(Calvin, Commentary on Joel, Part 3)

Lecture Fortieth. 
Joel 1:12 
The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate 
tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, [even] all the trees 
of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the 
sons of men. 
    The Prophet now concludes his subjects which was, that as God 
executed judgments so severe on the people, it was a wonder that 
they remained stupefied, when thus reduces to extremities. "The 
vine, he says, has dried up", and every kind of fruit; he adds the 
fig-tree, afterwards the "romon", the pomegranate, (for so they 
render it,) the palm, the apple-tree, and all trees. And this 
sterility was a clear sign of God's wrath; and it would have been so 
regarded, had not men either wholly deceived themselves, or had 
become hardened against all punishments. Now this "anaistesia" 
(insensibility) is as it were the very summit of evils; that is, 
when men feel not their own calamities, or at least understand not 
that they are inflicted by the hand of God. Let us now proceed - 
Joel 1:13-15 
13 Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of 
the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: 
for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the 
house of your God. 
14 Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders 
[and] all the inhabitants of the land [into] the house of the LORD 
your God, and cry unto the LORD, 
15 Alas for the day! for the day of the LORD [is] at hand, and as a 
destruction from the Almighty shall it come. 
    Now the Prophet begins to exhort the people to repentance. 
Having represented them as grievously afflicted by the hand of God, 
he now adds that a remedy was at hand, provided they solicited the 
favor of God; and at the same tine he denounces a more grievous 
punishment in future; for it would not have been enough that they 
had been reminded of their calamities and evils, except they also 
feared in time to come. Hence the Prophet, that he might the more 
move them, says, that the hand of God was still stretched out, and 
that there was something worse nigh at hand, except they of 
themselves anticipated it. This is the purport of the whole. I now 
come to the words. 
    "Be girded, lament and howl, he says, ye priests, the ministers 
of the altar". The verb "chigru" may be explained in two ways. Some 
understand it thus "Gird yourselves with sackcloth;" for shortly 
after he says "with sackcloth", or "in sackcloth". But we may take 
it as simply meaning, gird yourselves, that is, Hasten; for this 
metaphorical expression often occurs. As to the drift of the 
passage, there is but little difference, whether we read, "Gird 
yourselves with sackcloth," or, "Hasten." And he addresses the 
priests, though a common and general exhortation to the whole people 
afterwards follows. But as God made them the leaders of his people, 
it behaved them to afford others an example. It is the common duty 
of all the godly to pray for and to further the salvation of their 
brethren; but it is a duty especially enjoined on the ministers of 
the word and on pastors. So also, when God calls those to repentance 
who preside over others, they ought to lead the way, and for two 
reasons; - first, because they have not been in vain chosen by the 
Lord for this end, that they might outshine others, and be as 
luminaries; - secondly, because they who bear any public office 
ought to feel a double guilty when the Lord visits public sins with 
judgment. Private men indeed sin; but in pastors there is the blame 
of negligence, and still more, When they deviate even the least from 
the right way, a greater offense is given. Rightly then does the 
Prophet begin with the priests, when he bids the whole people to 
repent. And he not only bids them to put on sackcloth, but commands 
them also, as we shall see, to proclaim a fast, and then to call an 
assembly: "ye priests, he says, be girded, and put on sackcloth, 
wail, howl, and pass the night in sackcloth"; and then he calls them 
the ministers of the altar and the ministers of God, but in a 
different sense; for the Prophet does not substitute the altar for 
God, as he would thus have formed an idol; but they are called the 
ministers of the altar, because they offered there sacrifices to 
God. They are indeed with strict propriety the ministers of God; but 
as the priests, when they sacrificed, stood in the presence of God, 
and as the altar was to them as it were the way of access to him, 
they are called the ministers of the altar. He calls them, at the 
same time, the ministers of God, and, as it has been stated, they 
are properly so called. 
