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Please explain the phrases “early rain” and “latter rain,” and their relation to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Answering your question requires an understanding of the climate of the land of Israel and the significance of rain in the Bible. Rain played a major role in Israelite agrarian society. Cisterns found by archaeologists in Israel indicate the value of water and the need to preserve it for the dry season, which spanned close to half of the year.
1. Rainy Season: In Israel most of the rain usually fell from December to February. The first rain of the rainy season—the “early rain”—usually came mid-October through early November. This rain softened the ground and facilitated the germination of seeds and the growth of crops. The latter rain came, before the harvest, from early March to April. This rain contributed to maturation of the crop. Therefore, rain was enormously important to Israelite life and was considered a gift from God (Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24; Matt. 5:45). The lack of rain was often seen as an expression of divine disfavor, a result of the sins and rebelliousness of the people (e.g., Jer. 3:3).
2. Ideas Associated With Rain: Rain was associated with the power of God over nature (1 Kings 17:1; Isa. 5:6), and with His blessings (Ps. 84:6; 147:8) and favors toward humanity (Hosea 6:3). Its connection with subsistence made it a concrete expression of God’s concern for the life of the people and for the fertility of the land (Deut. 11:10, 11; Lev. 26:4). That same connection between life and rain allowed for its use as a symbol of wisdom (Prov. 18:4) and godly teachings (Deut. 3:2). Since rain benefited all, it is metaphorically associated with the just king who is a blessing to all, and nurtures life instead of threatening it (2 Sam. 23:4). A negative side to rain, specifically torrential rain, is that it damages fields and houses, and it became a symbol of chaos and destruction (e.g., Gen. 7:11; Isa. 4:6).
3. Outpouring of the Spirit and Rain: In the Bible rain became a symbol for the divine outpouring of the Holy Spirit; both rain and the Holy Spirit were sent by God as a demonstration of His concern for life.
We find, first, an eschatological usage of the image of rain. God described the future restoration of His people using the language of rain to illustrate the work of the Spirit: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (Isa. 44:3, NIV; cf. Eze. 39:29; Isa. 32:15; 44:3). In Joel, after announcing the coming of the early and latter rains, God added, “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” (Joel 2:28, 29, NIV).
Second, the image of the early and latter rains could be applied to at least two different powerful works of the Spirit within the church: one related to the experience of Pentecost, and the other to events shortly before the return of Christ. The eschatological work of the Spirit announced by Joel was partially fulfilled during the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:18). This could be called, the “early rain.” But that same prophecy referred to “the great and glorious day of the Lord” suggesting that a fuller manifestation of the Spirit was to be expected (cf. Acts 2:19, 20).
This future work of the Spirit would accompany and empower the proclamation of the last message of judgment and salvation to the human race. It is to this event that Revelation 18:1 points. An angel, representing God (Eze. 43:2), descended from heaven with great authority, illuminating the earth with his glory, and adding power to the worldwide proclamation of the message of the three angels of Revelation 14:6-12. Such a manifestation of the Spirit could be called the “latter rain.” Before the return of Christ, evil powers will perform great wonders and miracles (Rev. 13:13, 14; 1 Tim. 4:1), but God will also express His superior power through the work of the Spirit among His people.
So the phrases “early rain” and “latter rain” are agricultural images figuratively applied to the work of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the Christian church and shortly before God’s end-time harvest (Rev. 14:14-20).