PROPHETS. Three Hebrew words are used in the OT to designate the prophets, namely nāvî’, rō’eh and hōzeh. The last two words are participles and may be rendered “seer.” They are practically synonymous in meaning. The first term, nāvî’, is difficult to explain etymologically, although various attempts have been made. The significance of these words, however, may be learned from their usage.

Each of the words designates one who is spokesman for God. The usage of nāvi’ is illustrated by Exod.4.15-Exod.4.16 and Exod.7.1. In these passages it is clearly taught that Moses stood in relation to the pharaoh as God. Between them was an intermediary, Aaron. Aaron was to speak to Pharaoh the words that Moses gave to him. “He [Aaron] will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him” (Exod.4.16). The man who can be designated a nāvi’, then, is one who speaks forth for God.

The two words rō’eh and hōzeh perhaps have primary reference to the fact that the person so designated sees the message God gives him. This seeing may mean that the message first came through a vision and in some instances it did, but overall the use of these two words is as broad as the English words perceive and perception. They may refer to sight, but they usually refer to insight. Thus the words designate one who, whether by vision or otherwise, is given insight into the mind of God, and who declares what he has “seen” as a message to the people. The biblical emphasis throughout is practical. It is not the mysterious mode of reception of the prophetic revelation that is emphasized, but rather the deliverance of the message itself for God.

The biblical prophet must be distinguished from the prophētēs of the Greeks. The latter really acted as an interpreter for the muses and the oracles of the gods. The prophets, however, were not interpreters. They uttered the actual words that God had given to them, without any modification or interpretation on their part. The Bible itself gives an accurate description of the function of the true prophet: “I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deut.18.18). The words were placed in the prophet’s mouth by God; i.e., they were revealed to the prophet, and then the prophet spoke to the nation precisely what God had commanded him.

I. The Position of the Prophet in the Old Testament Administration. The establishment of the prophetic institution was necessitated by the settlement of the nation Israel in the Land of Promise. Israel entered Canaan with the precious possession of the law. This law, revealed by God at Mount Sinai, laid the broad basis on which the life of the people of God was to be built. The basic principles of divinely revealed ethics and morality are found in the Ten Commandments, and sundry rules for particular situations are expressed in the other laws. On this basis the life of the people of God was to be conducted.

At the same time this law was not adequate to meet all the situations that would arise when the period of Israel’s nomadic wanderings came to an end. This inadequacy was not due to any inherent weakness in the law itself, but simply to the fact that the law did not speak in detail on every possible situation that could arise in Israel’s life. There would be occasions when a specific revelation of God would be needed in order to show the nation the course it should pursue. This needed revelation God would give to the people by means of his servants, the prophets.

When Israel entered Canaan, it would find a people that sought to learn the future and the will of the gods by the practice of various superstitions, which the Bible calls “abominations” or “detestable ways” (Deut.18.9). These abominations were being regularly and continually practiced by the inhabitants of Canaan, and there was a danger that the Israelites would be influenced by them and would themselves learn to do them. To offset this danger the Lord declared that he would raise up the prophets and that the Israelites were to listen to the prophets and to obey them (Deut.18.15). In this passage, Scripture points both to a great individual prophet, one who would be as significant and central to the people as was Moses at Sinai, and also to what we, with hindsight, would call the successive line of prophets. Note that in Deut.18.21-Deut.18.22 a test was given whereby the true might be distinguished from the false. Just as later the people would wonder if the next Davidic king in line would be the promised Greater David, so also from the time of Moses onward there was expectation of the coming Mosaic prophet (cf. Deut.34.10), and each prophet who arose would be scrutinized (cf. John.1.21) to see if he were the one Moses predicted. By the order of prophets, the Lord enabled his people to walk into the unknown future with faith and obedience, trusting in the sovereign God, not, as the pagan, trying to secure and control the future by magic rites. (See Magic.)

The prophet whom the Lord would raise was to be like Moses; just as Moses was a mediator between God and the nation, so that prophet would serve as a mediator. At Horeb, when God appeared to the nation, the people trembled and asked that Moses alone should speak to them. God commended Israel for their request and announced that there would be a mediator, even the prophets. The prophets, then, served as mediators between God and the nation. Just as the priests represented the people before God, so the prophets represented God to the people.

In ancient Greece we have the god, the oracle, the prophet, and the people. The same seems to have been the case in the Mesopotamian countries. In Israel, however, there was only one intermediary between God and the people, namely, the prophet. This arrangement was truly unique. One who heard the words of the prophet heard the very words of God himself, and these words required implicit obedience.

In many nations of antiquity there were soothsayers or people who had visions. They represented a part of that web of superstition that covered the ancient world. The prophetic institution of Israel, however, according to the testimony of the Bible, was of divine origination. God himself raised up this institution (Deut.18.15-Deut.18.18), and it is this fact that distinguished the prophets from the soothsayers of the Homeric world and from the so-called prophets of antiquity.

II. The Relation of the Prophets to Moses. Unique as was the prophetical body, it can properly be understood only as having served under Moses. Moses occupied a position of preeminence in the OT economy. He was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, and so pointed forward to Christ who as a Son is faithful over God’s house (Heb.3.1-Heb.3.6). To the prophets God made himself known in dreams and visions and probably also in dark, enigmatic sayings. To Moses, however, God spoke clearly and distinctly, mouth to mouth, as a man speaks to his friend (Num.12.1-Num.12.8). A distinction in the method or manner of revelation thus appears with respect to Moses and the prophets. Moses was the leading figure of the OT administration, and the prophets served under him. The revelations made to them were sometimes obscure and ambiguous, in that they were given in dreams and visions. It would follow therefore, that when the prophets spoke, they spoke in terms and forms of thought that were current in and that characterized the OT dispensation.

The entire Mosaic administration must be understood as a witness of the later-to-be-revealed NT administration. Moses and the prophets therefore were types of Christ and of his blessings. They witnessed, not to themselves, but to the “things to be spoken of” (Heb.3.1-Heb.3.6). In speaking of the future salvation under Christ the prophets spoke sometimes in language that was not free of ambiguity, and the interpretation of their prophecies depended on a further revelation and in particular on the NT.

