Prophets and Prophecy
PROPHETS AND PROPHECY. The great importance of the prophetic movement is evidenced by the occurrence of the word “prophet” over 300 times in the OT and over 100 times in the NT, along with many other terms that clearly refer to men performing the same function. Since the predictive aspect of prophecy has been so stressed in modern usage as almost to overshadow other phases of prophetic activity, it is particularly needful that Bible students seek to understand the full original purpose of the movement and its importance in Biblical revelation and in the divine plan.
Prophetism in general
Examination of the activities and writings of the prophets clarifies the OT prophetic task. The OT prophet acted as a mouthpiece for God, receiving a message from Him and proclaiming it in accordance with His commands. Since there is one God, a true prophet must necessarily be a prophet of this God. The word, however, might be used of one who pretended or actually believed that he was a mouthpiece of God or some other god.
Examination of the usages of the word “prophet” (נָבִיא, H5566) makes the definition certain. This becomes apparent not from the first occurrence of the word, but from the second. The first occurrence of the word gives little clue as to its meaning: Abimelech is told that Abraham is a prophet and will pray for him (
The position of a prophet differed from that of a king or a priest, who generally received their positions through heredity. No one could ever be a prophet simply because his father was one. Kings, priests, and other officials might be appointed or elected by human instrumentality (cf.
Sometimes a distinction has been made between the prophetic office and the prophetic gift. Such a distinction has no foundation in the Bible or in any other ancient writing. Strictly speaking, the work of a prophet is not the fulfilling of an office, but the performance of a function. It would appear that God on several occasions selected a man to give one or two messages and never again used him as His mouthpiece. On other occasions the Lord used a man as a prophet over a long period. The prophetic position is entirely a matter of relationship to God and cannot be enhanced or decreased by any human agency.
A great leader such as Moses or Samuel or David could also be a prophet. A priest such as Samuel or Ezekiel could also be a prophet. The name indicates a function rather than an office.
Rarely is the term “prophet” applied, either in the OT or in the NT, to an individual other than one who receives, or claims to receive messages directly from God. The word, however, is sometimes used in the pl. in a more extended sense. Thus in the time of general confusion and Philistine oppression toward the end of the period of the judges, when Samuel was the one individual who received God’s messages and passed them on to the people, those who sympathized with Samuel and went about singing God’s praises and trying to arouse patriotic fervor as well as religious feeling among the people were sometimes called prophets. The use of the word in this extended sense is mostly confined to the book of 1 Samuel, aside from the reference in
In the NT, as in the OT, a prophet was one who received his message directly from God. As the Bible neared completion and the existence of God’s written Word in its entirety made direct communication no longer necessary, it became possible to use the term in the extended sense of one who receives his message from God through the written Word and then passes it on to God’s people for “up-building and encouragement and consolation” (
The feminine “prophetess” is used in both Testaments for a woman who performed the prophetic function. In one instance, however, it may simply mean the wife of the prophet Isaiah (
Terms for prophet.
The most common Heb. term is נָבִיא, H5566, which occurs more than 300 times, nearly one-third of its occurrences being in the . The feminine form, נְבִיאָה, H5567, is used several times, usually indicating a woman who performed the same task of receiving and passing on a divine message (cf.
There have been many guesses about the origin of this word. In the early part of the present cent. it was widely held that studying the etymology of a word was the best way to establish its meaning. Linguists now agree that etymologies can merely yield suggestions. The most reliable way to determine the meaning of a word in a particular language is through examination of its usage.
It was formerly assumed by students of Heb. that all Sem. nouns were derived from verbs, and the attempt was therefore made to find a verbal root from which נָבִיא, H5566, could have been derived. Many suggestions were made, none of which are well grounded. The most common was to derive it from a somewhat similar but not identical root, meaning “to gush.” From this some interpreters proposed that it meant one into whose mind the Lord poured ideas. Others thought it came from the idea of a man who poured out words at a rapid rate, and as evidence pointed to the few passages that might suggest that these prophets engaged in ecstatic activities (see IV H, Ecstasy and the prophet). Other attempts have been made to derive the word from a Heb. root or from one found in some other Sem. language, but no one has ever succeeded in producing sufficient evidence to establish any of these suggestions. Most scholars now recognize that not all Heb. nouns are derived from verbs, but that a considerable number of roots were originally nouns, from which verbs were derived. This would seem most certainly to be the case with נָבִיא, H5566. The noun is the original; the verb נָבָא, H5547, simply means “to perform the work of a נָבִיא, H5566.” The etymology of the word is unknown, but its usage makes absolutely clear the definition given above, that a prophet was one whom God used as His mouthpiece to pass on a message.
Another term applied to various prophets is the phrase “man of God,” which is used seventy-six times in the OT. Nearly half of these thirty-six refer to Elisha: fifteen relate to an unnamed prophet (
The additional terms occur as designations of a prophet. Both are participles of verbs of seeing. The less common of the two, רֹאֶה, H8014, is derived from the ordinary word “to see.” It is used a number of times with reference to Samuel, but only a few other times in the Scripture. It emphasized Samuel’s supposed ability to see present or future facts that were invisible to others.
The other participle חֹזֶה, H2602, is derived from a less common Heb. word for seeing, which perhaps emphasizes the idea of gazing or looking intently. This participle is used more often than רֹאֶה, H8014, to designate various prophets. Both participles frequently are tr. “seer.”
Verbs for prophesying.
The most common word for “prophesy” is נָבָא, H5547. In most cases it represents the activity of receiving God’s message and passing it on. In some instances it indicates giving a message from some imagined supernatural being, or imitating the actions of a prophet.
The two words for seeing, רָאָה, H8011, and חָזָה, H2600, are used at times to indicate the reception of the prophet’s message. חָזָה, H2600, is used most often in this sense. In one v. (
Terms for the prophet’s message.
Greek terms in the NT.
The prophetic call.
It sometimes is claimed that every prophet received a specific call from God to enter upon this task. According to this theory, every man who was used in the prophetic capacity had an experience at some time before he began his work that led him to believe that God had ordered him to devote his life to the work of being a prophet.
Such a theory is difficult to disprove, but it should not be accepted as proven without either (1) a definite statement to this effect in the Word of God, or (2) a sufficient amount of evidence that God always called a man in some specific way when He desired him to become a prophet. As the Bible nowhere says that every prophet received such a call, the only way to test the statement is to look for reports of individual experiences. Of course, no man could sincerely pass on a message from God unless God had commanded him to do so, but this is altogether different from giving a man a call to enter upon a continuing activity as a prophet.
Since a king, a great leader, or a priest also performed the function of a prophet if God commanded him to do so, the calling of a man to one of these positions must be distinguished from his being called to be a prophet. The Lord ordered Gideon to save Israel from the hand of the Midianites (
Moses, one of the very greatest of the prophets, was to his contemporaries primarily a leader. When God first appeared to him at the burning bush, He declared His intention of delivering the people from Egyp. bondage and said, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (
One of Moses’ objections was that the Israelites would not believe him when he said the Lord had appeared to him. Thus there entered into the picture incidentally the fact that to be a deliverer, Moses must also become God’s recognized spokesman. His call was primarily a call to be a leader and a deliverer, and therefore can hardly be considered an example of a typical call to be a prophet, even though in the end his work as a prophet assumed outstanding importance.
The statement that every prophet received a specific call from God is hard to reconcile with the case of Elisha. When Elijah was at Sinai, God gave him the command: “when you arrive...Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.” There is no indication that he poured oil on Elisha’s head or even informed Elisha that God was calling him to be a prophet. When he passed the farm where Elisha was plowing, he simply threw his coat over Elisha (
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were called to the difficult task of declaring God’s message to hostile listeners. Under the circumstances it was crucial that each be given an inaugural experience or vision that would intensify his determination to be true to God and to continue to the end, no matter what opposition he would face. In each case there is a full record of a specific call. Because Isaiah’s call is recorded in
In this ch. Isaiah tells how he saw the Lord on a throne in the Temple, and immediately he was filled with agony because he realized his sin and unworthiness. One of the seraphim touched his lips with a live coal from the altar, representing that his iniquity had been taken away through the sacrifice of
The Lord declared to Jeremiah that even before his birth He had consecrated and appointed him to be “a prophet to the nations” (
Ezekiel lived among people who were bitter at heart and not inclined to listen to a message from God whom they thought had forsaken them. Ezekiel was given a vivid experience to drive home to his mind the realization of God’s power and majesty (
Amos stated that as he followed the flocks God called him to prophesy to Israel (
The prophetic activity
How the prophet received his message
The prophetic consciousness.
