Question: "What is bloodguilt (Joel 3:21)?"
Answer: Joel 3:21 says, “Their bloodguilt, which I have not pardoned, I will pardon. The Lord dwells in Zion!” (NIV). Readers often wonder what the Bible means when it speaks of “bloodguilt.”
First, a translation note. Joel 3:21 is translated in a couple different ways, as the following examples show:
“I will avenge their blood, blood I have not avenged” (ESV).
“For I will cleanse their blood that I have not cleansed” (KJV).
“For I will acquit them of the guilt of bloodshed, whom I had not acquitted” (NKJV).
Is Israel being acquitted or avenged? Some translations say that God is forgiving someone of “bloodguilt”; other translations say that God is not forgiving someone and punishing him accordingly.
The Amplified Bible may shed some light on the issue: “And I will cleanse and hold as innocent their blood and avenge it, blood which I have not cleansed, held innocent, and avenged.” Both are true: Israel is being forgiven, and God is avenging them. The idea is this: Israel’s enemies had committed violence against the Jews as if Israel had been worthy of death; God promises that He will avenge the deaths of His people, thereby declaring Israel innocent (forgiven). When God dwells in Zion, He will provide complete and final justice.
“Bloodguilt” is the condition of being culpable for bloodshed or murder. The NKJV translates it “guilty of bloodshed.” Murder is a horrendous crime in the eyes of both man and God; to be bloodguilty, then, would be to deserve a severe punishment. Yet this is the very sin that God says He will forgive and avenge. His protection of His people is sure, and His grace is boundless.
Joel 3:21 refers to a future time when the Messiah will rule after judging the nations. From a New Testament perspective, this parallels Jesus Christ’s 1,000-year millennial kingdom following His Second Coming.
This promise of God’s avenging His people reflects the teachings of other Jewish prophets. Isaiah 35:4 says, “Your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you” (see also Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 79:10; and Isaiah 63:4).
God will avenge the enemies of His people and dwell with them forever. This fitting conclusion to Joel’s book emphasizes God’s justice and the promised blessing of dwelling with God for eternity.