Joel and Israel’s End Time Hopes

Joel 2:28 predicts that after God restores the Israelites to their former state he will go beyond mere restoration and do something new – he will pour out his spirit upon all flesh. Looking at the verse from a Christian perspective it is easy to read Joel 2:28 in a kind of backwards way, where we take our understanding of the Day of Pentecost, whatever that understanding might be, right or wrong, and essentially say, “That’s what Joel was expecting.” But when we do this we run the risk of performing a self-confirming reading of the text that tells us nothing other than what we already thought we knew going into it. What I want to do in this post (and perhaps a few further posts) is begin exploring the full range of what Joel 2:28 could have and would have meant for a Jew living after the Babylonian Exile and during the Persian period.

This will in part take the form of a kind of pneumatology of the Old Testament. “Pneumatology” is made up of two Greek words – pneuma, which means “spirit”, and logia, which means “study”. So “Pneumatology” is the word that designates the branch of theology that focuses on the study of the Holy Spirit. Now, I think the pneumatology of the Old Testament is extremely valuable for all Christians but especially for Pentecostals, because what is distinct about Pentecostalism more than anything else is its doctrine of the Holy Spirit. But in my experience, Pentecostals are as likely as any Christian group to treat the study of the Holy Spirit as a pretty much exclusively New Testament thing. But when Peter says in Acts 2:16, “This is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel”, he is both appealing to previously existing theological expectations and perhaps acknowledging that expectations will have to be revisited and modified. But either way, he positions his sermon as taking part in a previously existing theological conversation within Second Temple Judaism. So to fully understand what Peter is saying in Acts 2, and really what Luke is telling us throughout Acts, we need to try to reconstruct that conversation. The vast majority of the relevant data for that conversation is found in the Old Testament. Now, as we explore that data, what we will see is that the Holy Spirit had several different functions within the Old Testament that, in the context of the Old Testament, are not obviously relevant to one another. However, in Christ these various roles and functions come together in a way that I’m pretty certain was not fully anticipated by the Jews of Jesus’ day.

The first thing I want to do is clarify the temporal nature of Joel’s expectation in 2:28-32. When does Joel conceive of this outpouring of the Spirit to occur? Does it occur one time, or does it re-occur periodically? Is the outpouring something that, for Joel, has occurred before, or is it entirely in the future? After that, I want to talk about what Peter’s identification of the Day of Pentecost as the fulfillment Joel 2:28 means in terms of Peter’s understanding of God’s grand timeline for humanity and our position as Christians within that timeline.

Verse 31 clearly connects verse 28’s outpouring with the Day of the LORD, though whether it is thought to occur on, after, or even before the Day of the LORD is unclear. The simplest way of reading the passage is to see all of it as a big complex of events happening at approximately the same time – the Day of the LORD. However, verse 28 says, “And it will happen afterwards …”, seemingly situating the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a time after the events from the earlier part of chapter 2, which themselves seem to constitute the Day of the LORD, according to 2:1 and 2:11. But then again, verse 31 says that all these signs will happen before the Day of the LORD comes. So, in short, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is understood to happen in connection with the coming of the Day of the LORD, but precisely how it relates to the Day of the LORD temporally is ambiguous – it could occur at the same time, afterwards, or even before.

Now, in the last several posts, I have suggested that we can read the Day of the LORD as a recurring event rather than just one single event, albeit recurring events that very likely bears witness to a final, climactic Day of the LORD when all wickedness on the earth is once and for all done away with. This would mean, then, that the restoration of Israel in Joel 2:18-27 would appear to be a recurring event, as well. So is the pouring out of the Spirit in 2:28 also envisioned as a recurring event?

I, personally, cannot see a coherent way to read it as a recurring event. Certainly, I do think that when God brings us through a difficult time and restores us that he always has something new and better for us in the aftermath. But in Joel 2:28 we aren’t just talking about any addition to restoration, figuratively described as an outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh. We are talking about a very specific idea that, in my opinion, doesn’t serve very well as a metaphor for anything else.