The prophet was not simply a wise man who gave good advice. He received a message from God and proclaimed it. Yet he was never a mere automaton through whom God caused words to be uttered. He was a human being facing real situations. In his human capacity he made mistakes. Thus when David told Nathan that he had decided to build a temple, the prophet said, “Go, do all that is in your heart; for the Lord is with you” (
God ordered Samuel to go to Bethlehem and anoint one of Jesse’s sons, who would eventually replace Saul as king (
THE HEBREW PROPHETS
Adapted from The Unfolding Drama of Redemption by Scroggie. (c) 1953 by Pickering and Inglis, Ltd. Used by permission.
Thus a prophet might know a portion of the divine will but be completely incognizant of other portions. (Cf.
The Scripture records several dialogues between God and a prophet. When Elijah was at Sinai, ready to give way to utter discouragement, God spoke, reminding him of divine omnipotence and stressing His control over all the nations, but also indicating that Elijah had finished most of the work that God had given him to do, and that another man was to be prepared to succeed him (
When God directed Ezekiel to present a message in a certain way, Ezekiel objected, and God modified the directions to make it easier for the prophet to carry them out (
The first two chs. of Habakkuk contain a dialogue between God and the prophet, in which Habakkuk states the problems that he faces and the Lord presents illuminating answers.
The prophet was not omniscient, and he was not an automaton. The Lord increased his understanding, but He also gave him commands and messages to be presented in exactly the form in which they were given. By various methods this was done: “God had of old spoken to our fathers at various times and in many ways by means of the prophets” (
The external voice.
Samuel thought Eli had called him, when it was really God who spoke (
The internal voice.
In some instances, a prophet received a sudden direct message from God, but no audible divine voice was heard by others near the prophet. Thus
Go forth to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, and say to him, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.”
After Isaiah met Ahaz and gave him God’s message, however, the king answered insincerely; and immediately Isaiah gave a second message that involved knowledge of facts that the prophet could hardly have known previously. This and other such cases indicate the revelation by means of an internal voice.
Opening the prophet’s eyes.
A third way was the divine enabling of a prophet to see realities that were invisible to ordinary eyes. For example, after an angel of the Lord had forced Balaam’s ass to step out of the road, the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes so that he could see what had previously been invisible to him, though visible to the ass (
A vision or imaginary picture.
A similar type of revelation may be involved in much of what John describes in Revelation.
God revealed Himself to the prophets in many ways. He used their personal observations and experiences as means of preparing them to understand His messages. It is, however, the clear and definite teaching of the OT that the prophets received their message from God, so that it was His message, not theirs. Often the words were given them by direct revelation. In all cases the words in those messages that God desired to be preserved for future ages were inspired of the Holy Spirit to keep them from every type of error.
Regardless of the method by which a particular message was given to the prophet, it might contain aspects of truth that he could not grasp or understand himself, but that later interpreters could discover by carefully examining his words and by comparing them with those of other prophets.
How the prophet gave his message
Brief oral statements and rejoinders.
In addition to the brief oral statements, the prophets sometimes answered questions or made rejoinders, giving further divine messages. When, at a time of great national danger, an unnamed prophet promised Ahab victory over Syria (
The traditio-historical school of critics holds that all the work of the prophets consisted of short pithy statements that were remembered and enlarged and added to by their followers in subsequent generations. This, however, is in contradiction to the Scriptural record, which declared that the prophets also delivered many messages of considerable length.
Longer oral messages.
An early instance, in Scripture, of long oral messages given by a prophet is found in the extended statements of the law that God gave Moses, which Moses passed on to the people (e.g.,
The books known as the “major” and “minor” prophets contain many long messages that were delivered orally.
A peculiar type of divine message occurs in the Book of Genesis, where certain patriarchs made declarations regarding the future of their descendants. Sometimes, a patriarch used language that implied he had some control over what would happen to his descendants. To draw such an inference from his words would be incorrect. In these instances recorded in the Bible, the patriarch was strictly guided by the divine Spirit and permitted to say only what was in accord with God’s plan for the future. Even though not explained in the Scripture, it is evident that sometimes at a particular crisis, such as approaching death the Lord allowed a patriarch to perceive the future of his descendants and to state what was ahead for them.
After the undescribed sin of Ham’s younger son, Canaan (
A similar instance of a prophetic blessing occurred when Isaac, old and nearly blind, thought death was approaching (
When Esau returned, Isaac gave him a lesser blessing, telling what God then revealed to him about the future of Esau’s descendants.
Many years later, when Jacob thought his end was near, Joseph brought his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to see their grandfather. Jacob declared that these two sons of Joseph would have a position among Jacob’s own sons as progenitors of tribes (
The following ch. (
Description of visions.
On several occasions a considerable portion of a prophet’s message consisted of describing something he had seen in a vision. This was used effectively by Micaiah when he faced the wicked King Ahab and his counterfeit prophets. Micaiah presented a fig. picture of the fate that was ahead for Israel (
More common than accounts of visions are descriptions of prophetic actions intended to drive home an important message. These “object lessons” should be clearly distinguished from the prophetic visions mentioned above. The prophet Ahijah tore a garment into twelve pieces and handed ten of them to Jeroboam, to illustrate that the kingdom of Solomon would be broken, and ten tribes given to Jeroboam (
This was reminiscent of the incident when Saul laid hold of Samuel’s robe and accidentally tore it. Samuel immediately seized upon this as an illustration that Saul’s kingdom would be torn away from him and given “to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (
To deliver a message unpalatable to their listeners, Jeremiah and Ezekiel made frequent use of symbolic acts to arouse the people’s curiosity and induce them to listen. Jeremiah was directed by the Lord to buy a linen waistcloth and wear it for a time, without putting it in water. Then he was told to “go to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” After many days he was again instructed to go to Euphrates to dig up the waistcloth. The deterioration that had set in was used as a vivid sign of how the house of Israel, once so near the Lord, had ceased to be profitable to Him (
Jeremiah also went to the potter’s house and saw a clay vessel that had been marred in the hand of the potter and was therefore made over into something different. This he used to illustrate God’s sovereign power (
Many of Jeremiah’s prophecies were uttered in Jerusalem during the interval between the first deportation and the final siege and destruction of the city. Consequently, he had the difficult task of persuading people, who were determined to believe that the Lord would deliver their land, that it was God’s will that their city would be destroyed and that they would be taken into captivity.
Ezekiel faced an even more hostile audience. The group of exiles among whom he lived were thoroughly convinced that Jerusalem would not be destroyed and were unwilling to listen to any contrary opinion. It was necessary for Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, to allow himself to be considered unpatriotic or even treasonable.
Under these circumstances Ezekiel made more extensive use of symbolic actions than Jeremiah did. When the people had become so irritated at his message that they refused to listen further, God told him no longer to reprove them (
The use of symbolic acts was not limited to the true prophets. One of the “prophets” who tried to please Ahab by giving the messages the king desired to hear made horns of iron and said: “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians, until they are destroyed’” (
Some interpreters insist that most of the symbolic acts described in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were merely visions. They say, for instance, that Isaiah could not actually have gone “naked and barefoot” for three years, because this would have been indecent; therefore, he must simply have had a vision in which he did so. They say also that Jeremiah could not possibly have taken his waistcloth all the distance to Euphrates to bury it and then return all that distance to dig it up. They say that Ezekiel could not actually have lain beside a tile for 390 days because it would have been impossible to lie still so long. A little reflection, however, will show that to consider these symbolic acts as merely visions would defeat their purpose, which was not to give the prophet a new understanding but to seize the attention of the people. To hear Isaiah say that in a vision he had walked naked and barefoot for three years would add little to the impact of his messages. To see the prophet actually walking around in a state of dress unbecoming of his station in life would arouse interest and lead people to inquire what it meant. It would have little effect for Jeremiah to say: “In a vision I buried a waistcloth for many days and then I dug it up and saw how deteriorated it was.” For him to hold before his hearers the actual waistcloth that they had seen him wear and to let them observe its deteriorated condition was effective for dramatizing his message. For Ezekiel to say that in a vision he had lain for 390 days facing a tile on which he had drawn a picture of Jerusalem would add nothing to the effect of his message. It would be dramatic if he were to lie in the public square a few hours each day, perhaps with a sign beside him saying “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Day 3,” etc. People thinking of their homeland and longing to return, would quickly notice the similarity of the picture on the tile to the place they so wished to see again. Parents would point out its details to their children, and the children would ask why Ezekiel was lying there in that way. Thus attention would be attracted and curiosity aroused. When the Lord would again direct Ezekiel to present the message orally (
Moreover, such arguments rest upon interpretations of the text that are hermeneutically unsound. It is recognized by many commentators (e.g., G. B. Gray in ICC and E. H. Plumptre in Ellicott) that the statement that Isaiah walked naked may well mean that he simply laid aside his outer garment. The command to Ezekiel to lie before the tile 390 days to represent the iniquity of Israel would not necessarily require that he lie there twenty-four hours at a time. A few hours each day would satisfy all the requirements of the symbolic act.