It is sometimes said that the prophets were forth-tellers and not foretellers. Such a disjunction, however, is not warranted. It is true that the prophets were forth-tellers, speaking forth the message of the Lord. That message, however, sometimes had to do with past occurrences, as when the prophets often reminded the people of how God had brought them out of the land of Egypt and given them Canaan for a possession. They also spoke of contemporary events, as witness the words of Isaiah with respect to the situation that confronted Ahaz (Isa.7.1-Isa.7.25). At the same time it must not be forgotten that the prophets also spoke of the future. They predicted future calamity to come on the nation because of the people’s refusal to repent of their sins, and they spoke also in language beautiful and mysterious of the coming of One who would save his people from their sins. The prophets truly were forth-tellers, but they were foretellers as well; and the predictive element is extremely important for a proper understanding of the true nature of the prophets.

III. Classification of the Prophets. In the arrangement of the books of the Hebrew OT there are three parts—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The division known as the Prophets is further subdivided into the former and the latter prophets. Under the first heading are included Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. These books are anonymous, their authors are not known. These books are rightly classified as “former prophets” because the history they contain conforms to the biblical definition of prophecy as a declaration of the wonderful works of God (Acts.2.11, Acts.2.18). This does not mean they are less than true history, but that the process of selection of things to record was performed to show how God was at work in and for his people and how the moral principles of divine providence worked out over the centuries. Against this background of interpretative history we are to understand the work of the great prophets. The former prophets cover the period from Israel’s entrance into the Land of Promise until the destruction of the theocracy under Nebuchadnezzar.

The latter prophets are also called writing prophets. They are the prophets who exercised so great a ministry in Israel—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. The designation “latter” does not necessarily have reference to historical chronology, but is simply a designation of those prophetical books that follow the “former” prophets in the Hebrew arrangement of the OT.

The “later” or “writing” prophets were not anonymous. The reason for this is that they were entrusted by God with the task and responsibility of addressing prophetical messages not only to the people of their own day but also to posterity. They must be accredited to their audience as genuine prophets, and for that reason their name is known to us. There were some prophets whose names we do not know, as, for example, the man who approached Eli and announced to him the downfall of his house. It is not necessary that we know the name of this man; it is enough that it was known to Eli. Those who received the messages of the prophets had sufficient evidence of their accreditation; they knew who spoke to them. The writing prophets, however, have uttered messages that are more relevant to us; they have spoken, for example, of the coming of the Messiah, and it is essential that we be assured that those who uttered such messages were truly accredited spokesmen of the Lord.

Note, however, that the former and the latter prophets complemented one another. The “former” prophets set forth the history of a particular period in Israel’s life; the “latter” or “writing” prophets interpreted particular phases of that history. The one is necessary for the proper understanding of the other.

The Scripture does not say much as to the methods used by the great “writing” prophets in preparing their messages. The theory has been advanced by Herman Gunkel that the prophets were first of all oral preachers, and that they did not write their messages. The written books that we now possess, Gunkel argued, were the work of disciples of the prophets. From the example of Jeremiah, however, it appears that the prophets did write down their messages. It may be impossible for us fully to know what is the precise relationship between their spoken word and their written messages. It could very well be that the prophets often spoke far more than they have written down. It could be that in many instances they enlarged on their messages when they were delivering them orally and that they made digests of these messages for writing.

With respect to the last twenty-seven chapters of the Book of Isaiah, for example, it may well be that these messages were never delivered orally. It is quite likely that the prophet, after retirement from active preaching and prophesying, went into solitude during the latter days of Hezekiah and wrote down the wondrous messages that concern the future destinies of the people of God and their deliverance from sin by the Servant of the Lord. It is quite possible also that some of the prophecies of Jeremiah are the results of intense polishing and reworking. These written messages need not in every instance have been identical with what had been delivered orally. What we have in the Scriptures is what the Spirit of God intended us to have.

IV. Schools of the Prophets. After the people had entered the Promised Land, there came a time when “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg.21.25). It was evident that the nation had to have a king, but the first requests for a king were made in a spirit and for a purpose that conflicted with what God intended the theocracy to be. The first king was not a man after God’s own heart, but one who often did his own desires. This was a time when there was danger not only from the idolatry of Canaan but also from the incursions of the Philistines. For the encouragement and spiritual welfare of the nation, bands (hevel) of prophets were raised up.

It is difficult to say what is intended by the word band. Whether the groups of prophets so designated had a formal organization or not, one cannot tell. It may be that such groups were more or less loosely knit together, and that they served under Samuel. For that matter it cannot be positively asserted that Samuel was the founder of such groups, although such a supposition seems to have much in its favor.

Following Samuel’s death these prophetical bodies seem to have disbanded. We hear no more of them until the times of Elijah and Elisha. During the days of these men groups of prophets again appear, though most likely they are not to be thought of as hereditary descendants of the bodies that existed under Samuel. The reason for this is that in Elijah’s day they appear only in the northern kingdom. The theocracy had become divided because of the schism introduced by Jeroboam the son of Nebat. There was now need for support against the worship of the Tyrian Baal as well as the calf worship at Dan and Bethel. Both Elijah and Elisha exercised a vigorous ministry in the north, but the government was opposed to them. They needed particular assistance, and this was found in the companies that now bear the designation “sons of the prophets.” The phrase reveals the close and intimate association in which these men stood to the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. After this period, however, they seem to die out, and we hear no more of them.

V. The Prophets and the Temple. The regular worship by ancient Israel after the establishment of the monarchy was conducted in the temple located in Jerusalem. This worship was in the hands of priests, men who represented the nation before God. What was the relation in which the prophets stood to the temple worship? It used to be held, particularly by the school of Wellhausen, that the prophets and the priests were working in opposition to one another, that the priests represented a sacrificial type of worship, whereas the prophets were more concerned about ethics and behavior. It was even held that the prophets denied that God had ever required sacrifices. This supposition was used to support the position of Wellhausen that the books of the Pentateuch in which sacrifices were commanded were not composed until late in Israel’s history, when the priestly religion had triumphed over the prophetical.

