Joel’s Locusts and The Divine Destroyer
By Dr. Brad Cole
The book of Joel is an intimidating little book of only three chapters. Despite the brevity, it is a difficult book to ignore considering the frequent New Testament references to Joel. Peter quotes Joel to explain the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel…” (Acts 2:16) Paul uses Joel to show that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Romans 10:13). Jesus used Joel’s description of the “Day of the Lord” with the darkening of the sun and moon (Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25; Joel 2:10, 31). And, the book of Revelation echoes several images from Joel, including the destroying locusts.
Interpreting this book requires that we take a position on the locusts. They are an “army of locusts” that are “too many to count” and that have “teeth as sharp as those of a lion” (Joel 1:6). It seems that most Bible commentators believe that these either represent literal locusts or as a symbol of present or future military powers of conquest. Some interpretations blend the two and see this as descriptive of God’s wrath on the final “Day of the Lord.”
“Who’s their leader?” is perhaps the most fundamental question to ask. Locusts do not naturally have a king, “Locusts: they have no king, but they move in formation” (Proverbs 30:27). The locusts in Joel, however, do have a leader and it first glance it appears to be God:
“The day of the LORD is near, the day when the Almighty brings destruction. What terror that day will bring” (Joel 1:15). I was surprised to read the NET Bible translation of this verse as “it will come as destruction from the Divine Destroyer.”
“It will be a dark and gloomy day, a black and cloudy day. The great army of locusts advances like darkness spreading over the mountains. There has never been anything like it, and there never will be again…They rush against the city; they run over the walls; they climb up the houses and go in through the windows like thieves. The earth shakes as they advance; the sky trembles. The sun and the moon grow dark, and the stars no longer shine. The LORD thunders commands to his army. The troops that obey him are many and mighty” (Joel 2:1,2,10,11).
Some ambiguity is presented, however, when God is described as destroying the very army that he sent:
“I will remove the locust army that came from the north…Their dead bodies will stink. I will destroy them because of all they have done to you…I will give you back what you lost in the years when swarms of locusts are your crops. It was I who sent this army against you” (2:20,25).
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Before trying to answer the question of God’s involvement, we need to return to a framework of Biblical interpretation that we have referred to many times.
A. Read the Bible as a Whole
Watching bits and pieces of any book, especially the early parts, will often lead to false conclusions. In the same way, reading the Bible piece-meal and not taking in the climax and the ending of the story will have the same result. We must read the book of Joel in the context of the Bible as a whole.
B. Jesus is the climax of the Bible
Most books end with a summary or conclusion. In mystery books, we don’t find out until the very end “who did it?” Jesus is the climax of the Bible and in some ways he is also the ending of the Bible. He is the final word on God’s heart, character and motives. Many questions will come up as we read the Bible, but we must elevate the life and death of God in human form as the pinnacle of what is true. The book of Joel needs to be read in the light of Jesus’ revelation of God’s character. With this principle in mind, do we imagine Jesus, who came to serve and to lay down his life for sinners to represent “The Divine Destroyer?” Is Jesus the commander of the mighty locust army?
C. The Cosmic Conflict
In the Bible, God is frequently described as actively doing, what he instead allows to take place. Particularly in the Old Testament, the Enemy is veiled and God seems to take responsibility for almost everything. “I create both light and darkness; I bring both blessing and disaster. I, the LORD, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). It isn’t until the life and death of Jesus that Satan is revealed, exposed and defeated.
There are notable rare exceptions, however, where we do see the demonic creep into the Old Testament. In one account of David’s census, “The LORD was angry at Israel again, and he made David think it would be a good idea to count the people in Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 24:1). This is a troubling passage if read in isolation. Does God tempt to evil? It is fascinating to read another telling of the same story, written much later, where Chronicles pulls the curtain back on a much deeper reality, “Satan wanted to bring trouble on the people of Israel, so he made David decide to take a census” (1 Chronicles 21:1).
Another example of Satan’s involvement in the Old Testament occurs in the book of Job where the reader is aware that Satan is the one who brought the calamities on Job. This reality was not evident to Job or to the lone survivor who ran to tell of the destructive events, “The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” (Job 1:16)
Aside from these few examples of Satan’s involvement, the Old Testament gives God the “credit” for everything good and bad that happens in life. The book of Samuel alone is filled with many examples of this. Hannah’s womb was felt to be closed by supernatural means, “…the LORD had kept her childless” (1 Samuel 1:6). When God intervened so that she could have children, we again see the ancient mindset that God was responsible for everything, “The LORD kills and restores to life; he sends people to the world of the dead and brings them back again. He makes some people poor and others rich; he humbles some and makes others great” (1 Samuel 2:6-7). Does God really micromanage who will be poor and who will be rich?
