(Calvin, Commentary on Joel, Part 8)

Lecture Forty-fifth. 
    "And it shall be, that I shall afterwards pour my Spirit upon 
all flesh, and prophesy shall your sons and your daughters and your 
old men shall dreams dream, and your young men shall visions see". 
We mentioned in our last lecture why the Prophet now at length 
speaks of the spiritual grace of God, having before spoken of 
earthly blessings. The order may seem indeed irregular; but it can 
be easily accounted for. The Prophet said first that God, being 
reconciled to the people, would openly manifest this by external 
proofs, by restoring abundance of wine and corn; for the almost 
wearing out of the people by famine and want, being the evidence of 
God s vengeance, the Prophet made the testimony of reconciliation to 
be in tokens of a contrary kind. But as the restoration of the 
Church consists not either in the fruitfulness of the land, or in 
the abundance of provisions, the Prophet now raises higher the 
thoughts of the godly, and makes them to look for the spiritual 
grace of God: hence he says, "I shall afterwards pour my Spirit upon 
all flesh". 
    The Prophet, no doubt, promises here something greater than 
what the fathers under the Law had experienced. The gift of the 
Spirit, we know, was enjoyed even by the ancients; but the Prophet 
promises not what the faithful had before found; but, as we have 
said, something greater: and this may easily be gathered from the 
word here used, "pour out;" for "shafach" means not to distill, but 
to pour forth in great abundance; and God did not pour out his Holy 
Spirit so abundantly and so largely under the law as after the 
manifestation of Christ. Since, then, the gift of the Spirit was 
more copiously given to the Church after the advent of Christ, the 
Prophet uses here an unwonted expression - that God would pour out 
his Spirit. 
    Another circumstance is added, "upon all flesh". Though the 
Prophets, as we know, had formerly their colleges, yet they were but 
few in number. As then the gift of prophecy was rare among the Jews, 
the Prophets in order to show that God would deal more bountifully 
to his new Church when restored, says, that he would pour out his 
Spirit upon all flesh. He then intimates that all in common would be 
partakers of the gift of the Spirit, and of its rich abundance, 
while under the law a few had but a sparing taste of it. We now then 
perceive the design of the Prophet; it was to make a manifest 
difference between the state of the ancient people and the state of 
the new Church, of the restoration of which he now speaks. The 
comparison is, that God would not only endow a few with his Spirit, 
but the whole mass of the people, and then that he would enrich his 
faithful with all kinds of gifts, so that the Spirit would seem to 
be poured forth in full abundance: "I will then pour out my Spirit 
upon all flesh". We hence learn how absurdly the Greek interpreter 
has rendered this, "I will pour out from my Spirit:" for he 
diminishes this promise by saying, "From my Spirit," as though God 
promised here some small portion of his Spirit; while, on the 
contrary the Prophet speaks of abundance, and intended to express 
    It follows, "Prophesy shall your sons and your daughters". The 
Prophet now proceeds to explain what he had said, unfolding at large 
what he meant by the expression, "upon all flesh," which was this, - 
that the whole people would prophesy, or that the gift of prophecy 
would be common and prevail every where among all the Jews, in a new 
and unusual manner. The ancients had also Prophets though in number 
few; but now the Prophet extends this gift and favor to all orders: 
Prophesy then shall your sons and your daughters, he says, so that 
he does not exclude women. 
    He afterwards mentions two kinds of prophesying, "Your old men 
shall dreams dream, and your young men shall visions see." "Young 
men" mean literally "chosen," "bachurim": but as in middle age 
strength prevails most in man, those who possess vigor and judgment, 
and as yet retain their strength, are called "chosen:" hence by 
"chosen" he means those of mature age. When God manifested himself 
to the Prophets, it was usually done, us know, by dreams and 
visions, as it is said in the twelfth chapter of Numbers: this was, 
as we may say, the ordinary method. The Prophet now refers to these 
two modes of communication, and says, that the gift of prophecy 
would be common to men and women, to the old and those of middle 
age. We now perceive the import of this verse. There is then no 
difference between dreams and visions, only the Prophet mentions 
these two kinds, that readers might better understand, that what the 
Prophet had stated before generally would be common to all. 
