15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Prophecy, Prophets

Additional Links

PROPHECY, PROPHETS . Hebrew prophecy represents a religious movement of national and worldwide importance, not paralleled elsewhere in history. Most significant in itself, it has acquired deeper and wider import through its connexion with Christianity and the philosophy of religion generally. The present article will deal in brief outline with (1) the history, (2) the inspiration, and (3) the functions and specific teaching, of the prophets of the OT; also (4) with the special topic of Messianic prophecy and its fulfilment in the NT.

1. History and prophecy . The prophetic period proper may be said to have extended from the 8th to the 4th cent. b.c. During these centuries at least, prophecy was a recognized, flourishing, and influential power in Israel. But a long preparatory process made ready for the work of Amos, Hosea, and their successors, and it is not to be understood that with the last of the canonical writings the spirit of prophecy disappeared entirely from the Jewish nation. It is not surprising that the beginnings of Hebrew prophecy are lost in comparative obscurity. Little light is shed upon the subject by a comparison between similar phenomena in other religions. It is true that among Semitic and other peoples the idea was widely prevalent of an order of men who were favoured with special intercourse with the Deity and entrusted with special messages from heaven, or an unusual power of prognostication of future events. The line which separated the priest from the prophet was in early times a very narrow one, and sometimes the functions of the two offices were blended. In Israel also, during the earlier stages of history, lower conceptions of the Divine will and human modes of optaining knowledge of it prevailed, together with practices hardly to be distinguished from pagan rites. The description in Deuteronomy 18:10-14 proves how long these mantic ideas and customs lingered on in the midst of clearer moral and spiritual light. When the true significance of prophecy came to be understood, the contrast between it and heathen divination was very marked, but the process by which this stage was reached was gradual. Its course cannot always he clearly traced, and down to the Christian era, the lower and less worthy popular conceptions existed side by side with the high standard of the prophetic ideal.

No certain information can be gathered from the names employed. The word most frequently used in OT (more than 300 times) is nâbî , but its derivation is doubtful. It was long associated with a root which means to ‘bubble up,’ and would thus denote the ecstatic influence of inspiration, but it is now more usually connected with a kindred Arabic word meaning to ‘announce.’ Two other words rô’eh , which occurs 9 times (7 times of Samuel), and chôzeh , about 20 times are of known derivation and are both translated ‘seer’. The historical note in 1 Samuel 9:9 marks the fact that rô‘eh passed comparatively out of use after Samuel’s time, but both it and chôzeh are used later as synonyms of nâbî , and in Chronicles there appears to be a revival of earlier usage: We shall probably not be far wong if we find in the words the two main characteristics of the prophet as ‘seer’ and ‘speaker,’ the spiritual vision which gave him knowledge, and the power of utterance which enabled him to declare his message with power. Other phrases employed are ‘man of God,’ used of Moses, Samuel, and others; ‘servant of God,’ a term not limited to prophets as such; ‘messenger of Jehovah,’ chiefly in the later writings; and once, in Hosea 9:7 , the significant synonym for a prophet is used, ‘man of the spirit,’ or ‘the man that hath the spirit.’

We may distinguish three periods in the history of prophecy: (1) sporadic manifestations before the time of Samuel, (2) the rise and growth of the institution from Samuel to Amos, (3) the period marked out by the canonical prophetic writings.

(1) In dealing with the first, it will he understood that the literary record is later than the events described, and the forms of speech used must be estimated accordingly. But it may be noted that in Genesis 20:7 Abraham is called a prophet, and in Psalms 105:15 the name is given to the patriarchs generally. In Exodus 7:1 Aaron is described as a prophet to Moses who was ‘made a god to Pharaoh.’ In Numbers 11:25-29 the incident of Eldad and Medad shows that in the wilderness ‘the spirit rested’ on certain men, enabling them to ‘prophesy.’ The episode of Balaam in Numbers 22:1-41; Numbers 23:1-30; Numbers 24:1-25 is very instructive in its bearing upon the ideas of Divine revelation outside Israel. In Numbers 12:5-8 the Divine intercourse vouchsafed to Moses ‘with him I will speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly’ is distinguished from the lower kind of revelation, ‘in a vision, in a dream,’ granted to the prophet; and in Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses is described as possessing the highest type of prophetic endowment. Later, Deborah is described ( Judges 4:4 ) as both a prophetess and a judge, and an anonymous prophet was sent to Israel at the time of the Midianite oppression ( Judges 6:8 ). Samson was not a prophet, but upon him, as a Nazirite from infancy, ‘the spirit of Jehovah began to move’ in youth, and it ‘came mightily’ upon him. Finally, before the special revelation given to Samuel, there came a ‘man of God’ to Eli, rebuking the evil-doings of his sons and announcing punishment to come. It must be borne in mind, moreover, that during all this period God was, according to the OT narrative, speaking to His people in various ways, revealing Himself by dreams and visions, or through special messengers, though the term ‘prophet’ but seldom occurs.

(2) It is generally recognized that a new era begins with Samuel . Peter in Acts 3:24 used a current mode of speech when he said ‘all the prophets from Samuel and them that followed after,’ and the combination in him of the prophet and the judge enabled him to prepare the way for the monarchy. The statement in 1 Samuel 3:1 that in the time of Eli ‘the word of Jehovah was rare’ and that ‘vision’ was not widely diffused or frequent, points to the need of clearer and fuller revelation such as began with Samuel and continued more or less intermittently for some centuries. Whether he originated the prophetic communities known as ‘ sons of the prophets ,’ who first appear in his time and are mentioned occasionally until after the times of Elisha, we cannot be sure. But at Ramah ( 1 Samuel 19:18 ), at Naioth ( 2 Kings 6:1-33 ), at Bethel, Jericho, Gilgal, and other places there were settlements which may be described as training-schools for religious purposes, and these provided a succession of men, who were in theory, and to some extent in practice, animated by the devoted and fervent spirit which was necessary for the maintenance of the prophetic fire in the nation. Music formed a prominent part in their worship ( 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 10:10 ). These societies might constitute a true and abiding witness for Jehovah ( 1 Kings 18:13 ), or they might be characterized by false patriotism and subserviency to a prevailing policy ( 1 Kings 22:6 ). Saul was at one time brought under their influence in a remarkable manner ( 1 Samuel 10:10-13 ), and Samuel evidently exercised a commanding influence over them, as did Elisha in later days. To these ‘colleges’ may probably be traced the preservation of national traditions and the beginnings of historical literature in Israel.