A few verses later, a prediction for the death of Eli’s evil sons (who were killed in battle) was expressed this way, “But they would not listen to their father, for the LORD had decided to kill them” (1 Samuel 2:25).
In Samuel, God repeatedly sent evil spirits to torment Saul, “One day an evil spirit from the LORD took control of Saul…” (1 Samuel 19:9; see also 16:14 and 18:10-12). Does God dispatch evil spirits? If so, what chance in life did poor Saul have?
After wicked Nabal mistreated David he “suffered a stroke and was completely paralyzed” (1 Samuel 25:38). Even with the technology of modern medicine, the mortality rate for strokes that cause complete paralysis is higher than 80%. A superficial reading of Samuel, however, suggests that Nabal needed divine intervention to end his life since, “Some ten days later the LORD struck Nabal and he died” (1 Samuel 25:29).
David had this same paradigm about God’s involvement in human reality. As he considered the demise of Saul he concluded that God would kill him, either through natural death or at the hands of his enemies.
“By the living LORD,’ David continued, ‘I know that the LORD himself will kill Saul, either when his time comes to die a natural death or when he dies in battle’” (1 Samuel 26:10).
The story of Saul concludes with his own suicide, yet the Bible defines God’s involvement with these words, “So the LORD killed him…” (1 Chronicles 10:14)
This concept is pervasive throughout the Old Testament. God is described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart and, even within the 10 commandments where we might assume that there would be nothing that is slightly misleading, God would say this:
“I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5).
The Old Testament forces us to address these questions. Does God punish to the fourth generation? If a child is born with a disability, was this a result of some heinous sin committed by his great-great grandfather?
This was the mindset of Jesus’ disciples. When they looked at the man born blind, their only question was whether it was his sin or the sins of his parents. “Whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents’ sin?” Jesus was quick to set the record straight, “His blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents’ sins…” (Luke 4:2, 3)
Finally, as a last example, during the most rebellious period of the wilderness wanderings, “the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died” (Numbers 21:5).
In this case, the people had been miraculously preserved through the wilderness. They were provided with food and water and not even their shoes wore out. Despite all of this, they repeatedly told God to leave them alone so that they could return to Egypt. Finally God was left with no choice but to respect their free-will choice and to remove his protecting hand. Predictably, “all hell broke loose” when this happened. It is also interesting to note that serpents bit the people since God’s Adversary described in Genesis 3 and Revelation 12 is the “ancient serpent of old.”
With this background in mind, we return to “The Divine Punisher” and the king of the locust army in the book of Joel. The best case for the identity of the Locust King is in the book of Revelation, but I would first like to make two smaller points.
On the Day of the LORD, these locusts are described as going “through windows like thieves” (Joel 2:9). Although the “Day of the Lord” in the Bible is described as coming suddenly, “like a thief that comes in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, see also Revelation 16:15) is Jesus the thief that “breaks into [the] house”? (Matthew 24:43) One of the most compelling images of Jesus is that he stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20) rather than breaking the door down.
In the gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd,” the “gate for the sheep” and the one “who is willing to die for the sheep” (John 10:7, 11). In contrast to this, “All others who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them…The thief comes only in order to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:7, 8). In the context of Jesus’ description, “thieves and robbers” applied to the Pharisees, but is there an ultimate “thief” who is behind it all?
Jesus’ description of the good and “thief” shepherds echo from the book of Zechariah where the good shepherd is “paid thirty pieces of silver as my wages” (Zechariah 11:12). In contrast to this, another shepherd who also comes to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:8) is described:
“Then the LORD said to me, ‘Once again act the part of a shepherd, this time a worthless one. I have put a shepherd in charge of my flock, but he does not help the sheep that are threatened by destruction; nor does he look for the lost, or heal those that are hurt, or feed the healthy. Instead, he eats the meat of the fattest sheep and tears off their hoofs. That worthless shepherd is doomed! He has abandoned his flock. War will totally destroy his power. His arm will wither, and his right eye will go blind.’” (Zechariah 11:15-17)
Locusts from the North
Joel’s locust army comes from the north (Joel 2:20). The north is contested territory in the Bible. The King of Babylon, “the bright morning star” of Isaiah 14 has his sights set on the north. “You were determined to climb up to heaven and to place your throne above the highest stars. You thought you would sit like a king on the mountain in the north where the gods assemble” (Isaiah 14:13). It is significant then that in Psalm 48:2, Mount Zion is also on the sides of the north, “Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.”
