Here is a prayer from the Book of Common Worship to use before reading.
God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and taught your will, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
All we know about the prophet Joel is found in verse 1, chapter 1; he is the son of Pethuel. “Joel” means “YHWH is God” Scholars think that Joel may have been a priest or as a prophet he was very familiar with the Temple and the priesthood. We do not know with precision when Joel prophesied. Scholars think is was during the Persian berior (539-331 BCE)probably after 500 BCE. This is because Joel does not mention Assyria or Babylon but does mention the Greeks. He uses imagery that is found in other late prophetic texts and alludes to other Biblical texts that are from a late date.
The book of Joel is concerned with a crisis. 1:2-2:28 tell of the crisis and its resolution. 2:28-3:21 may be by another author and is an example of late prophetic literature or early apocalyptic literature. The disasters described in the first part of the book are reversed with promises in the second.
Joel thinks that God is the cause of the disasters but he offers no reason for God’s actions. It is not clear if the disaster is the result of the peoples’ actions. What is clear is that God is in control
I 1:1-2:17 The Locust Plague: This section contains a series of short, almost abrupt poems.
In 1:2-20 notice that different groups are called to do something.
1:1 Superscription: The book begins as many other prophetic books do with, “The word of the Lord that came to…”. 1:2-3 The elders and inhabitants are to pay attention. In verse 4 notice how Joel’s language of cutting, swarming, hopping, destroying and the poetic structure give the reader a feel for the plague. Verses 5-6 notice again the active verbs. In verses 6-7 it is initially difficult to tell if Joel is talking about an actual invading nation and describing them like locusts or if he is describing locusts as an invading nation. 1:8-14 Everyone is called to lament over the destruction of the land and to cry out to God with fasting and a solemn assembly. 1:15-20 A lament. Even the animals groan and cry out.
2:1-17 These poems focus more on the disaster than on the response. Verses 1-11 warn of the coming day of the Lord and destruction. Notice how intense the language and images are. The locusts are described with military images. Notice again the active verbs. Verses 12-17 are a call to repentance. The request to repentance is familiar from the other prophets, but this also has a Temple context within it.
II 2:18-27 The Lord Responds:
The text does not tell us what the people’s response was. God responds as if the people had repented. The “northern army” in verse 20 likely refers to the locusts and may also be a reference to the mythic foe from the north. The land, the animals, and the people can now rejoice (v 21-24). Verses 26 and 27 recall to the covenant.
III 2:28-3:21 A Future of well- being for Israel.
2:28-29 an outpouring of the Spirit will be part of the Day of the Lord. See Acts 2:16-21 where Peter references these verses from Joel.
2:30-32 Portents are cosmic events. Those who call upon God will be saved. 3:1-3 God will judge the nations. 3:4-21 The punishment of Tyre, Sidon and Philistia. In verse 10 Joel reverses the imagery of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3. Verses 9-11 have plural imperative verbs but the speaker and audience of the verses are vague. Verses 14-21 are a series of poetic fragments. What is the message of them?
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Joel.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
O’Connor, Kathleen M. “Joel” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Petersen, David L. “Joel” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Achtemeir, Elizabeth “Joel” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 7, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.