David is styled a ‘prophet’ in Acts 2:30 , but this is not in accordance with OT usage, though the Spirit of Jehovah is said to have rested on him as a psalmist ( 2 Samuel 23:2 ). In his time began that close association between kings and prophets which continued in varying phases until the Exile. Nathan the prophet was his faithful spiritual adviser, and Gad is described as ‘the king’s seer’ ( 2 Samuel 24:11 ). Both these counsellors exercised a wholesome influence upon the large-hearted, but sometimes erring, king, and according to the Chronicler they assisted David in organizing Divine worship ( 2 Chronicles 29:25 ). Nathan, Ahijah of Shiloh, and Iddo the seer are mentioned in 2 Chronicles 9:29 as having taken part in the compilation of national records, history and prophecy having been from the first closely associated in Israel. In Solomon’s time prophecy would seem to have been in abeyance. But it appears again in connexion with the description of the Kingdom, and from this time forwards in Israel and Judah the relation between Church and State, between king and prophet, was of an intimate and very significant kind. The prophet, as a man specially endowed with the spirit of God, did not hesitate to warn, rebuke, oppose, and sometimes remove, the king who was ‘God’s anointed.’ But when the monarch was faithful to the high position, the prophet was to him as a strong right hand. Elijah, in the idolatrous times of Ahab, is the very type of the uncompromising and undaunted reformer; and Elisha, though of a milder character and with a less exacting task to accomplish, was instrumental in the overthrow of the ungodly house of Omri ( 2 Kings 9:1-37 ). These two are essentially prophets of action; the writing prophets do not appear till a century later.

(3) It is inevitable that for us at least a new era of prophecy should appear to set in with the earliest prophetical book that has come down to us. We are dependent upon our records, and though the continuity of prophecy was never quite broken, the history of the prophets assumes a new character when we read their very words at length. Amos , the first in chronological order, shows in Amos 2:11 that he was only one in a long line of witnesses, and that he was but recalling the people to an allegiance they had forgotten or betrayed. But he introduces the golden age of prophecy, in which Isaiah is the central glorious figure. Modern criticism has carried the analysis of the prophetical books as they have come down to us so far that it is not easy to present the chronology of the prophetic writings in a tabular form. But it may be said roughly and generally that six prophets belong to the Assyrian period, Amos and Hosea in the Northern Kingdom, about the middle of the 8th cent. b.c., and Isaiah and Micah in the Southern, a little later, whilst Zephaniah and Nahum belong to the early part of the 7th cent. b.c. As prophets of the Chaldæan period we find Jeremiah and Habakkuk before the Exile (b.c. 586), and Ezekiel during the former part of the Captivity. Before its close appears the second Isaiah (perhaps about 540), and after the Return, Haggai and Zechariah (chs. 1 8), whilst Malachi prophesied in the middle of the 5th cent. b.c. The dates of Joel, Jonah, Obadiah, and Zechariah 9:1-17; Zechariah 10:1-12; Zechariah 11:1-17; Zechariah 12:1-14; Zechariah 13:1-9; Zechariah 14:1-21 are still debated, but in their present form these books are generally considered post-exilic. Many chapters of Isaiah, notably 24 27, are ascribed to a comparatively late date.

It is impossible here to trace the fluctuations in prophetic power and influence, as these waxed or waned with the varying fortunes of the nation throughout the period of the monarchy. The Northern Kingdom came to an end in b.c. 722, but for more than 150 years longer there appeared prophets in Judah who aided the repeated efforts at national reformation made by kings like Hezekiah and Josiah. These, however, met with little permanent success, and a change in the characteristic note of prophecy begins with Jeremiah. Thus far the prophets had aided the cause of religious and civil progress by bringing to bear upon national policy the moral principles of the religion of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , but as time passed, the recuperative power of the nation declined, ‘false’ prophets gained predominating influence, and the true prophet’s task grew more and more hopeless. All that remained for Jeremiah was to preach submission to foreign foes, and the imminence of coming judgment, and to point the people to a spiritual fulfilment of promises which could no longer be realized by means of any earthly monarch or dynasty. It was the painful duty of Jeremiah to oppose princes, priests, and people alike, as none of his predecessors had done, and to stand alone, charged with lack of patriotism, if not with actual treachery. Though a man of peaceable and kindly temperament, he was involved in perpetual conflict, and whenever he was tempted to withdraw from a thankless and apparently useless office, the word of the Lord burned within him again like a fire in his bones, and he was bound to deliver it, whether men listened and heeded or not. The chief burden of this last pre-exilic prophet was the declaration that, as the measure of the people’s sins was now filled up, they must as a nation suffer practical extinction; but stress was laid upon the importance of individual fidelity and the fulness of spiritual blessing which might still be enjoyed, whilst hopes of material good and national prosperity had been disastrously overthrown.

