In present-day language the words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophet’ are usually used in relation to foretelling events; a prophet is one who predicts (for example, a weather prophet). This was not the basic idea associated with the work of a prophet in Old Testament times. In those times prophecy meant making known the will of God; a prophet was God’s spokesman. This definition of a prophet was well illustrated in the case of Aaron, who was Moses’ prophet, or spokesman (Exod 4:10-16; 7:1-2). Moses was the leader of Israel, but Aaron was the person who announced Moses’ instructions to the people. In the same way the prophet announced God’s will to the people of his time (1 Kings 22:8; 2 Kings 22:14-20; Jer 1:7,9; Ezek 3:4,27; Amos 3:7). A true prophet could be appointed only by God (Jer 1:5; Ezek 2:3-7; Amos 7:15). He 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; 21:10; 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).

Prophetical books

The arrangement of books within the Hebrew Bible gives a further indication of the Israelites’ understanding of prophecy. They divided their Bible (our Old Testament) into three sections, 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. It becomes clear, as we look at the composition of the Former Prophets group, that the books that we call historical the Israelites called prophetical. This is because these books were written from the prophetic point of view, showing how God was working out his purposes in the lives of his people. Most of Israel’s historians were in fact prophets (1 Chron 29:29; 2 Chron 9:29; 12:15). In summary we might say that in the Former Prophets God revealed himself in the history of Israel, and in the Latter Prophets he revealed himself through the words of his spokesmen. Because they understood prophecy in this way, the Israelites excluded Chronicles from the Former Prophets and Daniel from the Latter Prophets. Chronicles was written from the priestly point of view rather than the prophetic. Daniel was written in the apocalyptic style rather than the prophetic. (See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE.)

Professional and writing prophets

The prophets whose writings have become part of the Old Testament are commonly referred to as the writing prophets. Their writings date from the eighth century BC, but prophets had been active in Israel long before the eighth century. Even before the establishment of Israel’s monarchy, prophets had been preachers and spiritual guides in Israel (Judg 4:4; 1 Sam 3:20; 2 Sam 7:2). In the days of Samuel there were many young prophets in Israel. These young men had plenty of enthusiasm, but their emotional and sometimes uncontrolled behaviour helped to give prophets a poor reputation (1 Sam 10:5,9-12; 19:20-24; 2 Kings 9:11; cf. Amos 7:14).

In an effort to redirect this religious enthusiasm for the spiritual benefit of the nation, Samuel established a school of prophets at Ramah. This was followed by the establishment of additional schools in other centres (1 Sam 19:18-20; 2 Kings 2:3,5; 4:38). The setting up of these schools did not bring an immediate solution to the problem of emotionalism. Nevertheless, when Israel’s religion was under threat from the Baal worship introduced by Jezebel, the prophets Elijah and Elisha found many faithful followers of God in these schools. These young men (the ‘sons of the prophets’) helped maintain the worship of the true God in a nation that had become unfaithful (2 Kings 2:1-7,15; 4:38; 6:1). A person did not have to be a member of one of these schools to be a prophet. By the time of the writing prophets two hundred years later, many from these schools were more concerned with being religious professionals than with spiritually feeding God’s people. Very 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 specialist 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, many of the prophets operated 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, so that leaders could ask God’s directions when they faced important decisions (2 Sam 7:1-3; 24:11-12; 1 Kings 22:6-8; 2 Kings 19:1-7; Jer 38:14-17). Prophets received their income from those to whom they ministered, and this tempted them to say the sorts of things they knew their hearers wanted to hear. This assured them of good payment, but it brought condemnation from genuine believers. Because of their dishonesty and greed they were known as false prophets (1 Kings 22:5-8,13-18; Jer 6:13-14; 23:16-17; Micah 2:11; 3:5-7,11). True prophets denounced the false prophets as being appointed by themselves, not by God. They were not God’s messengers, but spoke according to their own selfish desires (Jer 14:14; 23:21-22; Ezek 13:1-3,17).

Instead of rebuking the people for their sin and so running the risk of becoming unpopular, the false prophets assured the people that God was pleased with them. The truth was that the people were heading for judgment, and the corruption of the prophets was only adding to 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 false prophets could come true. The test was rather whether he led people in the ways of God (Deut 13:1-5; Jer 23:21-22,29-32). Nevertheless, if a prophet made a bold assertion that his prediction would come true and it did not, he was clearly a false prophet (Deut 18:22). If prophets were truly God’s messengers, their chief concern was not with foretelling events, but with leading people to repentance and obedience (Micah 3:8; 7:18; Zeph 2:1-3). They often opposed false religious practices, not because the practices themselves were wrong, but because the people carried them out in the wrong attitude. Religious exercises were no substitute for morality. They were of value only when the people were doing God’s will in their daily lives. God would accept his people’s worship only if they conducted themselves with righteousness before him and justice to others (Isa 1:12-17; Amos 5:21- 24; Micah 6:6-8).

Current events and future hopes

Since the prophet’s chief 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 also controls the future. As the prophet urged the people to turn from their sins and obey God, he may therefore have spoken of events that would follow the people’s obedience or disobedience. His predictions were not merely to satisfy curiosity about the future, but had an important moral purpose. They showed people what God required of them now (Isa 1:18-20; Hosea 11:1-11; 14:1- 7). Predictions of this sort were usually conditional, even though the prophet may not have mentioned the conditions in his prophecy. For example, a prediction of blessing may not have been fulfilled, because the people were disobedient.