    But he says here "'elohai" (my God.) The "yod", my, is by some 
omitted, as if it were a servile letter, but redundant. I, however, 
doubt not but that the Prophet here mentions Him as his God; for he 
thus intended to claim more authority for his doctrine. His concern 
or his contest was with the whole people; and they, no doubt, in 
their usual ways proudly opposed against him the name of God as 
their shield. "What! are we not the very people of God?" Hence the 
Prophet, in order to prove this presumption false, sets forth God as 
being on his side. He therefore says, 'The ministers of my God.' Had 
any one objected and said, that he was in common the God of the 
whole people, the Prophet had a ready answer, - "I am specially sent 
by Him, and sustain his person, and plead the cause which he has 
committed to me: He is then my God and not yours." We now then see 
the Prophet's meaning in this expression. He now adds, "for cut off 
is offering and libation from the house of our God". He confesses 
Him at the same time to be their God with reference to the 
priesthood; for nothing, we know, was presumptuously invented by the 
Jews, as the temple was built by Godly command, and sacrifices were 
offered according to the rule of the law. He then ascribes to the 
priesthood this honor, that God ruled in the temple; for God, as we 
have already said, approved of that worship as having proceeded from 
his word: and to this purpose is that saying of Christ, 'We know 
what we worship.' But yet the priests did not rightly worship God; 
for though their external rites were according to the command of 
God, yet as their hearts were polluted, it is certain that whatever 
they did was repudiated by God, until, being touched with the fear 
of his judgment, they fled to his mercy, as the Prophet now exhorts 
them to do. 
    He afterwards adds, "sanctify a fast, call an assembly, gather 
the old, all the inhabitants of the land". "Kadash" means to 
sanctify and to prepare; but I have retained its proper meaning, 
sanctify a fast; for the command had regard to the end, that is, 
sanctification. Then "a fast proclaim" - for what purpose? That the 
people might purge themselves from all their pollutions, and present 
themselves pure and clean before God. "Call an assembly". It appears 
that there was a solemn convocation whenever a fast was proclaimed 
among the people: for it was not enough for each one privately at 
home to abstain from food, except all confessed openly, with one 
mouth and one consent, that they were guilty before God. Hence with 
a fast was connected a solemn profession of repentance. The uses and 
ends of a fast, we know, are various: but when the Prophet here 
speaks of a solemn fast, he doubtless bids the people to come to it 
suppliantly, as the guilty are wont to do, who would deprecate 
punishment before a judge, that they may obtain mercy from him. In 
the second chapter there will be much to say on fasting: I only wish 
now briefly to touch on the subject. 
    He afterwards bids "the old to be gathered", and then adds, 
"All the inhabitants of the land". But he begins with the old, and 
justly so, for the guilt of the old is always the heaviest. But this 
word relates not to age as in a former instance. When he said 
yesterday, 'Hear ye, the aged,' he addressed those who by long 
experience had learnt in the world many things unknown to the young 
or to men of middle age. But now the Prophet means by the old those 
to whom was intrusted the public government; and as through their 
slothfulness they had suffered the worship of God and all integrity 
to fall into decay, rightly does the Prophet wish them to be leaders 
and precursors to the people in their confession of repentance; and 
further, it behaved them, on account of their office, as we have 
said of the priests, to lead the way. Joel at the same time shows 
that the whole people were implicated in guilt, so that none could 
be excepted, for he bids them all to come with the elders. 
    "Call" them, he says, "to the house of Jehovah your God, and 
cry ye to Jehovah". We hence learn why he had spoken of fasting and 
of sackcloth, even that they might humbly deprecate God's wrath; for 
fasting of itself would have been useless, and to put on sackcloth, 
we know, is in itself but an empty sign: but prayer is what the 
Prophet sets here in the highest rank, and fasting is only an 
appendage, and so is sackcloth. Whosoever then puts on sackcloth and 
withholds prayer, is guilty of mockery; and no one can derive any 
good from mere fasting; but when fasting and sackcloth are added to 
prayer, and are as it were handmaids, then they are not uselessly 
practiced. We may then observe, that the end of fasting and 
sackcloth was no other, than that the priests together with the 
whole people, might present themselves suppliantly before God, and 
confess themselves worthy of destruction, and that they had no hope 
except from his gratuitous mercy. This is the meaning. 
