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Preaching on Joel

An overview of the historical background and theology of Joel to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Joel
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Historical Background

The date of Joel’s composition is difficult to determine due to the lack of contextual details. Yet the ambuiguity of the historical situation does not make the Book of Joel any less weighty, or its agenda any less certain. The prophet’s name, which means “Yahweh is God,” gives the book a generic enough title, but Joel provides a profound and contoured portrayal of the Lord of Israel. The ironic juxtaposition of the elegant nature-themed poetry and the terror it conveys helps to showcase the twin themes of God’s judgment and love.

Joel’s ministry is prompted by a cataclysmal plague of locusts. His listeners have never experienced a calamity of this magnitude (1:2) and their way of life was brought to a halt. Agricultural and religious activities ceased. Joel makes the reason for the plague clear: God has judged Judah for covenant unfaithfulness. The book also uses this occasion of judgment to foreshadow an ultimate “Day of the Lord”—God’s judgment of sin on a greater scale.

The prominent theme of judgment, however, is not without the accompanying focus on deliverance and hope. God uses judgement to warn his people not to stray. He uses devastation to stop their rebellion, draw them to himself, and renew their relationship. God remains faithful to the covenant even when his people are not. Thus the book is a sign of warning and of hope. The Day of the Lord is simultaneously horrible and hopeful, full of vengeance and vindication, gloom and glory. The world is rife with wickedness and rebellion, but Yahweh is God.

Sermon Series

The following is a series through Joel in six sermons. As with other books, you can preach it in greater or fewer units. You can even preach it in a one-sermon overview, especially given its brevity. But word count does not make words count. These 73 verses are inspired and profitable, and nothing about them is minor. Consider taking a measured pace through Joel, allowing its themes to dictate the preaching units. The sermons in the following outline represent movements that look like this: 1) a reflection on a recent devastation, 2) a warning of a coming, greater day of gloom, 3) a detailed explanation of what to do about it, 4) the real reason there is even anything to do about it, 5) what we should do while we await the Lord’s day, and finally, 6) an overview of God’s purposes in judgment for proper perspective.

Series Title: Joel: Messenger of Warning & Hope
Text: Joel 1:1-20
  • Title: A Prophetic Wakeup Call
  • Big Idea: Our proper response to devastating circumstances is to call upon the Lord in humble repentance.
  • Preaching Tips: Unlike Joel, we cannot be certain a disaster is God’s specific judgment. But we can always recognize that we do not merit protection and that ultimately we can depend upon God in such trials.
Text: Joel 2:1-12a
  • Title: The Coming Day of the Lord
  • Big Idea: What is most alarming about the Lord’s coming judgment is how unendurable it is.
  • Preaching Tips: The Big Idea here lacks an element of hope because these verses repeatedly underscore the irresistible terror of the Lord’s day. It cannot be withstood (v. 11). The listeners can be reminded, however, that the point is to turn to the Lord, which is the idea behind sounding the alarm (v. 1) and the inclusion of v. 12a in the sermon.
Text: Joel 2:12b-17
  • Title: A Profile in Repentance
  • Big Idea: Because repentance is so easily feigned, we should recognize what the genuine article looks like.
  • Preaching Tips: Here the sermon can emphasize that repentance is firstly internal (vv. 12b, 13a) which then drives the external (vv. 12c, 15-17). External actions are important too, as they flow from and demonstrate the heart. It is also urgent (worth interrupting nursing and wedding ceremonies) and communal (v. 16).
Text: Joel 2:18-27
  • Title: A God Who Relents
  • Big Idea: Repentance is made possible not by the merit of our actions but by the character of God.
  • Preaching Tips: This sermon can reach back to vv. 13-14 and answer positively—he does relent because he is of this character. Then vv. 18-27 furthers it: God is jealous, shows pity, reverses our plight (removes the unendurable judgment, v. 20 and any cause for terror, v. 21 ff).
Text: Joel 2:28-32
  • Title: The Spirit of God Poured
  • Big Idea: In preparation for God’s final judgment, his Spirit empowers his people for ministry.
  • Preaching Tips: It is not often that we get to preach on the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament and with commentary from Peter to boot (Acts 2:14-21). Contextualize the “dreams” and “visions” within your congregation’s theological tradition, but emphasize the connection between the pouring of the Spirit and readiness for the day of the Lord.
Text: Joel 3:1-21
  • Title: God Gathers the Nations
  • Big Idea: God judges the nations in order to vindicate his own people.
  • Preaching Tips: This is a larger pericope but the elements flow tightly together. Some may have a hard time with God’s harsh words but the sin is quite perverse (3:3) and God’s repayment is kind-for-kind (3:4, 7-8). The purpose of the judgment is to show God’s people he is their God (3:17-21) which drives home the primary theme of the book.
If you decide to preach Joel in one sermon, here is one way you might handle it:

Title: Joel: The Great and Awesome Day of the Lord

Big Idea: Judgment Day should prompt us to be partakers and ministers of God’s great mercy.