Some of the precise references to Babylon in the Book of Jeremiah and the fact that when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem he seemed already to know about Jeremiah has led many interpreters to think that Jeremiah could well have made a visit to Babylon during the years of comparative peace. On such a trip he could have buried his waistcloth near a part of the river that is much nearer Jerusalem than Babylon itself, and then have dug it up on his return journey. Even this assumption is not necessary, for a number of interpreters suggest that the word פְּרָ֑ת, which ordinarily stands for the River Euphrates, might here designate a place not far from Jerusalem. In support of this they point out that in nearly all the instances where the term occurs in the OT it is used with the word “river” (including three instances in the Book of Jeremiah itself), but not in these four usages (
Symbolic actions occur less frequently in the NT. One instance is Jesus’ command to the disciples that when they were not received in a city they should shake off its dust from their feet. Another symbolic action is Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. The use of bread and wine in the institution of theconstitutes a symbolic action, for the vivid remembrance of the redemptive work of Christ.
The place of emotion in the work of a prophet.
Many prophetic messages were addressed not merely to the head but also to the heart of the listeners. They abound in pictures calculated to arouse strong feelings of sorrow for sin, of gratitude to God, or of determination to follow the commands of God. No one could have such an influence upon his hearers without himself being emotionally moved. This is strikingly illustrated in the words of Samuel to Saul (
It is quite natural that there should be evidence of strong emotion on the part of the prophets and also of their hearers. This, however, is very different from saying that the prophet was compelled only by his feelings or that his message was produced exclusively by his emotions. It is quite common among critical interpreters in recent years to allege that most of the prophetic ideas were the result of their being in a state of “ecstasy” (see below under IV H).
Schools of prophets and sons of prophets.
The term “school of the prophets” has come into wide use through a strange error. In his later years Samuel lived in a section of the town of Ramah called Naioth (
There is no Biblical evidence that groups of men were ever trained to become prophets. God called the prophets as individuals. This was true of Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and in all other cases where there is record of such a call. The prophetic work was an individual activity, in which one man received a message from God and passed it on to God’s people. Only in an extended sense is the term “prophet” applied to groups of people.
Whereas there are occasional references to large groups of pretended prophets of false gods, such as the prophets of Baal (
The word sometimes was loosely applied to individuals desiring to serve the Lord and therefore attaching themselves to men recognized as God’s prophets, to join them in religious activities. References to such men are rarely found in the prophetic books, but occasionally occur in the historical books. Thus in
The term “sons of the prophets” occurs seven times in the OT (aside from the negative statement in
The picture of the “sons of the prophets” in
Cessation of OT prophecy.
Until about 400 b.c., the prophetic movement was prominent in Israel. Time and again an individual came forward declaring the word of God, boldly facing political leaders and denouncing them for their sins, giving encouragement to God’s people, or announcing God’s will as to the next step to be taken. After about 400 b.c. no more prophets appeared. There was no declaration that prophecy was ending, nor did anyone realize that this had occurred. Only after a time did realization dawn upon the people. The book of 1 Maccabees, which is on the whole a sober history of events during the Jewish revolt against , brings out clearly in three places the fact that it was felt that there then was no prophet in Israel and that this had been true for a considerable length of time (
It was God’s plan that a period of about 400 years should thus elapse between the great prophetic movement of the OT and the new prophets connected with the coming of Christ and described in the NT.
Critics suggest another reason for the end of the prophetic movement. They propose that the prophetic movement ended because its predictions that God would protect His land and not allow the people to be taken into exile had proven false. This theory is contradicted by the following facts: (1) Although false prophets did indeed predict that God would not permit His people to go into exile, such an attitude can hardly be said to be characteristic of the true prophetic movement. In fact, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who have been recognized as two of the greatest prophets, repeatedly declared that the nation would go into exile and that Jerusalem would be destroyed. (2) The prophetic movement was active and vital for a considerable time after the return from exile, and the rebuilding of the Temple was facilitated by the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah (
It is easy to see why God caused the OT prophetic movement to come to an end: (1) The entire OT had been written and its books were available as a guide for God’s people. (2) It was God’s will that an interval of about 400 years should elapse between the prophecies of the Messiah and His actual coming. Although critics may assert that Daniel’s prophecies were not written until after most of the events that he so clearly predicted, no one can say that the many OT prophecies of Christ were written after the time when they were fulfilled.
True and false prophets
Wherever there is something good, counterfeits are apt to appear. There is no evidence of any movement outside of Israel that is more than slightly similar to the prophetic movement described in the Bible, but a certain amount of imitation might be expected among peoples in the neighborhood, both in other nations and in Israel itself.
Men who prophesied in the name of a false god or idol.
Jeremiah twice speaks of men who prophesied by Baal (
Men who falsely claimed to receive messages from the Lord.
It was inevitable that individuals sought advancement by pretending to be prophets of the Lord, and that evil rulers might support such men to win the support of the godly. In
Men who ceased to be true prophets.
The prophets, like all men except the Lord Jesus Christ, were fallible and sinful. In their human capacity they were apt to err. It was only when directly presenting a message that God chose to give them that their words were free from error. Thus such men as Balaam or the prophet at Bethel described in
Tests of a prophet.
Sometimes it was very difficult to know who was a true prophet and who was a deceiver.
In answer to the question, “How may we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?” (
If a prophet speaks in the name of other gods or claims to be a representative of heathen deities, he is not a true prophet. Although good ideas may be obtained from many different sources, such truths are mixed with error. The true prophet gives a message directly from God; therefore his message can be considered entirely trustworthy. No such claim can be made for any alleged revelation not given specifically in the name of the Lord.
God enabled Moses to perform certain miracles to show the Israelites that God had sent him (
A prediction given by a true prophet may be visibly fulfilled.
This test is specifically mentioned (
Sometimes a prediction referred to the distant future, and therefore a prophet’s contemporaries could not form an immediate judgment. In an account in
In this particular case an additional proof was given to the prophet’s contemporaries. The man of God followed up his distant prediction (
More than a cent. before the destruction of Jerusalem, Isaiah predicted that after the people had been in distant exile for many years a new conqueror named Cyrus would set them free and would make it possible for Jerusalem to be rebuilt (
The most important test of all—agreement with previous revelations.
It is clearly brought out in
This test also is not easy to apply. Sometimes a true prophet gave a message that at first seemed to contradict a portion of God’s revelation that had previously been given, and it requires careful study to perceive that the two are mere different facets of the same truth.
The negative nature of the tests given by Moses.
The tests described above were real tests and would rule out many imposters. Yet an imposter might seem to fulfill all of these tests. He might perform an act that would appear to be miraculous. He might have made a lucky guess about the future. It might not be possible to find any clear contradiction between his teaching and the ideas contained in the Word of God. In spite of all this he might actually be a false prophet.
Moreover, some true prophets did not perform any miracle. Some did not predict anything that would happen soon enough for those who heard to be able to judge whether the prediction was fulfilled or not. Sometimes a true instrument of divine revelation used words in a different sense than had been done by an earlier prophet, thus seeming to contradict the earlier statement of truth (cf. the difference in meaning of the word “faith” as used by James and as used by Paul). The tests that Moses gave, although they would rule out many imposters, would not always enable the observer to distinguish between false prophets and true prophets. The tests are largely negative rather than positive.
Absolute certainty as to who were the true prophets often was difficult to attain. In Jeremiah’s time many good people must have found it difficult to decide between the alleged prophets on the one hand, who said that God would protect His land and who seemed to be directly in line with the teaching of Isaiah a cent. earlier, and Jeremiah and Ezekiel on the other hand, who declared that God would cause the nation to be destroyed and the people to be taken into exile.
