Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
We have finished the Minor Prophets and we are gearing up for the reformers Ezra and Nehemiah before we tackle the Major Prophet Ezekiel. But before we switch modes entirely, I want to take advantage of the pause to talk about the institution of the prophet. We have been doing deep dives into the biblical books, but I want to zoom out and share more generally what constitutes a prophet and what is the prophetic tradition in the Bible.
In the Hebrew scriptures, a prophet was a special human recipient of divine revelation, commissioned by God to communicate his mind to the people of Israel. From Abraham to Malachi, God’s spokespeople fit the broad category of prophet.
Abraham was the patriarch prophet whom God chose to reveal himself (Gen. 20:7). Moses was a prophet leader, authorized to speak in the name of Yahweh to both the Egyptians and the Israelites (Deut. 18:18). In the days of the judges, Samuel held every position: priest, judge, and prophet (1 Sam. 3:20). Mysteriously, the Bible even references a school of the prophets filled with an infectious degree of God’s spirit and gifted in musical worship (1 Sam 10:5). Elijah and Elisha were brave prophet challengers, unrelenting in their confrontations with pagan seers, faulty priests, and wicked kings. By the eight century BCE, a new type of prophetism arose: the writing prophet. The writing prophet was a unique new brand of an ancient office, messengers of God who eventually preserved their oracles in literary products.
Amos and Hosea were likely the earliest of the writing prophets, sent to warn Israel of the pending consequence of their idolatrous and unethical ways. Also in the eighth century BCE, Isaiah and Micah delivered their messages to the people of Judah.
Soon after, Jeremiah and Zephaniah warned Judah that a day of judgement was inevitable. Joel is difficult to date but he provided God’s people with a timeless liturgy of lament. Obadiah condemned the Edomite enemies of Judah. Nahum condemned the Assyrian attackers of Israel. Jonah offered those Assyrians a chance to repent and humble themselves before Yahweh. Habakkuk begged God to stop the endless cycle of violence in the world. Ezekiel wrote as a prophet in captivity in Babylon. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were the last of the writing prophets sent to exhort the returnees to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem.
Prophecy was one mode of God’s self-revelation, but it was never the only mode. The Bible confirms that God revealed himself since the beginning of time through his creation to all who opened their hearts to intuit a power outside of themselves (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-6). To the descendants of Abraham, God revealed himself through his covenant and laws (Deut. 29:29), as well as his historical interventions on their behalf (Ex. 20:2). When the people strayed from the covenant and forgot his saving works, God spoke to and through the prophets, commissioning them to communicate his will in both oratory and written form. Their oracles addressed the entire nation, rather than individuals. Bernard Ramm defined the Old Testament system of prophetic revelation in three parts: “Speaking is the modality; the prophet is the instrument; the word of God is the product.”
The prophets reminded the community of their spiritual and ethical commitments in their covenant with God. With conviction, they condemned sin, imparted knowledge of God, exalted righteousness, and preached repentance. As God’s mouthpiece, they never doubted the divine origin of their messages, confidently opening their oratories with “thus says the Lord.” The prophet Amos said, “surely the sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (3:7).
In preexilic Judah, there were at least three different types of spiritual leaders: priest, sage, and prophet (Jer. 18:18). Prophets had no official status and their election was not a hereditary position or based off popular election. Rabbi Abraham Heschel explained that the prophetic vocation “presupposes neither training nor the gradual development of a talent” but instead “comes about as an act of grace.”
The prophets stood outside the biblical system of checks and balances among kings, priests, and judges. They were permitted to challenge kings, as Nathan did with David (2 Sam. 12:1-13) and Elijah did with Ahab (1 Kings 21). The prophet Amos even challenged rebellious priests (Amos 7:11). The prophet Elijah escaped death. Why were these individuals chosen to bring a message from heaven to earth? The question is best approached not through a historical or cultural lens, although biblical studies are replete with such theories. The answer is theological: “Special revelation is special in that it comes to specific persons but not to humanity in general.”
The height of the literary prophets was the years leading up to Israel’s exile at the hands of the Assyrians (721 BCE) and Judah’s overthrow at the hands of the Babylonians (586 BCE). The prophetic message reached a fevered pitch in that period as there was still a moment for the people to cancel their punishment and return to God. Returning to God, in the prophetic sense, meant obeying the covenant regulations. The call of the prophets was rooted in the Mosaic covenant: “What Moses promised, the prophets reinforced, actively proclaiming a message that preceded them by hundreds of years—the choice of life or death, blessing or cursing (Deut. 30:11-20).” The prophetic message stayed within the parameters of covenant life as set out in the Torah. The prophets condemned idolatry, social injustice, violence, and empty religion.
