Prophets As Fore-Tellers?

This is a note from a book I am trying to write.

We must too be aware that a prophet foretells.  The term “prophet” (nabi) basically means “mouthpiece” or “spokesman” (Cf. Exod. 7:1-2 with 4:16; Deut. 18:17-18).  They were preachers, proclaiming the words of God to their contemporaries.  But in the Bible the most prominent function of a prophet was to proclaim God’s word about future events (see e.g., Jer. 1:7-16; Amos 7:7-9, 14-17; 1 Ki. 1:22).  As we shall see, although it scarcely requires demonstration, much of what is recorded in Scripture about prophetic utterances includes predictive elements.  Hence, a crucial test of a prophet was not merely whether he was thought to be correctly interpreting a political situation or addressing a declension in national morality, but whether what he said was going to happen actually did occur (Deut. 18:21-22).[1]  Prophecy was more often than not about what God was going to do, especially in view of the tension between His covenant love (hesed) and His justice.[2]

Though not all cases involved predictive prophecy, a false prediction could be spotted where the fulfillment was in the short term – say, in the lifetime of the prophet – and then it would be clear enough whether he had spoken something from the Lord, or merely spoken out of egotistically-propelled enthusiasm (E.g. Jer. 8:11-15; 28:1-4, 10-11).[3]

But many prophetic declarations were not short-term.  In cases where fulfillment lay in the more distant future, what was to happen?  Were the tests of a prophet redundant in such cases?  Were there then no tests given in regard to long-term far reaching eschatological predictions?  I argue that these tests are not only necessary for long-term prophecies, but that they themselves assume an interpretation of the prophet which can be checked against the original utterance.  This leaves little space for broadening the semantic range of the original words of a prophetic utterance to make them undergo a forced fulfillment by transforming the prophet’s words out of all recognition.  Prophecies are not made of the stuff which can sustain substantial metamorphoses and transplantation.  An original hearer, were she able to travel far into the future to the time of fulfillment, should easily recognize the prophet’s words coming to pass before her eyes without having to be “debriefed” on why things looked very different than what the original prophecy had led her and her contemporaries to reasonably expect. One reason the biblical prophets have been turned more into forthtellers than foretellers is perhaps that many scholars wish to do just that, and in choosing to do so they are forced to divert attention away from the predictive roles of these Seers.  The subject of the generation of and responsibility for Expectation needs more careful reflection than it has had until now.

[1] Some will refer to Peter’s use of “prophecy” in 2 Pet. 1:19-21 to teach that the primary meaning of the word covers all Scripture; therefore “prophecy” becomes synonymous with revelation.  But this is misleading.  In the context, Peter is pointing to the Transfiguration as adumbrating the Second Advent (see 1:16 & 19).  Hence, he is speaking of prophecy as foretelling a future event and not as another term for revelation.

[2] “The prophetic books reflect God’s struggle with his love for Israel in view of the betrayal of that love.  His decision to execute judgment stands in internal tension with his inextinguishable love.” – Reinhard Feldmeier & Hermann Spieckermann, God of the Living: A Biblical Theology, 138-139.

[3] For example, the phrase “you shall know” when spoken by Yahweh refers to short-term predictions (Exod. 6:7; 7:17; 16:12; Num. 16:28; Josh. 3:10; 1 Ki. 20:13, 28; Ezek. 11:10).  Once it refers to a long-range prediction of [New] covenant fulfillment (Ezek. 16:62-63).

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