In His providence God caused His people to honor the writings of the true prophets. Christians can be certain that no mistake was made by those who preserved these books because Jesus Christ set the seal of His approval upon them, declaring that His people should “believe all that the prophets have spoken” (
Naturalistic explanations of the prophetic movement
In recent years many critics have attempted to explain the whole prophetic movement on a naturalistic basis. This viewpoint is the result of certain presuppositions contrary to the claims of Scripture.
The Bible, however, declares one great God who created the world and who controls all things, and that this God has communicated with sinful men. When there were comparatively few men on earth He communicated directly to them. When the population had greatly increased and confusion and misunderstanding became widespread, He selected certain individuals through whom He sent messages to His people, calling on them to acknowledge Him as the great Creator, to turn away from sin and receive the salvation that He offered. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit kept these prophetic messages from error and has preserved them for the guidance of God’s people.
The naturalistic presuppositions.
Those who deny the Biblical view of the prophetic movement can be considered in three categories: (1) Many interpreters assume that everything in the universe can be explained on a mechanistic or naturalistic basis, and that the Scriptural concepts of God are mythical, fanciful, and imaginary. God as an actual Being who exerts any direct influence on human events is ruled out in their thinking. (2) A second class of interpreters theoretically believe that God exists, and some of them even accept as true the basic teachings of the NT about the reality of sin and the necessity of salvation through Christ. Nonetheless their fundamental attitude toward the prophetic movement and the prophetic books does not differ greatly from the attitude of those in the first category. Their assumption is that God, though great and important, will neither directly communicate with man nor actively intervene in the life of humanity. (3) A third category of interpreters declares that God exists, that He takes an interest in human life, and that He reveals Himself through great actions through the course of history. Yet in all their thinking they constantly assume that God has never revealed Himself through words. To many of them (as to some of those in the other two categories) the prophets were simply great thinkers who either deduced or intuitively discovered important truths. To others, particularly in the first two categories, the activities of the prophets were either the result of peculiar psychological quirks or a by-product of the clash of various political, religious, and social forces.
None of these three categories of interpreters take the words of the prophets at their face value or believe that God actually communicated messages to them that they in turn passed on. These interpreters are only interested in determining the human and social forces that brought these books into existence. They are interested in determining whether the prophets were men who interpreted events through their own reasoning or whether they were individuals who were influenced by emotional vagaries to take certain attitudes or to utter certain expressions.
The naturalistic explanations of the prophetic books have been made from a variety of different and sometimes contradictory viewpoints. Whereas the interpreter of the prophetic books must always keep in mind the inherent difficulty of conveying divine thoughts to finite, fallible, and sinful human beings, there is no solid basis for denying the simple teaching of the Bible that God spoke to the prophets and that the prophets passed on His messages.
Denial that Biblical prophets have been able to predict the future.
One of the first to try to explain the prophetic movement from a naturalistic basis was Celsus, a writer who attacked Christianity in the 2nd cent. a.d. Celsus denied that the prophets had truly predicted the future. He dealt particularly with the , claiming that its rather detailed predictions of and his successors were not actually written until after the events had occurred, so that the alleged predictions were really based upon a later knowledge of what actually had happened. This attitude toward the prophetic predictions has continued to the present time and has been a prominent factor in the attempts of modern critics to date many of the books much later than the time they claim to have been written. It was done doubtless to forestall this sort of interpretation in relation to the most important predictions of the OT—those relating to the life and death of Christ—that God caused that the OT should be completed some centuries before the time of Christ to make it obvious that the OT predictions of Christ were made long before His time.
A second method sometimes used to discount prophecy is to assert that predictions have been intentionally fulfilled, as in the case of Jehoram’s death (
There are also a number of elements that clearly show the divine foreknowledge and control in connection with Josiah’s fulfillment of the prediction in
The converse of this situation occurred in a.d. 362 when Julian the Apostate, Constantine the Great’s nephew, after becoming Rom. emperor, desired to reestablish paganism and destroy Christianity. Knowing that fulfillment of prophecy was one of the accepted arguments in favor of Christianity, Julian deliberately undertook to disprove the statement in
Even the cynical and antichristian writer, Gibbon, was convinced by the historical evidence that this event occurred. However, he proceeded to assert that it was not a supernatural act, but simply the result of the fact that the gases imprisoned for many years in the subterranean chambers under the Temple had become so compressed that when they were released at the beginning of the excavation, explosions occurred. But Jesus had made no claim that divine intervention in supernatural form would cause the fulfillment of the prophecy. Regardless of whether the occurrence was a miracle or a purely natural event such as an earthquake, the fact remains that in the providence of God many centuries passed during which Jerusalem was trodden down of the Gentiles and the site of Solomon’s Temple remained in the hands of those hostile to the Jews. Thus Julian’s attempt to prevent prophecy from being fulfilled came to nothing.
Another method used in the effort to prove that the prophets were not really messengers from God is to assert that certain prophecies in the Scripture were not actually fulfilled. Sometimes much is made of the prediction by Jeremiah of Jehoiakim that “with the burial of an ass he shall be buried, dragged and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (
Under the circumstances, however, a little thought will show that it is unrealistic to assume that the Book of Jeremiah contains a false prophecy regarding Jehoiakim’s death. Jerusalem remained under Jewish control for eleven years after the death of Jehoiakim, and every Jew would have known whether he was buried with the usual ceremony attending the death of a king, whether he suffered a tragic fate through some conspiracy, or whether Nebuchadnezzar treated him with such indignity that his body was thrown out into the wilderness for a time before being buried, perhaps even remaining unburied. If Jehoiakim had died a natural death and had been buried with the customary pomp attending the death of a king, Jeremiah’s many enemies would have had no difficulty in persuading everyone that he was a false prophet. Even on the unlikely assumption that the followers of a pretended prophet whose prediction had proved to be so completely wrong still supported him, it can be assumed safely that so demonstrably false a prediction about the king’s death would not have been included in his book.
Many prophecies in the Scripture have been fulfilled in remarkable fashion. To reconstruct history on the basis of imagination at points where there is no evidence, and then to use this as a means of declaring that some of the prophecies were not fulfilled, is hardly a fair way to treat God’s Word.
The rise of the higher criticism.
When the higher criticism was applied to the OT, and scholars began to divide the Pentateuch into various alleged sources supposedly written at different times, a new dimension was added to the naturalistic efforts to explain the origin of the prophetical books. In 1789, Doederlein declared that
Most of these higher critical approaches to the prophets derive from two causes: (1) unwillingness to believe that the prophecies could actually have been made in advance of the times when the events occurred; (2) application to the Bible of a method of literary study generally applied by 19th-cent. critics to nearly all ancient or medieval writings, but by the middle of the 20th cent. abandoned by most literary critics in non-Biblical fields.
and the traditio-historical approach.
Early in the 20th cent.,introduced a new approach based not, like the previous higher criticism, upon theories of literary development and composition, but upon seeking a popular origin for statements or ceremonial forms adapted to particular situations. He laid great stress on trying to discover the particular type of situation that would have given rise to a particular statement or to a particular type of lit., and assumed a subsequent long period of oral transmission before the results were written down. This approach has been greatly extended by a group of Scandinavian scholars, who have developed it into what is now called the traditio-historical approach. These men insist that little or nothing of the prophetic writings (or perhaps of the rest of the OT) was in written form until after the Exile. They hold that the prophets uttered short gnomic sayings that were passed on by word of mouth. These statments were enlarged and added to by their followers during many generations and thus the material gradually assumed a definite form. According to this view, comparatively little of what is attributed to the various prophetic writers actually was composed by them.
Some members of the traditio-historical school have strongly opposed many of the ideas of the documentary analysis approach that is typical of the higher criticism. For a time the followers of the documentary analysis strongly retaliated in kind. In recent years, however, a synthesis has been developing in which critics tend to combine both approaches denying the idea taught in the Bible that the prophet actually received messages from God and passed them on and also completely abandoning the idea that the Bible is an infallible rule of faith and practice.
Relation to the ceremonies of the Temple.
The Wellhausen school of criticism, which succeeded in gaining wide acceptance of its ideas regarding the Pentateuch and the extension of these ideas to the rest of the OT, laid great stress on Hegelian principles of synthesis growing out of division and competition between opposing views. Its followers selected a few passages in the prophets that include strong language against dependence on formalism or ceremonial observances. It drew from these the idea that the prophets were a group that favored a return to the simple life of the desert in contrast to the highly developed ceremonial procedures described in the Book of Leviticus and supported by the priests. Thus the Wellhausenists tended to praise the prophets as great opponents of the complex ceremonial (or cult) and to hold that the eventual development of the Pentateuch proceeded from a synthesis of the views of these two opposing groups. For several decades most of the critical lit. tended to praise the prophets and to speak derogatorily of the priests, and to consider the two groups as being in complete opposition.