    But I have already said that this prophecy must be referred to 
the advent of Christ; for we know that what is here described was 
not fulfilled until after Christ appeared in the world: and the 
Prophet now preaches of the new restoration of the Church, which we 
know, was suspended until the Gospel was proclaimed. Let us now then 
see whether God, after Christ was revealed, performed what he had 
spoken by his Prophet. Peter, in the second chapter of the Acts, 
says, that this prophecy was fulfilled when the Spirit was sent. But 
it may be objected, that all were not endued with the gift of 
prophecy, even when God opened all the treasures of his grace; and 
Paul says that they were not all prophets even when the Church 
especially flourished; and experience proves the same. How then 
could Peter say, that this - that God would pour out his Spirit upon 
all flesh, was fulfilled? To give a reply to this is not difficult: 
let us only remember, that the Prophet speaks comparatively, as the 
Scripture is wont to do. He affirms not in express terms that all 
would be partakers of this gift, but that in comparison with the 
ancient Church, this gift would be as it were common, and that it 
was so is well known: for if any one compares the ancient Church 
with that abundance which God vouchsafed to his people after 
Christ's advent, he will certainly find true what I say - that the 
Spirit of God, who was given only to few under the law, was poured 
out upon all flesh. True then is what the Prophet says, provided 
this contrast is to be understood - that God was much more bountiful 
towards his new Church than formerly towards the fathers: for the 
Prophets then were not many, but they were many under the gospel. 
    We must also remember that the Prophet hyperbolically extols 
the grace of God; for such is our stupidity and dullness, that we 
can never sufficiently comprehend the grace of God, except it is set 
forth to us in hyperbolical language; nor is there indeed any excess 
in the thing itself, if we take a right view of it: but as we hardly 
understand the hundredth part of God's gifts, when he presents them 
before our eyes, it was needful to add a commendation, calculated to 
elevate our thoughts. The spirit of God is then constrained to speak 
hyperbolically on account of our torpidity or rather carelessness. 
We need not however to fear, lest our thoughts should go beyond the 
words; for when God would carry us above the heavens, we can hardly 
ascend two or three feet. 
    We now then perceive why the Prophet mentions all flesh without 
exception: first, there were more Prophets, as I have said, under 
the gospel than under the law; hence, the comparison is very 
suitable; - and, secondly the Prophet speaks not here of the public 
office of teaching, for he calls those Prophets who had not been 
called to teach, but who were endued with so much of the light of 
truth, that they might be compared with the Prophets; and certainly 
the knowledge which flourished in the primitive Church was such, 
that the meanest were in many respects equal to the ancient 
Prophets; for what did God confer on the ancient Prophets except the 
power of foretelling something to come? It was a special gift, and 
very limited. Besides these predictions are hardly worthy to be 
compared with the celestial wisdom made known in the gospel. Faith 
then after the coming of Christ, if rightly estimated according to 
its value, far excels the gift of prophecy. And so the Prophet here, 
not without reason, dignifies with so honorable name those who were 
private men, and to whom was not intrusted the office of teaching 
among the people, but who were only illuminated; for their light was 
much superior to the gift of prophecy in many of those who lived 
under the law. We now understand what the Prophet means when he 
makes the Spirit of God to be common, without distinction, to all 
the godly, so that they possess what excels the gift of prophesying. 
