Introducing the prophets
In order to cover our subject to an at least satisfactory level, we chose to divide the book into sixteen chapters, some of which contain several discrete sections covering specific prophets or particular aspects of the vast subject of prophets and prophecy. As noted in the Preface, the coverage is not comprehensive. Important prophecies like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 or Daniels dream relating to the Last Days in Daniel 7 get little mention. But this book is for Joe Bloggs, “Monsieur tout le monde”, in order to encourage and inspire ordinary folk to dig deeper into the Bible and learn about the Prophets of the Bible.
Chapter 1: Introducing the prophets – this chapter.
Chapter 2: The prophets in context – before embarking on studying specific prophets, we need to establish a context in order to understand their ministries.
Chapter 3: Prophets, priests and kings – while this book is about prophets, they operated alongside priests and kings. Here we explore that relationship.
Chapter 4: The Genesis account and prophets – Genesis is not known for its prophets but they did exist. Understanding Genesis is vital to our further studies.
Chapter 5: Moses and wandering in the wilderness – Moses is a giant among prophets, but what took place, before entering the Promised land, is significant.
Chapter 6: Balaam and assorted false prophets – the Bible is full of false prophets as well as true ones. We will look at these but will focus on Balaam.
Chapter 7: Deborah and other women prophets – while most prophets were male, there were prophetesses of which Deborah is one of the more prominent.
Chapter 8: Samuel and the Joshua and Judges accounts – Samuel was a huge figure in Israel’s national development, but we must fill a gap after Moses.
Chapter 9: Nathan, Gad, Micaiah – most prophets of the Bible operated under the kings of Israel and Judah. Nathan and Micaiah were two of the earlier ones.
Chapter 10: Elijah and Elisha – Elijah and Elisha were two quintessential prophets who were prolific in their ministries, of which much is recorded.
Chapter 11: Unknown and lesser known prophets – there are many prophets not well known or realised, and there are some we don’t even know their names.
Chapter 12: The Major prophets (Isaiah – Daniel) – given how much they wrote and did, there is potentially a great deal of material that needs covering.
Chapter 13: The Minor prophets (Hosea – Malachi) – while they wrote less than the “majors”, what they wrote and did was nevertheless hugely significant.
Chapter 14: The prophets of the New Testament – while concentrating on the Old Testament, prophets and prophecy still played a vital part in the New.
Chapter 15: The Last Days and unfulfilled prophecy – many OT prophets spoke of Last Days events that for completeness needs to be further explored.
Chapter 16: Learning from the prophets – having gone through the prophets of the Bible we take a last look, deriving lessons from their lives and ministries.
Regarding this book, the intention is to cover all the prophets of the Bible found using a Bible search on the term “proph” and anything else seeming relevant, and that includes groups of prophets, of which there were a number, prophets that are unnamed and those we don’t normally regard a prophets but who prophesied, plus false prophets. While we can’t guarantee great depth, we will endeavour to discuss the lives of the prophets themselves (when this is known), the context in which and events taking place when they operated, and their all-important message. If all we manage is to provide the setting in which prophets did their stuff and give an outline of the work undertaken and events happening, then we have done our job to encourage folk to search the scriptures, including the prophetic ones. Putting aside the New Testament, which we will get to, if as some suggest prophets proper began with Samuel and ended with Malachi and, except for the later ones that lived during and after the Exile, these all operated alongside the kings of Israel and Judah and it was God’s gracious provision to raise up prophets to speak to kings and people, for “surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” Amos 3:7. If that was all we have prophecy wise, then there would still be much to ponder on today as to what they said and did, and yet the God of Israel continues to speak.
