In 2014, we’re preaching through the book of Isaiah at Coram Deo Church. Here’s a little essay I wrote to help explain the nature of prophecy to those who are less familiar with this genre of biblical literature.
PROPHECY: UNDERSTANDING THE GENRE
When we hear the word prophecy, all kinds of strange connotations come to mind. Some of us immediately think of crazy-eyed modern “prophets” predicting the end of the world. Others – especially those from charismatic/Pentecostal traditions – think of people receiving a “prophetic word” or “walking in a prophetic anointing.” What is a prophet, anyway? Did the Old Testament prophets share anything in common with these modern manifestations?
Four contrasts will help us understand the role of the biblical prophets more clearly.
Not Foretelling, but Forth-Telling
Many people assume that the job of a prophet was to foretell or predict the future. But that’s only a small part of the prophet’s role. Dr. Richard Pratt explains:
The Greek word prophetes from which we derive our English word “prophet” is a rather flexible term… On the one hand it may mean to “speak beforehand” or “predict,” and on the other hand, it may simply mean to “speak forth” or to “proclaim” something that is not even a prediction at all. A prophet then can be someone who predicts or simply someone who proclaims. In reality, Old Testament prophets did both. They spoke of the future, but they also spoke boldly about their own days. (Pratt, He Gave Us Prophets: A Prophet’s Job, http://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/hgp, accessed 31 December 2013).
We should understand the biblical prophets, then, not as “foretellers,” but as forth-tellers. Their job was to speak forth the word of God.
Not Soothsayers, but Covenant Servants
Another common term the Bible uses to designate the prophets is the Hebrew word ‘ebed, which means servant. “This title is important for prophets, because it often bore the connotations of an official or an officer, especially an officer of a royal court… [Prophets] served as representatives of the heavenly throne. They were official servants who spoke in the name of the Great King” (Pratt, He Gave Us Prophets: A Prophet’s Job, http://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/hgp, accessed 31 December 2013).
One way the prophets serve God is to represent him as prosecuting attorneys. God, the Great King over heaven and earth, has made a covenant with his people. He has pledged himself to them as their God, and he expects them to be faithful to him as his people. When they are unfaithful – when they disobey and disregard their covenant relationship with him – he “takes them to court.” He sends prophets to present evidence of the people’s sin and call them back to repentance and fidelity.
Another way the prophets serve God is by serving as a means of checks and balances. Throughout most of the Old Testament, God’s people were ruled by kings. And those kings were sinful human beings. They often abused power, served idols, and acted corruptly. God sends prophets to confront the kings’ disobedience, to call them to repentance, and to warn them and their followers of God’s impending judgment on their sin.
Not Certainties, but Contingencies
Many people wrongly assume that the biblical prophets spoke in certainties. Behind this view is a misunderstanding of Deuteronomy 18:22: “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.” Does this mean that everything a prophet says is certain to occur?
Not at all. Rather, biblical prophecy always involves contingencies. Remember, the prophets are God’s covenant servants. They don’t speak God’s words into empty space; they speak to God’s covenant people, with the goal of arousing a response in those people! When they warn of God’s judgment, their goal is to elicit a response of repentance. When they promise blessing, their goal is to secure continued obedience. Thus, almost every prophecy in the Bible is contingent upon the response of the people.
The clearest example of the contingency of prophecy is the short little book of Jonah. Jonah is sent to Nineveh with this simple message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). No stated conditions, no exceptions – just a clear word of impending judgment. Yet the people of Nineveh repent. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). But why? Is God going back on his word? He said he was going to overthrow the city! Why would he not do so? Answer: because God’s warning to Nineveh contained an implied condition. Forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown – [unless the people repent and turn to God]. How do we know this condition exists? Because Jonah himself knew it. In Jonah 4:1-2, we read: “[Jonah] was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah understood that his entire mission was conditional. God’s message of judgment was not a certainty, but a threat: if the people repented, God would graciously spare them. That’s why he sent Jonah in the first place.
Not Mechanical Dictation, but Organic Inspiration
“When it comes to Old Testament prophets, we frequently treat them as if they were passive instruments of revelation, mere mechanical mouthpieces of God,” observes Dr. Richard Pratt. “[But in reality], when God inspired the writing of Scripture he used the personalities and the thoughts and the outlooks of human writers… If we hope to understand Old Testament prophecy, we must reject a mechanical understanding of their experience and begin to look for the ways God inspired them as full, thinking human beings” (Pratt, He Gave Us Prophets: Essential Hermeneutical Perspectives, http://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/hgp, accessed 1 January 2014). God didn’t take over Isaiah’s lips and force them to move, or catch him up in a trance that bypassed his natural faculties. Rather, the prophet “was so wrought upon and superintended by God that the human words which expressed the message (words natural to that man at that time with that personality) were also the very words of God himself” (Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 31).