What Is A Prophet? (Pt.2)

Part One

Prophecies of Far Future Events

The ministries of Samuel (see 1 Sam. 3:9-18), Elijah (2 Ki. 1:3-4), Micaiah (1 Ki. 22:17-20), and Elisha (2 Ki. 3:14-19) included short-term predictions which could be verified.  But there were also prophecies which anticipated things much further off, like Nathan’s oracle,

I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly… – 2 Samuel 7:10 (NASB)

This hope for David’s people has not yet been realized, and the later prophets repeat it.  These later writing prophets often made long-range predictions which could not be confirmed during their lifetimes, but these far off prophecies were established on the assurance of contemporary foretellings which came to pass.  One thinks about Amos’s oracle against Israel (and the interfering priest Amaziah) in Amos 7:14-17, or Jeremiah’s pronouncements concerning the conquering Babylonians in Jeremiah 21:1-10.   Ezekiel was told that there were still Jews in the land who foolishly believed that God would not drive them out of the land.  His prediction to the contrary (Ezek. 33:21-33) ended with the solemn words,

And when this comes to pass– surely it will come– then they will know that a prophet has been among them. – Ezekiel 33:33

The permanence of the prophetic word is necessary so that the word of God can be substantiated.  This is one reason why the prophet had to speak exactly what he was told to speak.  God said to Moses, “You shall speak all that I command you” (Exod. 7:2).  And in what I might call “the code of the prophet” Micaiah declared before king and court, “As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that I will speak” (1Ki. 22:14. Cf. Jer. 23:28).  As one writer affirms, “By inspiration, God speaks to the nabi, who has to transmit exactly what he receives.”[1]

This literal consistency between God’s words and the prophet’s utterance accordingly became a guarantee that it was Yahweh who was the real Speaker.[2]  The crucial predictive test of the true prophet of God was then an extension of the “God’s words equal God’s actions” motif.  I have tried to show and will show again that often this important motif is reinforced by God’s covenant oaths.  That is why the prophet’s predictive function should never be eclipsed by his other roles.  To cite another recent scholar, Charles Scobie,

It has long been fashionable among modern historical scholars to declare that the prophets “were not foretellers, but forthtellers.”  This may have been a helpful corrective if prophecy was thought of purely in terms of prediction; the prophets were indeed deeply concerned with the contemporary social, political, economic, and religious life of Israel.  But prediction remains a major element in the OT prophets…In the prophetic books future prophecies play a major role.  Such prophecies can be broadly classified as oracles of judgment and oracles of salvation…Conditional prophecies are found that say, in effect, if you mend your ways, then you will be spared (e.g., Jer. 7:5-7).  But when it became clear that the people would not repent, prophetic oracles simply proclaimed future judgment.  Such prophecies, however, are balanced by oracles of salvation; the prophets saw “light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of a coming new age.[3]

Even when addressing their contemporary scene, the prophets are not primarily concerned about ceremonial or civic aspects of the Law.  For instance, the ceremonial parts of the Law are mentioned (Isa. 1-5; Jer. 2-6; Mal. 1:7-14), but these seem to be highlighted mostly in so far as they expose the moral hypocrisy of kings, nobles, priests and common people.

The call of God was all the authority a man of God needed, which is well enough, for all too often they went virtually unheeded.

If prophets are defined by society’s recognition of them and their function as noticeably affecting the life and behavior of that society, one would question whether prophets actually existed in ancient Israel, since practical impact was negligible as evidenced by the lack of meaningful, sustained response to their message… The prophets regarded their divine commissioning as providing their authority, an authority that was independent of the response of the people to whom they spoke.[4]

Certainly the ethical features of the Law were important to the prophetic function.  They were constantly calling God’s people back to it.  And yet the steady decline of spirituality from the pure worship of God to the degradations of Molech worship, so vividly depicted by Jeremiah (Jer. 32:17-35), offered little encouragement to them.  In fact it is vital to notice that the hope of Israel was wrapped up in the “coming new age”; the Day of redemption (e.g. Deut. 30:1-8; Hos. 2:14-20; Isa. 60:1-22; Jer. 31:10-14, 27-37; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), the great day of recovery centered around the One spoken of as the Branch (Isa. 11:1-9; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:14-18; Zech. 6:12; cf. Dan. 7:13-14).[5]  This pushes the prophetic expectation back into the eschaton.  The man of God is a voice to the nation; often he is a voice of impending doom.  But he is perhaps even more frequently the voice of the far-off future.  He may, like Amos (7:1-6) intercede for his community, but he cannot prevent judgment from falling.  He sees beyond the judgments of God to the entering in of final things.[6]  Sometimes the prophet may even see himself as a participant in those closing hours (Dan. 12:9, 13; cf. Ezek. 43:10-11).

As Paul House has noted, “Jeremiah and Isaiah both know that their task is to prepare the remnant to serve.”[7]  That is undoubtedly true.  But the time when their service will be acceptable awaits the saving action of Israel’s covenant God.  For that is the time when He will gather together the remnant (Jer. 31:7-11. Cf. Mic. 5:2-4).  Seen in this light, much of the ministry of the main prophets might best be seen as proleptical (i.e. anticipatory); that is, as casting the Remnant, the “true Israel” (Rom. 9:6) into the kingdom age; the age of covenant consummation.


[1] Andre Lamorte, “Prophet, Prophecy” in Everett F. Harrison, et al, Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, 423.  Likewise, David Noel Freedman wrote, “The prophet is the ambassador or messenger of God, and his/her sole duty is to deliver the message as given.” – “Between God and Man: The Prophets of Ancient Israel”, in Prophecy and Prophets, ed. Yehoshua Gitay, 61, as cited by Michael J. Williams, The Prophet and His Message, 26 n. 13.

[2] I might here record my agreement with VanGemeren’s four base criteria for the biblical prophets.  He speaks about the prophetic message as having an underlying continuity, being organic (relating to the rest of Scripture), of being theocentric, and progressive. – Willem VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, 45-46.  I do differ with him as to my understanding of the progressive nature of prophecy.  While VanGemeren is open to the transformation of prophecy, especially in the light of Christ’s first coming, I believe this element is rendered implausible by the requirements of the first three criteria.  In my opinion the progressive element is principally revelation which fills out the picture without changing the picture.

[3] Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God, 312-313

[4] David W. Baker, “Israelite Prophets and Prophecy”, in David W. Baker & Bill T. Arnold, eds, The Face of Old Testament Studies, 270

[5] Isaiah uses the word netser while Jeremiah (and Zechariah) prefers tsemach.  The words appear to be synonymous.

[6] Cf. Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1, 359-360

[7] Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology, 306

2 thoughts on “What Is A Prophet? (Pt.2)”

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