What is the meaning of the latter and former rains? How is it applied in our lives?
There are at least two different meanings given to the expression “latter and former rain” which is also translated as “early and late rain,” “first rain and the latter rain” or “autumn and spring rains.” One interpretaion assumes a literal meaning and the other a spiritual meaning of the expression. We will look at both interpretations.
The Literal Meaning of
The phrase the “former and latter” rains occurs multiple times in the Bible and the exact wording varies from version to version. Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; Hosea 6:3; Joel 2:23; Zechariah 10:1 and James 5:7 are the only credible examples of this phrase in the Bible.
Deuteronomy 11:13-15 is part of a promise that God gave to the nation of Israel that if they would love Him (Deuteronomy 11:1) and keep His commandments (Deuteronomy 11:8) then He would bless them. The blessing is described in the entire chapter and verses 13-15 is a promise of enough rain to grow their crops and feed their animals.
It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Deuteronomy 11:13-15 (NASB)
In Palestine the early rains came in the autumn (October-November) and the latter rain came in the spring (March-April).
In Jeremiah 5:24 God declares that He gives us rain.
. . . Let us now fear the LORD our God, that giveth rain, both the former and the latter, in his season . . . Jeremiah 5:24 (KJV)
The NIV changes the wording slightly from former and latter to autumn and spring to reflect the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as former and latter.
Let us fear the LORD our God,
who gives autumn and spring rains in season,
who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest. Jeremiah 5:24 (NIV)
Once again it is clear that the passage is speaking of rain that is necessary for crops to grow.
Hosea 6:1-3 describes the second coming of the Lord Jesus at the beginning of the millennial kingdom. Zechariah 12:10-13 describes the second coming of Christ and Hosea 6:1-3 says that in two to three days the inhabitants of Jerusalem were healed, that is, they become Christians.
Let us acknowledge the LORD;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth. Hosea 6:3 (NIV)
His coming is like rain. He brings refreshment and joy.
If we compare Zechariah 10:1 in both the King James Version and the New American Standard Bibles, we discover that the phrase “former and latter rain” is talking about literal rain.
Ask ye of the LORD rain in the time of the latter rain; so the LORD shall make bright clouds, and give them showers of rain, to every one grass in the field. Zechariah 10:1 (KJV)
Ask rain from the LORD at the time of the spring rain – The LORD who makes the storm clouds; And He will give them showers of rain, vegetation in the field to each man. Zechariah 10:1 (NASB)
We also find a variation of the phrase in James 5:7. Other Bibles contain a similar reading.
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. James 5:7 (NASB)
These passages refer to God’s provision and grace in meeting our needs. He provides rain or water to help plants and animals grow. God takes care of those who follow Him and those who do not. He cares for the ungrateful (Luke 6:35) and those who are thankful.
Do not worry then, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Matthew 6:31-33 (NASB)
Does Joel 2:23 Have A Spiritual Meaning?
Joel 2:23 refers to the early and latter rain as well. This passage is important since some teach it has a spiritual meaning when it refers to the rain.
So rejoice, O sons of Zion, and be glad in the LORD your God; for He has given you the early rain for your vindication. And He has poured down for you the rain, the early and latter rain as before. Joel 2:23 (NASB)
According to some, the “early rain” in Joel 2:23 refers to the first Pentecost and the “latter rain” refers to a future Pentecost when the Holy Spirit will be poured out in an unusual way. As a result, revival will occur and many will believe in God. But the passage does not say that. Some have said that this interpretation will be known only to those who “exhibit the gifts of the spirit.” Unfortunately, that could be said about any passage in scripture.
We must remember that God did not give us a mystery Bible with secret meanings. The apostles Paul and Peter told us that we can know the truth by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11-14) and by hard study (2 Timothy 2:15). In 2 Peter 3:15-16 the apostle Peter said that Paul wrote some things that were difficult to understand, but Peter understood them. According to the apostles Peter and John, the meaning of the Bible is not left to a few individuals who have secret insight into scripture (2 Peter 1:20).