The fall of Jerusalem brought with it many changes. Ezekiel adopted and expanded many of Jeremiah’s ideas, but his forecasts of restitution, as delivered to the exiles in Babylon, took fresh shapes, determined by his circumstances, his personal temperament, and the fact that he was priest as well as prophet. It was left for a great unknown seer to deliver in the second part of the Book of Isaiah the most spiritual message of all, and to re-animate his countrymen by means of pictures glowing with larger and brighter hopes than any of his predecessors had portrayed. But after the return from captivity prophecy did not renew its ancient fires. Haggai and Zechariah are but minor stars in the great constellation, and the book known as ‘Malachi’ testifies to a dwindling inspiration, though fidelity to truth, and hope of fuller Divine manifestations yet to come, were not entirely extinct in God’s messengers and representatives.

At last Psalms 74:9 and 1Ma 4:43; 1Ma 9:27; 1Ma 14:41 point to a time when ‘signs’ were no longer seen among the people, when ‘there is no more any prophet, neither is there any among us that knoweth how long.’ The latest ‘prophetic’ book, Daniel , does not properly belong to this list; it was not reckoned by the Jews among the prophets, but in the third part of the sacred canon known as ‘writings.’ The remarkable visions it contains do not recall the lofty spirit or the burning words of Isaiah; they contain another kind of revelation, and belong not to prophecy but to apocalyptics. Nearly two centuries elapsed before John the Baptist, the last prophet under the Old Covenant and the forerunner of the New, came in the very spirit and power of Elijah ‘to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.’

2. Inspiration of the prophets . When we seek to pass from the outward phenomena of prophetism to its inner mental processes, from its history to its psychology, many questions arise which cannot be definitely answered. How did God reveal His will to the prophets? In what did their inspiration consist? How far were their natural faculties in abeyance, or, on the other hand, heightened and strengthened? Did the prophet fully understand his own message? How could personal errors and prejudices be distinguished from direct Divine afflatus? To these questions no simple categorical replies can be made. But Scripture sheds sufficient light on them for all practical purposes.

It must be borne in mind that prophecy has a history, that the record is one of development of rise, progress, and decay and that precise definitions which take no account of these changes are misleading. Some forms of ‘inspiration’ are higher than others, and a measure of advance is discernible from the lower forms which belonged rather to the soothsayer, to those higher moods which distinguish the OT prophet from all others. The steps of the process are not always discernible, but the distinction between lower and higher is to be drawn according as (1) the prophet was a mere unconscious instrument, or his highest mental and spiritual faculties were enlisted in his work; (2) the inward revelation of the Divine will was or was not bound up with external and objective manifestations; and especially (3) the moral and spiritual element in the message became its distinguishing, feature, in contrast with a mere non-ethical ‘seeking for signs.’ Revelation by means of dreams and visions was recognized throughout, and in Numbers 12:6 , Deuteronomy 13:1 , Jeremiah 23:5 a dreamer of dreams is synonymous with a prophet. The distinction between dream and vision appears to be that the former occurred in sleep, the latter in a kind of ecstatic waking state, the seer ‘falling down and having his eyes open.’ But the distinction is not strictly enforced, and in the Hexateuch, and where the Elohist speaks of dreams, the Jahwist more frequently describes God as speaking directly to His messengers. Side by side with revelation by means of dreams and visions went that higher spiritual enlightenment which we associate with Hebrew prophecy at its best estate.

It was not necessary that a prophet should receive a formal ‘ call ’ to undertake the office. Many were trained in the schools who never became prophets, and some prophets, like Amos, received no preparation, whether in the schools or elsewhere. Upon some, the affiatus appears to have descended occasionally for a special purpose, whilst in other cases the influence of the Divine Spirit was permanent, and they were set apart to the work of a lifetime. The important point was that in every case the Spirit of God must rest upon His messenger in such a way as to supersede all other influences and ideas, and this higher impulse must be obeyed at all costs. The prophet must be able to announce with unwavering confidence, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ In some instances a description is given of the way in which this overpowering conviction came upon the man. Samuel was (perhaps) called as a child; Amos exclaimed, when both king and priest did their best to silence him, ‘Jahweh hath spoken, who can but prophesy?’ Isaiah, when he beheld God lifted up upon His throne and when his lips had been purified by the hot stone from the altar, cried, ‘Here am I, send me.’ Jeremiah, when but a youth, was strengthened to be as an iron pillar and a brazen wall against the whole force of the nation, because God had put His words in his mouth. The vision of the chariot which came to Ezekiel by the Chebar dominated his imagination and moulded all his ministry. Whether a ‘vocation’ in the formal sense was, or was not, vouchsafed at the opening of a prophet’s course, it was absolutely essential that he should be directly moved by the Spirit of God to deliver a message which he felt to be an irresistible and overwhelming revelation of the Divine will.

The phraseology used to describe this inspiration, though varied, points entirely in this direction. The Spirit of the Lord is described as coming mightily upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:6; 1 Samuel 10:10 ); the hand of the Lord was on Elijah ( 1 Kings 18:46 , Ezekiel 1:3 ); or the Spirit ‘clothed itself’ with the man as in Judges 6:34 , 2 Chronicles 24:20; or Micah is said to be ‘full of power by the spirit of the Lord’ to declare to Jacob his transgression ( 2 Chronicles 3:8 ). Perhaps the impulses were more violent and external in the earlier history, whilst in the later more room was left for human reflexion, and a more intelligent comprehension of the Divine will and word. Still, it would be a mistake to suppose that the overmastering power of the Divine commission was relaxed in the later prophetic period. No stronger expressions to describe this are found anywhere than those used by Jeremiah, who ‘sat alone because of God’s hand,’ and to whom God’s word was ‘as a burning fire shut up in his bones,’ so that he could not contain ( 2 Chronicles 15:17 , 2 Chronicles 20:9 ).

