6.55 Joel -- The Spirit on All Flesh
Given the book's prior concern with locusts in chapters 1 and 2, and the judgment of the nations in chapter 3, it is surprising that some of the most radical end-times teaching in the entire Old Testament occurs in this book. One is not prepared for this. Chapter 2 ends with these verses:
"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful
day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be
deliverance, as the Lord has said,
among the survivors whom the Lord calls" (Joel 2:28-32).
The pride of Israel was the Holy One in their midst, dwelling unapproachable in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. God did not draw near to the common man -- because men were unclean. If one wanted to come to Him, it was possible to offer a sin offering to remove one's guilt, and then to worship Him from a distance. Occasionally, His Spirit would rest upon a chosen man or woman -- judge, prophet, king -- but these people were then separated from the throng.
There is therefore no precedent, no context, for Joel's oracle that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh! How could this be? Had not David sung?:
All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one (Ps 14:3).
How, then, could God pour out His Spirit on this rabble of humanity? Obviously, He could not, without doing a preparatory work first -- a cleansing and purifying of the remnant, which Joel does not mention.
The only Old Testament precedent to Joel's prophecy is Moses' heartfelt prayer of 700 years before:
"I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!" (Num 11:29).
Thus both Moses and Joel anticipated a day of outpouring, of unleashing the Presence of God among the people, not just the few leaders. Joel makes this more explicit in the following verses: all are included -- men, women, young, old, slaves. Some translations gloss the latter term as "My servants," which could be interpreted as God's ministers, an exalted class. But the literal translation is "the slaves" and "female slaves," or servants. In other words, His Spirit would reach even to the lowest members of the community. All these people would share in the effects of the Spirit's presence -- prophecy, dreams and visions. These are not the purpose of the Spirit's coming, but only a byproduct. The point is Presence, communion, indwelling -- on a scale never before experienced in the history of Israel.
But did this end-time outpouring include Gentiles?
The key phrase is "all people." Other translations read "all flesh," "all mankind" (Heb: Basar). Christian commentators have been quick to see in this the promise of a global participation in the life of the Spirit. However, there is no explicit mention of foreigners in this passage, and the rest of the book is entirely negative towards all other nations, with no hint of their redemption. Rather, they are brought to the Valley of Jehoshaphat for judgment. Furthermore, the immediate context refers to "your sons and daughters." "your old men" and "young men" -- meaning those of his hearers, all of whom were Jews:
"...the whole context of ch. 3 makes it clear that Joel is referring to the community of Judah" (Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, New Intl Commentary on the Old Testament, by Allen, p. 98).
It is the same problem with verse 32:
"Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32)."
Is it "everyone" or every Jew? A clue is given in the second part of the verse: "the survivors whom the Lord calls." These are those who are the righteous remnant of Judah.
This is not to deny that some Gentiles might weasel in here, but they are not explicitly invited. Indeed, if the Jews needed some new work of God to prepare them to receive His Spirit, the Gentiles needed a complete revelation of who God is as well as purification from sin, for they had no background to draw on.
For the New Testament understanding of this passage, see the In Depth section.