    Now as to the two kinds of gifts mentioned here, it must be 
observed, that the Prophet spoke according to what was commonly 
known among the people: for as the Jews were accustomed to dreams 
and visions, the Prophet therefore made use of these terms; and this 
manner of speaking occurs often in the Prophets, and it ought to be 
borne in mind by us. When they speak of the worship of God, they 
mention sacrifices, 'They shall come and bring frankincense and 
gold; they shall lead camels laden with the wealth of the land.' In 
short, in their prophecies they raise altars and build a temple: and 
yet no such things were seen after Christ appeared: for the Gentiles 
came not to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices; nay, shortly after the 
temple was destroyed, there was no altar among them, and the whole 
legal worship ceased. What then is to be understood by such 
expressions, as - that people shall come from all places to 
sacrifice together? Even this - They set forth under a visible form 
the spiritual worship of God. It is so in this place; as it was the 
usual way among the ancients that God manifested himself by dreams 
and visions to the Prophets, so he says, your old men shall dreams 
dream, and your young men shall visions see: but the Prophet no 
doubt sets forth under these forms of speech that light of knowledge 
in which the new Church excelled after Christ appeared: he indeed 
compares the light of faith to prophecy, as we have already stated; 
but he accommodates his manner of speaking or his discourse to the 
comprehension of his people, for he knew whom he addressed. All the 
Prophets have followed the same rule; 'There shall be offered a 
sacrifice,' says Malachi, 'from the rising to the setting of the 
sun.' What is this sacrifice? The Papists take this for the mass; 
"Then under the kingdom of Christ there is to be some sacrifice; and 
we do not now offer to God sheep and calves; it therefore follows, 
that there is to be the sacrifice of bread and wine:" and this is 
said, as though the Prophet had thus refinedly philosophized on the 
word, sacrifice, while he was teaching a rude people according to 
what they could bear. But what he meant was, that the worship of God 
would be universal among all nations. The same thing is intended by 
Joel when he says, "I shall pour forth my Spirit upon all flesh: 
your old men shall dreams dream, and your young men shall visions 
see". We now see the whole meaning of the Prophet. Now it follows - 
Joel 2:29 
And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will 
I pour out my spirit. 
    As the particle "gam" amplifies in Hebrew, it seems singular 
that the Prophet now limits to a few a gift common to all; for he 
had previously said, "Upon all flesh will I pour out my Spirit;" and 
now, "Upon servants and handmaids;" and he puts down "Also". If he 
had simply said "Upon servants and handmaids will I pour out my 
Spirit," there would have been no inconsistency, for it would have 
been the explanation of his former statement; for we know that what 
the Prophet says of all men must be taken with exception, inasmuch 
as many who were unbelievers were without this gift, and even those 
who before excelled in some sort of divine knowledge; we indeed know 
that the Jews were blinded, and we also know that not all among the 
common people were partakers of this excellent gift. There is no 
doubt, therefore, but that this which is said of "all flesh," must 
be limited to the Church. It would not, then, have appeared strange, 
had the Prophet now added, "Upon servants and handmaids;" but the 
particles "wegam", "and also," create difficulty: it is a way of 
speaking to enlarge on what has been said, but here it seems not to 
enlarge; for to pour out the Spirit upon a11 the people, is more 
than to pour it out on servants and handmaids. The solution is 
twofold: the particles "wegam" are sometimes to be taken 
confirmatively. 'I have blessed him,' said Isaac of his son Jacob, 
'and also blessed shall he be.' So in this place we may take the 
words of the Prophet to be, "yea surely", being a repetition serving 
to confirm what had been said: but I prefer another sense; for the 
Prophet, I doubt not, meant here to add something more incredible 
than what he had previously said, "Upon servants and maid-servants 
will I pour out my Spirit," that is, even upon those who were before 
Prophets; for they shall be enriched with a new gift, and shall gain 
increasing knowledge after the restoration of the Church, which is 
now approaching. We apprehend this to be the meaning of the Prophet. 
He had promised the grace of the Spirit to the whole body of the 
faithful, which appears, as I have said, from comparing the ancient 
state with our own: but now, after having spoken of the mass or the 
common people, he comes to the Prophets, who were superior to others 
who before performed the office of teaching, who attained rank and 
degree in the Church; these also shall gain accessions; that is, "My 
Spirit shall not only be conspicuous in the ignorant and the common 
people, but also in the Prophets themselves." 
    Surely it is a greater thing when they are taught who were 
before superior to others, and whom the Lord had set over the 
Church, and when they appear as new men, after having received a 
gift which the Lord had not previously conferred on them. When, 
therefore, new light appears in such men, it is certainly a greater 
thing than when the Spirit is poured out on the common people. We 
now then see the Prophet's meaning as to the servants and the 
    Ho then repeats, "In those days", intimating that so sudden and 
incredible the change will be, that Prophets will seem to have been 
before untaught men; for a much more excellent doctrine shall be 
given them. Then God shall so pour out his Spirits that all the 
ancient prophecies will appear obscure and of no value, compared 
with the great and extraordinary light which Christ, the Sun of 
Righteousness, will bring at his rising. And he mentions 
"handmaids", for there were, we know, Prophetesses under the Law. 
