The prophetic tradition in Israel stretches all the way from Genesis 20:7 to Malachi 4:5. The Hebrew word for prophet (nabi') appears more than 300 times in the Old Testament and is applied to a wide range of characters. Etymologically nabi' means "one who is called," but by usage it came to mean a spokesman or proclaimer. In earlier days the prophet was also called a seer (hozeh or ro'eh) (1 Samuel 9:9), although all three terms continued to be used interchangeably 1 Chronicles 29:29).
Because the prophet had a special relationship with God, in the Bible he is called "a man of God" (1 Kings 12:22; 13:1, 26). As God's messengers the prophets are also known as "God's servants" (Jeremiah 7:25; 44:4). Sometimes the prophet is called "the man of the Spirit" (Hosea 9:7:), because he was inspired by the Spirit of God. Prophets are also known as "Gods messengers" (Haggai 1:13; Malachi 3:1).
The Old Testament reveals great diversity in the personality and function of the prophet. All true prophets, however, had the conviction that they were called of God to proclaim his word, although relatively few described their private encounters with God.
Of the hundreds of prophets in ancient Israel (including prophetesses such as Miriam, Deborah, Huldah) only a few recorded their oracles (or had them recorded). Most of them, such as Elijah and Elisha, were "oral" prophets. We know more about what these prophets did than what they said.
Many of the prophets were related to Israel's cult (worship practices). Samuel, for example, but also the later prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah and others, were associated with the priesthood (Ezekiel 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1). The temple provided a natural center for prophets to exercise their prophetic gifts.
Some prophets could be viewed as court prophets because they conveyed messages from Yahweh to the reigning monarchs. Sometimes rulers even sought out prophets to hear a word from the Lord. However, with the threat of Assyria, which conquered Israel in 721 B.C., and of Babylonia, which conquered Judah in 586 B.C., there appears to have been a shift to the "free prophets," who were not necessarily related to cult or court. From the 8th century on we have prophets like Amos and Hosea in Israel, and Micah and Isaiah in Judah, who acted quite independently of existing authority structures. As with cult and court prophets, these "free prophets" were often consulted by those desiring a word from God, even though the inquirers did not always appreciate the response they received. Some of these "troublers of Israel" (1 Kings 18:17) were severely persecuted by those who objected to their messages.
God's prophets often found themselves in opposition not only to the ruling powers, but also to the "false prophets." The mark of a true prophet was that his word was fulfilled (Deuteronomy 18:22; 1 Kings 22:28; Isaiah 30:8). False prophets sometimes promised salvation because that was the message their audiences wanted to hear (Jeremiah 28:8; 1 Kings 22). They were accused of proclaiming their own dreams and not God's word (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:25-28). Instead, the true prophet was described as one who had been given a divine commission and lived in keeping with the covenant stipulations laid down by Moses (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
As portrayed in Scripture the prophets received their messages directly from Yahweh. "The word of the Lord came to me," was a standard introduction to prophetic utterances. Sometimes they received their messages in the form of "visions" (Isaiah 1:1). At other times they simply felt the hand of the Lord upon them (Ezekiel 3:14; 8:1; Isaiah 8:11). Revelatory trances were at times attended by ecstatic elements which strike modern readers as strange. Prophetic ecstasy as such, however, was nowhere condemned (1 Samuel 10:5; 19:24; 1 Kings 18:21; Numbers 11:24-30).
Although the prophets received their messages from God, they put their own stamp on these messages. The form of their oracles reflects not only the personalities of the various prophets, but also the times in which they spoke, the issues to which they spoke, and the audiences they addressed.
A great variety of literary forms are found in the prophetic writings. The most common type of prophetic oracle is the announcement of judgment on Israel or on the surrounding nations. Less common, but also very prominent, is the promise of salvation to those who repent and return to the covenant. Blessings or curses are contingent on how the hearers respond to the warnings, the exhortations, and the promises of God given by the prophets.
At times the prophet would carry out a symbolic act in order to attract the attention of the people. He might wear a yoke or break a flask or make iron horns to symbolize his message. Some prophets even gave their own children symbolic names in order to get their message across to Israel.
A number of prophets who spoke oracles of doom on a wicked nation looked beyond judgment to a brighter day. They looked forward to the time when God would establish a new covenant with a cleansed people of God (Jeremiah 31). This hope was seen by New Testament writers as having been fulfilled in Christ.
The prophets addressed the needs of the people in their own generation. They sought to enforce the requirements of the Mosaic covenant, promising blessing for faithfulness and curses for disobedience. They were not simply radical social reformers or avant-garde thinkers, for they called people back to the Mosaic covenant, which always remains normative for the prophets.
In the Bible the prophets firmly believed that God is the Lord of history and so their messages embraced not only the present but also the future. The predictive element, however, usually concerned the immediate future of the nation rather than the distant. Modern readers, therefore, should not look for a timetable of future events in the prophetic books.
In the light of the Christ event, however, the writers of the New Testament often saw deeper meanings in what the Old Testament prophets said (Hebrews 1:1,2). But even the so-called messianic passages (such as Isaiah 7:14) had relevance for the original audience.
