The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Background and Notes On Joel 2:12-18 For Ash Wednesday (includes note on verse 19)

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 13, 2010

Most Scripture links are to the RSV Anglicized Version. On occasion, the chapter and verse numbering in the RSV differs from that of the NAB, where this occurs, I also include a link to the NAB. 


A. Authorship, Date, Place of Composition~

1.  All that we know of Joel for certain is what we are told in the superscription (Joel 1:1), which is paltry indeed: his name was Joel, and his Father was Pethuel.  The content of the book has led to the supposition that he was either a cultic prophet or a priest, due to his “familiarity with the Jewish liturgy (Joel 1:13-14; Joel 2:15-17), and devotion to the sancturary (Joel 1:8-9; Joel 2:27; Joel 4:16-17)”~Jerome Biblical Commentary 25:2.

It should be noted that there is nothing in the book to lead us to believe that Joel authored it himself, though this is possible.  It is also possible that he had a scribe write down the prophecies (see Jeremiah 36), or, that the work exists like our Gospels: an inspired disciple was moved to record the teaching of the prophet.

2.  Unlike most of the other works of the writing prophets Joel’s superscription (Joel 1:1) lacks any indication of when his ministry took place.  This fact has caused a number of “guesses” to be made concerning this issue.  Essentially, there are four major theories: (1) 9th century BC, probably during the reign of Joash.  (2) During the last 5 decades of the Kingdom of Judah (David) which fell to Babylon in 587 BC.  (3) circa 520-500 BC, during or after the return from Babylonian Exile.  (4) During the Persian period, after the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, sometime between 530 and 350 BC.  Most scholars today choose number four as the most likely time period and narrow time the date to circa 400.

3.  The content of the book indicates that the work, or at least the prophet’s ministry, was conducted in Judah, and especially its capital of Jerusalem.

B.  The Context Of Joel 2:12-18~

For about a century and a half the unity of the Book of Joel has been questioned, with some postulating that chapters 1 & 2 were written by a hand different from that which produced chapters 3 & 4.  Other scholars maintain that the work is a unity, noting literary connection between the allegedly disparate parts (compare Joel 1:15 and Joel 2:1 with Joel 3:4 and Joel 4:14; also Joel 2:27 with Joel 4:17).  I find the reasons for a single author  more plausible (see the Joel commentaries in the Jerome Biblical Commentary and The New Catholic Commentary On Holy Scripture).

Most scholars divide Joel into two major sections, with the first corresponding to chapters 1 and 2, and the second with chapters 3 and 4.  (But see Volume 1 of Marvin Sweeney’s The Twelve Prophets for a different structure).  With Sweeney I think that the dividing point between the two major sections is at Joel 2:18.

C. Division of Joel 1:2-18. The first major part of Joel is chapter Joel 1:2-2:18.  Chapter 1 is divided thus:

A plague of locusts has descended upon the nation, the likes of which had not been seen before (Joel 1:2-4).  This leads to a call for liturgical lamentation to be done by drunkards (Joel 1:5-7); by the people in general Joel 1:8-10); by farmers and husbandmen (Joel 1:11-12); and priests (Joel 1:13) who are to gather together the people for the liturgy (Joel 1:14).

This is followed by a cry of alarm (Joel 1:15), and reasons for the alarm (Joel 1:16-20).

Chapter 2 opens with a statement of the threat posed (Joel 2:1-11).  Inasmuch as chapter 1 has spoken of the threat as an existing reality we should perhaps see these verses as a threat of something to come, a worse locust plague or, more likely in my opinion, an army of men who would, like the locusts, destroy the land to such an extent that the former destructive invasions of Assyria and Babylon would look of little account.  This is the army of Israel’s God, who, because of their infidelity, now uses a foreign army as his instrument of punishment (an idea not foreign to the Bible, see Isaiah 10:5-11)

Locusts were one of the punishments God said he would bring against Israel if they fell away from the covenant and its demands (Deuteronomy 28:38), and, apparently, if this didn’t check them an army of invaders would be sent (Deut 28:49-57).  It is not then hard to see that a locust plague and an invading army could be closely associated in their effects (see Judges 6:5, Judges 7:12; Jer 46:23; Nahum 3:15-17).  Indeed, as Theodoret notes, “If one carefully considers the head of a locust, he will find it very much like that of a horse.”  In fact, the Italian word for locust (cavaletta) means “little horse;” and the German word (heupferd) means “hay horse.”  The comparison of locust to war horses is not unknown in the Bible (Job 39:19-20).

The people have sinned against the covenant and punishment has come (Joel 1), but an even greater threat looms (Joel 2:1-11), thus the call to repentance which forms the heart of our first reading for Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:12-17, with 18 capping off the passage and providing a transition to the second major part, Joel 2:19-3:21, [NAB 2:19-4:21]).


