I wanted to share an important excerpt from Robert Stein’s helpful book on biblical interpretation. This helps in understanding the prophetic genre, and makes good sense of Peter’s quote of Joel 2 in Acts 2.
An additional proof for his claim comes in the recognition that the prophets often maek use of language from the covenant curses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They are using a specific language intentionally – the language of covenant. They are not just describing a foreseen future in strictly literal terms.
Much of the terminology found in prophecy makes use of customary imagery used in this genre. For instance, in the judgment prophecy found in Isaiah 13:9-11 we read:
“See, the day of the LORD is coming — a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger — to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.”
Because of the cosmic imagery found in this prophecy, many interpreters assume that it is referring to the end of history. Yet it is clear from Isaiah 13:1… and 19… that the prophecy concerns the Babylonian empire of the sixth century B.C. The Babylonian kingdom that destroyed Jerusalem and the Solomonic temple, this empire that sent the cream of Judean society into exile, was about to experience divine judgment.
Yet this judgment is described in cosmic terminology. Such terminology, however, was part of the imagery and symbolism available to the prophets when they sought to describe God’s intervention in history and his sovereign rule over the kingdoms of this world (cf. Dan. 2:21; 4:17,25,34-35; 5:21). Such imagery was not meant to be interpreted literally. The sun was not actually going to be darkened; the moon would not stop giving its light; the stars would not stop showing their light. “What” the author willed to communicate by this imagery, that God was going to bring judgment upon Babylon, was to be understood “literally.” And that willed meaning, God’s judgment upon Babylon, did take place. This prophecy was fulfilled with the rise and rule of the Persian empire over the territories once ruled by Babylon, and the later readers of this prophecy knew that this prophecy had indeed been fulfilled. Babylon had been judged just as the prophecy proclaimed, and it was God’s doing just as the cosmic imagery described. The imagery, itself, however, was understood by the prophet and his audience as part of the stock terminology used in this kind of literature to describe God’s intervention into history.
In Acts 2:14-21 Peter and Luke interpreted the events of Pentecost in a similar way as they saw in it the fulfillment of the prophetic message of Joel:
“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my SPirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, 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 glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
These cosmic signs did not literally take place at Pentecost, even though what the author willed to convey by those signs did. God did enter into history and bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. God in fulfillment of his promises gave to the church the blessed gift of the new covenant….
There have been attempts to deny that the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 was fulfilled at Pentecost. Usually this is due to a misunderstanding of the figurative nature of this cosmic terminology. Some have suggested that Luke and Peter believed that Pentecost was “kind of like” what Joel prophesied but not its actual fulfillment. Such a manipulative interpretation of this passage of Acts, however, is impossible in light of Peter’s words in Acts 2:16: “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” Furthermore such interpretative gymnastics are unnecessary when we are willing to accept what the author meant by the use of such terminology. We need only note other passages to see how widespread the use of such cosmic terminology is in the Bible (Isa. 24:23; Jer. 4:28; 13:16; 15:9; Ezek. 32:7-8; Joel 2:10,31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Hab. 3:11; Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25; Rev. 6:12). (Attempts to see Mark 15:33; Matt. 27:45; Luke 23:44-45 as the fulfillment of this prophecy also err. They do not explain the signs of Acts 2:19 and most of 2:20. Second, and more important, they err because Peter and Luke associate the fulfillment of these signs with what is happening then and there on the day of pentecost.
— Excerpt from A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules by Robert H. Stein, (Baker Academic, 1994), p. 91-93