What Is a Prophet?

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Elijah Fed by an Angel - Ferdinand Bol, 17th Century

A draft excerpt from the book “The Words of the Covenant” (forthcoming, DV)

It is commonly asserted within biblical scholarship that the main focus of the prophet was on proclamation; that only incidentally was he (or she) concerned with prediction. In many studies of the role of the prophet the emphasis is put upon the prophet’s function as a moral exhorter to his time and place. Here is a recent example:

The prophet’s role was to speak the word of God to the king, nation, or people to reveal his will for their lives and how they should act. Prophecy sometimes included predictions, but always with a view to revealing something of God’s plan, nature, or personality so that the hearers would respond appropriately in worshipful obedience.1

This description is given no verification, and on closer inspection will not stand up to scrutiny. It can, for instance, be demonstrated that in numerous cases the prophetic prediction did not have in mind the transformation of the hearers, but was instead a kind of indictment on their hard heartedness or else a simple warning. Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 4:26-28, Hosea’s pronouncement in Hosea 3:4, and the ministry of Agabus in Acts 11:28 and 21:10-11 are enough to disprove the prophet-as-moral-exhorter portrait. Spiritual reproof was part of his role, but it did not make him a prophet.

As I begin I want to remind the reader of something I said before: that our understanding of what a prophet is will be dependent to a large extent on our view of biblical prophecy. As I have said, while declaiming sins was an important part of what a prophet of God was to do, it was not at all his defining role. His job was to foretell what God would do. This has been well pointed out by a recent writer in speaking about the writing prophets:

Every literary prophet makes specific observations about the future … that can be tested as to their veracity as events unfold … . It is crucial to underscore this aspect of prophecy, for there has been in the past century an unfortunate emphasis upon the prophet as primarily a “forthteller” (i.e. a preacher) with a concomitant minimizing of the prophet as “foreteller” (i.e., one who makes predictions about the future) … . Many might like to see the prophets as social reformers, but the simple fact is that they were not.2

The Hebrew Bible uses three main terms for a prophet: nabi, roeh, and hozeh. Of the three the word nabi (“one who testifies or proclaims”) is the most instructive.3 The first mention of a nabiconcerns Abraham in Genesis 20:7. This is when God tells Abimelech in a dream not to touch Sarah, who unbeknownst to him is Abraham’s wife. God calls Abraham His prophet. There is no explanation in the chapter of what the term a nabi actually means. Unlike those who came after him Abraham does not at all seem to be a preacher or forthteller for God. He does have the distinction of receiving the covenant which will determine the nature and destiny of Israel and the nations through him. Therefore, it is the predictive element which provides the background to the term as used here.

The next use of the term is when Moses and Aaron are to go before Pharaoh in Exodus 7. Aaron is the mouthpiece of Yahweh for Moses (Exod. 7:2). In this circumstance the first statement about letting Israel go is not even recorded. Rather the emphasis falls upon the contest between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt, which involves the predictions of the plagues in turn. The same thing is found later when Elijah faces the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:17-39. But in both of these situations the prophet does not just make authoritative statements about the present. Moses will predict the ruination of Egypt by degrees, while Elijah’s challenge to King Ahab and the idolaters is within the context of the prophet’s predictions about prolonged drought and then about the coming rain.

The God of the Bible shows Himself as He who knows what will be (Isa. 42:9; 46:10; Dan. 2:29). Between them the short-term and long-term OT predictive oracles about individuals or nations are simply too many to number. That a prophet preached a theological interpretation of history is true. But history has come from somewhere and is going somewhere. Hence the interpretation of the present is given in terms of how Israel got to where it was (moral declension leading to societal woes), and what God is going to do about it, both in terms of judgment against sin and the salvation of those whom He will everlastingly restore (cf. Zeph. 3:10-17).

The Tests of a True Prophet

To speak to the moment without reference to the future is unlike God. We see this in the tests of a prophet given to Moses in Deuteronomy 18. As I have already mentioned in the “Introduction” to this book, this chapter is especially important in shaping our conception of a prophet of God. The relevant section concerns the One whom Moses calls “a prophet like me” (Deut. 18:15, 18). Peter identifies this prophet as Jesus in Acts 3:22-23. But there is a collective meaning too, which is why the means are given whereby a true prophet may be distinguished from a false one in 18:21-22.We should separate the two tests of a real prophet given in the passage. The first test is straightforward enough; the prophet who speaks for God should be obeyed because he speaks what is true. That is to say, the criterion here is whether or not what is proclaimed conforms to previous divine revelation. The question is, “Is it theologically sound?” This is in accordance with the past historical referent I have referred to. A false prophet does not speak what is right. Whether or not the element of prediction is involved, the major concern is that the prophet is uttering biblical truth. In one sense this is passé and is a superfluous “test,” if test it may be called. No one would knowingly hear someone they knew was lying to them.

Since even a man not sent by God could say something true, the way to really know a true prophet from a false one is on the basis of the second test. Whether what is prophesied comes to pass: that is, by his predictions. Granted, waiting around for an oracle of judgment to come true would not be very smart. If immorality and injustice were made evident they ought to be repented of at once.4 In these cases the soundness of the message in line with Moses should be the criterion. Hence, a false prophet such as Hananiah in Jeremiah 28, who promised that God would break the yoke of Babylon from Israel quickly, ignored the blatant irreligion of the people which had led to that very dilemma.5

Continues: See Part 2.

Notes

1 John D. Laing and Stefana Dan Laing, “The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy,” in Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches, D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, eds., 80

2 Samuel A. Meier, Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy, 209.

3 The word “Prophet” comes from the Greek compound word prophetes, which means “to speak before or on behalf of another.” A prophet was God’s “mouth.”

4 Cf. Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 263

5 While rejecting his critical leanings, I echo the words of Martin Buber: “Jeremiah, who announces the disaster, and Deutero-Isaiah, who announces the salvation, both prophesy so for the sake of the covenant between godhead and manhood, for the sake of the kingdom of God; the “false prophets” announce what they announce for its own sake, that is to say for the fulfilment (sic) of man’s wishes.” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, 178-179. Emphasis mine. In reality then, a “false prophet” was not a prophet at all.)


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