To understand what I mean and why I say this, consider the very similar section from Ezekiel 37, the Valley of Dry Bones vision. Certainly, we are right to see in this vision an anticipation of the coming of the Church beginning on the Day of Pentecost, but the imagery readily lends itself to other applications, because it is from the very beginning metaphorical. The vision is not to be understood literally. The dry bones represent the spiritually dead nation of Israel, especially during the Babylonian Exile. This vision is a promise, first, to restore the fortunes of the Israelites in material terms, but more importantly it is a promise of spiritual restoration that will make it so that something like the Babylonian Exile can never again occur.

On the other hand, Joel 2:28 is not similarly polyvalent, because it is not in its essence a metaphor. The pouring out of the Spirit is not a creative image of something more mundane. The prophet is literally predicting that a day would come when God would not only restore Israel to its former worldly prosperity and glory but would surpass it with something new and unexpected – all of Israel would become prophets. And this is not really an event that can recur, because it represents a fundamental change in human history. So what we have in Joel 2:28 is, in my opinion, something that’s actually rarer than you might think – a genuine eschatological prophecy. Now, the word “eschatological” means “concerned with the ‘eschatos’ or the end”; in other words, things relating to the “end times”. So I am saying that Joel 2:28 does not describe something recurring that possibly anticipates a single climactic fulfillment but rather a single event that occurs essentially one time and marks the boundary between two different stages in history.

Now, we Christians tend to use the word “eschatological” to refer to things and events surrounding the return of Jesus. That’s what we typically mean by “end times”. From a biblical perspective, though, that is overly restricted and fails to understand the significance of the moment that we now live in, because Jesus’ first coming and the establishing of the Church fulfilled the hopes of Israel. Even if we are waiting for all of Jesus’ enemies to be put under his feet, as predicted in Psalm 110, the victory is won. That is not just optimistic talk. The victory is already won, and we live in the Kingdom of God on earth right now. Because of what Jesus did and because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we have already entered into eternal life. Death is just a technicality. In other words, the bulk of what we might call “eschatological” in the Old Testament really refers to us right now. This more than anything is the fundamental problem with typical dispensational interpretation of prophetic literature, especially Daniel – it pushes all fulfillment into the distant future and demeans the significance of our present moment in God’s plan. Certainly, the Church age is not entirely static. We have our own story that God is telling, and we do still expect a kind of climax to our stage of God’s plan, though we are not entirely sure what it will look like.

Because of this, even though the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is something that has been experienced continually by each new generation of the Church for 2000 years ever since the Day of Pentecost, eschatologically speaking the Church exists in a moment in time in God’s plan. From an Old Testament perspective we are living in the age to come, or at least the first stage of it. We are the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. We are what Israel was always intended to become. Moreover, what we experience in the Holy Spirit is the same thing that the 120 disciples of Jesus experienced 2000 years ago. It hasn’t changed and it won’t change until all enemies are put under Jesus’ feet at his second coming. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all flesh is one of the most important features of our current stage in God’s plan for human history that distinguishes our time from the time of the Israelites before Jesus.

So I am saying that from Joel’s perspective, the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh was something that could not recur the same way the Day of the LORD could, because once the Spirit began to be poured out on all flesh there would be no going back. We are living in the “future” age. We are living in the time “afterwards” when Joel expected God to do something new: he has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, not just on a select few.

Now, while this is new and demarcates our age from the age before Jesus, it is not entirely new in that it is not entirely unforeseen or unprecedented. Now, before going on to my next two points, I want to focus your attention on one detail in Joel 2:28 – the fact that it says “all” flesh. What does “all” mean? The most limited way of understanding “all” is to understand it to mean all Israel. In other words, what Joel is prophesying is that God would pour out his Spirit on all Israelites, not just prophets or kings or judges or certain wise men. All Israelites would receive God’s Spirit and would prophecy: male and female, young and old. There would be no distinction.

