How to Read Joel

The Book of Joel

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application.  

Joel, a short collection of prophetic poems, urges repentance and highlights the way past judgement in the life of God’s people actually points toward a future day of restoration. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the book of Joel, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video. 

Now that you have an overview of Joel in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in Joel. Read how Israel is urged to repent and return to the Lord in Joel 2:12–17. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about Joel 2:12–17.

Joel 2:12-17 (ESV)

Return to the Lord

12“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,

“return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

13and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

Return to the Lord your God,

for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;

and he relents over disaster.

14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,

and leave a blessing behind him,

a grain offering and a drink offering

for the Lord your God?

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;

consecrate a fast;

call a solemn assembly;

16gather the people.

Consecrate the congregation;

assemble the elders;

gather the children,

even nursing infants.

Let the bridegroom leave his room,

and the bride her chamber.

17 Between the vestibule and the altar

let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep

and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,

and make not your heritage a reproach,

a byword among the nations.

Why should they say among the peoples,

‘Where is their God?’”

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: God tells his people to rend their hearts, not their garments.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about Joel 2:12–17? (Consider the major characters, plot points, locations, cities, landmarks, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) God tells his people to rend their hearts, not their garments. (Interpretation) Israel was putting on an outward show of repentance by tearing their garments, but their hearts were not truly broken and repentant. 

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Joel 2:12–17? How does its message connect with the main message of all of Joel? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: Because of sin, mankind is continually rebelling against God. Israel wanders in the wilderness because of their failure to repent and trust Yahweh. Many prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Ezekiel—have warned of the coming judgment. The Lord allows his wrath to touch Israel and brings them into exile as a judgment upon their sin. Joel urges the people to return with all their hearts to God. John the Baptist calls for repentance. Jesus warns the Pharisees that their show of cleaning the outside of the cup (the appearance) does not make the cup clean on the inside (the heart). The Apostles call for repentance in Acts. 

Contextualize: What themes does Joel 2:12–17 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Joel? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the earlier books of the Bible?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: Like Israel, my heart is full of sin and I am in need of continual repentance. Often, I go through the motions of confessing and repenting, but my heart is not truly open to change, transformation, or turning away from sin. I must beg the Lord’s help to turn away from my sinful pursuits, and ask Him to give me a new heart, which is truly repentant. 

Apply: How does the truth from Joel 2:12–17 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of Joel to your life this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps us wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Joel, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Joel this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.