The Day of the Lord is a major theme in the Old and New Testaments, and it appears in contexts of judgment. The phrase itself pops up mainly in the prophets of the Old Testament (Is 13:6, 9; 58:13; Jer 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7–8, 14; Mal 4:5) but also with some frequency in the New Testament (Acts 2:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Th 5:2; 2 Th 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10).
The Day of the Lord is not something to look forward to. In fact, Amos warns those in his day of hoping in it because they thought God’s judgment would only affect other people, not them!
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18–20).
So why in the world does the Bible talk about the day of the Lord (DOL) and why should we care about it? I can give you at least three reasons.
First, the DOL points to a reality that everyone will face: meeting God
The DOL is meeting God in judgement. The Biblical book that clearly defines the DOL is the prophet Joel. Actually, The book of Joel’s major theme and purpose is to define the DOL and provide hope for rescue in it.
In Joel the DOL refers to God’s judgment. More specifically, it means meeting God in judgment: “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:2).
DOL also happens both to Israel (Joel 1:15ff) and to the nations (Joel 3:2) in Joel. God’s judgment does not discriminate.
Additionally, in Joel the DOL is a past, present, and future reality. The DOL is anytime when God enters into judgment with someone.
Joel identifies the first DOL with the Exodus. The prophet describes Israel’s present crisis with language reminiscent of Exodus 10: “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4). The effect of the allusion to Exodus 10 is to understand the Exodus event as a prototypical day of the LORD.
That particular time of God’s judgment would be remembered by Israel through their ceremonies: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast” (Exod 12:14).
Joel then describes Israel’s present locust plague in language reminiscent of the Exodus, and he further identifies what was happening in his time as a DOL: “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?” (Joel 1:15-16). “Before our eyes” the destruction from the Almighty had come. It was the presence of the DOL in Joel’s time.
The point of portraying Joel’s present distress as a DOL is to show that believers can survive the DOL if they turn to God: “let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD” (Joel 2:17). As a result of this priestly intercession, “the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:18).
In any future DOL, believers can also thus survive meeting God if they turn to him. And that is just what Joel describes as happening: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:32).
The DOL is thus a past, present, and future reality. It simply refers to whenever God enters into judgment with a person or persons. The reality is that everyone will have to meet God in judgment at one point. The hope is that we can survive that eventful meeting with God if we turn to him. In fact, that meeting could result in our joy rather than our sadness.
Second, the DOL points to a reality that everyone should celebrate: the cross
Although the DOL refers to God meeting someone in judgment, this does not mean that the DOL cannot point to some ultimate end. That particular end, if one reads Joel and compares it with later revelation, has to be the dark night of Christ’s cross.
In a metaphorical mode, Joel describes the DOL as darkness: “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” As Matthew records, the sky went dark at Jesus’ crucifixion just before God met him in judgment: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Matt 27:45-46).
Jesus met God in judgment in our place, receiving the just judgment we deserved, so that we could receive the promised Spirit. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he granted his Spirit to the church. Joel prophecies that God’s Spirit will be poured out and people will prophesy (Acts 2:28–29), which is precisely what happens at Pentecost in Acts 2. In fact, Peter quotes Joel 2 to explain what was happening before the eyes of all.
The DOL happened at the cross, and Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection granted the Holy Spirit to the church. The result is that we not only pass through the DOL, but we can rejoice in it: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).
Third, the DOL points to a reality that every Christian can meet with confidence: final judgment
Another day will come when everyone will meet the Lord in judgment. Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2).
These same believers needed to know that the day of the Lord would not come until that last great moment of redemptive history (cf. 2 Thess 2:2). At that time, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet 3:10).
When Jesus returns, he will judge the quick and the dead. The cross ensures our safety in that day because Christ met God in judgment in our place, and only Christ will bring the DOL. One day all the nations will come before the Lord with scepter in his hand (cf. Rev 20:11-15).
At that final day, we will all appear before the throne of God to meet him in judgment at that DOL. And on that day, we will appeal to the blood of Christ whose day of judgment covers our sin. God will let us pass by the judgment into heaven.
The Day of the Lord is anytime someone meets God in judgment. The prophets pointed towards a unique and special DOL, which was the day that God the father unleashed wrath on the Son, the day that God entered into judgment with the Son who died in our place. As a consequence, no Christian need ever worry about another DOL, for the blood of Christ cries out “innocent!” before God our judge.