The common misconception about the prophets is that their main contribution to spiritual life is their predictive messianic prophecies and their visions of the eschaton. In fact, “less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic” and “less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come.” Because the prophets offer a peak behind the veil of God’s mysterious plan of redemption, their words have been mined for centuries by all those seeking every possible meaning of divine revelation. Their earnest voice and beautiful prose retain the secrets once revealed from God to men (Deut. 29:29). We read them still as a reminder of what life can look like when God’s people forget their calling.
Prophets heard from God audibly (Isa. 6:8; Jer. 1:7) or were conscious of God’s voice internally. God promised a reluctant Jeremiah that he would put his words in the young prophet’s mouth (Jer. 1:9). As long as there were true prophets, there were also false prophets. Ezekiel accused the false prophets of dressing the part but unable to discern their own imagination from the word of God (Ezek. 13:17). Jeremiah hated the false prophets’ sham operation, accusing them of spreading “false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14). Biblical prophecy was not divination, fortune telling, or sorcery. God forbid such practices among his covenant people (Deut. 18:14). Since the foundation of Israel as a nation, false prophecy or prophecy in the name of another deity was punishable by death (Deut. 18:20).
The witness of the false prophets were not included in the scrolls that eventually developed into the Hebrew scriptures. The authentic oracles were written down and preserved while Ezekiel declared that the false prophets would never “be listed in the records of Israel” (Ezek. 13:9).
By the time the postexilic community was rebuilding Jerusalem, the people quoted the prophets as if their writings were commonly accessed (Ezra 1:1).
The literary prophets can be divided by time period: preexilic, exilic, and postexilic. They are also often divided into Major and Minor prophets based off the length of their books. The Old Testament cannon does not arrange the prophetic books in chronological order. As it happens, however, the book of Malachi is last in the cannon and, based off textual clues, also last chronologically.
Malachi’s book does not provide a forewarning that after his oracle, the prophetic voice will dry up. In fact, his postexilic contemporary Nehemiah, complained of trouble with false prophets so we know false prophecy as a vocation continued (Neh. 6:5-13). According to Josephus, plenty of false prophets proliferated in Judah at least until the first century CE.
Josephus kept a record of several prophetic movements that doubled as revolutions of the poor revolting against the Roman occupation. None of these self-declared prophets were successfully recognized as being on the same rank as the Bible’s literary prophets.
The New Testament reveals that four centuries of silence did not lessen the expectation of the prophetic voice in Judah. In the gospels, Jesus and John the Baptist were regularly extolled as great prophets (Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 6:14; 9:17), showing the language of prophetic ideals was still very much in the air. Even if no leader was granted the rank of prophet that lasted the test of time, the prophets were still held dear in the ancestral memories of Judaism. A community suffering under Roman oppression hungered for the return of prophetic guidance.
After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish religious leaders were forced into a corner, unable to practice the sacrificial system and make atonement for the people. Apparently, prophets popped up in this period as well, but few were taken seriously. Rabbi Yohanan (180-279 CE) spoke ironically about the commonality of roaming ecstatic prophets. He said, “from the day of the destruction of the Temple, prophetic inspiration was taken away from the prophets and given to children and madmen.”
The Jewish scriptural canon concludes with the edict of King Cyrus allowing the people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. For Christians, the Old Testament canon ends with Malachi and his divine promise to send an Elijah figure to lead the people toward repentance and reconciliation. Four hundred years of profound silence follow Malachi.
For Jews, prophecy ceased and will not return until the messianic age; Malachi is the prophet who shut the door behind him. For Christian readers, Malachi opens a new portal to the ultimate divine revelation: the incarnation. The Bible begins anew with the birth of Jesus Christ. Still, what accounts for the long span of intertestamental years? Why did the prophetic office as an effective mode of divine revelation cease hundreds of years before the arrival of the Messiah?
For the next episode I want to discuss the Jewish perspective on the cessation of prophecy. As a primer, Ezra and Nehemiah shed interesting light. In the episode after that, I want to explore the introduction to Hebrews as a key text for understanding the Christian answer to God’s plan for divine revelation: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1). Ultimately, both the Jewish and Christian perspectives have more in common than one would expect. The products of prophecy, preserved in their Testaments, have sustained both faith communities in the post-prophetic age.
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