A change in this attitude was introduced by G. Hölscher with his book Die Propheten (1914), in which he pointed to statements in the prophetic books expressing interest in the Temple ceremonies and sympathy with their purposes. From this developed a widespread attitude among naturalistic critics that maintained that the prophets were actually a group of Temple servants, receiving their support from the Temple and supporting its ceremonial, though at times opposing corrupt elements that had crept in. This attitude has been greatly stressed in recent years.
An altered view has been advanced by a few scholars who have maintained that the prophets could be divided into two groups: (1) the “popular prophets,” who received their income from the Temple and supported the status quo, and (2) the “reforming prophets,” who opposed them and were not connected with the cult. Comparatively few scholars have as yet espoused this later view.
The sociological approach.
During the first part of the 20th cent. many popular writers, affected by the critical attitude of considering the prophets as supporters of the simple life of the desert, wrote books depicting the prophets exclusively as social reformers, and alleging them to be prototypes of those in the 20th cent. who stand for great sociological changes. This approach to the prophets, greatly emphasized for a time, seems now to be somewhat in abeyance.
Derivation of the prophetic movement from the culture of other ancient nations.
During the past two centuries, the knowledge of the ancient Orient has been greatly extended. New discoveries in Egypt and in Mesopotamia have made available thousands of ancient records giving considerable information about the life and thought of people who lived centuries before the time of Moses. Discoveries in Syria have greatly increased the knowledge of the ancient Canaanites. Instead of being an isolated picture of ancient life, the historical events in the Bible take their place in an extensive history that is far better known than ever before.
Under these circumstances it is not surprising that there has been a search for antecedents of the prophets in other lands. Some students of ancient culture have been carried away by enthusiasm for their particular area of specialization. Early in the 20th cent., Friedrich Delitzsch gave his famous “Babylon and Bible” lectures before the German Kaiser, aiming to show that everything of value in Biblical teaching was merely a pale reflection of Babylonian ideas. In 1933, the noted American archeologist, James Henry Breasted, wrote his book, The Dawn of Conscience, to prove that ethical understanding really began in ancient Egypt.
Attempts have been made to show that the Israelite prophets were mere examples of a type of activity that was common at that period. Some critics have held that they were a reflection of a phenomenon that occurred among the Canaanites but not elsewhere. Others have held that they represent an influence that was widespread throughout the Near E.
Before looking at the alleged similarities a few points should be noted. The Heb. prophet was one who claimed to speak for God. He was in most cases independent of any indirect control by a king or by ecclesiastical officials. He delivered the message that God had given him. Frequently this was a message of denunciation—of the people, the king, or the priests—for disobedience to the divine orders or to God’s moral law. He sometimes gave great promises of blessing for the future. Sometimes he gave directions as to specific actions to be taken at a particular time. He did not hesitate to come into sharp conflict with the king or even to accuse him of wrongdoing and to declare that God would punish him for his deeds.
Prediction entered into many of these activities but in an incidental way. The prophet was not primarily a foreteller, diviner, or soothsayer, though there were prob. some in ancient Israel, particularly in the times described in 1 Samuel. In regard to this aspect of the prophet’s work, superficial resemblances can be found in every culture. People everywhere desire to learn about the future. Among the Babylonians there was a highly sophisticated pseudo-science of examining the livers of slaughtered animals to foretell the future (alluded to in
On examination of the thousands of ancient records that have been discovered, the amount of material that can be presented in support of the claim that there existed in any of these countries a movement really similar to the prophetic movement in Israel is extremely meager. Although the Ugaritic material tells much about the Canaanite religion and culture in the period prior to the Israelite entrance into Canaan, it has as yet yielded very little that can be considered as in any way supplying a background for Heb. prophetism. Among all the archeological discoveries that have been made, just about the only one that has been alleged to show a Canaanite background for the Heb. prophets is not a document from Canaan, but one from Egypt. Much has been made of this Egyp. papyrus, written in the 11th cent. b.c., in which Wen-Amon, an official of an Egyp. temple, tells how he was sent to Byblos, on the Syrian coast, to obtain lumber for a ceremonial barge. For many weeks the prince of Byblos refused to see him. One day, as the prince “was making offering to his gods, the god seized one of his youths and made him possessed.” In his frenzy the youth called out that the prince should see the messenger from Egypt. Some writers have called this “a prophetic frenzy,” and compared it with the so-called ecstatic behavior of the Heb. prophets (see H below for discussion of the idea that the Heb. prophets behaved ecstatically). All that the account actually says is that when this man was in his trance he said that Wen-Amon represented the god Amon and should be allowed to present his message, and that the king of Byblos then gave the Egyp. messenger a hearing. Nothing further is said about the man who had the trance. There is no evidence that he made any prediction about the future, or that the prince of Byblos considered his behavior as having any great importance; in fact, all that the prince did was to allow the messenger the opportunity for a conference. He refused to admit any obligation to Egypt and would not supply the lumber that was requested until Wen-Amon had sent to Egypt for additional money. Events such as this occurred in many lands from time to time, but have little in common with the Biblical account of the work of the prophets.
Babylonian tablets from Mari and elsewhere include a few alleged letters from a god to a king. Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria in the latter part of the 7th cent. b.c., tells of a dream in which the goddess Ishtar promised to give him victory. Dreams of this type are occasionally described in ancient records, but such experiences are recorded from most countries, although they present merely a superficial similarity to one small phase of Heb. prophetism.
In the great mass of available Egyp. material only a few documents purport to contain anything similar to the work of the Heb. prophets. The two most frequently mentioned are called “the Prophecy of Nefer-Rohu” and “the Admontion of Ipu-wer.” Each of these is contained in a papyrus that was made during the New Kingdom (eighteenth to twentieth dynasty), but they are thought to be copies of writings originally produced several centuries earlier. The first tells how at the time of the 4th dynasty, a man predicted the coming period of anarchy and the rise of a great pharaoh who would stabilize conditions. Most scholars think that it actually originated during the twelfth dynasty, as a story in praise of its first king. The other describes the terrible conditions in the land during the period of chaos before the Middle Kingdom and blames the negligence of the rulers. It has been said that this was similar to the denunciation by an Israelite prophet of a wicked king.
In the search for an origin for the Heb. prophetic movement both of these documents have been said to show the existence of something similar in Egypt. Even if the alleged similarity were to be accepted to its fullest extent, it would be in reality only the slightest basis on which to construct a theory that anything existed in Egypt at all comparable to the long-continuing prophetic movement in Israel.
Ecstasy and the prophet.
It often is asserted by naturalistic-minded interpreters that one of the most characteristic features of the activity of the Heb. prophets was a state of ecstasy that would tend to produce unnatural visions and ideas, and that their belief that they were divinely directed was simply the result of an emotional state. The activity of the prophets has even been compared to that of the whirling dervishes of Islam, more than a thousand years after their time.
The strongest evidence adduced from the Bible for the existence of a state of ecstasy among prophets is found in
It should be noticed that this is not an account of Heb. prophets at all. The quiet and dignified attitude of Elijah, the true prophet of God (cf.
Actually there is very little evidence in the historical books or in the prophetic books that the Heb. prophets were subject to any state of ecstasy or unnatural enthusiasm. Assertions that Israelite prophets behaved in a manner similar to the prophets of Baal have been based on very few verses, since most references to the prophets contain no suggestion whatever of such an attitude. On four principal passages, such assertions are based (
Examination of these passages in the order in which they occur would begin with
It would hardly fit with the rest of what is told in the Pentateuch about the character and attitudes of Moses to think that he was referring with commendation to an activity that could be described as orgiastic or ecstatic. From the context it seems much more likely that the men were praising God and extolling His goodness in a way that would arouse the admiration of the rest of the people.
Much more is made of certain passages from 1 Samuel. A recent writer speaks of “the numerous references in 1 Samuel to bands of prophets who, dancing and singing to the accompaniment of musical instruments, worked themselves up into a frenzy, and then fell into trances.” Actually there are very few passages in 1 Samuel that could possibly be interpreted as warrant for such a statement.