Let us now go on - 
Joel 2:30,31 
And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and 
fire, and pillars of smoke. 
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, 
before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come. 
    The Prophet seems here to contradict himself; for he had 
hitherto promised that God would deal kindly and bountifully with 
his people; and every thing he has said tended to elevate the 
spirits of the people and fill them with joy: but now he seems again 
to threaten them with God's wrath and to strike miserable men with 
fear; who had not as yet a breathing time; for at the time the 
Prophet spoke, the Jews, we know, were in the greatest sorrow. What 
then is his purpose in adding a new cause of grief, as though they 
had not sorrow and lamentation enough? But it is rather an 
admonition than a threatening. The Prophet warns them of what would 
be, lest the faithful should promise themselves some happy condition 
in this world, and an exemption from all cares and troubles; for we 
know how prone men are to self-indulgence. When God promises any 
thing, they flatter themselves and harbor vain thoughts, as though 
they were beyond the reach of harm, and free from every grief and 
every evil. Such indulgence the flesh contrives for itself. Hence 
the Prophet reminds us, that though God would bountifully feed his 
Church, supply his people with food, and testify by external tokens 
his paternal love, and though also he would pour out his Spirit, (a 
token far more remarkable,) yet the faithful would continue to be 
distressed with many troubles; for God designs not to deal too 
delicately with his Church on earth; but when he gives tokens of his 
kindness he at the same time mingles some exercises for patience, 
lest the faithful should become self-indulgent or sleep on earthly 
blessings, but that they may ever seek higher things. 
    We now then understand the Prophet's design: he intends not to 
threaten the faithful, but rather to warn them, lest they should 
deceive themselves with empty dreams, or expect what is never to be, 
that is, to enjoy a happy rest in this world. Besides, the Prophet 
regards also another thing: we know indeed that men are hardly led 
to seek the grace of God, except when they are, as it were, forcibly 
drawn; hence spiritual life is neglected, and whatever belongs to 
the celestial kingdom, when we have all kinds of supplies on earth. 
The Prophet then commends here the spiritual grace of which he 
speaks, for this reason, - that the condition of men would be 
miserable, were not the Lord to exhilarate their minds and refresh 
them with the comfort which we have already noticed.  - How so? 
"There will be prodigies in heaven and on earth, the sun shall be 
turned into darkness, and the moon into blood", and all things shall 
be in disorder and in horrible darkness. What then would become of 
men, were not God to shine on them by the grace of his Spirit, to 
support them under such a confusion in heaven and on earth, and to 
show himself to be their Father? 
    We then see that this was added for the fuller commendation of 
God's grace, that men might know, that they would be much more 
miserable if God called them not to himself by the shining light of 
his Spirit. And that this was the Prophet's design, we may learn 
from the discourse of Christ, which he made to his disciples a short 
time before his death. They asked what would be the sign of his 
coming, when he reminded them of the destruction of the temple, 
(Matth 24). They thought that he would immediately accomplish that 
triumph of which they had heard, that they would be made 
participators of that eternal beatitude of which Christ had so often 
spoken to them. Christ then warned them not to be deluded with so 
gross a notion. He spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem, and then 
declared that all these things would be only the presages of evils - 
"These," he says, "shall be only the preludes; for tumults will 
arise, wars shall be, and all places will be full of calamities; in 
a word, there will be an immense mass of all evils." As Christ then 
corrected the mistake, with which the minds of the disciples were 
imbued, so the Prophet here checks vain imaginations, lest the 
faithful should think that Christ's kingdom would be earthly, and 
fix their minds on corn and wine, on pleasures and quietness, on the 
conveniences of the present life: "I will give you, he says, 
prodigies in heaven and on earth blood, fire, and dark clouds; the 
sun all be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before it 
shall come - the day of Jehovah, great and terrible". 
    We now see why the Prophet adds here this sad catalogue, and 
how well these things harmonize together, - that God would testify 
his paternal love by the manifestation of Christ, - and that he 
would exhibit tokens of his wrath, which would fill the whole world 
with anxiety and fear. 