A prediction of punishment may not have been fulfilled, because the people repented (Jer 18:7-10; 26:17-19; Jonah 3:4,10). The prophets, like all the godly in Israel, looked forward to the day when God would punish all enemies, cleanse the earth of sin and establish his righteous rule in the world (Isa 24:17-23; 32:1-4). The one who would rule in this golden age they called the Messiah (cf. Ps 2:1-7; see MESSIAH). But while the prophets pictured the Messiah as a king, a conqueror and a saviour, they also spoke of a prophetic figure whom they pictured as a servant, a sufferer and a victim. What they did not see was that both pictures applied to the same person. The Messiah was a king and a servant, a conqueror and a sufferer, a saviour and a victim (Deut. 18:15; Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-5; 52:13-14; 53:4-7; Zech 6:12-13; 12:10). Another point that the prophets did not see was that this person would fulfil God’s purposes not all at once, but through two separate entrances into the world. The New Testament makes it clear that this promised person was Jesus Christ (Matt 11:2-6; 22:41-45; Luke 1:32-33; 24:19,25-26; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 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 disregard for time is a common feature of Old Testament prophecy. A prediction may contain some parts fulfilled within the prophet’s lifetime, other parts fulfilled within a generation or two, and other parts still unfulfilled (e.g. Joel 2:24-32; Hag 2:20-23). It seems that 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. The prophet sees and knows in a way that is different from that of ordinary people. It is as if he steps out of the present world into the world of eternity, where time as we know it does not exist (2 Peter 3:8; Rev 1:8; see ETERNITY; TIME). The prophet may therefore speak of events in language of future, present or even past tense (Isa 9:6- 7; 53:1-9; Jer 51:52-57). Events may be separated by thousands of years as the ordinary person sees them, but they may not be separated at all in the message spoken by the prophet. He may group events together almost as if they happened about the same time (Isa 53:1-12; 61:1-9; Ezek 34:20-24; cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12).

The language of prophecy

Early prophets such as Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Ahijah, Elijah and Elisha have left little or no record of their prophecies. It is clear, however, that they sometimes passed on their messages by means of stories and symbolic actions (2 Sam 12:1-7; 1 Kings 11:29-31). Over the following centuries, prophets increasingly wrote down their messages as well as, or sometimes instead of, speaking them (Isa 30:8; Jer 29:1,25; 36:1-4). Some also acted them (Isa 20:1-6; Jer 19:1-3; Ezek 5:1-12). Most of the prophecies that have been written down are in the form of poetry. One reason for this is that poetry is often more effective than prose in expressing a person’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Poetry is also easier to memorize, and this helped people to remember and pass on the message. (For further details see POETRY.)

New Testament prophets

John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, continued the line of Old Testament prophets into the New Testament era (Matt 11:10,13; cf. Luke 2:36). He proclaimed God’s will to the people and called them to repentance. At the same time he announced the blessings that would follow if they obeyed his message, and the judgments that would follow if they rejected it (Matt 3:7-12; Luke 3:3-7,16-18). He was the last prophet before Jesus Christ, in whose life, death, resurrection and final triumph all the Old Testament prophecies of salvation and judgment found their complete fulfilment (Matt 26:56; Luke 24:25-27). In a sense Jesus too was a prophet.

He was the one through whom God spoke (Heb 1:1-2), the great prophet that the people of Israel had always looked for as part of their messianic hope (Deut 18:15; John 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:19-23; see MESSIAH). As a prophet he brought a message that people recognized as an authoritative word from God (Matt 7:28-29; 11:21; Luke 7:16; 24:19). Jesus, in turn, established the new community of God’s people, the Christian church, and in this community he appointed prophets to have a part. They were one of his gifts to the church (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). Jesus had promised that his Spirit would enable the leaders of the early church to recall, interpret and apply his teachings, and so build up the church (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; cf. Acts 2:24; 4:13; 6:4). Apostles and prophets were Christ’s special provision for the early church, to ensure that it was built on a proper foundation and in accordance with God’s plan (Eph 2:20; 3:4-6; see APOSTLE). As the authoritative Christian teaching became increasingly available in written form, the need for apostles and prophets diminished. It seems that they were no longer needed after the first century. Like Old Testament prophets,

New Testament prophets were concerned with more than simply foretelling future events. Certainly they revealed God’s will concerning people and events, and often they gave special instruction in particular situations (Acts 11:27-30; 13:1-2; 21:9-11; Rev 1:3; 10:7; see REVELATION). But above all the prophets built up God’s people through bringing them the message of God in the power of the Spirit (Acts 15:32; 1 Cor 14:3-5,31).

Even people who were not Christians could see the relevance of prophetic messages and, through repentance and faith, find salvation (1 Cor 14:24- 25). Prophets were closely linked with teachers and, like teachers, encouraged and strengthened their hearers through expounding the Scriptures (Acts 13:1; 14:22; 15:32; see TEACHER). It seems that they also received messages direct from God (1 Cor 14:6,26; Rev 1:1-3) and sometimes spoke with little or no preparation (1 Cor 14:29-31). This did not mean that the prophets had no control over the urges they might have felt (1 Cor 14:32). Nor were people to accept their words without question simply because they were known as prophets. The hearers had to test everything according to the apostolic teaching, to see whether or not the prophets were building people up in the truth of God (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21; 1 John 4:1; cf. 1 Cor 14:37- 38; Gal 1:8; 2 John 10). Some people who were not regular prophets in the church may have prophesied in exceptional circumstances (Acts 19:6; cf. 2:17). This increased the possibility that false prophets might appear. God therefore gave to certain people the special gift of being able to discern more readily the difference between the true and the false (Matt 7:15; 24:24; 1 Cor 12:10; Rev 2:20).

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