There has been a lot of talk about prophets and prophecies with a few people asking questions about both the actions of prophets and the content of their prophecies. Sometime ago I did a bit of a deep dive to try to understand what the Bible has to say about prophets and prophecies and in this series, I will share some of the things I learnt.
You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this. 15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
–Deuteronomy 18:13-22 (ESV)
A prophet is God’s voice to the people. God speaks to His people through His prophets. In the Old Testament, this was a gracious act from God. He is not a God who rules from afar but rather He is a God who actively speaks to His people. Encouraging them, rebuking them, warning them and telling them of the future implications of their actions and continuous disobedience.
Less than 2 per-cent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less that 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less that 1 percent concerns events yet to come.– How To Read the Bible for all its Worth (Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart)
And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD. 7 When the people of Israel cried out to the LORD on account of the Midianites, 8 the LORD sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery. 9 And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 And I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”
–Judges 6:6-10 (ESV)
Sometimes the prophets rebuke the people by revealing what they may have done in secret showing that God sees what they do and nothing is hidden from him, and also showing that the prophet is authentic because what has been revealed to the prophet is something only an omniscient being could have seen. When the prophet says, “Thus says the Lord” (and its many variations) the prophet is acting in his role as a prophet and that is prophecy. The prophet is making us aware that he has been given a word from Lord and we ought to listen to what that word is.
Even though foretelling is not primarily what prophecy is about, some prophecy has foretelling. This should not be surprising since God knows all of time and at times it pleases Him to let us know the blessings He has planned for those who obey or the peril in store for those who continue to rebel according to His purpose e.g. the exile of the Israelites and the return from exile.
Prophets – Covenant Enforcement Officers
Interestingly enough, prophets in the Old Testament spent a large amount of their time pointing the people of Israel back to the Law and the Covenant. Reminding them of what the Lord had done for them and warning them of what would happen if they continued to rebel against the Lord. Blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28). Prophecy never goes against God’s Word as represented in the Covenant and the Law but rather highlights it.
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
– Deuteronomy 13:1-3 (ESV)
When you read through the books of the prophets (Amos, Joel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah etc), you see the prophets constantly appealing to the people to return to God and obey His commandments. God is always calling on us to stop our rebellion and return to Him so it is no surprise that when He talks to His people, that is His focus.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?
– Joel 2:12-14 (ESV)
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. 18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
–Isaiah 1:10-20 (ESV)