Neither the exact mode of communicating the Divine will, nor the precise measure of personal consciousness which obtained in the prophetic state, can be defined; these varied according to circumstances. But speaking generally, it may be said that the personality of the prophet was not merged or absorbed in the Divine, nor was his mind as an inanimate harp or lyre which the Divine Spirit used as a mere instrument. Moses is represented as holding back from the Divine call (Exodus 3:3 ), as remonstrating with God ( Exodus 32:11 ), and offering himself as a sacrifice to appease the Divine anger ( Exodus 32:32 ). Amos succeeded in modifying the Divine decree ( Exodus 7:2-3 ), and Jeremiah was very bold in reproaching the Most High with having given him an impossible task, and as having apparently failed to fulfil His own promises ( Exodus 15:18 ). A careful study of all the phenomena would go to show that whilst supernatural power and operation were taken for granted, the workings of the prophetic mind under inspiration were not very different from some of the highest experiences of saints in all ages, the Divine and human elements being blended in varying proportions. The fact of inspiration, rather than its mode, is the important feature in the Bible narratives.

A similar answer must be given to the question whether the prophets understood their own prophecies. For the most part they understood them very well, and expressed themselves with remarkable clearness and vigour. What they often did not understand, and could not be expected to understand, was the full bearing of their words upon contingent events and their application to conditions as yet in the far future. In 1 Peter 1:10 we are told that they searched diligently ‘what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto,’ perhaps with special reference to Daniel 8:15 . That is, it was not given them to discern at what epoch, or under what circumstances, the fulfilment of their words should come to pass. But the declaration of moral principles required no such elucidation, and the prophets were the first to recognize that the fulfilment of their words depended on the way in which they were received. For the work of the prophet was not to mouth out oracles, mystic sayings obscure to the mind of the speaker and enigmatical to the hearers, like the utterances of Delphi or Dodona. The root idea of prophecy is revelation , not mystery-mongering ‘Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets’ ( Amos 3:7 ).

Deeper and more important questions concerning the nature of prophetic inspiration gather round the existence of ‘ false prophets ’ this term does not occur in the Hebrew text the line of distinction between the true and the false, and the tests which should separate the two in practice. The subject is greatly complicated to the modern mind when we read in Deuteronomy 13:1-18 that a prophet might be utterly mistaken, that a lying spirit might come from the Lord ( 1 Kings 22:22 ), that tests of genuineness were necessary, and that God might mislead the very prophets themselves, destroying the people through the agency of a deceptive vision ( Ezekiel 13:14 ). These are no doubt exceptional expressions, a sharp contrast being usually drawn between genuine and spurious prophecies, as those which come from God, and those which come from the prophet’s own heart ( Jeremiah 23:16 ). Professed prophets might be treacherous ( Zephaniah 3:4 ), just as the priests might profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law. The fact that Divine gifts may be abused does not interfere with their significance when rightly used. But wherein lay the distinction between true and false? If the prophets were connected with idolatrous worship ( 1 Kings 18:1-46 ), or devoted to other gods ( Deuteronomy 13:2 ), their departure from the truth is obvious. Also if high prophetic gifts were perverted for purposes of selfish advancement, or a part were deliberately assumed to deceive ( Zechariah 13:4 ), or office were desired merely for a livelihood ( Micah 3:5 ), the case is clear. But might the prophets themselves be deceived, and how were the people to distinguish between the true and the false?

Ostensibly both classes had the same ends in view the honour of Jehovah and the prosperity of the nation. But some put religious principle first and taught that prosperity would follow obedience; others, blinded by false ideas of national advantage, thought they were doing God service by promoting a policy which seemed likely to lead to the aggrandizement of His people. The same difference has often been observed in the Christian Church between a true religious leader and a mere ecclesiastic, honestly persuaded that whatever advances ‘the Church’ must be for the Divine glory, but who, none the less, perverts the truth by setting the means above the end. Lower ideas of God, of morality, and of true national prosperity lay at the root of the utterances of the false prophets. The main distinction between them and the true messengers of God was a moral and spiritual one, and discrimination was possible only by trying each on its own merits.

But certain tests are suggested. Sometimes ( a ) a sign or wonder was wrought in attestation ( Deuteronomy 13:1-2 ), but even this was not conclusive, and the true prophets seldom relied upon this evidence. Again, ( b ) in Deuteronomy 18:21 f. fulfilment of prediction is adduced as a test. Clearly that could not be applied at once, and it would rather be useful afterwards to students of the national history than to kings or people about to enter on a battle or an alliance. But ( c ) the people were expected to use their moral and spiritual insight and distinguish the issues set before them, as a man has to judge for himself in questions of conscience. In the case of Hananiah ( Jeremiah 28:1-17 ), an example is given of two lines of national policy presented by two leading prophets, and the process of judging between the true and the false was a part of the education through which Israel was called to pass and in which unfortunately it often failed. The difficulty of this process of discrimination was often lightened ( d ) by watching the career of the prophets, as to how far their character bore out their professions, what motives actuated them whether crooked policy, immediate expediency, or high self-denying principle and thus in the centuries before Christ, as afterwards, one of the best criteria was, ‘by their fruits ye shall know them.’