The first of these is in
...as you come to the city, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. Then the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man (
The fulfillment of this prediction is described in
When they came to Gibeah, behold, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them. And when all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”
It is reading too much into the passage to claim that it describes a group of prophets as singing wildly, dancing like dervishes, or falling into a trance. All that is said is that they moved down the hill in a procession, prophesying, preceded by instruments of music. The only really unnatural circumstance described in the passage is the fact that Saul joined them. This will be discussed below.
The work of the prophet is generally represented as an individual activity. At this time Samuel was the only individual who is described as performing the true prophetic function of receiving messages from God and passing them on, but it would be most natural that other individuals might join together to follow him and to spread the message that he presented. At this period of Philistine oppression, it would be particularly natural that such activities, partly religious and partly nationalistic, should develop. In a loose way, the term “band of the prophets” might be applied to such groups. It is reading into the passage something that is not there, to say that these men were giving evidence of an abnormal psychological condition. Even if they had been doing so, it would prove nothing as to the attitude of Samuel and the many other individual prophets, both before and after, of whom nothing at all similar is ever stated.
Another passage cited in this connection is
Verse 20 says that when Saul’s messengers “saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.” This also happened in the case of the second and third groups of messengers. It should be noticed, however, that there is here no clear evidence of anything psychologically strange or ecstatic. These messengers may well have been men who truly believed in the God of Israel and realized that Saul was departing from the principles of justice that God had commanded through the prophet Samuel, who had anointed Saul to be king. When they stood in the presence of Samuel and his associates and saw them praising God, they may well have felt strongly impelled to show their oneness with the followers of the Lord. There is no statement that any of the messengers fell into a trance. What is said about them does not necessarily prove any ecstatic characteristics of the followers of Samuel.
The only forceful argument that can be drawn from either of these passages to support the idea that ecstasy was characteristic of the prophets relates exclusively to what is said about Saul. The first passage (
Although the description of Saul’s actions does give the impression of a highly unnatural mental state it should be observed that it is not the prophets but Saul who is involved in this description. This king, who was turning against the God who had placed him upon the throne, had been highly emotional before, and at this time he was in a neurotic condition, moving rapidly from one extreme of emotion to the other. Rapid changes of emotion, or even highly ecstatic states of mind, could have been typical of Saul, but this is no proof that they characterized the prophetic movement.
Two other passages from 1 Samuel and two from 2 Kings might be mentioned, although with far less reason than in the case of the two passages from 1 Samuel already discussed. The first of these is in
...and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul cast the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall” (
There is nothing unique about Saul’s irrational and changeable actions. The only problem in the passage is the use of the word “prophesy” in the KJV in place of “rave” in connection with Saul. This can hardly be taken as throwing much light on the characteristics of God’s true prophets.
The other passage in 1 Samuel is in
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.”
The context makes it evident that the woman, accustomed to pretending to bring up the spirits of the dead, either through some fraud or because evil spirits impersonated them, was surprised and terrified when Samuel actually appeared. God had chosen, in this one instance, to cause Samuel’s spirit to return to pronounce a final judgment against Saul. It is a strange episode, quite out of line with usual human experience, but hardly such as to support the description of the ecstasy of the prophets quoted above.
Those describing the alleged ecstatic character of the Heb. prophets cite the fact that on one occasion Elisha called for a minstrel before he would declare the will of God;
Reference sometimes is made to a statement in 2 Kings where Elisha sent one of the sons of the prophets to pour oil on the head of Jehu and thus start his revolt against the successors of Ahab. The representative of Elisha asked to speak privately with Jehu and went with him into an inner chamber. There he poured the oil over Jehu’s head, declaring that God had anointed him king over Israel, and then rushed out of the house (
It thus is evident how few are the references to the prophets that could give the slightest suggestion that they engaged in orgiastic activities or fell into trances. When one of the most generally reliable of the critical writers can make the unfounded statement quoted above about the activities of the prophets in 1 Samuel, it is not at all strange that other critics should make extremely dogmatic assertions about the alleged ecstasy of the prophets, going far beyond any evidence that can be drawn from the Biblical data.
The only evidence of any importance that can be drawn from the prophetic books themselves to support the idea of an unnatural psychological state of the prophets is taken from the
Conclusion. This section has included a cursory examination of the various antisupernaturalistic explanations given to the activities of the prophets. These explanations often strikingly contradict one another. Since most of the writers holding these views feel free to accept as genuine or to cast out as spurious whatever portions of the Bible that seem to fit their theories, their conclusions rest on no solid ground. Even where, as in the argument regarding the alleged ecstasy of the prophets, the conclusions are said to be based on the Biblical data, examination of the data proves such conclusions to be unwarranted. If one believes in a personal God there is no difficulty in accepting the Biblical claim that He spoke to the prophets and gave them messages to pass on. If one a priori rejects such a possibility there is no end to the variety of possible explanations that human ingenuity may devise, but for which no solid basis exists.
The interpretation of prophecy
An unusual type of literature.
One of the first considerations in examining any written material is to determine what sort of lit. it is. It might be a narrative, a love letter, or a poem celebrating a victory or mourning a death. Many of the types of lit. common today can be found in almost every period of history, but OT prophecy is a type of lit. that is rarely found outside of the Bible. It claims to be the presentation of a divine message through the mouth of a divinely selected spokesman. The Christian believes that the writers of the Bible were divinely commissioned to write material that infallibly presents the Word of God, but that no one else has ever been given a similar task. The parts of the Bible that consist almost entirely of divine messages for God’s people are different in nature from lit. outside of the Bible or in most other parts of the Bible. Many other sections of the Bible deal with situations that can be paralleled wherever human beings have lived. They describe rejoicing at birth and at weddings, and sorrow at death. They describe the enthronement of rulers and the shouts of victory after deliverance in battle. These parts of the Bible have many analogies in other lit. Such analogies can rarely be found for the prophetical books. Therefore, interpretation of prophecy, to be dependable, requires very special preparation.
Prophecy not exclusively prediction.
In line with the present common use of the word prophecy, there are those who consider all prophecy as simply prediction, and this brings confusion into the understanding of the prophets. In reaction against this approach, other writers have attempted to reduce the element of prediction almost to nothing. Both errors should be carefully avoided. Prediction has so important a place in prophecy that its part will be specifically discussed under C below, yet it should be remembered that there is far more to prophecy than prediction, and that many important prophecies include little or no prediction.
Importance of the historical background.
In the last few decades much attention has been directed by students of ancient writings to the importance of finding the “situation in life” that led to the production of a certain piece of lit. This principle applies in a modified way to the study of the prophets. The prophecies were not given simply to write a book that should be of help for future ages. Everything that God caused to be included in the Bible is of real importance for His people throughout the ages, yet the prophets spoke directly to men of their time. In interpreting any part of the prophetical books it is very important to consider whatever can be learned of its historical background. The historical books contain accounts of the activities of various prophets and quote many of their messages. In the prophetical books the historical background must frequently be ascertained by careful examination of incidental statements, or learned from other parts of the Bible. For example, knowledge of the historical background described in
Relation to the specific divine purpose.
It is most important in the understanding of the “situation in life” of the prophetical books to determine the divine purpose in the giving of each portion of the prophecy. This is so important that section B below will be devoted to an inductive examination of the purposes of the various types of prophetic messages.
Special problems regarding prediction.
Certain principles in connection with the interpretation of prediction need special treatment. Some of them will be examined under heading D below.
The need of starting at the right place.
A principle important to almost any field of study but that is more neglected in Bible study than in most other areas, is the principle that one should advance his understanding by proceeding from the simple to the less simple and from the clear to the less clear. All too often an exhaustive study of a difficult passage in the prophetical books is done first and then this is used as a basis on which to interpret other passages. In some cases this is done to explain away the obvious intent of other passages. Proper method requires that the passages that are fairly obvious or simple to interpret should be carefully examined first, and that principles drawn from them provide the light in which the more difficult passages can be understood. For example, it is advisable that any careful study of the prophetical books, particularly their predictive sections, should begin with an exhaustive study of the life, activities, and messages of Elijah and Elisha. Here the historical situation is clearly set forth and easily understood. Here the purpose of each prophetic message is usually deduced easily from the nearer or larger context. Here the fulfillment of the prediction is described in most cases, and it is therefore easy to see exactly how the prediction should be interpreted in the light of its actual fulfillment. From careful study of the material between
Recognition of figurative language.