    What he says of blood and darkness is, no doubt, to be taken 
metaphorically for a disordered state of things; for we know that 
calamities are often compared to obscurity and darkness. It is the 
same as though he said, "So great will be the succession of evils, 
that the whole order of nature will seem to be subverted that the 
very elements will put on a new form; the sun, which illuminates the 
earth, will be turned into darkness, the moon into blood; the 
calamities which shall come will take away every token of God's 
kindness. Then nothing will remain, but that men, sunk, as it were, 
in the deepest abyss of all evils, will seek some spark of grace 
from God and never find it; for heaven will be dark, the earth will 
be covered with thick darkness." We then see that the Prophet does 
not express what would be, word for word, nor is he to be understood 
as speaking, as they say, literally, but he uses a figurative mode 
of speaking, by which he sets forth such a dreadful state of things, 
that the very elements would put on a new appearance; for the sun 
would not any more perform its office, and the moon would refuse its 
light to the earth. As God, then, would take away all tokens of his 
favor, so the Prophet, by blood, by darkness and by dark clouds, 
sets forth metaphorically that sorrows by which the minds of men 
would necessarily be possessed. 
    Now if any one asks, why by the coming of Christ was God's 
wrath more stirred up against men? for this may seem to be without 
reason. To this I answer, that it was, as it were accidental: for if 
Christ had been received as he ought to have been, if all embraced 
him with due reverence, he would have certainly been the giver, not 
only of spiritual grace, but also of earthly happiness. The felicity 
of all, then, would have in every respect been made complete by the 
coming of Christ, had not their wickedness and ingratitude kindled 
up anew the wrath of God; and we see what a flood of evils burst 
forth immediately after the preaching of the gospel. Now when we 
consider how severely God afflicted his people formerly, we cannot 
but say that much heavier have been the calamities inflicted on the 
world since the manifestation of Christ, - whence this? Even because 
the world's ingratitude had arrived to its highest point, as indeed 
it is at this day: for the light of the gospel has gone forth again, 
and God has exhibited himself to the world as a Father, and we see 
how great is the wickedness and perversity of men in rejecting the 
gifts of God; we see some contemptuously rejecting the Gospel, and 
others impelled by satanic fury to resist the doctrine of Christ; we 
see them making a boast of their blasphemies, and we see them 
kindled with cruel rage and breathing slaughters against the 
children of God; we see the world full of ungodly men and of the 
despisers of God; we see an awful contempt of God's grace prevailing 
everywhere: we see such an unbridled licentiousness in wickedness, 
that it ought to make us ashamed of ourselves and weary of our life. 
Since, then, the world is so ungrateful for such a favor, is it a 
wonder that God should show more dreadful tokens of his vengeance? 
For certainly at this day, when we closely examine the condition of 
the world, we find that all are miserable, and even those who 
applaud themselves, and whom the world admire as semigods. How can 
it be otherwise? The common people, doubtless, groan under their 
miseries, and that because God thus punishes the contempt of his 
grace, which he has again offered to us, and which is so unworthily 
rejected. Inasmuch, then, as so base an ingratitude on the part of 
men has provoked God's wrath, it is no wonder that the sound of his 
scourges is everywhere heard: for the servant who knows his lord's 
will and does it not, is worthy, as Christ declares, of heavier 
stripes, (Luke 12.) And what happens through the whole world is, 
that after God has shone by his gospel, after Christ has everywhere 
proclaimed reconciliation, they now openly fall away, and show that 
they prefer having God angry than propitious to them: for when the 
gospel is rejected, what else is it but to declare war against God, 
and to scorn and not to receive the reconciliation which God is 
ready to give, and of which he treats of his own accord with men? 
    It is then no wonder that the Prophet says here, that the world 
would be full of darkness after the appearance of Christ, who is the 
Sun of Righteousness, and who has shone upon us with his salvation: 
but it was, as it were, accidental, that God exhibited himself with 
so much severity to the world, when yet it was the acceptable time, 
when it was the day of salvation and of good-will; for the world 
suffered not that to be fulfilled which God had promised to us by 
the Prophet Joel, nor received the Spirit of adoption, when they 
might have safely fled to God; nay, when God was ready to cherish 
them in his own bosom. But since they were refractory and 
untractable, it was necessary for God to visit such perverseness in 
an unusual manner. It is no wonder then that the Prophet says, that 
"in those days there shall be prodigies in heaven and on earth, for 
the sun shall be turned into darkness, &c., before it shall come - 
the day of Jehovah, great and terrible". 
