Interestingly, this seems to be the approach of certain biblical authors and redactors. Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) prophesied a dramatic restoration of Israel after she had left Babylon, yet that did not exactly occur. Then Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) came along and told Israel that she was sinning, and her sins were holding up God’s program. That may be true, but I have a problem: A lot of the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah, Ezekiel) predict that God will make Israel righteous after her restoration. For them, the Israelites will no longer be habitually sinners, because God will make them habitually righteous. In this scenario, God will act to take care of Israel’s sin problem, so how can Israel’s sins hold up God’s plan?
A third possibility that entered my mind was that Joel was predicting a locust plague for the far off future. After all, the Book of Daniel is set in the days of Babylon and Persia in the sixth century B.C.E., yet it speaks to a situation that existed in the second century B.C.E. Could Joel have been a book stored up for a later time? Perhaps, but I have a problem making that claim about all of the prophetic books. Isaiah, after all, talks about eschatological restoration in light of nations that were present in his own day (e.g., Assyria).
There may be more proposals. The above ones have their strengths, and possibly even some truth. Yet, they are not completely adequate. Perhaps the fact that the prophetic hope kept surviving despite continual disappointment attests to the steadfast faith of Jews and Christians. As they looked at the evil around them, they continually clung to God in the hope that he would set up his kingdom, one of righteousness and peace.