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The Bible Prophets About the OT Hebrew Prophets

In Biblical times, a prophet is one who is divinely inspired to deliver God’s message to His people, which can also include a revealing of the future.  This series of articles, written in 2012, will primarily focus on the OT prophets, but will also touch upon those under the New Covenant.

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Names, Descriptions and Authority

Several Hebrew words have been used to denote a prophet in the OT Scriptures.  Thus, they are referred to as prophets, messengers, seers, men or servants of God, watchmen etc.  The oldest and most common, nabi (or nahbi), is generally used to mean a prophet or prophets.  The verb naba means to prophecy, declare or announce, usually by inspired speaking, in prediction or simple discourse on behalf of another.  Old Princeton Seminary theologian Geerhardus Vos, notes that “naba’ a” in Arabic means “to announce”.  He further points out that some scholars have proposed that nabu in the Assyrian signifies “to call, proclaim or announce”.

Another word, ro’eh (seer, shepherd) began being used of Samuel (1Sam 9:9-19).  Still another Hebrew word for seer, hozeh (or chozeh), was utilized shortly thereafter during the reign of King David (2Sa 24:11).  All three words are employed in a single verse when 1Chr 29:29 reads “As for the events of King David’s reign, from beginning to end, they are written in the records of Samuel the seer [ro’eh], the records of Nathan the prophet [nabi] and the records of Gad the seer [hozeh]”.  Another Hebrew word hazon, found in the Historical, Wisdom and Prophetic books, is consistently associated with prophetical vision.  In addition, the prophets were also described on occasion as watchmen, Heb sopim (Jer 6:17) , or somen (keeper, watchman, defender, guard, preserver).  Conversely, the Hebrew word kosem, meaning diviner or enchanter, was used of a false prophet (eg Balaam in Jsh 13:22).

Scholars debate the significance of the use of the various words, whether they are interchangeable or distinctive. In our opinion, any differences are probably limited to the current role or nature of their ministry since the multiple terms are often applied to the same person.  It appears that nabi places an emphasis on the prophets active declarations (writing or vocalization), while ro’eh and hozeh stresses their passive reception of divine revelation.

These three Hebrew words are consistently translated in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, second or third century BC) as prophetes, from the compound pro (for, on behalf of) and phemi (to speak).  Thus, a prophet of God speaks for, or on the behalf of God, and interprets His will and message for the people.  That the prophet also speaks with the authority of God is substantiated by Scripture (Dt 18:18-19, Jer 1:9-10; also affirmed by Heb 12:25-26).  Of course, this authority is not intrinsic to the prophet, but derivative from God.

It is from the transliteration of this Greek word that we get our modern English word “prophet”.  The predictive sense of our modern English word derives from the Greek propheteia, which was translated as “prophecy” during medieval times.  The “foretelling” of future events is perhaps the first function that many envision when they think of a prophet, but in reality, predicting the future played only a minor (but very important) role in the ministry of most prophets.  His or her primary purpose was to deliver and interpret God’s messages, a practice often referred to as “forthtelling”.

By our definition then, anyone who has functioned, or is currently functioning as a spokesperson for God can be referred to as a prophet.  Thus, prophets were not limited only to Biblical times, but in this article, we’ll focus primarily on the OT prophets.  For a historical look at the prophetic office from its origin to our present day, see our article on the “History of the Prophets” (in progress), in which we also make some distinctions between the Biblical prophets and those who served after the first century.

Returning to Biblical times, we must also clarify that, when we speak of the Biblical prophets, we are not limited only to those who wrote or contributed to the writing of the canonized books, but are referring to any person or persons in the Bible who fulfills the role of a prophet.  We often use the designations of non-writing (or oral) and writing prophets to differentiate between the two classes.  This is not to say that the “non-prophets” never produced any writings.  For example, we know from 1Chr 29:29 that the prophets Nathan, Gad and Samuel kept written historical records of King David’s reign, but only Samuel had part of his writings canonized (that is, had his writings included as a book or books in the Bible).  Thus Nathan and Gad, along with Abraham, Elijah, Elisha and many other Biblical prophets whose writings were not canonized are considered “non-writing” prophets, while Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, Malachi etc are considered “writing” prophets.

Before we move to our next section, we also note that, since all the canonical books were written by prophets (or apostles who also fulfilled the prophetic role of communicating God’s revelation), all of Scripture should be considered as prophetic.  Thus, when Peter writes that “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it... Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pe 1:19-21), he is referring to the entirety of Scripture, not just the portions that are classified as prophetic literary genre.

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Functions and Messages

Out of His loving sovereignty, God established a unique covenant relationship with the nation of Israel.  The basis of this bond is found in the unconditional Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12-22), in which God promises to make Abraham the father of many nations (Gen 17:4-5).  This covenant also includes the promise of the land (Gen 12:7; 13:14-15; 15:18-21) specifically to Israel (Dt 30:1-10 – Some scholars refer to these passages as the Palestinian Covenant).  What the Abrahamic covenant promised, the Mosaic covenant established.  With this covenant at Mt Sinai (Ex 19-24), God delivered His divine law to Moses, instituting the nation of Israel as a theocracy.

As a spokesperson or messenger of God, we can say that a principle duty of a prophet of Israel was to act as a mediator or intermediary between the people and God with regard to the covenants.  This role is not to be understood as the prophet being an arbitrator, but that he would sometimes intercede with God on behalf of the people (eg Amos 7:1-6).  The major role in this function however, entailed the delivery of God’s message along with its accurate interpretation to the recipients.