Satan’s desire is to reside as king on Mount Zion. His conquest of Planet Earth led Jesus to give him the title, “the prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30). Satan is “the god of this age”, and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2). Even after the Cross, John would say that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). To be worshiped as God is the end-game for Satan who even asked Jesus to worship him in the wilderness of temptation. The war between God and Satan comes to a climax at “Harmageddon” and a case can be made that this refers to the contested mountain in the north described in Isaiah 14:13 (see “Armageddon”, Charley Torrey). This would suggest that the final battle does not primarily involve tanks and fighter jets but rather the issue of worship – – will we worship the Lamb or the dragon?
The book of Ezekiel describes another army that comes from the north. Gog, who personifies the forces that are hostile to God, is the leader of this army. He “will set out to come from your place in the far north, leading a large, powerful army of soldiers from many nations, all of them on horseback” (Ezekiel 38:14, 15).
There are many parallels between Gog’s army, the locust army, and the figure of Satan and the demonic activity in the book of Revelation. When God destroys Gog’s army it takes “seven months to bury the corpses where they are buried east of the Dead Sea” (Ezekiel 39:11-14). When the locust army in Joel is destroyed, “Their front ranks will be driven into the Dead Sea…Their dead bodies will stink” (Joel 2:20). Birds are called to a “huge feast” on the dead bodies of Gog’s army (Ezekiel 39:17). When the army in Revelation is destroyed, birds are again called for “God’s great feast!” (Revelation 19:18-21). The locust army of Joel, the army led by Gog in Ezekiel, and the army in Revelation are all describing this end-time conflict between God and Satan from different perspectives.
Rather than focusing on a literal army, however, we should see worship as the real issue in these armies that come from the north. Satan’s aspirations in Isaiah 14 are to conquer the North where God resides. “Everyone worshiped the dragon” in Revelation (13:4). Again and again in the New Testament, we are reminded that we are the temple of God and that this should be the dwelling place of God alone. Our mind, or temple, is contested territory, “The Day will not come until the Wicked One appears, who is destined for hell. He will oppose every so-called god or object of worship and will put himself above them all. He will even go in and sit down in God’s Temple and claim to be God” (1 Thessalonians 2:3, 4).
Locusts in Revelation
In the book of Revelation, the 7 trumpets reveal that God is not the only one who is involved in human affairs. God has an Adversary and his fingerprints are all over the trumpet sequence. 28 times the phrase “one-third” is used in the 7 trumpets. This “one-third” is more helpful as an identifying mark of demonic agency rather than as a quantity. When the details of the war in heaven are described in Revelation 12, one-third of the “stars” are thrown down to earth with Satan. The repeated destruction of one-third of the earth, living creatures, and almost everything else in the trumpet sequence then is meant to create a link to the dragon who deceived one-third of the angels in heaven (Revelation 12:4).
When the third trumpet was blown:
“A great star, burning like a torch, dropped from the sky and fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. (The name of the star is “Bitterness.”) A third of the water turned bitter, and many people died from drinking the water, because it had turned bitter (Rev 8:10-11).
The fall of this “great star” is a reference to Isaiah 14, “the bright morning star,” and is another identifying mark that directs our attention to Satan.
While the third trumpet describes the bright star that fell from the sky, the fifth trumpet uses the past-tense to give a sense of a story-line that is moving forward,
“I saw a star which had fallen down to the earth, and it was given the key to the abyss” (Rev 9:1).
When this fallen “star” opens the abyss, locusts come out:
“The star opened the abyss, and smoke poured out of it, like the smoke from a large furnace; the sunlight and the air were darkened by the smoke from the abyss. Locusts came down out of the smoke upon the earth, and they were given the same kind of power that scorpions have” (Rev 9:2-3).