    It may be asked what day the Prophet refers to: for he has 
hitherto spoken of the first coming of Christ; and there seems to be 
some inconsistency in this place. I answer, that the Prophet 
includes the whole kingdom of Christ, from the beginning to the end; 
and this is well understood, and in other places we have stated that 
the Prophets common speak in this manner: for when the discourse is 
concerning Christ's kingdom, they sometimes refer to its 
commencement only, and sometimes they speak of its termination; but 
they often mark out by one delineation the whole course of the 
kingdom of Christ, from its beginning to its end; and such is the 
case here. The Prophet, by saying, 'After those days I will pour out 
my Spirit,' no doubt meant that this, as we have explained, would be 
fulfilled when Christ should commence his kingdom, and make it known 
through the teaching of the gospel: Christ poured out then his 
Spirit. But as the kingdom of Christ is not for a few days, or for a 
short time, but continues its course to the end of the word, the 
Prophet turns his attention to that day or that time, and says, 
"There shall, in the meanwhile, be the greatest calamities: and 
whosoever shall not flee to the grace of God shall be very 
miserable; they shall never find rest nor comfort, nor the light of 
life, for the world shall be sunk in darkness; and God shall take 
away from the sun, the moon, the elements, and all other aids, the 
tokens of his favor; and he will show himself everywhere to be angry 
and offended with men." The Prophet further shows, that these evils 
of which he speaks would not be for a few days or a few years, but 
perpetual; 'Before,' he says, 'the day of Jehovah, great and 
terrible, shall come.' In short, he means that all the scourges of 
God, which he had hitherto mentioned, would be, as it were, 
preparations to subdue the hearts of men, that they might with 
reverence and submission receive Christ. As, therefore, men carry by 
nature a high spirit, and cannot bend their neck to recede the yoke 
of Christ, hence the Prophet says here that they were to be subdued 
by severe scourges, when God would remove all evidences of his love, 
and fill heaven and earth with dread. Thus, then, he would in a 
manner change the hardness and contumacy which is innate in men, 
that they might know that they had to do with God. And, at the same 
time, the Prophet reminds them, that unless they were amended by 
these scourges, something more dreadful remained for them, - the 
Judge would at last come from heaven, not only to clothe the sun and 
moon in darkness, but to turn life into death. It would, indeed, be 
far better for the reprobate to die a hundred times than always to 
live and thus to sustain eternal death in life itself. 
    The Prophet then means, that men persisting in their obstinacy 
shall meet with something more grievous and more ruinous than the 
evils of this life, for they must all at last stand before the 
tribunal of the celestial Judge: for the day of Jehovah, great and 
terrible, will come. He refers, in this sentence, to unbelievers and 
rebels against God; for when Christ shall come, he will be a 
Redeemer to the godly; no day in their whole life will shine on them 
so pleasantly; so far will this day be from bringing terror and fear 
to them, that they are bidden, while expecting it, to lift up their 
heads, which is a token of cheerfulness and joy. But as the Prophet 
Joel's object was to humble the confident pride of the flesh, and as 
he addressed the refractory and the rebellious, it is no wonder that 
he sets before them what is terrific and dreadful. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are now surrounded on every side by 
so many miseries, and as our condition is such, that amidst groans 
and continual sorrows, our life could be hardly sustained without 
being supported by spiritual grace, - O grant, that we may learn to 
look on the face of thine Anointed, and seek comfort from him, and 
such a comfort as may not engross our minds, or at least not retain 
us in the world, but raise our thoughts to heaven, and daily sell to 
our hearts the testimony of our adoption, and that though many evils 
must be borne by us in this world, we may yet continue to pursue our 
course, and to fight and to strive with invincible perseverance, 
until having at length finished all our struggles, we reach that 
blessed rest, which has been obtained for us by the blood of thy 
only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Calvin, Commentary on Joel

(Continued in part 9...)

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