I. Large-scale disasters should remind us of the coming day of judgement (1:1-2:11).

II. Because of God’s merciful nature, we have the opportunity to repent of sin (2:12-27).

III. When we repent, God’s Spirit empowers us to invite others into God’s mercy (2:28-32).

IV. This ministry will be persecuted, but we take solace in God’s justice in the end (3:1-21).

Preaching Tips:

• The title in this example is taken from Joel 2:31.

• These main points follow the same flow as the sermon series. However you articulate your mains and make sure they cohere logically. Read them by themselves, without sub-points, to make sure they make sense, one leading to the next.

• You will likely not be able to read every verse; identify key verses that represent sections well. Practice summarizing the rest succinctly, accurately, and interestingly.

• Among the themes and application points listed below, decide which are most prominent as you meditate on Joel, and allow your preaching context to inform which ones you might address some other time and which should demand more attention for this particular preaching occasion.

Theological Themes

Some of the prominent motifs that you will be challenged to grapple with throughout this series include:


When preaching through the Prophets, it would be an expositional crime to simply avoid their harsh themes portraying God’s stance against rebellion. When we succumb to the temptation to sanitize these portions of the Bible, we not only fail to honor the text but we also rob our listeners of important truths. If we present a God who only loves through blessing but never lifts a finger to stop wickedness, we skew what it means that “God is love.” Love does not let evil triumph, nor does it let its own languish in perpetual oppression. It is precisely because God is holy that he must act against the wicked, and it is precisely because he is love that he must vindicate his people from the wicked. Further, we must understand that it is due to the goodness of God as a Father that he sometimes uses stiff hardships to train his own children (Heb. 12:3-11). Finally, it is the fact that we are rightly subject to judgment ourselves that positions us to appreciate the absolute mercy of our gracious God.


Oprah Winfrey famously rejected the Christian view of God when she heard a preacher talk about God as “jealous.”[1] When we have a poor understanding of what the Bible means here, we will stumble over ourselves when it appears in our sermon passages. One advantage of preaching through entire books of the Bible is closing the escape hatch that would allow us to dodge verses like Joel 2:18. But this verse teaches us that God’s jealousy actually incites his demonstration of pity. Surely that’s a good thing! God desires to protect his covenant people and their relationship with him. To call a spouse “jealous” is only pejorative if the danger to the relationship is imaginary. If there is an actual threat, a lack of jealousy would betray a calloused or indifferent heart toward the marriage. God is jealous because he knows what is rightfully his, because he is a covenant protector and because he is faithful to his bride.

The Day of the Lord

It is not easy to discern the precise nature of what is happening in Joel. The plague of locusts described at the outset seems to refer to an actual locust infestation of apocalyptic proportions that devasted the land. Some able interpreters, however, have argued for a figurative plague that poetically describes a human invasion.

Further, as the text looks ahead to a later invasion, you will need to decide if Joel is speaking literally of more locusts, or if he is using literal locusts to prefigure (whether again or for the first time) a national invasion by a human army or if Joel is referring to the final judgment of the Lord and his army against all the nations that rage against him and his own (matching perhaps Rev. 19:14). With regard to the invasion that is future to Joel, we might do well to consider whether these options are mutually exclusive, or if Joel’s prophecy stretches to encompass more than one iteration of fulfillment.

However you determine to handle it hermeneutically, your listeners will rightly be disappointed if you simply throw your hands up without even trying, or worse yet, skip over it as if it is not there. Handle the options with humility and charity. In the end, allow the banner theme to remain central: Yahweh is God over his people, and he will demonstrate it in both judgment and deliverance.


When it comes to the tricky discipline of application, there are some issues to be aware of when preaching Joel:


With regard to the plague we should be cautious. Where Joel is aware of specific sin that has brought about specific judgment, we should really pause before drawing such direct lines today between suffering and sin. In a broad sense, however, wars, illnesses, and natural disasters are not unrelated to sinfulness. It is still appropriate to call upon the Lord (1:19), to examine our own homes, churches, and other spheres, and repent where appropriate. Devastating circumstances of all kinds should still prompt lament—possibly even a sense of shame, where it fits—and a drive toward dependence upon our sovereign Lord. We can use this series as an opportunity to teach our congregations that disasters are not disconnected from God’s oversight and they do not negate his shepherding the covenant community. But they do now, as they did then, occasion a time of reflection and trust in our merciful God.