This reconstruction of Israel’s history, once so dominant, is more and more losing ground. It is now being recognized, even by those who are very sympathetic to Wellhausen, that there was not, after all, such an antagonism between prophet and priest. In fact, some of the prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were themselves priests. Indeed, what the prophets were condemning, as a more careful and sober exegesis has shown, was not the sacrifices themselves, but the manner in which the sacrifices were offered (cf. Isa.1.9-Isa.1.15). The sacrifices were truly an approach to God, but the worshiper must come with clean hands and a pure heart. Otherwise the sacrifices in themselves, divorced from a proper attitude of humility and repentance on the part of the worshiper, were nothing but vain oblations and were not acceptable to the Lord.

If, then, the prophets were not condemning sacrifice in itself, what was the relation in which they actually stood to the worship of the temple? In recent years the opinion has become more and more widespread that the prophets were servants of the temple, and that they may even have received a salary and been in the employ of the temple. It is perhaps safest to say that this question cannot be answered positively one way or the other. The prophets at times may have been officially connected with the temple; at times they may have been more or less “on their own” in being special spokesmen of the Lord. It is difficult to say how they did earn their livelihood. The servant of Saul had suggested the giving of a small gift to Samuel in return for information as to the whereabouts of the lost donkeys of Saul’s father (1Sam.9.8). Possibly the prophets at times were dependent on such small gifts and on donations they obtained for services rendered. That they were actually officials in the employ of the temple is a matter on which it is wisest not to speak dogmatically.

VI. True and False Prophets. True religion has always been plagued by imitators. Alongside the faithful and true prophets of the Lord there were others, men who had not received a revelation from God. Jeremiah refused to have anything to do with these men. They were not true prophets, but men who deceived. There were those who claimed to have received messages from God, who as a matter of fact had not received such messages.

In the OT there were three tests the people could apply in order to discern between the true and the false prophet. First, the theological test (Deut.13.1-Deut.13.18). Through Moses there had been a revelation of the Lord who brought his people out of Egypt. Even if the prophet performed some sign to give validation to what he was saying, if his message contradicted Mosaic theology—the truth known about the Lord who brought his people out—the prophet was false. Second, the practical test (Deut.18.20ff.). The prediction that is not fulfilled has not come from the Lord. We ought to notice that this is a negative test. It does not say that fulfillment is proof that the Lord has spoken, for that might in fact be the evidence offered by a false prophet to validate his word. What is not fulfilled is not from the Lord. Third, the moral test (Jer.23.9ff.). This is a test first to be applied to the lives of the prophets themselves (Jer.23.13-Jer.23.14) and then to the tendency of the message they preach. Do they in fact strengthen the hands of evildoers, assuring them that they need not fear judgment to come (Jer.23.17)? This is a sure sign they have not stood before the Lord to hear his word (Jer.23.18-Jer.23.19). The prophet who comes fresh from the Lord’s presence has a message turning people from evil (Jer.23.22).

VII. Messianic Prophecy. Any proper estimation of the prophetic movement must take into account the following three factors. Prophecy was a continuous movement, extending over several centuries in Israel’s history. There was nothing essentially similar to it anywhere in the ancient world. The prophets, during so many centuries, all claimed to be recipients of messages from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and to speak the messages that he had given to them. Lastly, in all these messages there ran a teleological element: the prophets spoke of future deliverance to be wrought by the Messiah. It is this element of prophecy that we call “messianic prophecy.”

The word Messiah is itself not frequently used in the OT. It means “one who is anointed,” and this anointing possesses an abiding character. The Messiah is a human individual who came to earth to perform a work of deliverance for God. He is also himself a divine person, as appears from passages such as Isa.9.5-Isa.9.6. His coming to earth reveals the coming of the Lord, and so it was a supernatural coming. Furthermore, his coming represents the end of the age. It occurred in the “last days,” and hence was eschatological. He came as a king, a descendant of David, and is to reign on David’s throne. Lastly, the purpose of his coming is to save his people from their sins. He is a Savior and is to bear the sins of his own that they may stand in right relation with God.

Messianic prophecy must be understood against the dark background of human sin. Man’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden had involved man in corruption of the heart and also in guilt before God. Man could not of his own efforts make himself right with God, and hence it was necessary that God take the initiative. This God did in announcing that he would place enmity between the woman Eve and the serpent. God also announced the outcome of that enmity, in that the seed (niv “offspring”) of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen.3.15). Though the point is debated, this seems to be the first definite announcement that the Messiah would come and that his work would be victorious.

All subsequent messianic prophecy is based on this Edenic prediction. To Noah it was announced that the blessing of God would be with Shem, and hence among the descendants of Shem one must look for the Messiah. The promise is then narrowed down to Abraham and after him to Isaac. For a time it seemed that Abraham would have no son, and then Ishmael was born to Abraham’s concubine. Yet the promise was not to be fulfilled through Ishmael, but through Isaac. After Isaac had been born, however, Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him. Finally, when Abraham’s faith was sufficiently tested, it was made clear that Isaac was after all the one through whom the Messiah was to come.

Of Isaac’s two sons, Jacob was chosen and Esau rejected. Finally, Jacob called his twelve sons about him and announced to them what would take place in the “days to come” (Gen.49.1). In his prophecy he clearly pointed to the fact that redemption would come in Judah. Later Balaam, a heathen soothsayer, also prophesied, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Num.24.17). In Deuteronomy, in the passage in which the divine origin of the prophetic movement is revealed, we learn also of the prophet to come, who was to be like Moses. Whereas in a certain sense the entire prophetic body was like Moses, there was really only one who followed Moses, and that one was the Messiah.

