When I did my customary Google search on a subject I wanted information on, in this case it was to the question “why do books have a preface?“, I got what I felt was a decent answer on my first hit: “The preface is a place for the book’s author to tell the reader how this book came into being, and why. It should build credibility for the author and the book … Here the author should explain why they wrote the book, and how they came to writing it. The author should be showing the reader why they are worth reading”. I had been thinking of going straight into the main content but it only seemed right and proper I produce this “I hope folks will read” preface beforehand. I also have to confess, even though I have often been guilty in the past, my aversion to giving too many personal anecdotes and reflections in a book that is meant to be mainly objective. While I use the first person in this preface, I will avoid doing so in the chapters that follow, at least until I get to the last two, where I will offer a personal view.
Sometimes personal perspective is inevitable, and by having a preface we can get the personal bits out of the way, clear the decks by stating the axioms on which we base our writing, and partly to cover ourselves from accusations of being an omniscient, narcissist, know it all. My approach to understanding scripture is non pre-tribulation (rapture), pre-millennial, advocating engaging with the culture, Israel has not been replaced, prophecy can be and often is fulfilled on more than one level, OT types matter and unless it is clearly not the case should be taken literally, and this will affect my writing. I do so mindful of better and more learned people than me who see things differently. It is helpful before delving into the important, objective exegesis to try and ensure it is not about me, but rather the Prophets of the Bible and what they said. As a gospel preaching, community activist, I want to be true to my calling when I write, as well as to be beholden to the truth and the need to respect sound scholarship.
According to Wikipedia: “In religion, a prophet is an individual who is regarded as being in contact with a divine being and is said to speak on that entity’s behalf, serving as an intermediary with humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the supernatural source to other people. The message that the prophet conveys is called a prophecy. Claims of prophethood have existed in many cultures throughout history, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in ancient Greek religion, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and many others”. When I did another Google search looking for something more “Christian”, one response to the question: “What is a prophet in the Bible?” was “In a general sense, a prophet is a person who speaks God’s truth to others. The English word prophet comes from the Greek word “prophetes”, which can mean “one who speaks forth” or “advocate.” Prophets are also called “seers,” because of their spiritual insight or their ability to “see” the future. In the Bible, prophets often had both a teaching and revelatory role, declaring God’s truth on contemporary issues while also revealing details about the future”. As for this book, I am going with this broader definition.
I am sure readers will agree with me that defining key terms is important to save misunderstanding down the line, and while I go with this definition it will be with a couple of caveats. Clearly there are many characters in the Bible who meet this criteria, and the principal ministry of many was simply to hear God and speak His truth applicable to the situation prevailing at the time, regardless of any future predictions they might make, and there are many who did just that, who traditionally are not regarded as prophets, yet what they said / did was significant. Some, not usually regarded as prophets, relayed God’s message and sometimes that included predicting future events, and that too was significant. Besides being seers, prophets were watchmen, whose job was to stand watch over the land and warn them of impending danger. As well as true prophets, the Bible tells us of false prophets, whose message was NOT of God, just as is the case today and, as for us, we need the spirit of discernment, to “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” 1Thessalonians 5:19-21. Putting aside the question “are there prophets today?”, we need people now who will simply step up to the plate to be watchmen.
“Significant” is important, because in God’s dealing with his people, Israel, especially, and also with the nations generally, there were invariably prophets around saying what needed to be said. At least it was the case in Old Testament times. But it is not just for that time and the setting in which the prophets spoke, but also for our own time, including prophecies yet to take place, although over-dwelling on what could be a controversial subject can be unhelpful. Trying to maintain that balance on what the prophets taught, how it was received and understood at the time and lessons we can take away, including on unfulfilled prophecy, is why I am keen to write this book. I hope to cover all well-known prophets as well as those less well known, with the focus on what made them tick and why their message was relevant then and now. I recognise, to do full justice to what is a significant section of the Bible (well over a quarter) would require a library of books, and what I am producing is one book of not many pages. I hope to cover or at least introduce the more significant lessons and apologise in advance for what I anticipate as many important things I might miss. I will attempt to open up my subject, say something about the prophets themselves, reflect on their message, state pertinent facts and suggest possible present-day applications. I hope this book will encourage earnest readers to do deeper study on prophetic scriptures and the context in which these are placed. When it comes to scripture, might I suggest the following be borne in mind:
- “(The Bereans) received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” Acts 17:11
- “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” 2Timothy 3:16-17
- “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” 2Peter 1:20-21
It is worth explaining how I came to tackle a subject, which could well take me way out of my depth. Whether or not I am listened to or read, I know I am in good company with the prophets, who were often dismissed in their day and treated abysmally, even when doing something as important as speaking on God’s behalf. I regard writing this book is an important undertaking, possibly my most important project to date, mindful as I rapidly approach my three score and ten years, and with failing health, my time will soon run out and there are many other things I could be doing. Yet it may be my way of passing the baton to future generations to help them treasure the Bible and live it! I write, I hope with due humility, because I believe what I say needs saying, and I may be one such to do so and thus make a difference. It is true “of making many books there is no end” and, while most of what I am about to write may have already been written, we do well to reinforce these points. While I have seen much, there may be much I don’t get or miss, and gaps in my understanding on subjects, such as New Testament prophecy, prophecy today and unfulfilled prophecy.
