What does the Bible say about prophets and prophecy? This fundamental question is constantly recurring in all sorts of talks and discussions.
Prediction of the future?
In everyday language, a prophet is somebody who foretells the course of nature or predicts future events, or, he pretends he can do that. The supernatural gifts of such a prophet are often treated with a dose of skepticism. The same is true of prophets who fulfill roles in various other religions, such as Mohammed in the Islam religion. By ‘prophet’, Christians also generally think of a person who makes statements about the future. For them, prophecy is a special gift of the Spirit. Behind true prophecy lies revelation from God.
Messenger from God
In Judges 6:7-10, the Lord sends an otherwise unknown prophet to the Israelites. The prophet begins with the words ‘thus says the Lord’. This formula is often used with prophetic speeches. The same expression is used by messengers, when they passed on the words they were to say, to the one to whom they were sent (see e.g. Gen. 32:4; Numb 22:16; 1 Kings 20:2f). From this we can see that prophets were messengers who took the words of God to people (cf. in this connection also Ex. 7:1f: because Aaron speaks for Moses, he is called Moses’ prophet!).
In his address, the prophet of Judges 6 points to God’s past deeds and commands and to Israel’s refusal to listen to God. He does not utter one single word about the future.
When King David wants to build a temple, he first unfolds his plan to the prophet, Nathan. Nathan shows his agreement, but in the night the Lord lets him know that He does not agree. The Lord Himself would build a royal house for David. After David’s death, his son could build the temple (2 Sam. 7). Nathan seems to have functioned as a sort of court adviser to David. He was a prophet, but did not directly know what the will of the Lord was. In the night, he discovers this, when the Lord reveals it to him. How that actually took place, is not recorded. We only read, as so often, that the word of the Lord came to Nathan (verse 4).
Nathan must address David critically, in the name of the Lord, about his plans to build a temple (verses 5-7). Alongside this, David received promises with regard to the future, both short and long term (resp. verses 9-15 and verse 16). These promises were not a blueprint, which is always realized without alteration. Contrary to verse 10, Israel was, later, indeed alarmed and oppressed by enemies. It appears that the promise was conditional, although this was not specifically stated. God’s promise of continuing faithfulness to David’s son (verse 15) was not conditional. There would be no end to David’s kingdom. Later it would become obvious that this promise would be realized in the kingship of David’s descendant, Jesus Christ.
Member of a group
In 1 Kings 22, king Ahab appears to have 400 prophets at his disposal. They are described as being Ahab’s own prophets (see verses 22f). It is possible that they were his official servants and were kept by him, just as Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, provided for 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah (1 Kings 18:19). In this way they were more closely associated with Ahab’s court than Nathan was with David’s.
At the same time we see a school of prophets around Elijah and Elisha. Of what their activities actually consisted, is not completely clear. In any case, they did not serve at the king’s court. They seem to have resisted Ahab’s religious politics just as Elijah and Elisha did.
Just as little can be said about the group of prophets in 1 Samuel 10:5-13 and 19:18-24. The Spirit of the Lord came upon them and they ‘prophesied’. When the same happened to Saul, he took off his clothes and lay naked on the ground all night (1 Sam. 19:24). You will find no trace of this sort of ecstatic behavior in Nathan.
Not a profession
One notable passage is Amos 7:10-17, which records the confrontation between Amos and Amaziah, priest of Bethel. Just like Elijah, Amos attacks the politics of the king of Israel and has absolutely no connection with the court. Appealing to the kingly character of the holy place in Bethel, Amaziah forbids Amos to work as a prophet. Amos replies, that he was not a prophet, he was a breeder of sheep and tended sycamore fruit, but the Lord had given him a charge to prophecy against Israel.
It would not have been Amos’ intention to distance himself from all the other prophets like Nathan and Elijah (see Am. 2:11f; 3:7f). He responded to Amaziah’s advice that he should go and try and prophesy in Judah to earn his keep (verse 12). In response to this, Amos says that prophesying was not his job. The only reason why he prophesied was because the Lord had sent him.
One against the rest
The same was true of Jeremiah. He would have had no problem with being called a prophet, for the Lord had, in so many words, appointed him to be one. He did resist the appointment as a prophet on the grounds that he was too young to be a speaker (Jer. 1:5). Nevertheless, he functioned as prophet for many years. God’s command was too mighty for him and he valued God’s word too much (cf. Jer. 15:16; 20:9).