In the books of Samuel it is revealed that the throne of David was to be established permanently, and that a ruler on that throne would rule over an eternal kingdom (2Sam.7.1-2Sam.7.29). On the basis of this prophecy we are to understand many of the Psalms that speak of a king (e.g., Ps.2.1-Ps.2.12, Ps.45.1-Ps.45.17, Ps.72.1-Ps.72.20, Ps.110.1-Ps.110.7) and also many of the prophecies. The Messiah was to be the king of a kingdom that will never perish. This is taught by Isaiah, for example, who announced the supernatural birth of the Messiah and the government over which he is to rule. He was to be born of a virgin, and his supernatural birth was to be a sign to the people that God was truly with them. They did not have to fear before the growing power of Assyria. The Assyrian king would not destroy them nor render void the promises of God. They were to look to the king whom God would present to them. This king is the Messiah. His kingdom is to be eternal; it is to be built up in righteousness and justice and is to be the hope of the people.

Daniel also spoke of this kingdom as eternal. He contrasted it with the kingdoms of this world, which are both temporal and local. These kingdoms, great and powerful as they are, would nevertheless pass away; and there would be erected a kingdom that would belong to a heavenly figure, the one like a Son of Man. His kingdom alone would be universal and eternal, for he is the true Messiah. Stressing, as they do, the kingly work of the Messiah, many of these prophecies do not lay their emphasis on the actual saving work the Messiah was to perform.

There was a danger that the eyes of the people would be so attracted to the Messiah as a king that they might tend to think of him only as a political figure. This danger became very real, and the Jews more and more conceived of him as merely one who was political, who would deliver them from the yoke of foreign oppressors.

To offset this danger it was necessary that the people know full well that the Messiah’s work was truly to be spiritual in nature. Hence, in the latter portion of his book, Isaiah with remarkable lucidity speaks of what the Messiah would do to save his people. It is in these great “Servant” passages that we learn that the Messiah was to be a Savior. He is set forth as one laden with griefs and sorrows, but they were not his own. They belonged to his people, and he bore them in order that people might be free and have the peace of God. The Messiah suffers and dies vicariously; that is the nature of his saving work, and Isaiah presents it with great vividness.

All the prophets were under Moses, and just as Moses was a type of Christ, so it may be said that the prophetical body as such, being under Moses, was also typical of the great prophet to come. Although they did not understand the full depth of their messages, yet they were speaking of the coming salvation and so of Jesus Christ. Through them God spoke in “divers manners” to the children of Israel. What is so remarkable is that, when their messages are taken as a whole and in their entirety, they form such a unified picture of the work of the Messiah.

We must guard against the view that there is merely a correspondence between what the prophets said and what occurred in the life of Jesus Christ. There was of course a correspondence, but to say no more than this is not to do justice to the situation. Jesus Christ did not merely find a correspondence between the utterances of prophets and the events of his own life. Rather, the events of his life constituted the fulfillment of what the prophets had declared. It is this point on which we must insist if we are to understand them properly. As was said of Isaiah, so we may say of the entire prophetic body: they saw Christ’s day and spoke of him.

Bibliography: E. J. Young, My Servants the Prophets, 1952; W. McKane, Prophets and Wise Men, 1965; H. E. Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Prophets, 1960; S. J. Schultz, The Prophets Speak, 1968; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1970, pp. 741-63; J. A. Motyer, “Prophecy” (IBD), 1980, vol. 3, pp. 1276-84.——EJY

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

prof’-e-si, prof’-e-si, prof’-ets:


1. The Seer and Speaker of God

2. Prophetical Inspiration

3. Relation to Dreams

4. Freedom of Inspiration

5. Supernatural Visions of the Future

6. The Fulfillment


1. Abraham

2. Moses

3. Period of the Judges

4. Schools of Prophets

5. Period of the Kings

6. Literary Prophets, Amos, Hosea

7. Poetical Form of Prophecy

8. Prophets of Judah, Isaiah, and Others Down to Jeremiah

9. During the Exile, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, Daniel

10. After the Exile, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

11. Cessation of Prophecy

12. Prophecy in the New Testament


1. Contents of Prophecy

2. Conception of the Messiah

3. Before the Exile (through Judgment to Deliverance)

4. Analogous Ideas among Heathen Peoples

5. During the Exile (Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah)

6. After the Exile (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

7. Contemporaneous Character of Prophecy

8. Partial Character of Prophecy

9. Perspective Character of Prophecy


1. Necromancy and Technical Witchcraft

2. The Mantle Art

3. Contents of Extra-Biblical Oracles


I. The Idea of Biblical Prophecy.

1. The Seer and Speaker of God:

According to the uniform teaching of the Bible the prophet is a speaker of or for God. His words are not the production of his own spirit, but come from a higher source. For he is at the same time, also, a seer, who sees things that do not lie in the domain of natural sight, or who hears things which human ears do not ordinarily receive; compare 1Sa 9:9, where nabhi’, "speaker," and ro’eh, "seer," are used as synonymous terms. Jer 23:16 and Eze 13:2 f are particularly instructive in this regard. In these passages a sharp distinction is made between those persons who only claim to be prophets but who prophesy "out of their own heart," and the true prophets who declare the word which the Lord has spoken to them. In the latter case the contents of the prophecy have not originated in their own reflection or calculation; and just as little is this prophecy the product of their own feelings, fears or hopes, but, as something extraneous to man and independent of him, it has with a divine certainty entered the soul of the prophet. The prophet has seen that which he prophesies, although he need not have seen it in the form of a real vision. He can also "see" words with his inner eyes (Isa 2:1, and often). It is only another expression for this when it is frequently said that God has spoken to the prophet. In this case too it is not necessary that there must have been a voice which he could hear phonetically through his natural ear. The main thing is that he must have been able sharply to distinguish the contents of this voice from his own heart, i.e. from his personal consciousness. Only in this way is he capable of speaking to the people in the name of God and able to publish his word as that of Yahweh. In this case he is the speaker of Yahweh (nabhi’), or the mouth of the Lord (compare Eze 7:1 with 4:16). Under these conditions he then regards it as absolute compulsion to speak, just as a person must be filled with fear when he hears a lion roar nearby (Am 3:8). The words burn in his soul until he utters them (Jer 20:7,9).