Joe 2:12  Yet even now, the Lord says, turn to me with your whole heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning .

Yet even nowI.e., In spite of what you have done.  Before things get worse and you force my hand to greater punishment.  The situation is dire but not hopeless.  St Jerome put it: “all this I have therefore spoken, in order to terrify you by My threats.  Wherefore turn unto me with all your hearts, and show the penitence of your minds, by fasting and weeping and mourning, that, fasting now, your man be filled hereafter;  weeping now, you may laugh hereafter; mourning now, you may hereafter be comforted” (St Jerome, Commentary on Joel 2:12.  The rest of the quotation can be found below, at verse 13.  Note that the Saint is quoting from Luke 6:20-26, which formed part of the Gospel reading for last Sunday.  Before Lent we were still preparing for Lent!  there is nothing arbitrary about the lectionary)

Even now, he says, witnessing at one and the same time to his might and his mercy, for the One strong enough to bring calamity upon sinners is also the One to offer His mercy which, as it were, holds precedent over His judicial might to punish,  As Hugo of St victor states: “The strict Judge cannot be overcome, for He is Wisdom; cannot be corrupted, for He is Justice; cannot be sustained, for He is Eternal; cannot be avoided, for He is everywhere.  Yet He can be entreated, because He is Mercy; He can be appeased, because He is Goodness; He can cleanse, because He is the Fountain of grace; He can satisfy, because He is the Bread of Life; He can soothe. because He is the Unction from above; he can beautify, because he is Fullness; He can beatify, because He is Bliss.  Turned from Him, then, and fearing His Justice, turn ye to Him, and flee to His Mercy.  Flee from Himself to Himself, from the rigor of Justice to the Bosom of Mercy.  The Lord Who is to be feared saith it.  He who is Truth enjoins what is just, profitable, good, turn you to Me, &c

Turn to me with your whole heart.  A common formulation in the so called Deuteronomist theology (see Deut 30:10; 1 Sam 7:3; 1 Kings 8:48; 2 Kings 24:25).  The call to return to God was picked up by the Prophets for whom the Deuteronomist theology was key (see Hosea 3:5; 14:2; Amos 4:6-11).

Turn to Me , He saith, With all your heart, with your whole mind, whole soul, whole spirit, whole affections (see Deut 6:5).  For I am the Creator and Lord of the heart and mind, and therefore will, that the whole of your being be given, yea, given back to Me, and endure not any part of it to be secretly stolen from Me to be given to idols, lusts or appetites ” (Cornelius a Lapide, S.J.).

Fasting, weeping, mourning. Recalls the exhortation to priests to weep and wail (mourn) and call the people to fast in Joel 1:12-13.

With fasting, which is necessary for the humbling of the heart, for our tendency to pamper the flesh is likely to inflate the heart with pride and make insensible to us its condition, and forgetful of God, as Moses had predicted concerning the Jews, who ate their fill…grew fat and frsiky and spurned the God who made them, scorning the Rock of their salvation” (Deut 32:15).

Weeping…mourning.  Obvious signs of remorse.  The root word of mourning denotes the idea of striking oneself,, hence the traditional practice of striking the breast during the meas culpa.  “We ought to turn in fasting, whereby vices are repressed, and the mind is raised.  We ought to turn in weeping, out of longing for our home (heaven), out of displeasure at our faults, out of love for the sufferings of Christ, and for the manifold transgressions and errors of the world” (St Dionysius).

Joe 2:13  And rend your hearts, and not your garments and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil.

Outward manifestations  of  repentance (rent garment) are quite meaningless if not accompanied by inner reality (rent heart).  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful but within are full of dead men’s bones and of all filthiness.  So you also outwardly indeed appear to men just: but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity Matt 23:27-28).  Of course Ash Wedensday’s Gospel reading has the avoidance of hypocrisy as a major theme.

Turn to the Lord your God.  Were drunkards relying on their wine (Joel 1:5-7)?  Were the people relying on their outward rituals (Joel 1:8-10)?  Were the farmers and husbandmen relying on their produce (Joel 1:1-12)?   Were the priests more concerned with what they earned than why the earned it (Joel 1:13)?  Is my heart divided?  Is yours?  “Return, O faithless sons, I will heal your faithlessness.” “Behold, we come to thee; for thou art the LORD our God.  Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains. Truly in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.  But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our fathers labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.  Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.”  “If you return, O Israel, says the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear, `As the LORD lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory” (Jer 3:22-4:2).

for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil.  An allusion back to one of the foundational texts in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:6-7.  That text spoke about God as one who both punishes and has mercy.  Here, the emphasis is solely on God’s mercy, presumably because the people have already suffered punishment (chapter 1), and are being invited to penance (self imposed punishment) in order to avoid further God imposed punishment.  The request for penance is far less demanding on the people than an invading army would be.  In fact, we see that there is a balance between God’s mercy and his justice.

