A perusal of definitions for Hebrew prophet from various resources revealed a consensus on the foundational elements of prophetic literature. Two examples are used below to summarize those characterizations. James Strong, authors of “A Comprehensive Strong Dictionary of the Bible” gives us these descriptions; “1. in Greek writings, an interpreter of oracles or of other hidden things 2. one who, moved by the Spirit of God and hence his organ or spokesman, solemnly declares to men what he has received by inspiration, especially concerning future events, and in particular such as relate to the cause and kingdom of God and to human salvation”[i]
Another definition found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica describes God’s active involvement in guiding His chosen people. “The institution of prophecy is founded on the basic premise that God does not abandon humans to their own devices, but provides them with divine guidance. A prophet is a charismatic individual endowed with the divine gift of both receiving and imparting divine messages. In biblical theory, the prophet does not choose his profession but is chosen, often against his own will, to convey the work of God to his people regardless of whether or not they wish to hear it.”[ii]
Other definitions stated much the same which leads to the conclusion that a prophet is a prophet is a prophet. It is the times in which they live, the task that lies before them and the gift which God has given them that define their works. Foundational to their role is that they were chosen to be a spokesman and advocate for God to His people and a source of hope against a precarious human race. In the introduction to the book, “You Are My People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature” the authors explore numerous ideas concerning the significance of prophecy, then state;” Building on these varied understandings of the prophetic persona, we would suggest that by the time the prophets were honored in texts that bear their names they had become harbingers of hope amid worlds ravaged by war and violence.”[iii]
Understanding that God chose and endowed men and women with unique gifts and He did so during periods of turmoil and disbelief, we begin to explore the role that prophets played in keeping the people of the OT connected to God. Through one individual or another Yahweh continued to offer hope and redemption by reaffirming His continual presence in the human world.
It is important to remember that these OT voices spoke in a particular time and place and in response to pertinent issues. God chose them to address the people and rulers of their time yet their prophetic voices carry on throughout the ages with the same authenticity that was relevant in the past. “Though they are anchored to a particular time and place, their visions and messages traverse temporal boundaries—traveling from past to present, from present to future, and from future back to past.”[iv]
God would use them in different ways to address the realities and challenges of their times. Prophets were a source of hope, a remembrance of God’s faithfulness, a reaffirmation of God’s sovereignty and an assurance of His future action. ”Similarly, prophetic figures, as portrayed by their interpretive communities, are defined by an overwhelming concern for the survival of the community.”[v]
The function of the prophets in Israel can be divided at distinct periods in the OT; the time from Abram until the end of Solomon’s reign, then the period when Israel became divided between King Rehoboan of Judah and Jeroboam I of Israel. Excepting Elijah and Elisha, the prophets of the divided kingdoms and the Babylonian exile had their own canonical books as did some after the exile. Preceding the divided kingdoms the works of the prophets were contained in the historical canons depicting the early judges and rulers of Israel.
Another dividing point can be placed during the “Deuteronomic reform” initiated by King Josiah in 622BCE. Under Josiah the oral testimony of the latter prophets were preserved in writing. Though many of them lived in the centuries before Josiah, their prophetic missions were defined by the turmoil and upheaval of a divided kingdom which led to the ruins of both nations and exile to Babylon. These are the best known prophets because their works have been canonized under their names.
The prophets before the division served God in a different way, bringing into question if they met the qualifications to be called prophets. So was Abram a prophet or a patriarch? Abraham heard from and spoke with God making him “an interpreter of oracles or of other hidden things”.[vi] Moses also listened and spoke with God yet still required his brother Aaron to speak for him to the people and Pharaoh. Did this make Aaron a prophet as well?
In the Book of Judges, the people repeatedly turned away from God who in anger allowed their enemies to persecute and enslave them “Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals;”[vii] With pity God choose people such as Othniel who “The spirit of the LORD came upon,”[viii] and, Deborah, “a prophetess,”[ix] and Gideon who, through an angel, God said “I hereby commission you.”[x]
Judges 2:18 states “Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.”[xi] Judges were prophets because they were “one who, moved by the Spirit of God and hence his organ or spokesman,”[xii] They received and responded to God’s command which reasserted the relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham.