2. Prophetical Inspiration:

3. Relation to Dreams:

In a certain respect the dream can be cited as an analogous phenomenon, in which also the ideas that are slumbering in the soul uninvited put in their appearance without being controlled by consciousness and reason. On the other hand, prophecy differs pecifically from dreams, first, because the genuine prophetical utterance is received when the prophet is clearly conscious, and, secondly, because such an utterance brings with it a much greater degree of certainty and a greater guaranty of its higher origin than is done even by a dream that seems to be prophetical. In Jer 23:25 ff it is declared that these two are entirely dissimilar, and the relation between the two is compared to straw and wheat. The Moslem Arabs also put a much lower estimate on the visionary dream than on the prophetic vision in a waking condition.

4. Freedom of Inspiration:

5. Supernatural Visions of the Future:

The attempt has often been made to explain prophecy as a natural product of purely human factors. Rationalistic theologians regarded the prophets as enthusiastic teachers of religion and morals, as warm patriots and politicians, to whom they ascribed nothing but a certain ability of guessing the future. But this was no explanation of the facts in the case. The prophets were themselves conscious of this, that they were not the intellectual authors of their higher knowledge. This consciousness is justified by the fact that they were in a condition to make known things which lay beyond their natural horizon and which were contrary to all probability. Those cases are particularly instructive in this respect which beyond a doubt were recorded by the prophets themselves. Ezekiel could indeed, on the basis of moral and religious reflections, reach the conviction that Zedekiah of Jerusalem would not escape his punishment for his political treachery and for his disobedience to the word of Yahweh; but he could never from this source have reached the certainty that this king, as the prophet describes the case in 12:8 ff, was to be taken captive while trying to escape from the besieged city and was then to be blinded and taken to Babylon. Just as little could he in Babylon know the exact day when the siege of Jerusalem began (24:2). If this prophet had learned of these things in a natural way and had afterward clothed them in the form of prophecy, he would have been guilty of a deception, something unthinkable in the case of so conscientious a preacher of morality. But such cases are frequently met with. Jeremiah predicts to Hananiah that he would die during the year (28:16), but it is not only such matters of detail that presuppose an extraordinary vision of the prophet. The whole way also in which Jeremiah predicts the destruction of Jerusalem as inevitable, in direct contrast to the hopes of the Jerusalemites and to the desires of his own heart, shows that he was speaking under divine compulsion, which was more powerful than his own reflections and sympathies. On any other presupposition his conduct would have been reprehensible cowardice. The case of Isaiah is exactly the same. When he gives to Ahaz the word of God as a guaranty that the Syrians and the Ephraimites would not capture Jerusalem (7:4 ff), and when he promises Hezekiah that the Assyrians would not shoot an arrow into the city, but would return without having accomplished their purpose (37:22,33), these things were so much in contradiction to all the probabilities of the course events would take that he would have been a frivolous adventurer had he not received his information from higher sources. Doubtless it was just these predictions which established and upheld the influence of the prophets. Thus in the case of Amos it was his prediction of a great earthquake, which did occur two years later (1:1); in the case of Elijah, the prediction of the long dearth (1Ki 17:1); in the case of Elisha the undertakings of the enemies (2Ki 6:12), and in other cases. It is indeed true that the contents of the prophetic discourses are not at all confined to the future. Everything that God has to announce to mankind, revelations concerning His will, admonitions, warnings, He is able to announce through the mouth of the prophet. But His determinations with reference to the future as a rule are connected with prophetical utterances of the latter kind. The prophets are watchmen, guardians of the people, who are to warn the nation, because they see the dangers and the judgments approaching, which must put in their appearance if the divine will is disregarded. The prophets interpret also for the people that which is happening and that which has occurred, e.g. the defeats which they have suffered at the hands of their enemies, or the grasshopper plague (Joel), or a famine. They lay bare the inner reason for external occurrences and explain such events in their connection with the providential government of God. This gives to prophecy a powerful inner unity, notwithstanding the great differences of times and surrounding circumstances. It is prophecy which the Hebrew people must thank for their higher conception of history. This people know of a Highest Author of all things and of a positive end, which all things that transpire must serve. God’s plan has for its purpose to bring about the complete supremacy of His will among the children of men.

6. The Fulfillment:

II. Historical Development of the Prophetic Office.

1. Abraham:

It is a characteristic peculiarity of the religion of the Old Testament that its very elementary beginnings are of a prophetical nature. The fathers, above all Abraham, but also Isaac and Jacob, are the recipients of visions and of divine revelations. Especially is this true of Abraham, who appeared to the foreigners, to whom he was neither kith or kin, to be indeed a prophet (nabhi’) (Ge 20:7; compare Ps 105:15), although in his case the command to preach the word was yet absent.

2. Moses:

Above all, the creative founder of the Israelite national religion, Moses, is a prophet in the eminent sense of the word. His influence among the people is owing neither to his official position, nor to any military prowess, but solely and alone to the one circumstance, that since his call at the burning bush God has spoken to him. This intercourse between God and Moses was ever of a particularly intimate character. While other men of God received certain individual messages only from time to time and through the mediation of dreams and visions, Yahweh spoke directly and "face to face" with Moses (Nu 12:6 ff; De 34:10; compare Ex 33:11). Moses was the permanent organ through whom Yahweh brought about the Egyptian plagues and through whom He explained what these meant to His people, as also through whom He led and ruled them. The voice of Moses too had to explain to them the divine signs in the desert and communicate to them the commandments of God. The legislation of Moses shows that he was not only filled with the Spirit of God occasionally, but that he abode with God for longer periods of time and produced something that is a well-ordered whole. A production such as the Law is the result of a continuous association with God.

3. Period of the Judges:

Since that time revelation through prophecy was probably never entirely wanting in Israel (De 18:15). But this fountain did not always flow with the same fullness or clearness. During the period of the Judges the Spirit of God urged the heroes who served Yahweh rather to deeds than to words. Yet Deborah enjoyed a high rank as a prophetess, and for a long time pronounced decisions of justice in the name of the Lord before she, through her prophetical utterances, aroused the people to rise up against their oppressors. What is said in 1Sa 3:1 concerning the times of Eli can be applied to this whole period, namely that the word and vision of the prophet had become rare in the land. All the more epoch-making was the activity of Samuel, who while yet a boy received divine revelations (1Sa 3:1 ). He was by the whole people regarded as a "seer" whose prophecies were always fulfilled (3:19 f). The passage 1Sa 9:6 ff shows that the people expected of such a man of God that he should also as a clairvoyant come to the assistance of the people in the troubles of life. Such a professional clairvoyant, indeed, Samuel was not, as he was devoted entirely to the service of his God and of his people and obeyed the Divine Spirit, even in those cases when he was compelled to act contrary to his personal inclinations, as was the case when the kingdom was established in Israel (8:6 ff).