The prophets, bearing in mind the loose working definition in the Preface, were a rather eclectic lot and while there may be common characteristics among the many we come across when reading the Bible there were huge variations too. They come from all walks of life and comprised a wide range of characters and temperaments. While there were wide variations in their message, a common theme was God’s holiness and justice as well as His love and mercy. While they prophesied primarily to Judah and Israel, there were important messages for the surrounding nations too. While not quite going along with the list provided in the Talmud (48 male and 7 female), the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology, as to who the prophets of the Old Testament were, it a useful check in identifying the prophets we need to discuss. A few from their list have been rejected as not meeting the criteria set out in the Preface, and a few not on their list have been added. When it comes to the New Testament, there were few named prophets, although given the extent of the gift usage, there were many more unnamed or unknown. The role of the NT prophet changed from mainly prophesying to nations to that of building up the Church. One important observation is that as far as the Bible goes, the message of the prophets is generally a lot more important than their lives, and it is hardly surprising that in most cases we know so little about them.
A good deal of what the Hebrew prophets prophesied only came to pass after their deaths and one is reminded of the words of the poet Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.” What was said came to pass and, from what we can make out from the historical record, did so exactly as the prophets predicted, which if this were a book on Bible apologetics would furnish good evidence that the Bible is true and YHWH is the true and living God. Some prophecies related to the First coming of Israel’s promised Messiah which, while it may be a view non-believing Jewish folk would likely reject, was something that the early Christians repeatedly referred to. This is evidenced by the number of Old Testament references cited in the New that applies these to the birth and death and events concerning Jesus’ life.
The same application is true concerning the Second (yet to happen) coming of the Messiah, which is spoken about in several places in the Old Testament and referred to in several places in the New, especially the book of Revelation. This is for some the main interest when it comes to the prophets of the Bible. Yet for others these texts, of which there are many, are rather dismissed. Often this is to do with how those who interpret and expound the scriptures view them. The author has little doubt that Israel has NOT been replaced by the Church, that Jesus will personally return to the earth, there will be a literal millennium yet to take place, and unless it is clear that this is not the case, prophecies need to be interpreted literally, but recognise many Christians do not hold those positions. But it is what will determine our approach. But as with all things, balance is needed and, in first fourteen chapters especially, when the subject of unfulfilled prophecy does inevitably arise, it will be discussed more from the perspective of how it was understood at the time and will be light on trying to apply this to current events, mindful that good and learned men have got it very wrong in the past when attempting to do so. In the last two chapters, in tying up loose ends, we will explore what to expect in the last days as relating to these prophecies.
While it is not the intention to dismiss altogether those whose understanding of Bible prophecy, anything from there and then to an undefined future, differs from our own, one is mindful there are those who don’t take what the prophets said as true or divinely inspired, often not believing the events they wrote about actually took place and when it comes to actual prophecies that took place these were not made at the time when the prophets lived (for how could they have known), and were added later. Several of the prophets, especially those dealing with miracles or prophecies fulfilled a lot later, fall into that category. This is NOT the approach taken in this book, which is what was written about actually took place at the time, including the prophecies, as detailed in the Bible. Many books have been written on interpreting the prophets and apologetics. If readers are interested in the rationale, they need to refer to these. As far as this book is concerned, while not beyond explaining why the author believes as he does, it is written based on the belief that what took place was how the Bible described it.
Before moving on to consider further background (chapters 2 and 3) and then onto each individual prophet that is deemed to be such (in the authors opinion), there is more general stuff that applies and given its importance needs to be first reflected on, which we will return to when we wind up in the final chapter.
The test for a true prophet
If one were to search the scriptures, one will find a lot that is said or implied concerning who are the true prophets and who are the false prophets, e.g. “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 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. You need not be afraid of him” Deuteronomy 18:20-22. At least two common points should be inferred here – firstly, in the case of true prophets, what they prophesy comes to pass and secondly, they speak truth concerning the one true God. The penalty for those who fail to meet that criteria is a severe one. Yet, as will be discussed in Chapter 6, there were many false prophets scattered throughout the Bible. The warning Jesus gave “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” Matthew 24:11 is poignant, particularly that false prophets are often not seen to be such by many, often due to their charismatic personality and even miraculous powers and what they spoke was what the people wanted to hear. It also has a bearing on the controversial question (at least among many Christians the author has associated with in the past) about if there are prophets today. Just as there are false prophets, there are true ones too and sometimes it is hard to tell which is which, yet we are required to test the prophets, if from God.
