I will pour out my spirit on all flesh (Joel 2; Pentecost 20C)

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to hear a section of the prophet Joel. It is a passage which contains words well known to Christians, as the words about dreams and visions and prophesies (Joel 2:28–32) are quoted by Peter when speaking on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–21).

The words that Joel speaks to the people of his day begins with lament; he calls for repentance amongst the people of Judah as the day oft he Lord approaches. Nothing in this book provides any clues as to the time when Joel was active. The identification of the prophet as “son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1) gives no clue, as Pethuel appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures—indeed, the name Joel, itself appears nowhere else. The name appears to combine the divine names of Jah and El, suggesting that it may be a symbolic creation. Was Joel an historical person?

Lament, as we have noted, is the opening note sounded by Joel, as he calls on the “ministers of God” to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13). This call reminds us of the response of the pagans in Nineveh (Jonah 3), whilst his remonstrations that “the day of the Lord is near” (1:15) echoes the motif of “the day” already sounded by other prophets (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15; Jer 35:32–33; 46:10).

This day forms the centrepiece of Joel’s undated prophecies, as he describes that day as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:2), when “the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10). He describes the response of the people “in anguish, all faces grow pale” (2:6).

However, Joel adheres to the constant thread running through Hebrew Scriptures, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). Because of this, he yearns for the people to “turn with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12), sensing that there might be hope of restitution for the people.

Joel calls for the people to gather (2:15–16); the oracle that follows paints a picture of abundance and blessing (2:18–27), affirming that “my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).

The prophet then speaks the words which are offered to us in this Sunday’s first reading; words which have been given a central place in the later story of the Christian church. Here, the prophet foreshadows that the blessings of God will be manifest through the outpouring of the spirit: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions; even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28–29).

This promise is specifically for “all flesh”; this universal vision informs the whole outward impulse of the movement of followers of Jesus, after the day of Pentecost, which Peter interprets as being a fulfilment of this prophecy (Acts 2:14–21). Events following on from that day, as recorded in Acts, show how those words come to be fulfilled in the movement initiated by Jesus and his followers. And in the early days of this movement, in a letter written by Paul, the promise that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” is reiterated (Rom 10:13, quoting Joel 2:32; and note a different version quoted at 2 Tim 2:19).

The day of the Lord that is envisaged by Joel (2:31) will signal a significant reversal for Israel. The Lord laughs at other nations (3:1–8), a reversal that pivots on a turn from despair to hope, from the threats of judgement to a glorious future (3:9–21). Joel repeats the irenic vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares (3:10; see Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3); he sees a ripe harvest (3:13), the land will drip with sweet wine, and there will be milk and water in abundance (3:18). The voice of the Lord “roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake” (3:16; cf the similar pronouncement of Amos at Am 1:2; 3:8).

The last word of this book, “the Lord dwells on Zion” (3:21), provides assurance and certainty for the future. These words of hope promises a peaceful future for the nation. When Joel might have been speaking these words cannot be definitively determined; it could have been under the Assyrian threat, during the Babylonian dominance, in the time of exile, or after the return to the land.

Whenever the prophet spoke these words, the promise of hope holds good in each of these scenarios. And that promise of hope has been taken up in the movement that was initiated by Jesus, in Peter’s Pentecost speech—which provides a programmatic announcement of what then takes place as the good news spreads from Jerusalem and Judea, into Samaria, and out to the ends of the earth. God’s Spirit continues to be active. And so, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.