4. Schools of Prophets:

Since the days of Samuel we hear of schools of prophets, or "sons of prophets." These associations probably originated in this way, that an experienced prophet attracted to himself bands of youths, who sought to receive a measure of his spirit. These disciples of the prophets, together with their families, lived in colonies around the master. Possibly Samuel was the first who founded such a school of prophets. For in or near the city of Ramah we first find nayoth, or colonies of such disciples (1Sa 19:18 f; 20:1). Among these pupils is found to a much greater extent than among the teachers a certain ecstatic feature. They arouse their feelings through music and induce a frantic condition which also affects others in the same way, in which state they "prophesy" and, throwing off their garments, fall to the ground. In later times too we find traces of such ecstatic phenomena. Thus e.g. in Zec 13:6; 1Ki 20:37,38, the "wounds" on the breast or on the forehead recall the self-mutilation of the priests of Baal (1Ki 18:28). The deeds, suggestive of what the dervishes of our own day do, probably were phenomena quite similar to the action of the prophets of the surrounding tribes. But that prophecy in Israel was not, as is now not infrequently claimed, merely a less crude form of the heathen prophetic institution, is proved by such men as Moses and Samuel, who even in their times represent something much higher. Also in the colonies of prophets there was assuredly not to be found merely an enthusiasm without the Spirit of God. Proof for this is Samuel, the spiritual father of this colony, as Elijah was for the later colonies of this kind. These places were rather the centers of a religious life, where communion with God was sought by prayer and meditation, and where the recollection of the great deeds of God in the past seemed to prepare for the reception of new revelations. From such centers of theocratic ideas and ideals without a doubt there came forth also corresponding influences that affected the people. Perhaps not only was sacred music cultivated at these places but also sacred traditions, which were handed down orally and in writing. Certain it is that at these colonies the religion of Yahweh prevailed.

5. Period of the Kings:

6. Literary Prophets, Amos, Hosea:

However, the flourishing condition of the kingdom under Jeroboam II had an unfavorable influence on its spiritual development. Soon Amos and Hosea were compelled to announce to this kingdom its impending destruction through a great world-power. These two prophets have left us books. To put prophetic utterances into written form had already been introduced before this. At any rate, many scholars are of the conviction that the prophecies of Obadiah and Joe belong to an earlier period, although others place them in the post-exilic period. In any case, the expectation of a day of settlement by Yahweh with His people was already in the days of Amos common and current (5:18 ff). As the writing of individual prophecies (Isa 8:1 f; 30:8; Hab 2:2 f) had for its purpose the preserving of these words in permanent authentic form and later to convince the reader of their wonderful fulfillment, thus too the writing down of larger collections of prophecies had for its purpose to intensify the power of the prophetic word and to secure this as a permanent possession of the people (Jer 30:2; 36:1 ). Pupils of the prophets assisted them in this writing and in preserving their books (compare Jer 36:4; Isa 8:16).

7. Poetical Form of Prophecy:

It is to this custom that we owe our knowledge of the very words of the utterances of many of the prophets of a later period. In addition to the larger books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, we have a number of smaller prophetical books, which have been united into the Book of the Twelve Prophets. These utterances as a rule exhibited an elevated form of language and are more or less poetical. However, in modern times some scholars are inclined to go too far in claiming that these addresses are given in a carefully systematized metrical form. Hebrew meter as such is a freer form of expression than is Arabic or Sanskrit meter, and this is all the more the case with the discourses of the prophets, which were not intended for musical rendering, and which are expressed in a rhythmically-constructed rhetoric, which appears now in one and then in another form of melody, and often changes into prose.

8. Prophets in Judah Isaiah, and Others Down to Jeremiah:

9. During the Exile, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, Daniel:

In the time of the exile itself we find the period of the activity of Ezekiel. It was significant that this prophet became the recipient of divine revelations while on Babylonian territory. His work was, in accordance with the condition of affairs, more that of a pastor and literary man. He seems also to have been a bodily sufferer. His abnormal conditions became symbolical signs of that which he had to proclaim. Deutero-Isaiah, too (Isa 40 ), spoke during the Babylonian period, namely at its close, and prepared for the return. The peculiar prophecies of Daniel are also accorded to a prophet living during the exile, who occupied a distinguished position at the court of the heathen rulers, and whose apocalyptic utterances are of a kind different from the discourses of the other prophets, as they deal more with the political condition of the world and the drama of history, in so far as this tends toward the establishment of the supremacy of Yahweh. These prophecies were collected in later times and did not receive their final and present form until the Greek period at the beginning of the 2nd century BC.

10. After the Exile, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi:

After the return from Babylon the Jews were exhorted by Haggai and Zechariah to rebuild their temple (about 520 BC). At that time there were still to be found prophets who took a hostile attitude to the men of God. Thus Nehemiah (Ne 6:6-14) was opposed by hostile prophets as also by a prophetess, Noadiah. In contrast with these, Malachi is at all times in accord with the canonical prophets, as he was an ardent advocate for the temple cult of Yahweh, not in the sense of a spiritless and senseless external worship, but as against the current indifference to Yahweh. His style and his language, too, evidence a late age. The lyrical form has given way to the didactic. This is also probably the time when the present Book of Jonah was written, a didactic work treating of an older tradition.

