The Old Testament prophets were men who are called and sent by God to speak his message to God's people in the context of covenant culture, and call God's people to turn their hearts to God. This article looks also at the nature of the calling of prophets.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2014. 3 pages.

Who Were the Old Testament Prophets?


The Old Testament prophets are some­what mysterious figures. They often appear on the scene, with little intro­duction, to proclaim a thundering “Thus says the LORD!” to His people and, sometimes, to the surrounding nations. Who were these men and how did they come to be prophets of Yahweh? And how are we to understand their task?

Answering these questions will be very helpful to us as we read the Old Tes­tament. But it will also be very helpful in understanding our role as Christians today. After all, in Christ, we are all prophets as well as priests and kings.

For the purposes of this article, we will confine ourselves to looking at the more prominent prophets. The Old Testament also speaks about men who belonged to the “company of prophets” but they are a topic for another day.

Sent by the LORD🔗

The prophets were men directly called by God. The calls of a number of them are recorded explicitly for us. Moses was called while tending his father in law’s sheep at Horeb (Exodus 3 & 4). Samuel was called as a boy in the temple (1 Samuel 3). Isaiah’s call is recorded at length in Isaiah 6. Jeremiah was set apart from birth and called to proph­esy at about age 20 (Jeremiah 1:5ff). Ezekiel was called while he was in exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1 & 2).

In some cases, God’s call comes in the context of a vision or a dream (Numbers 12:6). Isaiah and Ezekiel are both given overwhelming visions of God in His splendour. Sometimes God’s call comes “out of the blue.” Amos was a sheep breeder when “the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” But what is clear in each case is that these men were appointed by the LORD – they do not take this role on themselves.1

God’s Spokesmen🔗

The prophets were not only appointed by the LORD – they were to speak His word. Many times we read “the word of the LORD came to...” (e.g. 1 Kings 18:1; 21:17) and often the message itself is introduced with the formula “This is what the LORD says” (e.g. 1 Kings 20:42; 21:19). By contrast, God condemns false prophets because “they have run with their message” (Jeremiah 23:21) and “they lead my people astray with their reckless lies” (Jeremiah 23:32.)

A prophet is one who stands in the council of the LORD (Jeremiah 23:18; 1 Kings 22:19-20), hears God’s word and proclaims it to His intended audience. God illustrates this principle when he says to Moses “I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1). In Deuteronomy 18:18, God says “I will put my words into (my prophet’s) mouth.” The people are to accept those words as God’s words – if they do not listen and obey, God Himself will call them to account! (Deuteronomy 18:19.)

But although the prophets are given God’s words to speak, they are not mere parrots or megaphones. Each brings the word of the LORD in a way consistent with their own education and experi­ence; often showing interests and using examples consistent with their back­ground. Ezekiel, as a priest, shows a great familiarity with the temple and, indeed, much of his message has to do with the temple. Amos (a tree tender/sheep breeder) speaks of the Amorites “tall as cedars and strong as oaks” (2:9) and of Israel’s survivors “As a shepherd saves from the lion’s mouth only two leg bones or an ear so will the Israelites be saved” (3:12.) God’s word comes to His people through the personality of the prophet.

It is worth saying, at this point, that the prophets are to be God’s witness­es. Although their message calls for a response, their success is not measured by this. They are simply called to faith­fully proclaim God’s word and bear witness to Him.

Culture Interpreters🔗

At first glance, the message of the proph­ets can seem somewhat obscure, the sins they identify relatively minor (in some cases) and the punishments pro­nounced by God rather extreme. But, on closer examination, it is clear that they prophesy against a particular – and clearly delineated – background which is immensely helpful in coming to grips with their message.

The LORD’s prophets are covenant messengers.2 Even though they may not specifically speak about covenant, they address God’s people as those who are in a covenant relationship with Yahweh. In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God had explained to His people how His covenant relationship with them would work. Because He loved them and was at work for their good, He would confirm right covenant living by blessing them abundantly; and He would respond to covenant unfaithfulness by cursing them in specific ways.3 The prophets, therefore, interpret their culture in the light of God’s covenant: they evaluate the people’s attitude to God by their obedience to God’s law or lack of it; and they evaluate God’s attitude to His people by whether they are experienc­ing His blessings or His curses.

The sins the prophets identify are covenant sins. For example, Amos begins by condemning the surround­ing nations for crimes against humanity (1:3-2:3) but, when he gets to Judah and Israel, he condemns them for cov­enant violations – idolatry, rejection of God’s law, oppression of the righteous, the poor, the prophets and the Nazirites (2:4-12.) Other prophets also include covenant violations such as Sabbath-breaking (Ezekiel 20:21), not practicing the Sabbath year (2 Chronicles 36:21), cloaking violence with empty worship (Isaiah 1:11-15), sacrificing blemished animals (Malachi 1:7-8), failure to tithe (Malachi 3:8-10), perversion of justice and so on.