Joel is not really an innovator here. In fact, a prediction of just this very thing is attributed even to Moses himself. In Numbers 11:24-30, we read:

(24) So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. He then gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and had them stand around the tabernacle. (25) And the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to them, and he took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but did not do so again. (26) But two men remained in the camp; one’s name was Eldad, and the other’s name was Medad. And the Spirit rested on them. (Now they were among those in the registration, but had not gone to the tabernacle.) So they prophesied in the camp. (27) And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” (28) Joshua son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his choice young men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” (29) Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for me? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (30) Then Moses returned to the camp along with the elders of Israel.

This story bears witness to an ideal, if not precisely to a prediction, that all of Israel would be filled with God’s Spirit and would prophesy. Why would Moses want this? Because it would mean that the Israelites had intimate knowledge of the will of God and would, therefore, be more obedient. So why didn’t God do this at that point, then? Well, apparently in God’s wisdom he had things he wanted to accomplish in Israel before that could happen and be the most meaningful. It needed to come via the hand of the Messiah, the Son of God. But that is a whole series of lessons for another day. My point here is that Moses himself is depicted as recognizing the ideal that all of Israel would share in God’s Spirit and would prophesy. Joel takes up this ideal and turns it into a full-fledged eschatological prediction.

But there is an ambiguity in “all flesh” that we need to take note of. The presumed audience of Joel would have been post-exilic Jews and not Gentiles, and the way verses 29 and 30 say “your sons and your daughters”, “your old men”, and “your young men” – all these restatements of “your” – suggests a narrow national scope. But the fact is that it does not say “all Israel”, when it very well could have. It says “all flesh”, and that seems, at least potentially, to encompass more than just Israel, even if the context dictates that Israel was the relevant target. Indeed, according to the Book of Acts, this is an aspect of the text that even Jesus’ own disciples at first overlooked. It wouldn’t surprise me if Joel himself didn’t notice the ambiguity in “all flesh”. But this little detail, this neat ambiguity, lay hidden like a landmine in the text for hundreds of years, anticipating the opening of the covenant to the Gentiles and the explosion of the identity “Israel”. In fact, we could say that “all flesh” both does and does not refer to Israel alone. It does refer to Israel alone in that the Holy Spirit is only poured out on the elect, those whom the Lord calls and who call upon his name. As Christians we do not believe that the Holy Spirit is poured out indiscriminately on believers and unbelievers alike. It is a special gift for those who call upon the name of the Lord. On the other hand, clearly “all flesh” does not refer to Israel alone if by the name “Israel” we mean Abraham’s physical descendants. But if we will realize along with Paul that Israel was always a spiritual identity and not a genetic identity – in other words, that Israel did not become a spiritual reality in the Christian era, but merely that its original spiritual constitution was fully revealed in the Christian era by the inclusion of the Gentiles in the pouring out of the Spirit – then we can easily see the resolution of this ambiguity in Joel.

So what have I said here? Joel clearly sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as an eschatological event, an event that demarcates what was for him the “age to come” from what was his “present age”. We can still see it essentially as a single event if we look at all of the Church age as a kind of moment in time. The outpouring of the Spirit that began on the day of Pentecost is not envisioned by Joel as a recurring event similar to the way the Day of the LORD can be understood as a recurring event that anticipates a single climactic moment. In other words, my best reading of Joel 2:28 tells me that we are not looking for a new and greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit, despite what some prophecy teachers might say. Our experience, which is merely a continuation of the original experience on the Day of Pentecost, is precisely that ideal experience of all Israel having the Spirit and prophesying that is anticipated by Moses in Numbers 11:24-30. And while neither Moses nor Joel may have been consciously aware of God’s intention, Joel’s prophecy contains a concealed ambiguity that predicts the opening of the covenant to the Gentiles and the revelation of Israel’s true spiritual nature in the Church age.

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