11. Cessation of Prophecy:

Malachi is regarded by the Jews as the last really canonical prophet. While doubtless there was not a total lack of prophetically endowed seers and speakers of God also in the closing centuries of the pre-Christian era, nevertheless the general conviction prevailed that the Spirit of God was no longer present, e.g. in the times of the Maccabees (compare 1 Macc 4:46; 9:27; 14:41). It is true that certain modern critics ascribe some large sections of the Book of Isa, as well as of other prophets, even to a period as late as the Greek. But this is refuted by the fact mentioned in Ecclesiasticus (beginning of the 2nd century BC) that in the writer’s time the prophetical Canon appeared already as a closed collection. Daniel is not found in this collection, but the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets is. It was during this period that apocalyptic literature began to flourish, many specimens of which are foundamong the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. These books consist of eschatological speculations, not the product of original inspiration, but emanating from the study of the prophetic word. The very name Pseudepigrapha shows that the author issued his work, not under his own name, but under the pseudonym of some man of God from older times, such as Enoch, Ezra, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, and others. This fact alone proves the secondary character of this class of literature.

See Apocalyptic Literature.

12. Prophecy in the New Testament:

III. Historical Development of Prophecy.

1. Contents of Prophecy:

The contents of prophecy are by no means merely predictions concerning the future. That which is given by the Spirit to the prophet can refer to the past and to the present as well as to the future. However, that which is revealed to the prophet finds its inner unity in this, that it all aims to establish the supremacy of Yahweh. Prophecy views also the detailed events in their relation to the divine plan, and this latter has for its purpose the absolute establishment of the supremacy of Yahweh in Israel and eventually on the entire earth. We are accustomed to call those utterances that predict this final purpose the Messianic prophecies. However, not only those that speak of the person of the Messiah belong to this class, but all that treat of the coming of the kingdom of God.

2. Conception of the Messiah:

The beginnings of the religion of Israel, as also the chief epoch in its development, emanated from prophetical revelations. The prophet Moses elevated the tribal religion into a national religion, and at the same time taught the people to regard the religion of the fathers more ethically, spiritually and vitally. Samuel crowned the earthly form of the concrete theocracy by introducing an "Anointed of Yahweh" in whom the covenant relation between Yahweh and Israel was concentrated personally. The Anointed of the Lord entered into a much more intimate relationship to Yahweh as His Son or Servant than it was possible for the whole people of Israel to do, although as a people they were also called the servant or the son of God (compare Ps 2:7 f; 110). The Psalms of David are a proof of this, that this high destiny of the kingdom was recognized. David himself became a prophet in those hymns in which he describes his own unique relation to Yahweh. But the actual kings of history as a rule corresponded too imperfectly to this idea. For this reason the word "prophetic" already in David’s time directs to the future, when this relationship shall be more perfectly realized (2Sa 7:12 ; compare David’s own words, 2Sa 23:4 ).

See Messiah.

3. Before the Exile (through Judgment to Deliverance):

4. Analogous Ideas among Heathen Peoples:

In recent times scholars have pointed to the fact that in the old Orient, among the Egyptians, the Babylonians and elsewhere, the expectation of a miraculously-born King of the future, who was to bring to His own people and to all nations salvation and peace, was entertained at an early period. Yet so much is certain, that Isaiah and Micah did not base their hopes on the vague dreams of the Gentileworld, but upon the prophetic establishment of a divine sanctuary and kingdom of Zion. The personal figure of this Son of David is not so much in the foreground in the other prophets down to the period of the exile. These prophets mention only casually the Good Shepherd, as e.g. Jer 23:1 ff; 33:12 ff; Eze 34:23 f. But after that time this Messianic expectation became a permanent element in the hopes of Israel.

5. During the Exile (Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah):

Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40:1-66:24), during the time of the Babylonian captivity, enriches prophecy in an extraordinary manner, through the figure of the true "Servant of Yahweh," who in a peaceful way, through his words of instruction and especially through his innocent sufferings and his vicarious deeds, converts Israel, the undeserving servant, and also wins over the Gentileworld to Yahweh. It was not possible that the picture of a suffering man of God, who through his death as a martyr attains to exaltation, should be suggested to the Jews by the altogether different figure of a death and resurrection of a Babylonian god (Thammuz-Adonis!). Since the unjust persecutions of Joseph and David they were acquainted with the sufferings of the just, and Jeremiah’s life as a prophet was a continuous martyrdom. But the writer of the second part of Isaiah had before his eyes a vision that far excelled all of these types in purity and in greatness to such a degree as did David’s Son in Isaiah and Micah surpass His great ancestor. He brings to a completion the kingdom of God through teaching, suffering and death, and attains to the glory of rulership. In this way He unites the offices of prophet, priest and king.

6. After the Exile (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi):

After the exile prophecy continues its work. The Messianic expectations, too, are developed further by Haggai, and still more by Zechariah. Malachi announces the advent of the Day of Yahweh, but expects before this a complete purification of the people of God. God Himself will come, and His angel will prepare the way for Him. The visions of Daniel picture the transformation of the world into a kingdom of God. The latter will mark the end of the history of the world. It comes from above; the earthly kingdoms are from below, and are pictured as beasts; the Ruler of the kingdom of God is a Son of man. The latter comes with the clouds of the heaven to take possession of His kingdom (Da 7:13 ). Then the judgment of the world will take place and include also each human being, who before this will bodily arise from the dead, in order to enter upon blessedness or condemnation. Here we find indicated a universal expansion of the kingdom of God extending over the whole world and all mankind.

7. Contemporaneous Character of Prophecy:

If we survey this prophecy of the kingdom of God and its divinely-blessed Ruler, the Messiah, from a Christian standpoint, we find that a grand divine unity connects its different elements. The form of this prophecy is indeed conditioned by the views and ideas of the time of utterance. The prophets were compelled to speak so that their hearers could understand them. Only gradually these limitations and forms become spiritualized, e.g. the kingdom of God is still pictured by the prophets as established around the local center of Zion. Mt. Zion is in a concrete manner exalted, in order to give expression to its importance, etc. It is the New Testament fulfillment that for the first time gives adequate form to divine revelation. At least in the person of Jesus Christ this perfection is given, although the full unfolding of this kingdom is yet a matter of the future.