God is Gracious. The Hebrew חנּוּן (channûn) implies a bending down from a higher position and as used to describe a superior who shows concern to an inferior.  As far as I can tell, this word is used only of God in the OT.

Merciful. רחוּם rachûm is derived from the word “womb” and implies an attitude of intense love and feeling motivated by someone elses pain (to show compassion).  Again, the word is always used of God in the OT.

Patient.  Literally “long on anger,” but this is a case where a literal translation can be misleading due to the English sense of the phrase, for it could imply long lasting anger.  But the Hebrew sense is “He keeps his anger at a distance from the one deserving it.”

Rich in mercy.  The Hebrew phrase is רבחסד (rab chesed) .  The word chesed is synonymous with the word for “merciful” used above.  The word expresses a tender love, such as that between spouses:

It is significant that in their preaching the prophets link mercy, which they often refer to because of the people’s sins, with the incisive image of love on God’s part. The Lord loves Israel with the love of a special choosing, much like the love of a spouse,37 and for this reason He pardons its sins and even its infidelities and betrayals. When He finds repentance and true conversion, He brings His people back to grace.38 In the preaching of the prophets, mercy signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity of the chosen people.

In this broad “social” context, mercy appears as a correlative to the interior experience of individuals languishing in a state of guilt or enduring every kind of suffering and misfortune. Both physical evil and moral evil, namely sin, cause the sons and daughters of Israel to turn to the Lord and beseech His mercy. In this way David turns to Him, conscious of the seriousness of his guilt39; Job too, after his rebellion, turns to Him in his tremendous misfortune40; so also does Esther, knowing the mortal threat to her own people.41 And we find still other examples in the books of the Old Testament.42

At the root of this many-sided conviction, which is both communal and personal, and which is demonstrated by the whole of the Old Testament down the centuries, is the basic experience of the chosen people at the Exodus: the Lord saw the affliction of His people reduced to slavery, heard their cry, knew their sufferings and decided to deliver them.43 In this act of salvation by the Lord, the prophet perceived his love and compassion.44 This is precisely the grounds upon which the people and each of its members based their certainty of the mercy of God, which can be invoked whenever tragedy strikes. (Pope John Paul II).

Ready to repent. Relent of the punishment threatened or enacted.  “The evil which He foretells, and at last inflicts, is (so to speak) against His Will, Who wills not that any should perish, and, therefore, on the first tokens of repentance He repents of the evil (i.e., punishment) and does it not” (E.B. Pusey, Anglican scholar).  See Jonah 4:2.

Joe 2:14  Who knoweth but he will return, and forgive, and leave a blessing behind him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God?

Who knoweth but he will return. The same word used in the previous two verses in reference to the people’s return.  “God had promised forgiveness of sins and of eternal punishment to those who turn to Him with their whole heart.  Of this, then, there could be no doubt.  But He has not promised individuals or the Church that he will remit the temporal punishment which He had threatened.  He forgave David the sin.  Nathan says, The Lord also has put away your sin .  But he said at the same time, the sword shall never depart from your house; and the temporal punishment of his sin pursued him even on the bed of death.  David thought that the temporal punishment of his sin, in the death of his child, might be remitted to him.  He used the same form of words as Joel, I said, who can tell whether God will be gracious unto me, that the child may live? But the child died.  The king of Nineveh used the like words, Who can tell if God will return and repent and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not? And he was heard.  God retained or remitted the temporal punishment as He saw good for each” (E.B. Pusey, Anglican scholar).  For more on temporal punishment of sin and its relation to indulgences-which Pusey would have denied-see here.

Return and forgive.  The same word is used in reference to sinners in the two previous verses.  Obviously, the people could not initiate the return themselves, since the offended party in the covenant relation they broke is God, but this is precisely where God’s active love (vs 13) kicks in.

“The juridical commitment on God’s part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.

“This fidelity vis-a-vis the unfaithful “daughter of my people”(cf. Lam. 4:3, 6) is, in brief, on God’s part, fidelity to Himself. This becomes obvious in the frequent recurrence together of the two terms hesed we’e met (= grace and fidelity), which could be considered a case of hendiadys (cf. e.g. Exodus 34:6; 2 Sam 2:6; 2 Sam 15:20; Ps 25:10; Ps 40:11-12; Ps 85:11; Ps 138::2; Micah 7:20). “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ezek 36:22). Therefore Israel, although burdened with guilt for having broken the covenant, cannot lay claim to God’s hesed on the basis of (legal) justice; yet it can and must go on hoping and trusting to obtain it, since the God of the covenant is really “responsible for his love.” The fruits of this love are forgiveness and restoration to grace, the reestablishment of the interior covenant (Pope John Paull II).

and leave a blessing behind him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God?  Thus reversing the effects of the plague in chapter 1.