After the death of Samuel (~1015 BC), the Hebrew priests usually confined their activities to temple-related duties, often neglecting their teaching obligations as commanded by the Mosaic Law.  Their failure, combined with the poor moral and spiritual examples set by most of the kings (see “Prophets, Priests and Kings” - in progress), resulted in a lack of spiritual knowledge and discernment by the people.  Thus, they were easily drawn into the pagan customs of their Canaanite neighbors.  It then fell upon the prophets to instruct the Israelites about the covenant law and godly living.

The prophets usually began this task by confronting the people with their sins and transgression against God (Mic 3:8).  This typically involved the declaration of evidence pertaining to particular sins, the rebuking of the offending party, the announcement of pending judgments and a call to repentance.  With our current emphasis on ignoring sin and propping up everyone's self-esteem, the prophets may appear overly negative to our modern day senses, or even spewing bigoted and hate speech to the “tolerance at the expense of morality” crowd.  Keep in mind however, that these pronouncements were intimately tied to God’s gracious providence for Israel, so these actions were designed to restore the people back into a proper covenant relationship with Him.  While the true prophets called the people to repentance, the false prophets usual tickled the ear of their listeners by promoting the “good (but false) news” that God would continue blessing them despite their continuing rebellion and immoral lifestyle.  The false prophets were also unable to approach God on behalf of the nation (see Jer 27).  By contrast, the true prophets were trying to help the people and nation with their warnings.  Ezekiel 12:21 – 14:11 further addresses the issue of true and false prophecy.

We could suggest that, in interpreting and declaring the moral and legal aspects of God’s word as well as explaining how to have fellowship with God and each other, the prophets exhibited some of the characteristics of a modern day pastor who shepherds his congregation.  In addition, the prophets also acted as watchmen, warning the people of Israel against dangers such as spiritual adultery and apostasy, an over-reliance on ceremonial practices while neglecting moral issues, and forming political or military coalitions with the Canaanite nations.  Foreign alliances were forbidden since they almost always led to Israelite participation in the cultic rituals and reliance upon the false gods of these pagan nations instead of keeping the covenant by being a holy people set apart for the true living God.

Finally, as we’ve mentioned before, the prophets functioned as predictors of the future.  While this role involved only a small percentage of the prophet’s proclamations, it should not be taken as a mere novelty simply to amuse or hold the attention of the audience.  The accurate fulfillment of these predictions not only served as a validation of a true prophet (Dt 18:20-22, see also 1Sam 3:19, 9:6; Jer 14:14, 23:16; ), but also demonstrated the omniscience and omnipotence of God.  The prophet Isaiah relays God’s assertion that “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.  I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Is 46:10).

All the aforementioned prophetic functions required clear perception into the will and purposes of God; although the prophets probably didn’t grasp the plenary meanings or ultimate implications of every divine message, particularly those dealing with the future.  We’ll address the question of the prophet’s understanding of the “mysteries” of their predictive prophecy messages in the article “Prophetic Inspiration” (in progress), in which we also examine the various methods used by God to communicate with His prophets.

From the various functions of the prophets, we can deduce many of their message subjects. Indeed, their messages were closely related, even interwoven into their role and responsibilities as a prophet.  Their duty of delivering, interpreting, instructing and calling the people to compliance with God’s covenant law frequently included promises of blessings for obedience and/or warnings of future judgments for disobedience (the blessings and curses are spelled out in Dt 28-30).  Even when God ultimately exiled His people from the land due to their constant rebellion, the prophets announced that they would eventually return (eg Is 40).

As a spokesperson for God, one of the most important purposes of a prophet was not only to disclose His will, purpose and intentions, but to reveal God Himself; to make His character, nature and attributes known to the people.  Thus the prophets’ message revealed an eternal, self-existent, unchanging, necessary and infinite Being, a sovereign all-powerful and all-knowing Creator, Sustainer and Ruler over the universe.  Yet, He is also a personal God of love, mercy, grace, holiness and justice.

In relaying their oracles to Israel, the OT prophets provide us with a clear pattern of the Gospel message.  All men were created by God (Mal 2:10), but are sinners (Eccl 7:20) and incapable of saving ourselves (Jer 2:2, 13:23, 17:9).  We are held accountable for our sins, which separate us from God (Is 59:1-2) and leads to death (Ezek 18:4); but while we were still sinners, God provides a Savior (Is 9:6-7) who pays the penalty for our sins (Is 53:4-12), and all who call on the Lord will be saved (Is 1:18, 55:7).  Out of gratitude, we then live a life by faith that is pleasing to God (Hab 2:4).

Throughout the OT, the prophets often foretell of the coming Christ.  This foreshadowing, usually coming in the form of a Messianic prophecy or a “type” of Christ, are usually designed to bring encouragement to Israel, particularly during times of despondency.  One of the most fascinating is the allegory of the “Valley of the Dry Bones” in Ezekiel chapter 37, followed by the re-uniting of Judah and Israel in which the new Temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus (v21-28).

Finally, we should mention that not all of the OT prophet messages were directed toward Israel or Judah.  Many were directed to their oppressors and enemies such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and others.  Most were prophecies of judgment, particularly for harming the Jewish people.  These messages also reminded His chosen people that He was sovereign over all, not just over the nation of Israel.  A few declarations however, such as Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh, demonstrated God’s love for the Gentiles (non-Israelites).  These events also foreshadowed the last days when all nations would join Israel to worship the Lord (Is 2:1-4, Zech 8:20-23).

See the related articles below for additional information.

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