The story of Jeremiah’s call reveals what was essential for his work as prophet. The Lord Himself would put words in his mouth (1:9). He must proclaim these words and not only to God’s people (Judah) but also to other peoples (see 1:5, 9). According to Jeremiah 1:13-16, those words would chiefly be about the coming of God’s judgment, because of Israel’s service of other gods. In the course of the book of Jeremiah, it becomes clear that judgment is unavoidable. In 18:7-10, there is a reference to the conditional character of prophetic pronouncements. Should repentance occur, the Lord could put a stop to the predicted judgment. But the inhabitants of Jerusalem cannot satisfy themselves with that. They had refused to listen to the prophets for so long, that their cities and their land shall now really be destroyed (see Jer.25:1-11; 35:12-17). Jeremiah does hear on various occasions that he may no longer pray for his people (see 7:16; 11:14; 14:11), while people expected that prophets interceded for others (see for instance Gen. 20:7; 2 Kings 19:2-4; Jer. 21:2; 42:2-4). From the start, Jeremiah knew that he could expect resistance (Jer. 1:18f). Amongst Jeremiah’s opponents were a substantial number of prophets. They did not accept Jeremiah’s prophecy about the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem and painted a peaceful future for their fellow citizens (Jer. 6:13f; 26:7-11). They were false prophets. According to Jeremiah 23:18-22, these were people who pretended to be prophets, but who lied. Unlike true prophets, these were not inaugurated in the secrets of God’s heavenly counsel. The Lord had not sent them and had not spoken to them. It could not have been easy for the people in Jerusalem to know who really was a prophet from the Lord. This can be evidenced in the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah in Jeremiah 28. Hananiah’s message that the Babylonian threat would end within two years, was the opposite of Jeremiah’s. But he too, used the formula: ‘thus says the Lord’ (verse 11). Jeremiah is not able to show directly and conclusively that he is the true, and Hananiah the false prophet. He can only argue that his prophecy of disaster is consistent with that of the prophets of old. He then departs and has to wait for a new word from the Lord (cf. Jer. 42:7 also).
The way in which Jeremiah received that word, is not recorded. In Numbers 12:6 the Lord says that he makes Himself known to the prophets in dreams and visions. The vision as way of revelation, played a large role in, amongst others, Ezekiel and Zachariah. In Ezekiel, the Spirit is often named in this connection. He it is, who lifts the prophet up and transposes him (see Ezek. 3:12-14; 8:3; 11:1, 24). False prophets too, claimed to have dreams and visions (cf. Jer. 23:25, 27, 32; Ezek. 13:7). As far as that is concerned, the word of the one stood alongside the contrary word of the other. Only time would tell whose word was true and thus who really had spoken the Word of God (cf. Deut. 18:21f; Jer. 28:9, 15-17). Until that time, the people could do nothing other than compare the messages of the prophets with those of earlier revelations (eg. on the point of sinful people being called to repentance or not; cf. Jer. 23:22).
Heralding of Christ
On the threshold of the New Testament period, the priest Zachariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy (Luke 1:67). This involves first, that he praises God for the salvation He is bringing to His people through the birth of John and the approaching birth of Mary’s child (verses 68-75). This salvation was heralded by the Old Testament prophets, or better, by the Lord Himself, since He it was, who spoke through the mouths of the prophets (verse 70).
Further, Zachariah reveals what is lined up for his son, John, in the near future. John himself will be a prophet. He will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord and bring the knowledge of salvation to God’s people (verses 76-79). John did this by telling people that God’s judgment was knocking at the door and he called them to repentance (Matt. 14:5; Mark 11:32; Luke 20:6). Many recognized that he was a prophet (Matt. 14:5; Mark 11:32; Luke 20:6). Jesus Himself testified that John was more than a prophet; He was ‘Elijah, who was to come’ (Matt. 11:14; cf. also 17:10-13; Mal. 4:5). Zachariah’s conviction that the Old Testament prophets had spoken about the coming and the work of Jesus Christ is characteristic of the whole of the New Testament. Jesus himself showed the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, that according to the prophets, the Messiah could only enter into glory by suffering. He went on to explain what Moses and all the prophets had said in relation to Himself (Luke 24:25 27). In this, the word ‘prophets’ indicates a number of the Old Testament books (cf. also Matt. 5:17; 22:40; Luke 16:29; Acts 13:15). Time and time again, Matthew points to the fulfilling of prophecy in what Jesus does and in what happens to Him (e.g. Matt. 2:14-17, 23; 21:4f). According to Peter, the prophets spoke about the grace that was to come to the New Testament church. They tried to find out, which time was indicated by the words which they spoke. The Spirit of Christ spoke through them and witnessed beforehand to what would happen to Christ (1Pet. 1:10-12; for the role of the Spirit in prophecy cf. 2 Pet. 1:21 also).