During the pre-division period God used prophetic gifts to guide rulers such as Abraham, Moses and the Judges. They listened and obeyed God’s instructions. Later priests, such as Samuel, Nathan and Gad, would become prophets to kings. These prophets held rulers accountable and reminded them they were subservient to God’s will. When Saul was anointed Israel’s first King, Samuel struggled to keep him obedient to Yahweh. Displeased with Saul, God sent Samuel to prepare the young shepherd boy David to become ruler. David would create a kingship and a Kingdom honoring the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. This began a pattern by which the religious alliance of the people would be determined by the inclination of their king. God’s prophets would struggle to sway the royal personage back to God.
After Solomon the kingdom became politically and nationally divided. During this period, the prophet Elijah, when challenged by King Ahab of Israel, replied, “… “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals.”[xiii] Up until this time the peoples of the ancient world did not reject the existence of other nation’s gods. They did attempt to worship the god or gods of their culture but struggled with fidelity because of economic, cultural and political influence. In defeating the priest of Baal with the burning bull in 1Kings 18:20-40, and ending the drought Elijah demonstrated the supremacy of Yahweh over kings, priests and their gods. This was the beginning of not only rejecting other gods but affirming that there was only one God, a doctrine which would be fully accepted by the Jewish people during the exilic period.
The prophets of this latter period continued to cry out that there was only one true God and that God would hold all people accountable in the future. They also took on a stronger role as reformers, declaring that God had a purpose and a means to measure the people’s acknowledgement of the divine presence. Through the prophets of the divided kingdoms, God warned the nation of the punishment they would experience at the hands of other nations. These same prophets would also reveal the work by which God will bestow salvation and renewal. The old post-exile kingdom would not be restored. This was intended as a message of hope. Instead it instilled fear. Such prophecies were meant to share God’s desire for a world ruled by mercy, justice and compassion. The words from Micah 6:8, though written long before the Babylonian exile, declares this new mandate; “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[xiv]
The work of the prophets began to focus on building a compassionate society in which God’s mercy would rule instead of political might. Social justice, brotherly love, obedience, and mercy would become the new path to God’s Kingdom. “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. “[xv]
Perhaps there is only one definition for a Hebrew prophet. The two cited at the beginning of this article are in agreement and seem sufficient for clarifying God’s work through the prophets. The variable is the task which each was asked to do and the gift which God gave them to accomplish their works. Human nature has remained the same, therefore the issues addressed by Jeremiah or Moses still exists in the modern world. Also the solutions which God revealed through the prophets still apply today. Whether we define ourselves as prophets, judges, priests or Christian disciples we must chose to allow God to work through us for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.
[i] Strong, James; Authors, Various. A Comprehensive Strong Dictionary of the Bible – [Illustrated]: Complete Bible word index, Hebrew & Greek dictionary with in-depth definitions, Easy and Fast Navigation system (Kindle Locations 113418-113419). Bestbooks. Kindle Edition.
[ii] “Prophets and Prophecy.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved November 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/prophets-and-prophecy
[iii] Stulman, Louis; Kim, Hyun Chul Paul. You Are My People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature (Kindle Locations 319-320). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Stulman, Louis; Kim, Hyun Chul Paul. You Are My People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature (Kindle Locations 864-865). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[v] Stulman, Louis; Kim, Hyun Chul Paul. You Are My People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature (Kindle Locations 770-771). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Strong, James; Authors, Various. A Comprehensive Strong Dictionary of the Bible – [Illustrated]: Complete Bible word index, Hebrew & Greek dictionary with in-depth definitions,
[vii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha Judges 2”11, (Kindle Locations 9998-10000). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition
[viii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 10032). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[ix] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 10067). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[x] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 10209-10210). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 10009-10012). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
[xii] Strong, James; Authors, Various. A Comprehensive Strong Dictionary of the Bible – [Illustrated]: Complete Bible word index, Hebrew & Greek dictionary with in-depth definitions, Easy and Fast Navigation system (Kindle Locations 113418-113419). Bestbooks. Kindle Edition.
[xiii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 14706). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[xiv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 43912-43915). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
[xv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha, Jeremiah 7:5-7 (Kindle Location 35412). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.