Like all lit., prophecy contains figures of speech. This does not mean that it is necessarily obscure. When one says that a man was “a lion in the fight,” he does not mean that the man was transformed into a physical lion or that he chewed up the enemy with his teeth, but that he showed the qualities of bravery and tenacity that are considered typical of a lion. The language is definitely fig. but its meaning is perfectly clear—perhaps even clearer than a literal statement would be.
If prophecy is so interpreted as to consider that the fig. language cancels the literal meaning, nothing is left. Such a method of interpretation is entirely misleading, and is not a conclusion of valid literary criticism. In the Bible, figures of speech usually are clear from the context. Thus when Isaiah (
A similar figure is used in
Most of the words in any meaningful passage must be interpreted literally. In interpreting prophecy it is a safe rule to consider the literal meaning first and see whether it gives a clear idea, or whether a fig. interpretation of one or more words might convey a better sense. In the latter case it is always well to look for uses of a similar figure elsewhere in the Scripture, as a precautionary measure against misinterpretation. One should not assume, however, that a particular figure will always be used in the same way. Interpretation of figures sometimes requires careful study.
The term “spiritualization” sometimes is used for interpreting a passage in such a way that everything in it is taken fig. There is really nothing “spiritual” about such an approach. Usually its result is to cause a passage to mean anything that the interpreter may desire. There are even commentaries that assert that a certain book or portion of a book is to be taken entirely fig. so that everything in it is a symbol of something else (i.e.as fig. for Christ and the Church). The result of such an approach is to make it possible for any reader to draw from the passage anything that he sees in it. Thus a portion of Scripture is made practically useless. Such an approach dishonors the Word of God.
It sometimes is difficult to know exactly what a passage of the Bible means. It may be impossible in some cases to be absolutely sure of interpreting a passage correctly. If one moves forward carefully and cautiously, however, interpreting the obscure and the difficult in the light of what is plain and clear, definite results can be attained for most portions of the prophetic writings.
Realization of the principle of progressive revelation.
The Bible is not simply a book of rules or of theological propositions. It sets forth the way in which God presented His truth to human beings. Little by little He revealed great and important truths as He led people into the understanding of what He desired them to know. The principle of progressive revelation needs to be recognized if Scripture is to be correctly interpreted.
Effective communication of precise ideas from one mind to another is difficult. Communication of the ideas of the infinite God to finite man is ever more difficult. Sometimes an idea is lightly touched upon, then suggested more clearly, then expressed more fully, then misunderstandings are corrected, and finally the idea is reiterated. Thus an idea can be traced through Scripture and the understanding of it can be gradually increased and clarified.
Several times during His earthly ministry Jesus told His disciples that He would be crucified and raised from the dead, but His words sounded so strange that they made no impression. After His Resurrection, when the disciples were surprised that these events had occurred, instead of rebuking them for forgetting what He had said while He was with them, He criticized them for not having studied the prophetic writings more carefully, and therefore not being ready “to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (
Before He was crucified Jesus said to His disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (
Later portions of revelation may be more complete than earlier ones, but not more true. God never reveals anything that is contrary to the truth. Early portions of revelation on a certain matter may be incomplete, but they are never untrue.
In connection with this, one must always keep in mind that God’s will differs regarding different situations. For example, a whole series of forms and ceremonies looked forward to the crucifixion of Christ and taught about His first coming in fig. or symbolic form. There were a considerable number of these, since they looked forward to something that could as yet be only vaguely understood. After the fact became visible it was no longer necessary to continue these ceremonies, but a much smaller number could be substitued that would look back to the first coming and forward to the. Thus God’s will for men in one situation was different from what it was in another, but God’s truth never changes.
Recognition of divine oversight of the contents of the Bible.
Any study of the prophetical books that is to unlock their true message must have this as a basic principle. God inspired the writers in such a way that what was written down for permanent retention as part of His enduring message to His people should be complete in itself. Proper interpretation of the prophetic messages requires comparison of Scripture with other Scripture. Everything that can possibly be learned from the Bible alone about the historical background of the prophetic messages is important for their interpretation. It is unnecessary, however, to have additional knowledge beyond what can be gathered from the statements in the Word of God itself. All the principles necessary for correct interpretation of prophecy can be found in the Bible. To ascertain them may require much careful study. External material can be helpful, but is not essential for understanding the divine message. Knowledge gained from study of other ancient writings or from archeological material may throw light on certain events or on certain aspects of interpretation, but the correct understanding of the messages that God has placed for His people through the ages can be correctly and completely gathered from the Bible as it stands. This recognition of the divine preparation is a necessary prerequisite to proper interpretation of the prophetical books.
The purposes of prophecy
On examining the prophetic declarations contained in the historical books and the longer messages in the major and minor prophets, it soon becomes apparent that more than half of what is said comes under the heading of rebuke for sin and the call to repentance. This activity evidently consumed far more of the prophet’s time than any other feature of his work. There is a tendency among Bible students to pass rapidly over these sections, but in so doing a great part of the message of the prophets is missed. God caused these long messages of rebuke to be written down and preserved because He desired His people throughout all the centuries to apply to their hearts and lives these stern warnings against sin.
Encouragement to the people of God.
Though occupying much less space than rebuke, this is a very important part of the prophetic activity, and these are the passages that receive the most attention today.
Revelation of facts about God and His creation.
Although this might seem to be the most important aspect of the prophetic work, it rarely occurs entirely by itself. Usually, the important facts that the prophet reveals about God’s character and purposes are contained in passages presenting rebuke or giving encouragement. The work of the prophet was intensely practical. The words of all the prophets taken together provide a great source of knowledge of God and creation, but their messages rarely present this information exclusively.
Information as to the action to be taken on a specific occasion.
Because God at times caused a prophet to give information as to the right policy to be performed in a certain situation, uninformed people gained the false impression that the prophet was primarily a soothsayer or diviner. Superstition easily develops. In the period of the Judges, such ideas gained wide circulation. Many people had this false impression of Samuel, but there is no reason to think that Samuel thought of himself in this way or that it was his intention that people should thus misunderstand his true role.
Authenticating a divinely appointed leader or prophet.
Occasionally a prophet made predictions for the purpose of authenticating his authority, as
Not only was it encouraging for the Israelites to know many years in advance that Cyrus would release them from the Babylonian captivity (
Under this head might be placed the predictions about Jesus Christ that bare directly upon certain details of His mission rather than upon whole events which served to specifically identify Him as the One predicted in the OT (cf.
Laying a foundation for the climax of all the divine activities in the work of the future Messiah.
This was a very important aspect of OT prophecy. Such declarations generally were given in relation to a background involving the immediate situation. Thus when Ahaz showed himself an unbelieving and unworthy head of the house of David, Isaiah declared that God would in His own time provide a new head for the house of David, who would indeed be “God with us” (
Although these Messianic predictions are usually tied in with immediate situations, they form a constantly growing witness to the great climax that God would bring about through the sending of His Son to earth. The prophets were aware of this part of their work, but they often realized that they themselves knew only a small part of the truth that God planned eventually to reveal. Peter declared that they often longed to know more about the whole situation than they understood (cf.
The place of prediction in prophecy.
Although the primary work of the prophet was not to satisfy curiosity about the future, but rather to declare the message God gave him, it is not at all strange that these messages should include the future. Since God controls everything and knows the future, it would be strange indeed if the messages He gave did not reveal glimpses of what is ahead. That prediction of the future is significant in the forthtelling of divine messages is apparent when related to the purposes of prophecy.
Prediction also has a great part in the second purpose of prophecy, that of encouragement to the true people of God. Godly men who saw their nation tottering to ruin and knew that sin made escape from disaster impossible, could easily give way to despair. To comfort them God gave specific information through the prophets about continuing blessing that would be provided after the punishment had run its course. In the dark days when the golden calves had been erected in the northern kingdom, an unnamed prophet encouraged God’s people by predicting a specific event that would occur some three centuries later (
In connection with the third purpose of prophecy, that of revealing important facts about God’s nature, predictions inevitably occurred. There was no simpler way of showing God’s control over all the nations than to predict His future actions. When Elijah, at Mt. Horeb during the terrible reaction that followed his contest with the prophets of Baal, seemed to give way to utter despair, God used this method of reassuring him of the divine control over all the nations. The predictions were given in the form of commands to Elijah to do what no mere prophet without political power or physical force at his disposal could possibly bring about. Although they were not fulfilled during Elijah’s lifetime, the assurance that these great changes of dynasty would occur in two important nations served to strengthen the prophet’s realization of God’s supreme power and control.