After Jesus, with the help of five loaves and two fishes, had fed thousands of people, they said: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). It appears that they expected a special prophet at the end of the times. Some thought, that in Jesus, one of the old prophets was raised again (Luke 9:8, 19). Others saw Him as a prophet in a more general sense (see e.g. Matt. 21:46; Mark 6:15). In this, His miracles played just as large a role as his preaching (see Luke 7:11-17; 24:19).
Jesus referred to Himself only implicitly as a prophet (Matt. 13:57; Luke 4:24; 13:33). Various characteristics of the prophets are clearly relevant to Him, such as the anointing with God’s Spirit and the proclamation of words of God, also about the future (see e.g. Luke 3:22; 4:18f; Matt. 24). In Acts 3:22f, Peter quotes Moses’ promise in Deuteronomy 18 that the Lord would raise up a prophet, to whom the people must either listen, or be punished by being sentenced to death. According to the usual interpretation of this passage, Peter wants to say that Jesus is this promised prophet.
Gift of the Spirit
Not only the Old Testament prophets, but also John the Baptist and Jesus Christ were able to prophesy through the Spirit. Also members of the New Testament church, men and women, shared in the special gift of prophecy (see e.g. Acts 13:1; 21:9; Rom. 12:6f; 1Cor. 12:8-10; Eph. 4:11). Paul writes in detail about this gift in 1 Corinthians 14. He contrasts prophecy with speaking in tongues. In contrast to prophecy, tongues are not intelligible without explanation. For this reason, the church can be built up, disciplined and encouraged through prophecy but not through speaking in tongues (verses 2-5). Through prophecy it becomes obvious what lives in an unbeliever and through it he can be brought to worship God (verses 24f). During the meetings of the church, different prophets can be present at the same time. If prophets are present, they are not above criticism; the others must judge their words. A prophet can suddenly receive a revelation. Should that be so, the one who is talking at that moment must wait and give priority to the new revelation (verses 29-33).
It is not possible to ascertain from Paul’s words, whether or not the prophets in Corinth also spoke about the future. There were such prophets in the New Testament congregations. Agabus was one such prophet (Acts 11:27f; 21:10f), but also John on Patmos (see e.g. Rev. 1:3; 10:11; 22:7, 9). On the other hand, there is also a ‘prophesying’ which does not refer to the future. In his speech at Pentecost, Peter cites the prophet Joel: ‘Your sons and your daughters will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17). This, according to Peter, is what happened at that very moment (verse 16). At that moment, however, there were no disclosures about the future. They spoke in all sorts of languages about the great deeds God had done (verses 4-11). Evidently, this was enough for Peter to speak about the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
Is Paul referring to a spiritual gift of a permanent character in 1 Corinthians 14? Christians differ on this point. They do agree that Moses’ wish: ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets’ (Numb 11:29), is fulfilled in the New Testament times. Prophecy is a lasting gift in the New Testament church, in any case as far as prophecy about God’s great deeds is concerned (cf. Acts 2). But is this also true of the receiving of direct revelations such as in 1 Corinthians 14?
Paul says that this form of prophecy will one day no longer play a role (1 Cor. 13:8), but nowhere does he specifically say when that will actually be. He says that the Corinthian believers should be eager to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1; cf. also 1 Thess. 5:20 ‘do not treat prophesies with contempt’). On the other hand, the New Testament prophets, together with the apostles, are called the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; cf. also 3:5; 4:11). As such, they stand at the beginning of the New Testament church. In Jesus Christ, God has spoken as never before (Heb. 1:1). The apostles have witnessed to this. The result can be found in the New Testament. If prophetic revelations still take place in the New Testament church, they will always have to be judged in the light of the apostolic writings in the New Testament.
Mouthpieces for God
Much prophecy in the Bible has to do with the future. The New Testament demonstrates that the Old Testament prophets spoke about the future work of Jesus Christ. It is therefore understandable that ‘prophecy’ is often referred to as ‘speaking about the future’.
Nevertheless, in both Old and New Testaments, ‘prophecy’ seems to have a wider meaning. Essential for the real prophet of God was, that God had spoken to him and that he passed those words on. They were, thus, God’s mouthpieces here on earth. People could also pose as messengers from God. Moreover, there were prophets from other gods. True and false could not easily be distinguished from each other. Decisions about that were closely bound to one’s own belief.