    It now follows, "Alas the day! for nigh is the day of Jehovah". 
Here the Prophet, as it was at first stated, threatens something 
worse in future than what they had experienced. He has hitherto been 
showing their torpidity; now he declares that they had not yet 
suffered all their punishments, but that there was something worse 
to be feared, except they turned seasonably to God. And he now 
exclaims, as though the day of Jehovah was before his eyes, and he 
calls it the day of Jehovah, because in that day God would 
stretch-forth his hand to execute judgment; for while he tolerates 
men or bears with their sins, he seems not to rule in the world. And 
though this mode of speaking is common enough in Scripture, it ought 
yet to be carefully noticed; for all seem not to understand that God 
calls that his own day, when he will openly shine forth and appear 
as the judge of the world: but as long as he spares us, his face 
seems to be hidden from us; yea, he seems not to govern the world. 
The Prophet therefore declares here that the day of the Lord was at 
hand; for it cannot be, but that the Lord must at length rise up and 
ascend his throne to punish men, though for a time he may connive at 
them. But the interjection, expressive of grief, intimates that the 
judgment, of which the Prophet speaks, was not to be despised, for 
it would be dreadful; and he wished to strike terror into the Jews, 
for they were too secure. And he says, "The day is nigh", that they 
might not procrastinate, as they were wont to do, from day to day: 
for though men be touched by God's judgments they yet even desire 
time to be prolonged to them, and they come very tardily to God. 
Hence the Prophet, that he might correct this their great 
slothfulness, says that the day was nigh. 
    He adds, "kashod mishadday yavo'" 'as a desolation from the 
Almighty will it come.' The word "shadday" signifies a conqueror; 
but it proceeds from the verb "shadad"; and this in Hebrew means "to 
desolate," or "to destroy." The powerful and the conqueror is called 
"shadday"; and hence they call God "shadday", on account of his 
power. Some derive it from udder: then they call God "shadday" as 
though Scripture gave him this name, because from him flows all 
abundance of good things as from a fountain. But I rather refer this 
name to his strength and power, for the Jews, we know, gloried in 
the name of God as one armed to defend their safety. Whenever then 
the Prophets said that God was "shadday", the people laid hold on 
this as a ground for false confidence, "God is almighty, we are then 
secure from all evils." But yet this confidence was not founded on 
the promises: and it was, we know, an absurd and profane presumption 
to have thus abused the name of God. Since then the Jews foolishly 
pricked themselves on this, that God had adopted them for his 
people, the prophet says here, "There will come a desolation from 
the Almighty;" that is, "God is Almighty, but ye are greatly 
deceived in thinking that your safety is secured by his power; for 
he will, on the contrary, be opposed to you, inasmuch as ye have 
provoked his wrath." It follows - 
Joel 1:16,17 
Is not the meat cut off before our eyes, [yea], joy and gladness 
from the house of our God? 
The seed is rotten under their clods, the garners are laid desolate, 
the barns are broken down; for the corn is withered. 
    He repeats the same thing as before, for he reproaches the Jews 
for being so slow to consider that the hand of God was against them. 
"Has not the meat, he says, been cut off before our eyes? joy and 
exultation from the house of our God?" Here he chides the madness of 
the Jews, that they perceived not things set before their eyes. He 
therefore says that they were blind in the midst of light, and that 
their sight was such, that seeing they saw nothing: they surely 
ought to have felt distressed, when want reached the temple. For 
since God had commanded the first-fruits to be offered to him, the 
temple ought not by any means to have been without its sacrifices; 
and though mortals perish a hundred times through famine and want, 
yet God ought not to be defrauded of his right. When, therefore, 
there was now no offering nor libation, how great was the stupidity 
of the people not to feel this curse, which ought to have wounded 
them more than if they had been consumed a hundred times by famine? 