Calls to Repentance

Concerning repentance, there are at least three applicational aspects to it in Joel’s prophecy. First, repentance is a radically interior thing (2:13). Perfunctory prayers or other hollow actions will not get us anywhere with God. But, second, this does not mean that exterior signs of repentance necessarily betray phoniness. Weeping is appropriate when the heart is truly broken over sin (2:12). Worldly sorrow can produce tears, but so can godly sorrow. True mourning over sin begins in the heart and flows out through expression. Third, repentance is not merely an enterprise of the individual. There is something to corporate confession and even fasting (1:13-14) that churches sometimes miss. Often, fasting is overly privatized due to perhaps a strained interpretation of Matthew 6:16-18. There is still a place for fasting in unison especially with regard to longing for our Bridegroom (Matt. 9:15).

Devouring Fire

Understanding the judgment of God from a theological perspective is one thing, but applying it in a sermon can also be a particular challenge. And Joel is thick with it. Here you can not only help your listeners understand God’s commitment to judge the wicked for their perversity and antagonism, but you can also help them to see the practical value of this truth. Any person who has ever felt the betrayal of a teacher who looked the other way rather than confronting a bully senses the need for justice. Abusers who gaslight their victims, political leaders who rob their people, sex traffickers and substance abusers who exploit their children to fund their habits (3:3!) will not get away with it! God does not leave loose ends (3:21). This fiery doctrine can actually serve as a salve for many.

Pretending that the gross and violent sins of the world do not surround us or downplaying God’s promises to heap repayment upon them is to leave your listeners wondering if God really cares. The judgment of God is highly valuable for application because our congregations are full of the hurting and the abused and their perpetrators see minimal consequence in many cases. We don’t want to encourage hatred of our abusers or persecutors, but we do want to find solace in God’s justice in the end.


Finally, as a Christian preacher, you want to contextualize Old Testament prophecy to the contemporary New Covenant congregation. We don’t do this by skipping past the original context. Rather, after visiting the original situation carefully, we build a bridge from there to today’s Christian. Graeme Goldsworthy helpfully urges preachers to consider the following redemptive framework when preaching the Prophets [2]:

1. They address the covenant breaking of the people in oracles of stinging indictment and accusation.

2. They warn of the consequences of this folly as they speak of the judgment that has come and will yet come.

3. They remind people of the covenant faithfulness of God, who will yet act in some conclusive way to bring about his purposes.

Those common ingredients in the Prophets’ messages relate to both the original situation as well as today’s believer since we are also in covenant relationship with God. That makes the sharp rebukes relevant, as well as warnings of a future judgment and the current opportunity to repent. Sidney Greidanus reminds us of an enduring truth concerning the Prophets: “God’s judgments of the past are a sobering reminder to people today that God is utterly serious about destroying the wicked, and his promises of a glorious future are as much a beacon of hope and encouragement for contemporary Christians as they were for ancient Israelites.”[3]

My Encounter with Joel

The series will both upbraid as well as uplift—Joel sure does that for me. I think of how Joel invites me to take hold of God’s mercy in Christ, continually. I am convicted to take account of my life, to help my congregation take stock of our attitudes and behaviors, and to think about areas that we may need to make right before the Lord. And no matter how much I grow, Joel will always take me into deeper waters of theology. The doctrine of God’s judgment and its related themes are alarming, but I marvel in it. Joel helps me appreciate the rightness of God’s justice and the surprise of God’s mercy.

I treasure how Joel, like the other Prophets, press theology into life. The coming Lord’s Day informs my present every day. Evil continues to haunt our communities in continually shocking ways. Joel gives me a perspective to keep me from giving up on holiness and ministry. I’m no different than many of my congregants who live with deep personal hurts inflicted by the rampant wickedness in this world. But God pours out his Spirit to broadcast himself through us to a world without hope.

Reflecting on Joel is a magnificent opportunity to stretch our minds as well as our hearts. Prophecy—sharp edges and all—is always relevant and God’s actions are always in keeping with his holiness, love and splendor. And I believe any congregation will be shaped and matured in important ways sitting under a faithful preaching of Joel.


Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 31 (Thomas Nelson, 1987).

Raymond Dillard, ed. Thomas E. McComiskey, The Minor Prophets (Baker Academic, 2009).

David Allen Hubbard, Joel & Amos Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP Academic, 2009).

[1] https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/oprah-a-jealous-god/

[2] Graeme Goldsworthy. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 171.

[3] Sidney Greidanus. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) p. 262.

Lucas O’Neill is a Clinical Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). He has pastored Christian Fellowship Church (Itasca, IL) for over ten years, and is the author of "Preaching to Be Heard" (Lexham Press, 2019).

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