In modern usage, the words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophet’ are usually concerned with foretelling events. A prophet is a person who predicts (for example, a weather prophet). This was not the chief usage of the words in Old Testament times. Prophecy basically meant making known the will of God. A prophet was a spokesperson for God.
This definition of a prophet was well illustrated in the case of Aaron, who was Moses’ prophet. He was Moses’ spokesman. Moses was leader of the nation, but Aaron was the one who announced Moses’ directions to Israel (Exod 4:10-16; 7:1-2). In the same way a prophet of God announced God’s will to the people (1 Kings 22:7-8; Jer 1:7,9; Ezek 3:4,27; Amos 3:7).
The true prophet could be appointed only by God (Jer 1:5,9; Ezek 2:3-7; Amos 7:15), and was therefore known as a man of God (1 Sam 2:27; 9:6; 1 Kings 13:1-2), a messenger of God (Hag 1:13), or a servant of God (2 Kings 17:23; Jer 7:25). Sometimes he was called a seer (meaning ‘one who sees’), because he may have seen God’s message in a vision (1 Sam 9:9,18-19; Zech 1:7-8).
The prophetical books
A clear indication of the Israelites’ view of prophecy is seen in the way they arranged the books of the Old Testament. They divided their Bible into three portions, which they called the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The Law consisted of the five books of Moses. The Prophets consisted of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets). The Writings consisted of the miscellaneous other books.
From the composition of the Former Prophets group we see that the books that we call historical the Israelites called prophetical. The reason for this is that these books were written from the prophetic viewpoint (most of Israel’s historians were prophets; cf. 1 Chron 29:29; 2 Chron 9:29; 12:15), showing how God was working out his purposes in the lives of his people. In summary it might be said that in the Former Prophets God revealed himself in the history of the nation Israel, while in the Latter Prophets he revealed himself through the words of his spokesmen.
Because the Israelites had this understanding of prophecy, they excluded Chronicles from the Former Prophets and Daniel from the Latter Prophets. Chronicles was written from the priestly viewpoint rather than the prophetic. Daniel was written in the apocalyptic style rather than the prophetic. (In the type of literature known as apocalyptic, the revelations were based on dreams and visions, where weird animals, mysterious numbers and unnatural events were used symbolically to warn or encourage God’s people.)
The prophets whose writings have been collected in the Bible (commonly referred to as the writing prophets) date from the eighth century BC, but prophets had been active in Israel long before the time of these men. As preachers and spiritual guides, they brought God’s message to his people (Judg 4:4; 1 Sam 3:20; 2 Sam 7:2).
In the time of Samuel there were many enthusiastic young prophets, but they were often guilty of uncontrolled behaviour that gave prophets a poor reputation (1 Sam 10:5,9-12; 19:20-24; cf. 2 Kings 9:11; cf. Amos 7:14). In an effort to redirect this religious enthusiasm for Israel’s spiritual benefit, Samuel established a school of prophets at Ramah. This was followed by additional schools in other towns (1 Sam 19:18-20; 2 Kings 2:3,5; 4:38).
When Israel’s religion was under threat because of the Baal worship introduced by Jezebel, the prophets Elijah and Elisha found many genuine followers of God in these schools. These young men (the ‘sons of the prophets’) maintained the worship of God in a nation that had largely sold itself to Baal
(2 Kings 2:1-7,15; 4:38; 6:1).
By the time of the writing prophets about two hundred years later, many of those who passed through the schools of the prophets were more concerned with being religious professionals than with spiritually feeding God’s people. Few of the writing prophets appear to have been professionals. Their emphasis was
that the true prophet had been called by God, not that he had received professional training (Jer 1:4-8; Amos 7:14-15).
True and false prophets
Religion was an important part of Israelite life, and people often consulted prophets about their affairs. Consequently, prophets often lived and functioned near Israel’s public places of worship (1 Sam 9:11-12; 10:5; 1 Kings 13:1-2; 18:30; Jer 35:4; Amos 7:12-13). Some of them were advisers to kings and officials, for through them God could give directions when leaders had to make important decisions (2 Sam 7:1-3; 24:11-12; 1 Kings 22:6-8; 2 Kings 19:1-7; Jer 38:14-17).
Because the prophets received their income from the people to whom they ministered, many of them gave in to the temptation to prophesy the sorts of things that they knew their hearers wanted to hear. This guaranteed good rewards and stability in their jobs, but it brought condemnation from genuine believers. Because of this dishonesty and greed, they were known as false prophets (1 Kings 22:13-18; Jer 6:13-14; 23:16-17; Micah 2:11; 3:5-7,11; Zeph 3:4).
Although they were called prophets, these men were not God’s spokesmen. They were appointed by themselves, not by God. They spoke according to their own selfish desires, not according to the mind of God (Jer 14:14; 23:21-22; Ezek 13:1-3,17). Instead of rebuking the people for their sin, they maintained their popularity by assuring the people that God was pleased with them. Actually, the nation was heading for judgment, and the corruption of the prophets was one reason for that judgment (Jer 23:11-17; Ezek 13:8-16,22).
The test of a prophet, whether he was true or false, was not whether his predictions came true (for even the predictions of a false prophet might come true). The test was whether he led people in the ways of God (Deut 13:1-5; Jer 23:21-22,29-32; Hosea 9:7-8). Clearly, if a prophet made a bold assertion that his prediction would come true and it did not, he was a false prophet (Deut 18:22).