We see then the design of the Prophet's words, that is, to condemn 
the Jews for their stupidity; for they considered not that a most 
grievous judgment was brought on them, when the temple was deprived 
of its usual sacrifices. 
    He afterwards adds, that "joy and gladness" were taken away: 
for God commanded the Jews to come to the temple to give thanks and 
to acknowledge themselves blessed, because he had chosen his 
habitation among them. Hence this expression is so often repeated by 
Moses, 'Thou shalt rejoice before thy God;' for by saying this, God 
intended to encourage the people the more to come cheerfully to the 
temple; as though he said, "I certainly want not your presence, but 
I wish by my presence to make you glad." But now when the worship of 
God ceased, the Prophet says, that joy had been also abolished; for 
the Jews could not cheerfully give thanks to God when his curse was 
before their eyes, when they saw that he was their adversary, and 
also when they were deprived of the ordinances of religion. We now 
then perceive why the Prophet joins joy and gladness with oblations: 
they were the symbols of thanksgiving. 
    He shows the cause of the evil, "Rotted have the grains in the 
very furrows". For they call seeds "perudot" from the act of 
scattering. He then calls grains by this name, because they are 
scattered; and he says that they rotted in the fields when they 
ought to have germinated. He then adds, "The granaries halve become 
desolated and the barns have been pulled down"; for there was no use 
for them. Hence we conclude, that sterility had become most grievous 
and perpetual; for if the people had been only afflicted by famine 
for a few harvests or for one year, the Prophet would not have 
spoken thus. The famine must then have been, as it has been already 
stated for a long time. Let us now proceed - 
Joel 1:18 
How do the beasts groan! the herds of cattle are perplexed, because 
they have no pasture; yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate. 
    The Prophet amplifies his reproof, that even oxen as well as 
other animals felt the judgment of God. There is then here an 
implied comparison between the feeling of brute animals and the 
insensibility of the people, as though he said, "There is certainly 
more intelligence and reason in oxen and other brute animals than in 
you; for the herds groan, the flocks groan, but ye remain stupid and 
confounded. What does this mean?" We then see that the Prophet here 
compares the stupidity of the people with the feeling of animals, to 
make them more ashamed. 
    "How, he says, has the beast groaned?" The question serves to 
show vehemence; for if he had said in the form of a narrative, that 
the animals groaned, that the cattle were confounded, and that the 
flocks perished, the Jews would have been less affected; but when he 
exclaims and, moved with astonishment, speaks interrogatively, How 
does the beast groan? he, no doubt, wished to produce an effect on 
the Jews, that they might perceive the judgment of God, which they 
had before passed by with their eyes closed, though it was quite 
manifest. It follows - 
Joel 1:19,20 
O LORD, to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures 
of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the 
The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters 
are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the 
    When the Prophet saw that he succeeded less than he expected, 
leaving the people, he speaks of what he would do himself, "I will 
cry to thee, Jehovah". He had before bidden others to cry, and why 
does he not now press the same thing? Because he saw that the Jews 
were so deaf and listless as to make no account of all his 
exhortations: he therefore says, "I will cry to thee, Jehovah; for 
they are touched neither by shame nor by fear. Since they throw 
aside every regard for their own safety, since they account as 
nothing my exhortations I will leave them, and will cry to thee;" 
which means this, - "I see, Lord, that all these calamities proceed 
from thy hand; I will not howl as profane men do, but I will ascribe 
them to thee; for I perceive thee to be acting as a judge in all the 
evils which we suffer." Having then before declared that the Jews 
were more tardy than brute animals and having reproached them for 
feeling less acutely than oxen and sheep, the Prophet now says, that 
though they all remained obstinate, he would yet do what a pious man 
and a worshipper of God ought to do, I will cry to thee - Why? 
Because the "fire has consumed the pastures, or the dwellings, of 
the wilderness". 