The calling of the prophets
Just as with Christian leaders (e.g. pastors, priests) today, the matter of what constitutes a call can be contentious one, especially if said person does NOT speak the word of the Lord, as sadly is too often the case. Moreover, there were some who prophesised without any record of them having been called by God to be prophets, whose “prophesies” were and are accepted as coming from the Lord. The matter of how God spoke to the prophets generally is also an interesting one, which I will get to and perhaps begs the question how God speaks to those of us who are not prophets and how we are guided by Him. Yet, even though we have scant information about the lives of many of the prophets, there is several accounts of God having called individuals to be prophets, ranging from Isaiah who saw the Lord high and lifted up to Amos who was spoken to while carrying out the humble tasks of looking after sheep and fig trees. What is striking is the prophets were from all sorts of backgrounds, operated under quite different circumstances and varied widely in temperament. While they operated in the supernatural, they were quite ordinary and had the same range of human flaws and foibles as do the rest of us. Two of the arguably greatest of the prophets failed big time. Moses failed to give God the glory when striking the Rock and as a result was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Elijah, soon after his amazing mountain top experience, fled in a fit of depression, wanting only to die. Yet they were, at least at the time they prophesied, devoted to serving the Lord. We are reminded that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” 1Corinthians 1:27, and ours is not to reason why it is God called some to be prophets but should be glad He did because of the important role they had.
The trials and tribulations of the prophets
The words of Jesus to the religious leaders of His day are poignant: “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and your fathers killed them” Luke 11:47. While the Bible account does not record much by the way of prophets being killed because of their prophesying (although other historical sources tell us some, e.g. Isaiah, were) there is plenteous evidence of prophets being persecuted and attempts on their lives (as with Jeremiah and Daniel). As for tombs, we know that to be true and the tombs of some (Ezekiel, Nahum, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) survive to this day and have become places of pilgrimage. The lives of the prophets were not easy and most of them suffered deprivations. Often their message of rebuke and warning did not go down well, because they did not say what the people wanted to hear, especially the powers that be. They were often reviled and misunderstood, and much worse, and their existence could be a lonely one. Sometimes, suffering hardship was because God instructed them to do odd things when it came to communicating the message He gave them. In Isaiah’s case, this included walking round the city naked; Jeremiah was told not to marry, and Ezekiel had to lie on his side for days on end, surviving on starvation rations, all to make important points. The lot of a prophet was not an enviable one. They could take consolation by being in and knowing the will of God and God was with them, yet while they had direct knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions, it came at a hefty price.
How God spoke to the prophets
The Lord declared “If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream” Numbers 12:6. Dreams and visions was certainly an important way God spoke to His prophets and there are several examples of Him having done so. Indeed, we were reminded, when the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, that “it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:” Acts 2:19. Yet it seemed too that when God spoke, it was in a variety of ways. It may have been a voice from heaven or through an intermediary, typically an Angel. It could be through events taking place or a word given that might simply be a message that was impressed as it were upon the prophet’s heart by the Lord. But whatever the method that was employed, the prophets heard from God and recognised their solemn duty was to pass on that message by whatever means to those the message was intended. “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 1:21. While we may not be prophets, God’s promise “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye” Psalm 38:2 still holds true.