During the intertestamental period, when it was believed that authentic prophecy had ceased, a new form of literature appeared, known as apocalyptic. Although it grew out of prophecy and has many resemblances with prophecy, it was a distinct genre. The prophets were concerned about the present; the apocalypticists about the future. The apocalyptic writers (and they were writers not speakers) saw no hope within history. The world had gone completely bad and there was hope only beyond history. Apocalyptic is basically pessimistic as far as life in this world is concerned.
Apocalyptic, in contrast to prophecy, is also quite esoteric. Only a select few can understand what the writer is saying. The messages are not addressed to the people as a whole, calling them to repentance, but only to the wise. Also, much of the imagery of apocalyptic literature is different from that of prophecy. There is a heavy emphasis on symbols and numbers. One might call it "cartoon" language. Moreover, the apocalyptic books are pseudonymous. They are written in the name of some great worthy of Israel's sacred past.
Apocalyptic literature is crisis literature. It is born out of despair. One simply hopes for God's intervention in the end. It lacks the ethical emphasis found in the prophets, where obedience to the message of the prophet holds the promise of God's favor and of hope.
With the coming of the forerunner, John the Baptist, authentic prophecy was reborn (Luke 1:76). Jesus, however, is portrayed in Scripture as the prophet par excellence -- the prophet like Moses (Matthew 21:11; Acts 3:22). Like the prophets of old he has received a divine commission and speaks God's word with authority, calling Israel to repentance. That he is more than a Prophet goes without saying. In contrast to Old Testament prophets, Jesus introduces the age of fulfillment. In him many of the hopes and dreams of the Old Testament prophets were fulfilled. The prophetic message of Jesus focuses on the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and the formation of a new people of God in continuity with the saving purposes of God proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets.
Jesus expects the continuation of the prophetic ministry among his followers (Matthew 10:41; Luke 11:49). Through the gift of the Spirit of the risen and exalted Lord, the gift of prophecy has been given to the Christian community (Acts 2:18). This gift, however, is an endowment (charism) given only to certain men and women. Men such as Agabus (Acts 11:28), Judas, and Silas are prophets (Acts 15:32), as are the four daughters of Philip (21:9). Luke also mentions prophets among the leaders of the Antiochian church (13:1).
For Paul prophecy is a highly valued gift because by it (in contrast to tongues) the church could be encouraged, comforted and built up (1 Corinthians 14:3). Prophecy plays an important role in the worship of the early church (1 Corinthians 11:4, 5), and because of its spontaneous character it has to be kept in check (1 Corinthians 14:29-33). At other times it has to be encouraged (1 Thessalonians 5:20). The exact content of these prophetic utterances, however, is difficult to determine. Evidently they are utterances given by sudden impulse to exhort, instruct, warn, and encourage the Christian community. Prophecy could also take the form of prediction, as in the case of Agabus who predicts a famine. From its close connection with insight and knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:2) one might infer that it combines spiritual perception with the gift of communicating insights into spiritual truths.
Several times Paul lists the prophets with the apostles and teachers (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). Moreover, he speaks of apostles and prophets as founders of the church (Ephesians 2:20) and as agents of divine revelation (Ephesians 3:5). However, Christian prophecy seems to be a rather unstructured institution within early Christianity. By contrast, the role of the apostle (at least in the primary sense of that word) is more clearly defined.
Since prophetic utterances in the congregation need to be tested by others (1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21; 1 Corinthians 14:29), one should probably not put the prophets in the early church on the same level as the apostles, whose teachings remain the authoritative guide for the church. Some prophets appear to be itinerant, like apostles, whereas others function within established churches. That there are also false prophets can be seen from the many warnings of Jesus and the apostles against such pretenders (Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29; 1 John 4:1; Revelation 2:20, 24).
With the death of the apostles (who were not replaced) the gift of prophecy seems to disappear as well. Increasingly the teacher takes the place of the prophet. There is, however, no indication in the New Testament that this is to be expected or that the gift of prophecy is given to the apostolic church only.
In Mennonite circles apart from the charismatic movement, it is still widely held that the predictive element is at the heart of Old Testament prophecy. And since the messages of the prophets are usually cast in national categories, the restoration of the modern state of Israel is seen by many as a fulfillment of Old Testament hopes, in this approach an important Anabaptist principle of interpretation is overlooked, namely, that the Old Testament is to be interpreted in the light of the New. The New Testament denationalizes Old Testament prophecies and sees them fulfilled in the Christ event or in the Day of the Lord at the end of the age. By taking their cues from Jesus and the apostles, Mennonite scholars are coming to a deeper appreciation of the prophetic messages of the Old Testament.
Armerding, C. E. "Prophecy in the Old Testament," in Dreams, Visions, and Oracles, ed. C. E. Armerding and W. W. Gasque. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.
Aune, David E. Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.
Blenkinsopp, J. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983.
Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.
Hughes, Philip E. Interpreting Prophecy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
Wilson, R. R. " Prophet" in Harper's Bible Dictionary, ed., Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985: 826-830.
Schmauch, Werner. "The Prophetic Office in the Church." Concern pamphlet No. 5 (June 1958): 68-76.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 728-730. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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