The description and the activity of these locusts is remarkably similar to Joel:
“The locusts looked like horses ready for battle; on their heads they had what seemed to be crowns of gold, and their faces were like human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, their teeth were like lions’ teeth. Their chests were covered with what looked like iron breastplates, and the sound made by their wings was like the noise of many horse-drawn chariots rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like those of a scorpion, and it is with their tails that they have the power to hurt people for five months” (Revelation 9:7-10).
And now we come to the end of the murder mystery, so to speak. Who did it? Who is the leader of the locust army? Who is the real destroyer? Revelation leaves us with no doubt:
“They have a king ruling over them, who is the angel in charge of the abyss. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon; in Greek the name is Apollyon (meaning “The Destroyer”)” (Revelation 9:11).
The locust army in Joel is “too many to count” (Joel 1:6). The 6th trumpet puts a number on this army and also details the ensuing destruction:
“I was told the number of the mounted troops: it was two hundred million. And in my vision I saw the horses and their riders: they had breastplates red as fire, blue as sapphire, and yellow as sulfur. The horses’ heads were like lions’ heads, and from their mouths came out fire, smoke, and sulfur. A third of the human race was killed by those three plagues: the fire, the smoke, and the sulfur coming out of the horses’ mouths.” (Revelation 9:16-18)
What does the locust army represent?
Now that we have proposed a demonic reality to the locust army, what does this all mean? Does this represent a literal army of demon’s, led by Satan, that will scorch the earth and crush everything in their path?
It is interesting to consider that the power of the “locusts that looked like horses” (Revelation 9:7) is “in their mouths and also in their tails. Their tails are like snakes with heads, and they use them to hurt people” (Revelation 9:19).
What kind of power resides in “mouths” and “snake head tails?” In Isaiah, God “…will cut them off, head and tail. The old and honorable men are the head – and the tail is the prophets whose teachings are lies” (9:15). Is it possible that the locust army destroys by lies and deception?
There have been countless wars throughout human history, but the war of real importance goes on in the minds of all God’s children. Before the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, they were first deceived by priests and prophets who led people away from a true knowledge of God. “My complaint is against you priests. Night and day you blunder on, and the prophets do no better than you…My people are destroyed because they do not know me. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests” (Hosea 4:4-6). Was there also a military conquest of Israel? Yes, but they were first deceived away from a true knowledge of God.
Deception about God’s character is the recurring theme in human history from the tree in Eden to our current day. Before Judah was taken captive by the Babylonians, they were first deceived, “The priests did not ask, ‘where is the LORD?’ My own priests did not know me” (Jeremiah 2:8). Was there a military conquest of Jerusalem? Yes, but the battle was first lost in hearts and minds.
The Pharisees also, despite their rigorous attempts to obey and despite all of their Bible reading and tithe paying, were deceived about God. They looked at God in human form and said, “He has a devil.” Was there also a military conquest? Yes, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, but only after Jesus gave the terminal diagnosis that referred to the state of their decieved minds and their false object of worship, “You are of your father, the Devil” (John 8:44)
Looking forward to our time, the book of Revelation warns us that Satan’s methods are imitation and deception. The central image of God in Revelation is “the violently slaughtered Lamb” (Revelation 5:6). That is what our God is like. Though all powerful, his character is self-sacrificial love personified. Satan is a Dragon, not a lamb, but he tries to put on lamb-like clothes to deceive. The same phrase in the Greek used for God as the “violently slaughtered lamb” is used of the Adversary, “I saw one of his heads as if it had been slaughtered, and his fatal wound was healed. And the who earth was amazed and followed after the beast. Everyone worshipped the dragon…” (Revelation 13:3, 4).
This is describing the dragon as he attempts to imitate the slaughtered Lamb. In other words, the people who worship the dragon in Revelation are not into Halloween and Ouija boards. They are a religious people who believe they are worshiping the Lamb.
The next beast on the scene in Revelation 13, “…had two horns like those of a lamb, but he spoke with the voice of a dragon” (Revelation 13:11). Once again, imitative of a lamb, but still a dragon on the inside.
It would be terrible to be have your crops consumed by a swarm of locusts or to have your house and family destroyed by an army of military conquest. Those things have happened and will continue to happen throughout human history. I don’t think this is what the Bible is warning us about, however. The battleground is the human mind, and if we want to close all the doors and windows to the locust army that come to deceive, we must permeate our minds with the selfless loving character of God as revealed by Jesus. Are we worshiping the “violently slaughtered Lamb” or the cleverly disguised imitation?