True prophets were concerned chiefly not with foretelling events, but with leading the people to repentance and faith (Micah 3:8; 7:18; Zeph 2:1-3). They often opposed formal religious practices, not because the practices themselves were wrong, but because the people carried them out in the wrong spirit. Religious exercises were of value only if the people were godly in their attitudes and behaviour. They were no substitute for morality. People had to be humble before God and righteous in their dealings with their fellows if God was to accept their outward expressions of worship (Isa 1:12-17; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).
Current events and future hopes
Since the prophet’s main purpose was to bring God’s message to the people of his time, prediction was not an essential part of the message. However, it often played a part, because the God who is concerned about the present is the God who controls the future.
Therefore, as the prophets urged people to turn from their sins and obey God, they often spoke of events that would follow the people’s obedience or disobedience. The prediction was not just to satisfy curiosity about the future, but had an important moral purpose. It taught people how they should act now (Isa 1:18-20; Hosea 11:1-11; 14:1-7).
In relation to this it should be noted that predictions were usually conditional, even when the prophet did not mention the conditions in his prophecy. For example, a prediction of good may not have been fulfilled if the people were disobedient. A prediction of disaster may not have been fulfilled if the people repented (Jer 18:7-10; 26:17-19; Jonah 3:4,10).
Like all the godly in Israel, the prophets looked forward to that great day when God would punish evil, destroy all enemies, cleanse the earth and establish his righteousness in the world (Isa 24:17-23; 32:1-4). The one who would rule in this golden age was known as the Messiah, meaning ‘the anointed one’ (cf. Ps 2:1-7). (In Old Testament times kings, priests, and sometimes prophets were appointed to their positions by the ceremony of anointing. Holy oil was poured over the head of the person as a sign that he now had the right, and the responsibility, to perform the duties required by his position; cf. Exod 28:41; 1 Sam 10:1; 1 Kings 1:39; 19:16.)
The preachers of the Old Testament pictured the Messiah as a king, a conqueror and a saviour. They lived in the expectation that a king of the dynasty of David would reign in a worldwide kingdom of peace
and righteousness (Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-5; 32:1; Jer 23:5; Zech 6:12-13). But they spoke also of a prophetic figure whom they pictured as a servant, a sufferer and a victim (Deut 18:15,18; Isa 52:13-14; 53:4-7; Zech 12:10). What they did not see was that both pictures applied to the same person. The Messiah who finally came was both a king and a servant, both a conqueror and a sufferer, both a saviour and a victim (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12).
Another point that the prophets did not see was that this person would fulfil God’s purposes for humankind not all at once, but through two separate entrances into the world. The New Testament makes it clear that the promised Messiah was Jesus Christ (Matt 11:2-6; 22:41-45; Luke 1:32-33; 24:19,25-26; Rev 5:5). The Messiah’s first coming began with Jesus’ birth and ended with his death, resurrection and ascension. At his second coming he will judge the world and lead his people into the era of the new heavens and the new earth (Heb 1:5-9; 9:27-28; Rev 19:11-16; 21:1-4).
Problems concerning time
This apparent inconsistency in relation to time is typical of all prophetic prediction. Within the one prediction there may be some parts fulfilled within the prophet’s lifetime, other parts fulfilled within a hundred years or so, and other parts still not yet fulfilled (e.g. Joel 2:24-32; Hag 2:20-23).
The reason for this is that the prophet sees things from God’s point of view, and God does not live in the sort of time system that operates in the world of our experience (Jer 23:22; Ezek 8:1-3; 11:24). The prophet sees and knows in a way that is different from that of the ordinary person. It is as if he steps out of the world of time into the world of eternity, where time as we know it does not exist (2 Peter 3:8; Rev 1:8).
Consequently, the prophet may speak of events in language of the future, the present, or the past tense (e.g. Isa 9:6-7; 53:1-9; Jer 51:52-57). In the course of history as ordinary people see it, events may be separated from one another by hundreds or even thousands of years, but in the message of the prophet they may not be separated at all. They may be mentioned together as if they happened almost at the same time (e.g. Isa 53:1-12; 61:1-9; Ezek 34:20-24; Mal 2:17-3:4).
The language of prophecy
Early prophets such as Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha have left little or no record of their prophecies. But the biblical accounts of their ministries show that they sometimes passed on their messages by means of stories and actions (2 Sam 12:1-7; 1 Kings 11:29-31). In later times prophets frequently wrote down their messages as well as, or instead of, speaking them (Isa 30:8; Jer 29:1,25; 30:2; 36:1-4). Some also acted them (Isa 20:1-6; Jer 19:1-3; Ezek 5:1-12).
Of the prophecies that have been written down, most are in the form of poetry. The reason for this is probably that poetry is better able to express a person’s deeper thoughts and feelings. It is also easier to memorize than prose, and this would help people in remembering and passing on the message (Isa 55:6-9; Joel 1:2-4; Amos 3:1-8).
Hebrew poetry has no rhyme or metre as in English poetry. Its style and rhythm come largely from its arrangement of words and sentences. The most common form is that in which the first line of a verse contains the main thought, and the following line (or lines) then adds weight to this thought either by repeating it in a slightly different form (Isa 30:3; 32:3), by stating its opposite (Nahum 1:6-7; Hab 2:4), or by adding some further explanation or contrast (Isa 55:2-3; Jer 9:4-6; Hosea 8:7).
When reading the poetry of the prophets, we should be concerned not so much with the meaning of each separate phrase or line, as with the meaning of the verse (or verses) as a unit. We should also remember that poets create vivid word pictures and use exaggerated language to express their thoughts. They do not expect us always to interpret their words literally (Isa 40:12; Amos 9:13; Micah 4:4).