So, what is apocalyptic literature?

Before diving into the last part of Joel’s book, let’s just hit the pause button for a minute, and take stock. He started out with remembering the recent horrifying locust disaster that had basically wiped out the entire nation. Something exactly like that started happening just a couple of months ago, in east Africa. Literally billions of locusts have been swarming across Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and if we weren’t so swept up in the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’d be scrambling to help those nations pull through.

After reminding his audience about that particular crisis, Joel prophesied of a looming catastrophe far worse. The only slender hope they had to avert this coming tribulation was to throw themselves in abject repentance before the Lord, in fasting, mourning, weeping, sacrifices, and prayer.

Be overjoyed, though, Joel continued. It’s going to end well, for the Lord will return to you everything that was stripped of you, and you not only will have abundance, you will never again be ashamed.

But! The story is not over.

Round about when Jews returned to Judah and Jerusalem to rebuild their holy city, a new genre of literature took root, known as “Apocalyptic,”—which comes from a Greek word meaning “To uncover, to reveal. ” We’ll be seeing this style of writing a lot in the later prophets.

Apocalyptic literature shares these traits in common:

  • The revelation is delivered to a person through a messenger from heaven (like an angel) or through a vision or dream.
  • It contains a vivid portrayal of what’s happened, and what is currently happening—often using symbolic language.
  • Next will come a description of the end-time, usually with a chronology of events indicating when everything is going to happen.
  • It has a very black-and-white style: good versus evil, light and darkness, life and death, present and future, us and them.
  • The story line goes like this: now is bad and it is only going to get worse. However, ultimately, God will have the victory, and then He will reconcile the entire universe to Himself, transforming all so that evil is completely eliminated, and only all that is good will be left forever.
  • Scenery, imagery, themes are pulled from ancient traditions and stories, for this is the cataclysmic culmination of the conflict between the Creator of the cosmos and (as one author put it) “the primeval forces of chaos. ”[1]
  • In keeping with the epic nature of the revelation, what is depicted goes far beyond our sense of the “real” three-dimensional world. It is surreal, it is fantastic, it is extraordinary in every direction, supernatural to the point of feeling like hyperbole.

And that’s where we are with Joel Chapter 3

The third chapter opens with the battle of Armageddon in the Valley of Decision – that’s what Jehoshaphat means.

For then, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations.

Joel 3:1-2 (NRSV)

Remember how the apostle John’s Revelation had a strikingly familiar scene in it to Joel’s characterization of the locust army to come? Well, there’s more.

I just feel sure John had read Joel, and Joel’s revelation had really stuck with him, because when John received his vision from Jesus, there is definite overlay.

According to John (and Peter, and Paul, and Jesus Himself as noted in all four gospels), God has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the One He has appointed, the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, look at what Joel wrote,

Let the nations rouse themselves,
and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the neighboring nations.

Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
for the wine press is full.
The vats overflow,
for their wickedness is great.

Joel 3:12-13

Compare this to what John recorded in chapters 14:14-16 of his own vision:

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!

Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, “Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 

Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” 

So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press

Revelation 14:14-20 (NRSV)

Do you see that?

The earth and sky will convulse, there will be thunder and darkness. God’s standard will be the same as the one Amos spoke of in his own prophecy, the one Jesus also spoke of: treatment of God’s people reveals the heart. All of God’s wrath, stored up over eons, will come pouring out to destroy all evil that has opposed Him.

Only one time in history has it been said God poured out the totality of His wrath in judgement. At the cross.

When you combine the descriptions from each gospel about what happened in that moment, a compelling parallel to apocalyptic portrayals begins to form.

  • The sun was blotted out for three hours.
  • The earth shook so hard the dead were thrown from their graves and stared wide eyed from their tombs.
  • Shrieks rose from the temple as the sacred curtain that covered the Holy of Holies was ripped in two.

Joel concluded his book with the magnificent and glorious reign of God in Jerusalem, with redeemed Israel living in a restored Judah, a prophesy yet to be fulfilled, to be looked forward to in hopeful joy.

[1] “A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament,” by Michael D. Coogan, p359

Valley of Jehoshaphat | Image courtesy

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