As Israel fell to Assyria and Judah fell to Babylon, the people of God had to do some serious soul-searching. Assyria all but wiped out the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 727 BCE, of which precious few remnants remained. Babylon destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE and carried off tens of thousands of Southern Israelites as captives, effectively kicking off the exile of Israel, as many of the prophets had been foretelling.
About this same time as Israel was losing its identity and entering exile, many theological concepts were being questioned and pondered, as well as God’s role in the exile of his people. Israel was in crises mode as they learned what it meant to live as God’s people in the diaspora. One of the concepts that began to develop, especially within the prophetic tradition was the Day of the Lord.
This Day of the Lord was a broad theological concept that was interpreted and defined differently by different prophets and theological thinkers. However the general consensus was that this Day of the Lord was the event that would signal the end of this age. It would be a time of judgement for the nations (Isaiah 13, Jeremiah 46, Ezekiel 30), a day of judgment for Israel (Amos 5, Isaiah 2), and a day of universal judgment (Zephaniah 1).
But while it was to be a day of darkness (Joel 2), there was also a hope of restoration and redemption attached to the Day of the Lord. This was to be a day where the faithful would experience redemption (Jeremiah 30), salvation (Zephaniah 3, Isaiah 4, Obadiah 17, Zechariah 9), purification (Malachi 4), and renewed worship (Isaiah 19, Zephaniah 3). In other words, while everything might be going very badly now, the exile will not last forever, because God will bring an end to this age of destruction, and on that day, the Day of the Lord, God will make everything right. He will begin a new age, one where God is praised by everyone and where all the earth will be blessed with balance.
Joel is often understood as a prophet who has returned to Jerusalem after the exile with the diaspora Jews, and as they begin to rebuild Jerusalem the Jews try to make sense of what just happened to them. Joel begins his ministry by describing a plague of locusts and the devastating effects the have on the land. Whether he is describing an actual plague of locusts, or using the locusts imagery to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and exile is an irrelevant issue. What is abundantly clear is that Joel wants Israel to repent from their sins and to turn towards God. In effect Joel is saying, “You thought the exile was bad? Wait until you see the Day of the Lord.”
Joel then begins to use the same imagery as the other prophets in describing the Day of the Lord, talking about judgment and natural calamities, before taking an unexpected turn. In Joel 2:28-29 Joel claims that in those last days, during the Day of the Lord, not only will the faithful be restored to God, but that God would actually pour out his spirit on all the people. There will be prophesies, dreams, and visions given to everyone, sons, daughters, old men and women, even the slaves will receive the spirit of God.
What this, in effect does, is render the prophetic vocation and the priesthood obsolete. Joel claims that God will no longer need to speak to his people through mediators, but will speak directly to his people without go-betweens. Young men and women will be given the gift of prophesy, eliminating the need for prophets in an official capacity. And if God’s spirit rests on everyone, the priesthood is no longer needed, because at that point God will truly dwell among his people.
This was a revolutionary thought, and pointed towards a new age of unprecedented contact between God and people. Joel pushed the Day of the Lord further than his contemporaries, and envisioned a new age where God and humanity were fully reconciled and in community with each other.
And as if that were not enough, at Pentecost, as the church is beginning to truly understand its identity as the people of God, Peter stands up before the crowd and dares to make the claim that Joel’s prophesy has, that very day, come true. In essence Peter is declaring that Pentecost is the Day of the Lord, the start of a new age of unprecedented communion with God. The Day of the Lord does not signal the end of time, but signals a new work begun among the children of God. With the descent of the Holy Spirit, a new age is upon us, where people can be restored and made whole before a God who now fully dwells among us. This is the gospel Peter declares to all at Pentecost. This is the gospel of Joel. And it is good news indeed.