One other point remains. To what does the term ‘inspiration’ apply the men or their writings? What relation do the books that have come down to us bear to the originally spoken words of the prophets? The answer is that in the first instance it is the man who is inspired, not the book. In the case of the Hebrew prophet especially, the very nature of the influence at work impelled him to immediate utterance, and if he was inspired at all, the word is most applicable at this stage. In many instances the prophet went as it were from the very presence of God to perform his errand and utter winged words which have come down to us as delivered, white-hot from the very furnace of Divine prompting. But in other cases the record was not written till long after the original utterance; only a summary of the addresses delivered was handed down. The literary element predominates in the composition, and a finish is given to its phraseology which does not belong to the spoken word. A full account of the process is given in one case (Jeremiah 36:7 ), where we are told that the prophecies delivered through 21 years were carefully written out with the aid of a secretary, the transcription taking some months to accomplish. The document thus prepared was handed to the king and destroyed by him in anger at its contents, whereupon another record was made with considerable additions. Probably a similar process was usual in the case of the literary prophets. The utterances called forth by a crisis could not be prepared beforehand; sometimes, as in Malachi, the prophet would be interrupted by objections from the people, to which he must reply on the spur of the moment, and open conflicts were not infrequent. But the words in which the substance of many utterances was embodied were carefully chosen and were of more abiding import. The process of selection and transcription, as well as the original outpouring of the message, was under the guidance of the Divine Spirit, who actuated the prophet in all he said or did.

That the work of collecting the prophetic utterances was not always carefully done is clear from the state of the text in some of the books that have come down to us, e.g. , the serious differences between the Hebrew and the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] in Jeremiah. Also it should be noted that the utterances of different authors were often blended under one well-known name: e.g. , under ‘Isaiah’ many prophecies extending over a long period have been gathered; the Book of Zechariah is certainly composite, and indications of additions, editorial notes, and modifications are numerous. But the God who inspired His servant first to see and then to speak, did in certain cases inspire him also to write; and thus words which were intended in the first instance for rebellious Israel or disconsolate Judah have proved of perennial significance in the religious education of the world.

3. Functions and teaching . One who was essentially a ‘man of God’ under the conditions of life which obtained in Israel must have had many parts to play, many messages to give; and many would be the ways in which he brought his Influence to bear upon the life of his time. The prophetic office in its essence implied freedom from such routine duties as occupied ( e.g. ) the priest and later the scribe. These could easily be enumerated, but the work of the prophet, from its very nature, cannot be defined by strict boundary lines.

In the earliest times prophets were consulted on common matters of daily life. Samuel was asked by Saul’s servant how to find the lost asses of his master. Later, inquiry was made concerning the sickness of Jeroboam and its probable issue, and Elisha throughout his life was sought for in times of private and domestic need. On another side of their lives the prophets were closely connected with literature; they compiled historical records and preserved the national chronicles (see 1 Chronicles 29:29 ). The narrative portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophetical books show that the seer is a man whose searching glance may run backwards as well as forwards. It required a prophetic eye rightly to read the lessons of Israel’s past, and to this day the inspired historical books of OT teach lessons which no mere annalist could have perceived or conveyed to others. The work of other prophets lay in the department not of literature but of action, and apart from Elijah and Elisha some of the most notable figures in the prophetic succession were distinguished, not so much for what they taught as because at the critical moment they threw the weight of deservedly great influence into the right scale, and actually led the people in the right way.

These, however, were not the prophet’s main functions. His chief work was to serve as a great moral and religious teacher, especially in relation to the duties of national life. He was sent to minister to his own age, to teach his contemporaries the duties of the hour, how to apply the highest religious principles to current questions of political and social life. In the course of the delivery of this message he was moved to utter predictions, and these formed so characteristic and important a feature of the prophet’s teaching that foretelling the future came to be regarded as his chief work. This was not strictly the case, since the forecasts of the future arose out of the delivery of the message to the speaker’s own age. But prediction must be allowed its due place in an estimate of Hebrew prophecy; a reaction against the excessive stress formerly laid upon this element has unfortunately led to the opposite extreme of underestimating its importance.

Moral teaching was pre-eminent. The prophets were not exponents of the ‘law’ in the technical sense; that belonged to the priest ( Jeremiah 18:18 ); but the ‘word’ which was given to the prophet was an immediate revelation of the will of God, and was sometimes necessarily opposed to the orthodox and conventional religious teaching of men more anxious about following precedents than discerning the highest duty. In Isaiah 1 and 58, in Micah 6:1-16 , and Ezekiel 18:1-32 we have examples of lofty ethical teaching which might appear to disparage the routine of religious service and the traditions of religious doctrine. It is not sacrifice in itself, however, that is denounced, but a trust in formal service punctiliously rendered to God, without a corresponding reformation of character. The prophet was the messenger who recalled the people to their highest allegiance, who fearlessly rebuked spiritual unfaithfulness, and who laid emphasis, not on the tithing of mint, anise, and cummin, but on those weightier matters of the law, judgment and mercy and faith. Of worship and ritual they would have said, as did the greater Prophet who followed them, ‘These ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone’ ( Matthew 23:23 ). These moral teachings covered a very wide field. The prophets called evils by plain names and denounced them in uncompromising terms, however high the places in which they were found. Habits of luxury and self-indulgence in the upper classes; Intemperance and tendencies to excess of all kinds; the oppression of the poor, the usurpations of landowners, the extravagance of women in dress these are only a few specimens of class-sins which they frankly exposed and fearlessly denounced.

In this sense the prophets strove to recall the best features of Israel’s post. The tone of remonstrance adopted shows that for the most part the people were familiar with the principles laid down. The prophets were not innovators; they spoke as men whose words were likely to find an echo in the consciences of their hearers. But reformers they undoubtedly were in the sense that they ‘spared not the hoary head of inveterate abuse,’ and they prevented many of the evils which an undisturbed conservatism induces. They belonged to the party of progress in the beat sense of the term, and their work was especially to break up the fallow ground of habit that had become hard and set and unfit to receive the seed of fresh spiritual teaching. Moral reformation, they taught, was a necessary condition for the acquisition of spiritual knowledge, and the enjoyment of spiritual privilege. ‘Wash you. make you clean’ was the burden of their message; the arm of Jehovah is not shortened, nor His ear heavy, but your sins have separated between you and your God. Deal bread to the hungry and let the oppressed go free, then shall thy light break forth as the morning … and thine obscurity shall be as the noonday … and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters fail not.’