Not only do the prophets highlight covenant sins – they also proclaim cov­enant consequences. Sometimes we think that God loses His temper with His people because of their disobedience, and that the prophesied punishments are a ‘tit for tat’ reaction on His part. In fact, when the prophets speak about God’s impending judgement of His people, they are testifying that God is faithful to His promises. So, when the prophets condemn the behaviour of God’s people and warn about His coming judgement, they always do so in terms of the cov­enant curses. They prophecy famine, infertility, disease, drought, oppression by their enemies and finally, exile, if the people continue in their unfaithful­ness (c.f. Deuteronomy 28:15-68). These punishments are not God ‘lashing out’ at a people who have ‘ticked him off’ but a reminder that, even when God’s people are unfaithful, He will remain faithful – “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

The prophets’ words were intended to cause the people to consider their ways and return to God (e.g. Amos 4’s refrain “I gave you ... but you have not returned to me”). Thus God’s promised punishment was an instrument of His grace and the prophets’ warnings are a call to be faithful as God is faithful. If the people refuse to heed the prophets (and mostly they do), the prophets’ words still testify to God’s faithfulness and justice – even in punishing His own people.

Always Counter-cultural🔗

What is striking in reading the proph­ets is that their message almost always stands in stark contrast to the perception of God’s people. Ezekiel, for example, prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in a climate where the people are up-beat and believe that their current troubles will be short-lived – and that God would never allow the temple to be destroyed. Then, when the temple falls and the spirits of the Israelites dive and their outlook for the future becomes bleak, the LORD’s message through Ezekiel becomes positive and speaks of future res­toration. In both instances – when Ezekiel prophesies judgement and then restora­tion – his message is directly contrary to the prevailing sentiment of the people.

Bringing a strongly counter-cultural message was challenging for the proph­ets, but it was made worse by the fact that many of them prophesied in a climate in which there were many false prophets bringing messages that the peo­ple’s itching ears wanted to hear – and doing so in Yahweh’s name. The proph­ets’ task was no easy one – God even warned some of them that their words would fall on deaf ears (e.g. Jeremiah 7:27). Ezekiel was even told that the people regarded him as a sort of frivo­lous entertainment (Ezekiel 33:32)! No wonder many of them were reluctant, as Moses was, to take up this work or com­plained about their lot, as Jeremiah did.

In many cases, because the hearts of the people had become so hard, the prophets were called to act out God’s message in physical ways so that the people’s curiosity would be aroused and they would be prompted to ask what the act signified. Ezekiel had to lie on his side for more than a year to symbolise the siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4 & 5), and was not allowed to mourn when his wife died suddenly (Ezekiel 24:15ff). Isaiah went around stripped and barefoot for three years (Isaiah 20). In these and other ways, the LORD sought to appeal to His people when they no longer listened to His words.

The prophets were called to stand fairly and squarely on God’s side and to proclaim His word – come what may (Jeremiah 1:7-8). But God also specifi­cally equipped them for their task by putting His Spirit on them and giving them strength to stand against the opposition of His people – “Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land ... They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you” (Jeremiah 1:18-19 c.f. Ezekiel 3:9.)

Forth Tellers and Foretellers🔗

Many times prophecy is understood as predicting the future. This is certainly an element in the message of the Old Testament prophets, but their work is perhaps best understood as “forth telling” – taking the word the people already had and applying it relevantly to their day. God, through the prophets, helped His people to see themselves in the light of His covenant, to see the con­sequences of their unbelief and rebel­lion, and called them to return to Him and so be part of His promised restora­tion. Clearly, a part of this message will always lie in the future – ultimate restoration comes in the new heaven and the new earth when God’s dwelling is with man (Revelation 21:3-4). But how God’s people respond to His word also has implications for the present – when the people listened to Micah’s prophesy “did not the LORD relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them?” (Jeremiah 26:18-19). The message of the prophets, while including promises which are still in the future for us, was intended for a particular people at a particular time so that they would return to the LORD.


The Old Testament prophets were men called and sent by God to speak His word to His people. They were God’s witnesses against those who had re­jected Him, enabled and equipped by His Spirit. They interpreted their world in the light of God’s word in order to vindicate God’s name and perhaps turn people’s hearts to Him.

Like the Old Testament prophets, we are called to be God’s witnesses, enabled by His Spirit to understand our culture – both inside and outside the church – in the light of His word, and to speak against the godlessness of our day, calling people to into fellowship with the living God. Whether people listen or not, we are called with our words – and our lives – to bear witness to God’s Name.


  1. ^ This fact is also reflected in God’s condemnation of false prophets – “I did not send them...” (Jeremiah 14:15; 23:21, 32.)
  2. ^ Though some prophets e.g. Jonah, Nahum are not speaking directly to Israel, their messages are still framed with reference to the Lord’s covenant relationship with His people and are intended to be read by His people and understood in that light.
  3. ^ This also established a predictable pattern for God’s people, enabling a prophet like Haggai to urge the people to give careful thought to their ways (Haggai 1:5ff) and to see that they were plainly experiencing the effects of God’s curse. When they respond in obedience, he can confidently promise God’s blessings. (Haggai 2:18-19).

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