Joe 2:15  Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly,
Joe 2:16  Gather together the people, sanctify the church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones, and them that suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed, and the bride out of her bridal chamber.

The trumpet (literally, ram’s horn) was used to sound a battle alarm (Hos 8:1; Judges 3:27; 6:34), but was also used to announce cultic assemblies at the Temple (Lev 25:9; Ps 98:6; Ps 150:3).  The military image was used in Jl 2:1 in reference to the threatened invasion by God’s “army” (Joel 2:11).  The only way for the people to avoid this is to reconcile with their God with a cultic lamentation.

Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly.  Gather and dedicate yourselves to a cultic, communal fast (Ezra 8:21), without hypocrisy (Isa 58:1-7).  The Hebrew for solemn assembly is derived from the root עצר (‛âtsar), which has the sense of “to stop.”  Because it is solemn it is special and calls for the truncation or surrender of normal activity.

Gather together the people &c.  The threat facing the people is quite dire,  as the reference to infants and brides and bridegrooms taking part indicates.  Newly married men were exempt from military service (Deut 20:7; Deut 24:5), but when you have made God your enemy (Joel 2:1-11) you had better go to war with yourself via penance, or suffer the consequences.

Joe 2:17  Between the porch and the altar the priests, the Lord’s ministers, shall weep, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and give not thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathens should rule over them. Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God?

Between the porch and the altar.  An open area in front of the Temple where sacrifices were made (1 Kings 6:3, 1 Kings 8:64).  “The priests would address their prayers towards the sanctuary, i.e., Westwards, in contrast to the idolaters of Ezek 8:16 who stood in the same place but faced East.  The prayer of the priests is a collective lamentation, cf Ps 79″ (New Catholic Commentary On Holy Scripture, 552g).  The prayer recalls the threat of Deut 28:49-57.

That the heathen should rule over them This is one of the reasons why I see the threat in Joel 2:1-11 as not being another locust plague but an army.  St Jerome saw the plague in chapter 1 as a mystery of something to come, namely an army: “The enigma which was closed is now opened.  For who that people is, manifold and strong, described above under the name of the palmerworm, the locust, the canker-worm and the caterpillar, is now explained more clearly, lest the heathen rule over them.  For the heritage of the Lord is given to reproach, when they serve their enemies, and the nations say, Where is their God, Whom they boasted to be their Sovereign and their Protector?”

Joe 2:18  Then was the LORD jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.

This verse is transitional, capping off, as it were, the preceding verses and preparing for what follows.  Jealous means burning zeal, and is related to several words used in verse 13 (gracious, rich in mercy, both implying familial love).  Pity is the Hebrew word chamal, which means softness.  God’s love and His openness to the repentant belies his seemingly hard edges.

The second major part of Joel opens with Joel 2:18 and basically describes God’s response to Israel and the nations in light of what they have suffered (chapter 1), and avoided (Joel 2:1-11), by repentance (Joel 2:12-17).  The produce of the land will once again be plentiful (Joel 2:19a, 21-26), and the reproach of nations will become a thing of the past (Joel 2:19b-20, 26b-27).  Sometime after this more blessings will come (Joel 2:28-29, [3:1-3 in NAB]).  These blessings will be poured out on all mankind, not just Israel (Joel 2:30-32, [3:4-5 in NAB], see Acts 2:39.  Also Rom 10:12-13:2 which ends with an appeal to Joel 2:32a, 3:5a in NAB).  The salvation of the nations is also a time of judgment (Joel 3, chapter 4 NAB, ) for what the nations had done to Israel.

Joe 2:19  And the Lord answered, and said to his people: Behold I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and you shall be filled with them: and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.

I will send you corn, wine, and oil, and you shall be filled with them. Reversing the situation which had befallen them as a result of their sins (see Joel 1:5-12, and 1:15-17). The lack of grain, wine and oil, were the result of a locust plague (Joel 1:4), a punishment Moses told the people would befall them if they broke the covenant (Deut 28:38-40).

I will no more make you a reproach among the nations. Punishment for covenant infidelity included the rising up of enemies, military invasion, siege (Deut 28:49-57), and exile (Deut 28:63-68). This punishment had not yet fallen upon Joel’s audience, and he was preaching repentance to ensure that it didn’t (see Joel 2:17).

4 Responses to “Background and Notes On Joel 2:12-18 For Ash Wednesday (includes note on verse 19)”

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