The book of Joel deals with the future. Chapters 1 and 2 talk about the future Day of the Lord (Joel 1:15; 2:1). Joel 2:1-11 prophesies that at sometime in the future the land of Israel will be under siege by an invading army (Joel 2:4-5, 20). Joel 2:12-17 describes the future of repentance of Israel (Zechariah 12:10-14). Joel 2:18-27 describes God’s future response to their repentance. The pastures will become green; the trees will grow and bear fruit (v. 22). The grains will flourish, and they will have plenty to eat (v. 22-26). Verse 23 is a promise that God will restore the early and later rains. Already Israel reports that the rains have increased since Israel has returned to the land. Joel 2:23 is describing literal rain, H2O. This is a prophetic promise of God’s blessing in the millennial kingdom. It is not a reference to Pentecost or to a future Pentecost. Walvoord and Zuck state,
The promises of 2:19-27 will find their ultimate and absolute fulfillment as the Lord intervenes on Israel’s behalf (2:28-32), decisively judges the nation’s enemies (3:1-16a, 19), and securely establishes His people in the their land (3:1, 16b-18, 20-21).
When we come to Joel 2:28-32 we discover that God has promised the Holy Spirit will be poured our on all mankind in the future.
28 It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
30 I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth,
Blood, fire and columns of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood
Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.
32 And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD
Will be delivered;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be those who escape,
As the LORD has said,
Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls. Joel 2:28-32 (NASB)
Fulfillment of the Prophecy. The phrase “come about after this” looks to the time after Christ’s second coming or the time of the millennial kingdom. This becomes obvious when we read verse 30-31 and realize that the second coming of Christ is described in similar words. When Jesus describes His second coming in Matthew 24:29-30 He refers to the sun, sky, darkness and the moon.
Meaning of Pour Out My Spirit. The Hebrew word that is described as “pour out” is sapak. The word literally means to pour as one pours water from a pitcher. The Hebrew word that is translated as “poured down” in some Bible translations is yarad and it actually means “to do go down” or “to descend.” That is the rain would descend. That is what happens when the rains fall from the clouds. The two Hebrew words sapak and yarad are not closely related. But here the prophecy states the Holy Spirit will be “poured out” as water from a pitcher. This strongly reveals that the descent of the former and latter rains has no relationship with the pouring out of the Spirit on all mankind.
On All Mankind. The literal Hebrew means “all flesh.” That is, the Spirit will be poured on everyone. Those who claim that Joel 2:28 was fulfilled in Acts 2:17-21 must ask if this mean that everyone in the world became a Christian at the time of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost? The answer is logically no! The fulfillment of this prophecy will only occur during the millennial kingdom. At the beginning of the kingdom, everyone will be a Christian as a result of the Goat and Sheep judgment. Thus the Spirit will be on every person.
It is also important to notice that the prophecy in Acts 2:17-21 does not include the last part of Joel 2:32 which is clearly about the tribulation period.
. . .
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be those who escape,
As the LORD has said,
Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls. Joel 2:32 (NASB)
Joel 3:1-16 includes a description of the Battle of Armageddon (Joel 3:2, 12-16). Verse 17-21 describe the blessing on Israel during the millennium.
Your Sons and Daughters Will Prophesy. When Acts 2:14-16 tells us that during Peter’s preaching the Spirit was poured out, that was the not the complete fulfillment of Joel. It was when they were in the millennium or 1,000 year kingdom. Since the millennium did not occur, Acts 2:14-21 was referring to a partial fulfillment of Joel 2:28-3:21.
The coming of the Holy Spirit has been partially fulfilled (Acts 2:17-20), but the complete fulfillment will occur only after Jesus’ second coming and during the kingdom. The signs of the return of Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be a “fireworks” display in the sky. Jesus returns at the future battle of Armageddon in the Valley of Jehoshaphat as described in Joel 3.
Therefore, it is concluded that Joel 2:23 does not have a spiritual meaning, but literal rain.
The term former and latter rain refers to water falling from the sky. It never refers to two separate times of spiritual blessing. Joel 2:23 does not have a spiritual meaning. It refers to God’s blessing upon Israel promising that the crops will grow.
1. Walvoord and Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Chariot Victor Publshing. 1985. p. 1420.