In connection with the fourth purpose of prophecy, that of informing God’s people of the next step to take in a particular situation, prediction naturally played a great part. Any such divine command was apt to contain either implicitly or explicitly a reference to some future event.
The important part that prediction occupies in relation to the other two purposes of prophecy is obvious.
Thus prediction, although not the major portion of prophecy, was an important aspect of it, and it is not at all strange that today the word “prophecy” in popular usage has come largely to be restricted to predictive statements.
Special problems in the interpretation of predictions.
Certain matters particularly related to prediction require consideration.
Individual conditional predictions also occur. Thus when Ahijah promised Jeroboam that he would become king of Israel (
Sometimes one feature of a prediction may involve a conditional though the prediction as a whole is unconditional. For example, when the forms of legality had been so carried out as to make the murder of Naboth seem like a legal execution, Elijah met Ahab and solemnly pronounced his doom: “Thus says the Lord: ‘In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood’” (
A similar situation exists in the
Occasional ambiguity of the person addressed.
There are cases where it is obvious that the prophet shifted his vision, speaking for a time to one person, and then turning to another; or, speaking to the nation as a whole and then turning his attention to the godly portion of the nation.
General principle or specific prediction.
Sometimes a prophetic message declared what would happen when certain circumstances occurred. In such cases a general principle was presented that could be fulfilled over and over. This is true of the passages in
Single or multiple fulfillment.
Usually it is not difficult to determine whether a prediction describes a specific event or whether it is referring to a series of events. Thus the statement that foreign armies will overrun a land may refer to a number of occasions on which this would happen. If the statement is made in the sing., e.g., that a foreign army will overrun the land, it should almost always be understood as pointing to an individual event. When that event has occurred the prediction has been fulfilled.
There are a very few cases where the context shows clearly that a prediction in which a sing. term is used actually looks forward to a series of events. The outstanding instance is
Thus the context makes clear that
Unless pl. terms are used (or there is a clear indication in the context that a series of events is involved) each prediction should be understood as pointing to one specific event. Recognition of this principle is helpful in understanding the prophecies in
Names of those prophets who wrote books of the Bible are printed in capital letters. The right-hand columns give names and dates of kings associated with each prophet. Each king’s dates include his entire reign, even if part of it was in association with a preceding king, as was often the case. Since the evidence for precise dating is generally scanty, and since in ancient reckonings years did not begin in the same month as today, but varied in different areas, dates given by authorities sometimes differ by one or two years. Under the name of each non-writing prophet Scripture references are given to his main activities, but none are given for writers of Bible books except when there is an important mention in some other book, or when a reference is important to show the time of his activity.
'''IMPORTANT HEBREW PROPHETS AFTER THE TIME OF SAMUEL
Names of those prophets who wrote books of the Bible are printed in capital letters. The right-hand columns give names and dates of kings associated with each prophet. Each king’s dates include his entire reign, even if part of it was in association with a preceding king, as was often the case. Since the evidence for precise dating is generally scanty, and since in ancient reckonings years did not begin in the same month as today, but varied in different areas, dates given by authorities sometimes differ by one or two years. Under the name of each non-writing prophet Scripture references are given to his main activities, but none are given for writers of Bible books except when there is an important mention in some other book, or when a reference is important to show the time of his activity.'''
The perspective of prophecy.
In most cases predictions relate clearly to one or more of the purposes of prophecy (cf. B above). Mere satisfaction of curiosity about the future is not one of these purposes. God gave His people encouragement and taught them the great truths of His plan of redemption, but He did not choose to reveal all the details of the sequence of events in the working out of His plan. The arrangement of the predictions is to a great extent purposeful rather than chronological. This is illustrated in
Usually predictions were given with a definite relation to an immediate situation. Thus the prophet rebuked the nation for its errors and then went on to encourage the people of God by showing something of the wonderful blessings that God would bring in the future for those who were true to Him. Next a description of the wickedness or mistakes of the prophet’s contemporaries were described and its punishment foretold, and this was followed by a description of a corresponding portion of God’s future blessing.
An illustration that is apropos is a region where a series of high mountain ranges, one behind the other, are visible. At some points a mountain in the first range is prominent. Next to it a peak from the third range back is visible, and next to that, one from the second range is visible. Then a peak in the front range again seems most prominent whereas a high peak in the fourth range back may appear almost to touch it; the relative distances of the several ranges is difficult to perceive. Thus it is not always possible fully to discern the order of events, since the presentation often is arranged according to subjects rather than to chronology.
There is no way to know exactly how much the prophets themselves understood of the details of God’s plan for the future or of the chronological arrangement of these details. One can be sure that they were curious to know more than was actually revealed to them. Peter says that “they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory” (
Prophets and prophecy in the NT
The new period of prophecy.
As indicated above (cf. II, E) the OT prophetic movement came to an end about 400 years before the time of Christ. Josephus states that many Jewish books were written after the end of the OT, but that none of them were considered as infallible because “the exact succession of the prophets had ceased” (Jos Apion. I. 8). Prophets were sent to God’s people not only to give them the guidance that was needed before the entire Bible was available as the infallible source of knowledge of God’s will, but also to present the revelations that ultimately would be included in the Word of God. Since it was God’s will to give another Testament, presenting new revelations of His will and character and depicting the most important events in history—the accomplishment of Redemption as predicted in the OT, it would be natural to expect a new period of prophecy. This new period differed from the first in that it extended over a much shorter period of time; and also, it did not generally relate to an entire nation, but specifically it focused on the development of the Church. The function of a prophet was overshadowed to a considerable extent by the leadership of the officers appointed for the development and direction of the Church of Christ. Therefore NT prophets were less conspicuous than those of the former prophetic movement.
Importance of prophets and prophecy in the NT.
The casual Bible reader is not apt to realize that the NT contains as many references to prophets and prophecy in proportion to its length as the OT does. This is true because not only was this a new period of revelation, but many references were included to the former period of revelation. The central character in the NT, Jesus Christ, is the greatest prophet of all (cf.
In His capacity as prophet, Jesus Christ exposed the sin of mankind, showed the way of salvation through trust in Himself, encouraged God’s people, revealed the nature of God to an extent never before shown, and made clear God’s pattern for those who are saved. More space in the gospels is taken up by the account of His prophetic activities, that is, His revealing of God’s truth, than by His other actions. “He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (
John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, was a prophet in the true OT sense. A great part of his activity consisted in rebuking men for sin, declaring the punishment that would come, warning them of the wrath to come, and urging them to repent. He spoke unhesitatingly of sin in high places in ways reminiscent of the activites of Elijah and Isaiah, and he lost his life as a direct consequence (
Many of those who exercised the prophetic function in NT times were more conspicuous in other activities, such as the task of the apostles in overseeing the establishment of the Church. In addition to the times when the term is applied to Christ, and the five times it is used of John the Baptist, the NT occasionally designates other individuals as prophets or prophetesses, or says that they prophesied. These include Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (
Caiaphas, the high priest, is described in
A false prophet named Bar-Jesus is mentioned in
NT references to OT prophets.
Prediction in the NT.
In the NT, as in the OT, prediction plays a considerable part in the prophetic work. It accomplishes the same purposes as those described above (cf. V, B). Sometimes it authenticated a speaker as God’s representative. Sometimes it enabled God’s people to know what to do under particular circumstances. Jesus Christ gave many important predictions about the consummation of the age and promised that after His departure the Holy Spirit would reveal to His followers further information about God’s plan for the future: “and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (
The cessation of NT prophecy.
The new period of prophecy, like the earlier one (cf. II, E), came to an end when this portion of God’s Word was completed. The end of this period, when new divine revelations would no longer be given, was not immediately apparent. As in the case of the OT, they simply ceased. The entire Bible was written. Thereafter men in the Church were called prophets only in the extended sense of presenting God’s people truths received, not by direct revelation, but from careful study of the completed and infallible Word of God.
E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the OT (1829, Eng. tr. 1854); C. von Orelli,Prophecy (1885); R. B. Girdlestone, The Grammar of Prophecy (1901); A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy (1903); W. J. Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise (1905); G. Hölscher, Die Propheten (1914); A. Guillaume, Prophecy and Divination (1938); E. J. Young, My Servants the Prophets (1952); B. D. Napier, Prophets in Perspective (1963); H. E. Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets (1968); S. J. Schultz, The Prophets Speak (1968); R. L. Alden, “Study of the Prophets since World War II” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, J. B. Payne, editor (1970).