8. Partial Character of Prophecy:

A second characteristic feature of prophecy is the partial nature of the individual prophetical utterances and prophetical pictures. One picture must be supplemented by the others, in order not to be misunderstood. Thus, e.g. according to Isa 11:14; Zec 9:13 ff, we might expect that the kingdom of God was to be established by force of arms. But the same prophets show in other utterances (Isa 9:6 f; Zec 9:9 f) that these warlike expressions are to be understood figuratively, since the Messianic King is more than all others a Prince of Peace.

9. Perspective Character of Prophecy:

A third feature that deserves attention is the perspective character of prophecy. The prophet sees together and at once upon the surface of the pictures things which are to be fulfilled only successively and gradually. Thus, e.g. Deutero-Isaiah sees in the near future the return from captivity, and directly connected with this a miraculous glorification of the city of God. The return did as a matter of fact take place soon afterward, but the glorification of the city in which Yahweh Himself had promised to dwell was yet in the distant future. The succeeding prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, predict that this consummation shall take place in the future.

Also in the predictions concerning the future made by Jesus and in the Apocalypse of John these characteristics of prophecy, its contemporaneous and perspective and at times symbolical features, are not disregarded. The firm prophetic word is intended to give the congregation certain directive lines and distinctive work. But an adequate idea of what is to come the Christian church will become compelled to form for itself, when the fulfillment and completion shall have taken place.

IV. Analogous Phenomena among the Gentiles. 1. Necromancy and Technical Witchcraft:

The uniqueness of Biblical prophecy is grasped fully only when we try to find analogies among the Gentile peoples. Here we find everywhere indeed the art of sooth-saying, the headquarters for which was Babylon. But with this art the prophecy of the Old Testament stands out in bold contrast (compare the prohibitions in Le 19:26,31; 20:6,27; De 18:10 ff, prohibitions that refer to necromancy for the purpose of discovering the future). This art was practiced through a medium, a person who had an ’obh (Babylonian, ubi), i.e. a spirit that brought forth the dead in order to question them. The spirits were thought to speak in murmurings or piping sounds (Isa 8:19), which could be imitated by the medium (ventriloquist). According to the Law, which forbade this under penalty of death, Saul had tried to destroy those who practiced incantations, who generally were women (1Sa 28:9). This practice, however, continued to flourish. In addition, the Babylonians and other peoples had also a developed art of interpretation in order to find omens for the future. Especially was the examination of intestines practiced by them. The liver of sacrificial animals particularly was carefully examined, and, from this, predictions, good or bad, were inferred (compare Eze 21:21). See Divination. This art passed over from the Babylonions to the seafaring Etruscans, and through these came to the Romans. But other phenomena also were by the different nations interpreted as prophetically significant and were by those skilled in this art interpreted accordingly. Among these were miscarriages by human beings and animals, the actions of hens, horses, the flight of birds, earthquakes, forms of the clouds, lightning, and the like. Further, mechanical contrivances were used, such as casting of lots, stones, sticks, etc.

2. The Mantic Art:

More spiritual and popular was the interpretation of dreams. It also was the case that mediums intentionally would convert themselves into a semi-waking trance. In this way the suitable mediums attained to a certain kind of clairvoyance, found among various peoples. This approaches the condition of an ecstatically aroused pseudo-prophet, of whom mention is made above. In Greece, too, oracles were pronounced by the Pythian prophetess, who by vapors and the like was aroused to a practice of the mantic article In Dodona it was the voice of the divinity in Nature, which they sought to read in the rustling of the trees and the murmuring of the water. How uncertain these sources were was well known to heathen antiquity. The ancients complain of the enigmatical character of the Sibylline utterances and the doubtful nature of what was said. See Religion in Ancient Greece. In contrast to this, Israel knows that it possesses in prophecy a clear word (Nu 23:23).

3. Contents of Extra-Biblical Oracles:

But the contents also of the Biblical prophecies are unique through their spiritual uniformity and greatness. The oracle at Delphi, too, at times showed a certain moral elevation and could be regarded as the conscience of the nation. But how insignificant and meager was that which it offered to those who questioned it, in comparison with the spontaneous utterances of the prophets of Israel! Also what has in recent times been said concerning the "prophetical texts" from ancient Egypt (Gressmann, Texte und Bilder, I, 20 ff) may indeed show some external similarity to the prophecies of Israel; but they lack the spiritual and religious depth and the strictly ethical dignity of the prophets of the Scriptures, as also the consistency with which these from century to century reveal the thoughts of God and make known with constantly increasing clearness their purposes and goal.


Witsius, De prophetis et prophetia, 1731; Chr. A. Crusius, Hypomnemata ad theologiam propheticam, Part I, 1764; A. Knobel, Der Prophetismus der Hebraer, 1837; F. B. Koester, Die Propheten des Altes Testament und New Testament, 1838; B. Duhm, Die Theologie der Propheten; Kuenen, The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel; F. E. Koenig, Der Offenbarungsbegriff des Altes Testament, 1882; C. von Orelli, Die alttestamentliche Weissagung von der Vollendung des Gottesreiches, 1882; W. Robertson Smith, The Prophets of Israel and Their Place in History, 1882; E. Riehm, Die messianische Weissagung, English translation, 1885; Delitzsch, Messianic Prophecy, 1891; A. T. Kirkpatrick, The Doctrine of the Prophets, 1892; G. French Oehler, Theologie des A T, 1891; Ed. Koenig, Dos Berufungsbewusstsein der alttestamentlichen Propheten, 1900; F. H. Woods, The Hope of Israel, 1896; R. Kraetzschmar, Prophet und Seher im alten Israel, 1902; A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 1903; Eb. Schrader, Die Keilinschriften und dos A T, 1902; C. von Orelli, Allgemeine Religionsgeschichte; M. Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, 1903; Gressmann, Ursprung der israelitisch-judischen Eschatologie, 1905; W. J. Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise, 1905; C. S. Macfarland, Jesus and the Prophets, 1905; G. G. Findlay, The Books of the Prophets in Their Historical Succession, 1906-7; Gressmann, Alt-orientalische Texte und Bilder zum A T, 1909; Selwyn, Christian Prophets.

C. von Orelli