This moral teaching was brought to bear especially upon national life. Israel was a church-nation, one in which the community counted for much more than the individual, and the prophet’s chief function was to promote national righteousness. He represented the highest civic consciousness. He might, and did, rebuke private individuals and point out personal faults, though this was chiefly in the case of kings like David, Jeroboam, or Ahab, or State officials like Shebna in Isaiah 22:1-25 . Whole classes might go astray, the prophets themselves be unfaithful to their calling, and then an individual prophet was sent to recall all alike to their duty, himself the sole representative of Jehovah in a degenerate nation. For a time the political influence of the prophets was great, while their power was at its zenith, but this period did not last very long. Isaiah and Micah, Amos and Hosea, illustrate the way in which, both in the Southern and in the Northern Kingdom, the prophets intervened in questions of wars and alliances and treaties the foreign policy of their times. They took their part in domestic policy no less, sometimes standing between the sovereigns and their subjects teachers and examples of patriotism in the best sense of the word. Whilst the false prophets practically asserted the maxim ‘My country, right or wrong.’ the true prophet enforced the lesson that ‘There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord,’ and that unflinching loyalty to Him is the only secret of national stability and success. Sometimes they urged bold defiance of enemies, as in the invasion of Sennacherib ( 2 Kings 19:1-37 ); sometimes they recommended a policy of neutrality as between Egypt and Assyria ( Isaiah 30:1-33 ); whilst, as already pointed out, it was sometimes the duty of a Jeremiah to preach submission to the power of Babylon, even though that course might be represented as pusillanimous truckling to superior force. In thus directing the national policy, the prophet might be commissioned to announce the success or failure of certain projects, and to foretell the consequences of a given course of action. But if the prophecies be closely examined, it will be seen that the forecasts were for the most part conditional ‘If thou wilt hear and obey, thou shalt eat the good of the land; if not, thou shalt be devoured with the sword’ the object of such vaticinations being pre-eminently moral, to bring the people to such a state of mind that the threatened evils might be averted.

The value of such an institution in any State is obvious. J. S. Mill describes it as an ‘inestimably precious’ feature, that ‘the persons most eminent in genius and moral feeling could reprobate with the authority of the Almighty, and give a higher and better interpretation of religion, which henceforth became a part of that religion.’ The power of the prophet has been compared to the modern liberty of the press. The comparison is sadly inadequate, for at best the press represents the highest current of public opinion, whilst it was one of the chief duties of the prophet to rebuke public opinion in the light of higher truth, which he discerned as from a mountain top whilst all the valley below lay in darkness. That the ethical standard was maintained in Israel as high as it was, and that the Jews were the most progressive people of antiquity, and conjointly with the Greeks have so strongly influenced modern culture, is due mainly to the prophets.

Religious teaching was closely connected with the ethical. The prophet would not permit any severance of these two elements. The explanation of the freedom and beauty of the moral life on which they insisted was that it was not inculcated as a code, but as a service rendered to a holy and gracious God. The people were to offer the kind of service with which He would be pleased; hence the higher their conceptions of God were raised, the higher also became their standard of conduct. The prophets of the 8th cent. b.c. are sometimes described as the first teachers of ethical monotheism , but this position it would be difficult to establish. That the standard of the people had sunk sadly below that of the revelation granted them is certain, and that the prophets not only recalled them to their duty, but raised their very conceptions of Deity, is practically certain. But Amos, the first of the writing prophets, appealed to a conscience and a God-consciousness already developed, and his rebukes presuppose the knowledge of one holy God, and do not inculcate the doctrine for the first time. Both he and Hosea press home the duty of the people to return to the God they had forsaken; sometimes sternly, sometimes with tender and pathetic pleading: ‘O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? Thou art graven on the palms of my hands.’ The worst feature of the wickedness of the times lay in the unfaithfulness of Israel to the God who had bound His people to Him by the closest ties and their disobedience is described as infidelity to a spiritual marriage vow. The prophets strove and urged and remonstrated, ‘rising up early’ and pleading that they might win the heart of the people back to God, sure that thus, and thus only, a basis could be secured for a permanently upright national and individual character. From this point of view their words can never grow obsolete.

As to the predictive element in prophecy, it may be discerned on every page, but it is not of the ‘fortune-telling’ order. Most of the predictions refer to national events, in Israel or surrounding nations. Some of these enter into detail, as in the overthrow of Ahab at Ramoth-gilead foretold by Micaiah ( 1 Kings 22:34 ), and the failure of Sennacherib’s expedition announced by Isaiah. Others threaten in a more general way that punishment will follow disohedience, this strain becoming ever sterner and more pronounced as time advanced. These dark presages were fulfilled in the case of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th cent. b.c.; and afterwards when Judah refused to take the warning, her calamities culminated in the capture and overthrow of Jerusalem.

The prophets, however, are able to take a wider outlook, their penetrating gaze extends to the more distant future. This feature is so closely blended with the last, that it is sometimes hard to distinguish the two. It is the habit of the prophets to pass immediately and without warning from the nearer to the further horizon, and the question perpetually recurs Of whom, of what period, speaketh the prophet this? That their power of foresight was akin to the moral insight which other exceptionally gifted persons have possessed, enabling them within limits to forecast the future, may be admitted. But no parallel has been found in any other nation to the phenomena of Hebrew prophecy, especially in the continuous succession of men carrying on the same remarkable work for generations. Many critics seek to eliminate the element of the supernatural from prophecy. But, whilst it may be granted that many prophecies were not fulfilled because they were given with a condition stated or implied, and that the poetical language of many others never was literally fulfilled, or intended to be so, there remain a considerable number of national predictions which were fulfilled in a very remarkable manner, especially when we bear in mind that they ran directly counter to the prejudices of the times and were sometimes uttered at the risk of very life to the daring messenger himself.