How prophets communicated their message
As we saw earlier, some of the prophets were actors, and rather good at it. The important thing was to get the message out, which they attempted to do in the best way possible, even though often their words were rejected. Two obvious ways were speaking and writing. It can be misleading though when referring to the later prophets (4 majors and 12 minors) as the writing prophets, given they have books written with their names as titles, since the writing prophets both spoke and wrote as did some of the prophets before them. It would have been a tremendous experience to see the prophets speaking their message while in full flow with something important to say, whether to an individual such as a king or to crowds small and large. All we have to go by now are what they wrote or what was written about them. While the translators have often done a good job in translating their words into the vernacular, inevitably things get lost in the translation, such as the depth of word meaning, use of acrostics and different types of figurative language, and the beauty and emotion behind the words used, often with the intention at the time to make the message more memorable. One notable feature is the use of poetry as well prose, with the former aimed at the heart and the latter the head. It was written so that God’s people needed to know what He thought and felt. These writings detailed what was to happen, whether it was to do with confronting Israel’s enemies, future events or getting Israel to repent (teshuvah (literally “return”)) saying what would happen if they did not. While the Old Testament particularly addressed Israel, with the New addressing those who are not Israel, even in the Old God was interested in the other nations and while they could not be expected to follow the Law of Moses per se, the prophets made it clear that they were expected to act rightly and were to be judged if they did not do so. But in Israel’s case, it was true He wanted to appeal to their hearts, given that God was married to Israel (e.g. as referred to in Hosea and Jeremiah) with Israel the faithless bride yet still loved by her heavenly husband, longing she returned to Him, and thus the use of poetry.
What was the message of the prophets
While the message of the prophets varied from prophet to prophet, there was a lot of repetition, both with individual prophets repeating the same message and other prophets repeating the same message. A lot of prophecy was generic in nature e.g. Israel (and other nations) needing to repent of their sins or else face God’s anger and judgement or God’s love and compassion was such that He wanted to bless His people. Yet a lot was more specific and related to the needs of the hour as the prophets saw these or rather as God saw things, instructing them in what to say. A lot of prophecy related to the coming of the Messiah and the Last Days. Especially in the times of the kings and after that the Exile and return from Exile, God wanted to guide His people as to how they should act or how He would act on their behalf. Many prophecies were remarkably specific in nature and we can now look back at the fulfilment of many as being precisely as the prophets had predicted. Some seemed unlikely at the time, e.g. Ezekiel predicting the destruction of Tyre, Obadiah that of Edom, and Nahum that of Nineveh, all seemingly impregnable, and yet it happened. Often the prophet was unaware of timescale – sometimes prophecies were fulfilled immediately and some, some three thousand years later are yet to be fulfilled. Something the author has found helpful is when walking in the Lake District and viewing the mountains from a high spot and seeing a distant mountain right up close behind another one, and yet there was significant unseen space between the two. It could be said this is how the prophets saw the coming of the Messiah. What seemed like one coming culminating in the Day of the Lord, was two, separated by a long period (2000 years at least), in which attention was being drawn to the Church rather than Israel, with so much about the Church the prophets would not have reckoned with. God only told prophets what they needed to know and it is for later generations to work out their actual fulfilment. An example of a prophecy that as more than one fulfilment is one of Daniel’s (Daniel 11), which was fulfilled exactly as prophesied 400 years later under Antiochus Epiphanes. and yet also has a final fulfilment under the awaited AntiChrist. Another is when Matthew speaks of the boy Jesus returning from Egypt (Matthew 2:15), he claims it fulfils what Hosea had prophesied: “out of Egypt I called My son” Hosea 11:1, when understood at the time meant Israel coming out of Egypt.
How the prophets show us God is for real
While it is the intention of this writer to speak to the mind by saying it as it is, so to speak, concerning the Prophets of the Bible, encouraging readers to think through what is read here and to go and find out for themselves what it is the Bible teaches, it is also intended to speak to the heart. There is a tendency in all of us to accept something as true and important with our minds and it goes no further than that. But in the case of the prophets in particular and the Bible in general, if we accept it to be true, consistency at the very least demands we do something about it. The prophets found time after time God to be real and is not to be messed with. The remarkable thing about these prophecies is that except for those yet to be fulfilled, several hundred prophecies have been, down to the tiniest detail, even when the timing appeared delayed and it happened in ways not expected. For God is to be obeyed and, whether one does so out of fear or love, it matters and is the difference between knowing God’s blessings or God’s curses, as Israel, the main intended audience of the Hebrew prophets should have known very well if they had taken seriously Deuteronomy 28-30. While those of us living today might fret over what is happening around us and God’s apparent silence, the God we are called to love with all our hearts and minds is the One proclaimed by the prophets, who has our best interests at heart, whose promises are yea and amen and, like the prophets, we are called to be faithful.