I explained earlier, why I have a fixation on the prophets of the Bible. While I don’t know the Bible as well as I ought, I know it better than most, especially this part of it, which from what I can make out is not anywhere nearly as well covered in standard church teaching contexts as it ought. There is something else though – around the turn of the millennium, I embarked on my third career, which might be best described as a community worker. I wrote about this in my book “Outside the Camp”, which along with many of my writings is freely available online in my website. The title that has some bearing on my PB background is based on the text: “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” Hebrews 13:12,13. In the past six years I have regularly maintained a blog. It covers all manner of subjects, many, controversially, trying to figure out the world about me. I think reflecting on the prophets, their message etc., will help. I add a caveat though, the need for humility – good, well-read people, including on the prophets, may reach different conclusions when applying this to current events, often to do with their beliefs and understanding (or lack of) but also no-one knows for sure.
It seemed to me that a common theme of the prophets, especially when it came to Israel, the main intended audience of many prophecies, was the need to be faithful to YHWH, but also to do justice when it comes to the people around them, especially the poor. I am exercised that having gone inside the veil (which separates the Holy of holies) (Hebrews 6:19) in order to commune with the Almighty, we need to then go out into the wider world with all is contradictions and counters to godly living. What takes place there matters a lot, including our own involvement, even if we can’t fully understand many of the reasons for and implications of. This can be a contentious area, yet one if we are to follow in the footsteps of the prophets we cannot avoid. Even as I write, I note well known Christian leaders speaking in God’s name, offering a view of the world and an understanding of scripture I cannot support. It makes me realise, not only are there true prophets and teachers today, there are false ones, who lead people astray. While we can disagree on things of lesser importance, it is important we are beholden to the truth and we “earnestly contend for the faith”, Jude 1:3.
When we think of what was prophesied, some of it related to things that were to happen in the prophet’s lifetime, but much that happened centuries after, e.g. concerning the first coming of the Messiah (Jesus – the helpless Babe of Bethlehem), and some is yet to happen, e.g. concerning the future of Israel and the second coming of the Messiah (Jesus – the all-conquering King of kings). This may be a controversial subject with views among Christians polarised. As a young man I found such subjects occupied older, Bible savvy men – and now I am one! I do not believe Israel (people and land) has been replaced and there is a body of yet to be fulfilled prophecy that helps us understand world events, although I recognise some scholars will think differently. Some prophecy, e.g. the latter chapters of Daniel, have considerably occupied some and, while I do not intend to duck the exegetical challenges, I realise I may disappoint some.
While I intend to focus on what prophets said at the time and how it applied to the situation in which they were placed or reflecting on, one would be doing a disservice to ignore there is good deal that has yet to come to pass. Besides considering prophecy from a view point of what was understood at the time, we cannot ignore future fulfilments or the Jewish mindset that allowed for an initial fulfilment and a final one. While focusing on Old Testament prophets and prophecies, one significant New Testament prophecy is the Book of Revelation, where a blessing is promised to those who read it and many intended recipients underwent persecution. While this book will not consider Revelation (or any other book come to that) in great depth, it will help to prepare the ground for a study of events prophesied that are yet to be fulfilled and which complement and incorporate many of the prophesies of the Old Testament prophets.
When I began writing this book, at the start of 2020, I could hardly have reckoned on the rapid unravelling of tumultuous events taking place in the world, along with culture and other wars and conflicts, changes in the church, such as persecution of believers globally, revival in difficult places and moves toward apostacy and false ecumenism where Christianity had become better established, all of which is consistent with what the prophets did predict for these Last days (and that was before Covid-11 lockdown and civil unrest due to Black Lives Matter and who know what the next calamity is to befall, subjects which in the past would have interested the Hebrew prophets). While diversity, equality, and tolerance can be good things, these preoccupations have often been distractions replacing the emphases on the three things the Holy Spirit is in the world to convict people of – “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” John 16:8. There is a widespread tendency to cherry pick the Bible to suit people’s views. For many it includes ignoring the Old Testament, including the prophetic. Because I believe studying the prophets can be a necessary corrective, I write as I do. While it is true, we are under the New Covenant, not the Old, God has not changed and we need to study both Old and New Testaments to get a balanced, complete view of what God thinks. As for studying the prophets, it will enlighten and encourage us living in a world that is a long way from what God intended. Even when we feel powerless, we can prepare, knowing whatever happens, His will prevails!
My final point, before introducing the prophets, is that while I see my role as a watchman on the wall, I don’t see myself as a prophet in any traditional sense. I am God’s unprofitable servant at best and have often rebelled against the one I claim to serve. In the process, I have experienced brokenness and as a result I have been able to value more my covenant relationship with a patient, holy, gracious God, and this along with my prophecy insights enables me to inform and encourage others and not be over bothered what other people think. While the focus of this book is on the Old Testament rather than the New, it is chiefly because there are many more OT prophets than NT and present-day prophetic gifts, given my church background, is not an area I felt qualified to speak on, even though I believe in the gift of prophecy and prophets exist today. For the sake of balance, I will consider the place of prophecy today, including the gift of prophecy, and will add my own personal perspective. Some I reckoned had a genuine prophetic gift, whose ministries I have personally benefited from, as well as false prophets who do the opposite, just as the Bible warned us would happen. I have found lack of knowledge of the Bible to be sadly rife among Christians, especially the Old Testament. But as one of my teenager mentors told me: “the New is in the Old concealed and the Old is in the New revealed”. Nowhere better is this seen than in prophetic utterances. Besides encouraging those wanting to better understand the prophets, I want this book to honour the Lord. I intend in the chapters that follow to expand on these considerations.