A candid examination of the whole conditions of the case must lead to the admission of a supernatural power and knowledge in Hebrew prophecy quite apart from the Messianic element, which will be considered separately. The attempts to explain this away have failed. The prophetic power was not exceptional political shrewdness, not the mere sanguine expectation of enthusiasts, or the gloomy foreboding of convinced pessimists; it was not like the second-sight of the Highlander, the effect of excitement upon a highly sensitive temperament; nor, as rationalism teaches, can all predictions be explained on the vaticinia post eventum principle, as history written after the event. On the other hand, supernatural enlightenment and direction must be included, whilst it may be freely admitted with Tholuck that the predictions were for the most part ‘not of the accidental, but of the religiously necessary,’ that they were mostly general, sometimes hypothetical, consistent with the freedom of the persons addressed, and that while they contain what some call ‘failures,’ in broad outline they reflect with wonderful accuracy and force the word of God in relation to the principles and progress of human history.

4. Messianic prophecy and its fulfilment . It was inevitable that teachers so commissioned by God to declare His will should take a wider range. Theirs was emphatically a message of hope they were sent to prepare the way for a brighter future. Hence we find them passing, by rapid and almost insensible gradations, from immediate to far distant issues, and descriptions of a Final Consummation are blended with their very practical teaching as to present duty. In later Judaism these prospects of coming national felicity gathered round the term Messiah , the Anointed One, used to designate a coming Deliverer, through whose instrumentality the glories of the future age were to be realized. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be, and was, the promised Messiah of the Jews, and the name ‘Messianic prophecy’ has been given to predictions which refer directly to the ideal personage of whose coming the prophets were the heralds. But this narrower meaning of the phrase is for several reasons unsatisfactory. In the first place, ‘Messiah’ is not a recognized OT term for this Deliverer; it may be questioned whether the word is once used in this sense. Further, there is a great body of prophetic utterances which belong to the ‘Messianic’ era, though no mention is made of a personal King or Saviour. And from the Christian point of view, the preparation for the coming of Christ was very various: many prophecies are believed to find direct fulfilment in Him, in which neither the name nor the idea of a personal Messiah occurs; hence ‘Messianic prophecy’ is now generally understood to mean all the OT promises which refer to the final accomplishment of God’s purposes for the nation and the world.

The whole OT religion is one of hope. God’s promises made to His people were too large, the ideal descriptions of their privileges were too lofty, to find full realization at any early stage of national development. And Israel itself was so intractable and unfaithful, and the gap between profession and practice was so painfully obvious, that the gaze of the people was ever fixed on the future. Sometimes the prospect was held out of a regenerated city, sometimes of an ideal temple and its worship, sometimes the idea prevailed of a clearer manifestation of God Himself in the midst of His people, sometimes expectation pointed to a Ruler who would embody all the qualities of righteousness. wisdom, and power which had been so conspicuously lacking in many monarchs of the Davidic line. Sometimes material considerations figured most largely in the pictures of the future the fruitfulness of the land, abundance of corn and wine and oil; sometimes a promise filled the air like music of an unprecedented peace which should bless the often invaded and always more or less disturbed country; sometimes a broad landscape picture was drawn of the extensive dominion and influence which Israel should exercise over the nations around. And it is obviously undesirable that forecasts which contain a more directly personal reference should be separated from these others with which they were closely connected in the prophets’ thoughts, especially as closer examination has tended to reduce the number of passages which may be described as directly Messianic. A few central ideas lay at the heart of the whole. The Covenant which bound together God and His people, the City in which He made His abode, the Temple hallowed by His presence, the Kingdom in which His law should prevail and His will be always done, were never very far from the minds of the ancient seers. Correspondingly, the Jew anticipated, and the prophet foretold, the coming of the ideal King who would dwell in the City and at the head of the Kingdom, the ideal Priest of the Temple, the ideal Prophet to declare the Divine purposes completely, and cement the Divine Covenant so that it should never again be broken. Brooding over the whole was the thought of the Divine Presence, which in the future was to be a Theophany indeed.

It was only in the 2nd cent. b.c. that the term ‘Messiah’ became the focus in which all these rays were centralized. In the OT books the word is used as an epithet of the king, ‘Jehovah’s anointed’; it is used of Cyrus, a heathen prince, in Isaiah 45:1 f.; possibly, though improbably, it may be understood as a proper name in Daniel 9:25; whilst some would find in Psalms 2:1-12 an almost unique use of the word to designate the ideal Prince of the house of David who should rule all the nations with unparalleled and illimitable sway. But if the term ‘Messiah,’ standing alone to designate a unique office, appears comparatively late in Jewish history, a less clearly defined idea of a personal Ruler and Deliverer pervaded the national thought for centuries before. The terms (1) ‘Son of David,’ pointing to a ruler of the Davidic line, together with ‘Branch’ or’ Shoot,’ with the same connotation; (2) ‘Son of Man,’ applied in OT to Ezekiel and others, sometimes indicating man in his frailty, but sometimes man as God intended him to be; and (3) ‘Son of God,’ indicating the nation Israel, Israel’s judges and Israel’s king, alike representing the Most High upon earth all helped to prepare the way for the idea of a Messiah who should, in an undefined and unimaginable way, unite the excellences of the whole in His person. (4) One other name, such as would not have occurred to the earlier prophets, appears freely in Second Isaiah; and, as the event proved, influenced subsequent thought to an unexpectedly profound degree the ‘Servant of Jehovah’ as Sufferer and Saviour. It was along these lines and others kindred to them which have not been named, that the preparation was made by the prophets for the coming of Israel’s true Deliverer. When all are put together, it will be seen that if the number of passages referring directly to the Messiah by name is unexpectedly small, the number which prepared the thoughts of the people for His Advent is exceedingly large, and these are so various in their character that it might well have seemed impossible that they should all be realized in one Person.

