Prophets seem strange to us, but they also seemed strange to their contemporaries. Who were they, and what did they do?
By Mark D. Harris
Some Christians believe that the Old Testament (OT) prophets were men who predicted a distant future revealed to them by God. Either the coming of Christ or the book of Revelation and the end times (or both) are seen as the main message of the Old Testament prophet. Some critical scholars in the past have seen OT prophecy as unique or even fictitious; their messages brand new without any connection to Israel’s past and with no relevance for the future. In reality, the primary mission of the prophets was to proclaim God’s truth to the people of their time and place, just like pastors and teachers today are called to do.
Were the prophets primarily ‘foretellers’ or ‘forthtellers’ or both?
From the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 18), God told Israel that He would appoint prophets to communicate His word to the people. The prophets in the Old Testament functioned both as foretellers, sharing the word of God about the future, and forthtellers, sharing His word about the present. Examples abound, with Isaiah’s word in chapter 53 describing the coming Servant, the Messiah, and his words in the Song of the Vineyard (chapter 5) pronouncing judgment on the people of Judah for their sins.
Prophets spoke not only about spiritual repentance but also about current courses of action. An unnamed prophet predicted Israel’s victory against the Syrians (1 Kings 13:1-25). Later, Micaiah predicted King Ahab’s defeat and death against the Arameans at Ramoth-Gilead.
Elisha kept King Jehoram posted on the movements of the army of the Arameans (Syrians). Elisha’s information saved the Israelite army from ambush and destruction several times, and Aramean King Ben Hadad suspected treachery. When he was informed that Elisha the Prophet was the source of Jehoram’s information, Ben Hadad sent an army to capture him. God blinded this army and gave them into the hand of Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23).
Isaiah told Hezekiah that God would save Judah from the Assyrians under Sennacherib who were besieging Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:20-34). Jeremiah warned Judah in chapter 37 not to trust in Pharaoh to deliver them, and in chapter 42, after the destruction of Jerusalem, not to flee to Egypt to escape the Babylonians. All told, about 2/3 of the utterances of the prophets were forthtelling, and 1/3 foretelling.
When God’s people comprised a physical nation, His prophets supported that nation, and thus many of their statements were highly political, and as noted above, even military. In the modern era, God’s people still make political and military statements when such statements are necessary and reflect His will. But we do not focus on the affairs of our nation alone.
What boundaries constrained and guided the prophets in their utterances?
The key role for the prophets was as a “watchman at the gate”. In antiquity, watchmen scanned the horizon around a city, watching for news and events, good or bad, which affected the people of the city. Ezekiel 33:1-20 clearly teaches this responsibility, and 2 Samuel 18:24-27 is a good example of the watchman’s service.
Deuteronomy 18 spells out the prophet’s boundaries. First, he must be raised up by God from among the Jewish people. There is no such thing as a self-proclaimed prophet. Second, God puts the words in the prophet’s mouth. The prophet cannot say whatever he wants, and cannot limit God’s word in any way. He must speak it all. Third, whenever the prophet spoke in the name of the Lord, his message had to be consistent with revealed truth (13:1-3), and if he made a prediction, it had to be 100% true. False prophets were to be executed.
In terms of method, however, prophets had few boundaries. Hosea married a prostitute, Ezekiel lay on his side for weeks at a time, and Isaiah prophesied naked and barefoot at times. Jeremiah smashed pots, and Ezekiel shaved his hair and beard; subsequently burning 1/3 with fire, cutting up 1/3 with the sword, and scattering 1/3 to the wind.
In what ways did prophetic revelation flow out of previous revelation and go beyond prior revealed truth?
Prophetic revelation always grew out of previous revelation and then went beyond. The first prophecy in the Bible was spoken by God in the Garden of Eden, when He said that the Seed of the Woman, Jesus Christ, would be bruised by the serpent, but this Seed would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Much of the rest of the OT is built on this prophecy as history progressed towards Christ.
The covenants are another example. Moses was the first prophet, and his Mosaic covenant with the people formed the basis for the Davidic covenant, which was communicated by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 7. These covenants, still beyond the ability of the Israelites to keep, led to the most magnificent covenant of all, the New Covenant, in which God will pour out His spirit (Joel 2:28-29), and write His word on the hearts of His people (Jeremiah 31:27-40). This covenant will be brought into place with Christ.
Prophets often called the people back to the covenant of Moses. Deuteronomy 27 sets out the curses for disobedience on Mt Ebal, and 28 sets out the blessings for obedience on Mt. Gerizim. Over the ensuing centuries, Israel succeeded occasionally but failed often in keeping the covenant. The most common areas of failure were idol worship, false worship and social injustice. The prophet’s messages followed a similar format, 1) you have sinned, 2) you must repent, 3) you will be judged if you do not repent, and 4) you will be restored after judgment.
What was the function of prophetic ‘foretelling’ in the OT?
The foretelling was mostly about the future of God’s people, such as the prophecies of the destruction of Israel (Amos 8) and Judah (Jeremiah 22) due to their sin. Many of the prophetic books also contain oracles against surrounding nations, proclaiming judgment on Assyria, Babylon, Edom, Aram, Egypt, and other lands (Ezekiel 25-32, Jeremiah 46-52, Isaiah 13-23).
Of all of the Old Testament prophecies, scholars have estimated that less than 5% are about the New Covenant, less than 2% are directly about the Messiah, and less than 1% about events that are still in the future for Christians today. This fact should warn modern Christians to be very careful when applying a prophecy to ourselves. It is easy to misapply them.
Each generation has a way of believing that they are the most important to God and that His work with all preceding generations was primarily for the current generation’s benefit. This is pride. Future generations will feel the same way about us.
Each generation is equally important in the eyes of our Creator. God raised up Biblical prophets to speak to their contemporaries just as He raises up pastors and teachers to speak to people in their generation. Both groups speak for God. The difference, however, is that Biblical writers, including the prophets, had the authority to add to Scripture. We do not.
Learn more about prophets, Hezekiah and the Assyrian War with historical fiction in Head of the Lion.
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- Some Differences in Life Between the Ancient and Modern Worlds
- Some Differences Between Oral Societies in the Ancient Near East and Modern Literary Societies
- The Land of Milk and Honey – Agriculture in Ancient Israel
- The Messiah – Who Did Jews Expect Him to Be?