    He here again gives an awful record of God's judgments. Though 
the heat may burn up whole regions, yet we know that pasture-lands 
do not soon wither, especially on mountains; and of such cold 
pastures he speaks here. We know that however great may be the 
fertility of mountains, yet coolness prevails there, and that, in 
the greatest drought, the mountainous regions are ever green. But 
the Prophet tells us here of an unusual thing, that the dwellings of 
the wilderness were burnt up. Some render "ne'ot" pastures; others, 
dwellings: but as to the meaning, we may read either; for the 
Prophet refers here to cold and humid regions, which never want 
moisture in the greatest heats. Some render the word, the beautiful 
or fair spots of the wilderness, but improperly. He doubtless means 
pastures, or dwellings, or folds. "The fire then has consumed the 
dwellings, or pastures of the wilderness". This was not usual; it 
did not happen according to the ordinary course of nature: it then 
follows that it was a miracle. This is the reason why the Prophet 
says, that it was now time to cry to God; for it did not appear to 
be fortuitous, that the heat had burnt up regions which were moist 
and well watered. "The flame, he says hath burnt up all the trees of 
the field". 
    He afterwards adds "The beasts of the field will also cry" (for 
the verb is in the plural number;) the beasts then will cry. The 
Prophet expresses here more clearly what he had said before that 
though the brute animals were void of reasons they yet felt God's 
judgment, so that they constrained men by their example to feel 
ashamed, for they cried to God: the beasts then of the field cry. He 
ascribes crying to them, as it is elsewhere ascribed to the young 
ravens. The young ravens, properly speaking, do not indeed call on 
God; and yet the Psalmist says so, and that, because they confess, 
by raising up their bills, that there is no supply for their want 
except God supports them. So also the Prophet mentions here the 
beasts as crying to God. It is indeed a figure of speech, called 
personification; for this could not be properly said of beasts. But 
when the beasts made a noise under the pressure of famine, was it 
not such a calling on God as their nature admitted? As much then as 
the nature of brute animals allows, they may be said to seek their 
food from the Lord, when they send forth lamentable cries and 
noises, and show that they are oppressed with famine and want. When, 
therefore, the Prophet attributes crying to beasts, he at the same 
time reproaches the Jews with their stupidity, that they did not 
call on God. "What do you mean," he says. "See the brute animals; 
they show to you what ought to be done; it is at least a teaching 
that ought to have effect on you. If I and the other prophets have 
lost all our labour, if God has in vain performed the office of a 
teacher among you, let the very oxen at least be your teachers; to 
whom indeed it is a shame to be disciples, but it is a greater shame 
not to attend to what they teach you; for the oxen by their example 
lead you to God." 
    We now perceive how much vehemence there is in the Prophet's 
words, when he says, Even the beasts of the field will cry to God; 
"for the streams of waters have dried up, and the fire has consumed 
the dwellings, or the pastures of the wilderness". He again teaches 
what I have lately stated, that sterility proceeded from the evident 
judgment of God, and that it ought to have struck dread into men, 
for it was a sort of miracle. When, therefore the courses of waters 
dried up on the mountains, how could it be deemed natural? "'Afikim" 
mean courses of waters or valleys through which the waters run. The 
Prophet here refers, no doubt, to those regions which, through the 
abundance of water, always retain their fertility. When, therefore, 
the very valleys were burnt up, they ought surely to own that 
something wonderful had happened. On this account, he ascribes 
crying to herds and brute animals, and not any sort of crying, but 
that by which they called on God. What remains we shall defer till 
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou sees us to be surrounded with the 
infirmity of our flesh, and so held by, and, as it were, overwhelmed 
with, earthly cares, that we can hardly raise up our hearts and 
minds to thee, - O grant, that being awaked by thy word and daily 
warnings, we may at length feel our evils, and that we may not only 
learn by the stripes thou inflictest on us, but also of our own 
accord, summon ourselves to judgment, and examine our hearts, and 
thus come to thy presence, being our own judges; so that we may 
anticipate thy displeasure, and thus obtain that mercy which thou 
best promised to all, who, turning only to thee, deprecate thy 
wrath, and also hope for thy favour, through the name of one Lord 
Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Calvin, Commentary on Joel

(Continued in part 4...)

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