It is quite impossible here to survey this vast field even in outline. But one point must not be lost sight of the distinction between those prophecies which are directly and those which are only indirectly Messianic. When the meaning of the prophet’s words is obviously too lofty to be applied in any sense to a mere earthly kingdom, or where the context necessitates it, we may assume that the prophet’s eyes were fixed, not on his contemporaries but on the far distance, and the period of the Consummation for which it was needful long to wait. But where the mention of local and temporal conditions or of human imperfections and limitations makes it clear that the immediate reference of a passage is to the prophet’s own times, whilst yet his glance shoots at intervals beyond them, there the words are only indirectly Messianic, and a typical significance is found in them. That is, the same ideas or principles are illustrated in the earlier as in the later dispensation, but in an inferior degree; the points of similarity and difference varying in their relative proportions, so that a person or an event or an institution under the Old Covenant may more or less dimly foreshadow the complete realization of the Divine purpose yet to come. The type may be described as a prophetic symbol.

The line between typical and directly prophetic passages is not always easy to draw. For example, it may be debated in what sense Psalms 2:1-12; Psalms 8:1-9; Psalms 16:1-11; Psalms 45:1-17; Psalms 72:1-20 and others are ‘Messianic,’ the probability being that in every case the primary thought of the Psalmist was occupied with the history that he knew, though his words in each case soared beyond their immediate occasion. So the language of Isaiah 53 which for centuries has been understood by Christian interpreters to refer directly to a suffering Messiah is now understood by some of the best Christian scholars as referring at least in the first instance to faithful Israel. An ideal personification of Israel, i.e. , identified with the nation yet distinct from it, is represented as the true servant of God carrying out His purposes for the national purification, even through persecution, suffering, and death. Opinions may well differ as to whether this interpretation is adequate. But it must be borne in mind in any case that in the prophets we do find a remarkable combination of two features a wide outlook into the future implying preternatural insight, and very marked limitations of vision derived from the ideas of the times in which they lived. The object of the student of Messianic prophecy is to examine the relations between these two elements, and to show how out of the midst of comparatively narrow ideas, determined by the speaker’s political and historical environment, there arose others, lofty, wide, and comprehensive, with ‘springing and germinant accomplishments,’ and thus the Spirit of Christ which was in the prophets ‘testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow them.’

When we inquire concerning the fulfilment of prophecy, it is necessary to distinguish between (1) what the prophet meant by his words in the first instance, according to their plainest and simplest interpretation; (2) any realization, more or less imperfect, of his utterances in Israelitish history; (3) any more complete realization of them which may have taken place in Christ and Christianity, considered as the Divinely appointed ‘fulfilment’ of Judaism; and (4) any appropriate application of the prophetic words which may be made in subsequent generations in further illustration of the principles laid down. If there be a wise and gracious God who orders all the events of human history, if He inspired the OT prophets to declare His will for some centuries before Christ, if the climax of His self-revelation was reached in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and if He is still working out His purposes of righteous love among the nations of the modern world, it is to be expected that the declarations of the prophets will receive many ‘fulfilments,’ many of them much wider, deeper, and more significant than the prophets themselves could possibly understand. But the meaning of the original words as first uttered should first of all be studied without any reference to subsequent events. Then the nature of the connexion between OT and NT should be clearly understood, and the principles on which the NT writers find a complete realization of the promises of the Old Covenant in the New. And afterwards it will not be difficult to see in what sense perpetually new applications of the prophets’ words may be legitimately made to the subsequent history of the Kingdom of God in the earth.

Every reader of the NT must have noticed that the words ‘that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet’ are used very freely by the several writers, and not always in precisely the same sense. Christ Himself led the way and the Apostles followed Him in declaring that His work on earth was to ‘fulfil’ both the Law and the prophets, and that the whole of the OT Scriptures pointed to Him and testified of Him. It was not so much that minute coincidences might be discerned between the phraseology of the OT and the events of His life, though it was natural that such should be noted by the Evangelists. But Jesus specially insisted upon the fact which it is most important for the student of the Bible to observe, viz. that what ‘the Law failed to accomplish, and what the prophets and those who looked for the fulfilment of their words had failed to realize, He had come completely and perfectly to achieve. The emphasis lies, as might have been expected, upon the spiritual, rather than the literal, meaning of the Scriptures; and the most complete fulfilment of OT words lies not in a precise correspondence between circumstantial forecasts made long before with the details of His personal history, but in a spiritual realization of that great end which lawgivers, kings, prophets, and righteous men under the Old Covenant desired to see, but were not able.

OT prophecy, then, is best understood when it is viewed as one remarkable stage in a long and still more remarkable history. Some of its utterances have not been, and never will be fulfilled, in the sense that many of its students have expected. A large proportion of them have already been fulfilled, though in strange and unlooked-for fashion, by Him of whom it has been said that ‘the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy’ (Revelation 19:10 ). In the Person, life, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and in the establishment of His Kingdom on the earth, is to be found the fullest realization of the glowing words of the prophets who prepared the way for His coming. For a still more complete fulfilment of their highest hopes and fairest visions the world still waits. But those who believe in the accomplishment of God’s faithful word thus far will not find it difficult to believe that our Lord’s words concerning the Law ( Matthew 5:18 ) may be adapted, and that in the highest spiritual sense they will be at last realized ‘Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise p

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prophecy, Prophets'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse: