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What was the role of a Prophet?

Have you ever thought about what was a prophet? Why did God provide them? What was their job? How much do we know about them? How much success did they have? We intend to expand our view of a prophet from what is traditionally thought.

There were many prophets mentioned in the Bible, from possibly the first one mentioned in the book of Genesis, namely Enoch, although he was not specifically named as a prophet. We do not find this out about him until we read the book of Jude in verse 14: “Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints…’” The first person actually named by God as a prophet was Abraham (Genesis 20:7). The last person specifically identified and named as a prophet, Agabus, is mentioned in Acts 21:10-11. He prophesied that the Jews would bind Paul and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.

So, what was a prophet? Sometimes they went by the name seer which appears to be an older word for prophet. 1 Samuel 9:9 says: “(Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: ‘Come, let us go to the seer’; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.).” In this instance Samuel admitted he was the seer that Saul was looking for (1 Samuel 9:19). However, earlier in 1 Samuel 3:20, we find that Samuel was also called a prophet of the LORD.

According to Strong’s concordance, the Hebrew word for prophet means an inspired man – one that prophesies. The Hebrew word for seer can mean one who sees visions which is appropriate for a prophet. The Greek word for prophet means a foreteller of events or an inspired speaker. So, the Hebrew and Greek terms are quite similar.

Unfortunately, there is no glossary in the back of the Bible to look up what God meant by prophet. So, the only way we can find what a prophet is, is to see from examples what these men and women did as prophets and prophetesses.

Was a prophet an old man with a beard and a staff, similar to Moses in the film “The Ten Commandments”, going around foretelling the future, or was there more to a prophet? In fact, Moses certainly was a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), as was his brother Aaron (Exodus 7:1), and his sister Miriam was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20), and they would have all been eighty years or older at the time of the beginning of the exodus. We know this because Moses was the youngest of the three, and he was eighty years old at the time (Exodus 7:7).

Actually, a prophet could be of varied age. Some began as a prophet when they were young like Samuel (1 Samuel, chapter 3) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5-10). Some worked for fifty or sixty years prophesying. Others may only have had one event recorded in the Bible and were never mentioned again. Some were not even named. They also were from various tribes. Ezekiel and Jeremiah were priests from the tribe of Levi whereas Samuel was a judge from the tribe of Ephraim, and David, the king, was from the tribe of Judah. (Acts 2:29-30 informs us that David was a prophet.) Amos was a sheep breeder and tender of sycamore fruit (Amos 7:14). Daniel was a Jewish captive in a high government position in Babylon. So, God chose whomever He wanted to be a prophet, regardless of tribe, profession or age—whomever was appropriate for the task at hand.

There were also four prophetesses named: Miriam; Deborah who was also a judge (Judges 4:4); Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22); and Anna of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). There was also one unnamed prophetess, the wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3). So, God, at times, chose women for the role. For some reason Josiah sent Hilkiah, the father of Jeremiah, and others to the prophetess Huldah rather than to Jeremiah for instruction after finding the book of the law. At that time, Jeremiah had been a prophet for at least five years.

A good biblical definition of a prophet is God’s spokesman. A prophet conveys God’s messages according to God’s purposes at the time. Some prophecies could be very limited and short term. Jonah’s prophecy simply stated: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). Other prophecies could be very long term, e.g. considering Daniel, Isaiah and others. Some of their prophecies are still to be fulfilled. A prophet fulfilled an appointed called office, with the calling coming directly from God. Anybody who appoints himself to the office of prophet who has not been called by God to that position would be a false prophet.

A prophet is often thought of as somebody who gives predictive prophecy. In actual fact, that was not the main job of most prophets. Moses did give predictive prophecies (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, for example). However, his job was mainly to lead the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt. There were many different types of prophets. However, they were all zealous for everything of God, if they were true prophets.

What did they do during their life? Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). That makes him God’s spokesman and therefore he could be considered a prophet. He preached for around seventy-five years while building the ark, but how many people listened to him and believed God? Possibly Shem and maybe Japheth believed him. This was not a good result for all that preaching as we would count results. And yet, God used him as a witness, not to convert people.

Samuel fulfilled the role of both a prophet and a judge. He anointed Saul and David as kings. Therefore, he effectively had a governmental position. As a young boy, he was to tell Eli of his judgement by God, even though he did so hesitantly (1 Samuel 3:11-18). As an older man, he rebuked Saul for his sins.

David as king had what appears to be official government positions under him, being the prophet Nathan and the seer Gad (2 Chronicles 29:25). Both of these men had to have courage to tell the king he was wrong, especially in that day when the king had the power of life and death over his subjects. Nathan told him how he had sinned in his affair with Bathsheba and Gad told him of his sin in numbering Israel. Both of these prophets wrote books (1 Chronicles 29:29), but God did not preserve them as a part of Scripture.

What was God’s requirement for a prophet? He was to be a witness for God. He had to be courageous. He had to speak out powerfully, and some of the prophets who did so were martyred, so it was not a job that was desirable from a physical point of view. They rebuked kings and leaders and some suffered physically. Elijah was threatened with his life by Jezebel after he had executed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:2).

A prophet was not primarily a predictive preacher. He was mainly a preacher of righteousness. Any appointed office he had was coincidental to his role as a prophet. Most did not do miracles, although Moses and Aaron did some to show Pharaoh who God was working through. Most did not explain dreams for the future, except for Daniel and, for instance, Joseph, Jacob’s son, even though the Bible does not expressly say that Joseph was a prophet.

Prophets came to be more general teachers of the people, like John the Baptist (Matthew 11:13). He prepared the people for the coming of Jesus Christ, who, of course, was also called a prophet by Moses. In Matthew 21:11 we read that the multitude said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”

As an example, let us look at the writer of the longest book in the Bible as we now have it, Jeremiah (while counting Hebrew rather than English words). He ministered for over forty years. He produced the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. In forty years, he wrote 57 chapters. But apart from his writings, he had a very full life.

According to history, after the Babylonian captivity occurred, Jeremiah was given his freedom and ended up in Ireland with the king’s daughters. This is not mentioned in the Bible. But what is mentioned is that he delivered many prophecies from God, contended against false prophets, was put in prison and in a dungeon where he sank into the mud. Attempts were made to kill him. He was kidnapped and taken to Egypt. His life was not plain sailing but was full of activity, and not necessarily pleasant. After being released from prison, he went right back to preaching righteousness. He never gave up because of fear for his life, even though he had his moments of despair and discouragement, as did Elijah. Of course, he had the promise from God in Jeremiah 1:8 that God would deliver him and that he should not be afraid.

Ninety percent of the lives of the prophets was not recorded. Predictive prophecies were only a minor part of their job. Their main job was instructing the people and their leaders how to live. Considering Isaiah, he wrote a book of sixty-six chapters with much prophesying of the future, but in his over sixty years of being a prophet, he engaged in many other activities, only some of which we can read about.

In actual fact, God intended the job of teaching righteousness to be that of the Aaronic priesthood (Leviticus 10:10-11). But often times, they were not righteous. As mentioned above, Samuel told Eli of God’s judgement upon him especially because he did not restrain his vile sons. Later, the prophet Malachi rebuked the priests for despising God’s name (Malachi 1:6-8).

Actually, there was one prophet who had a great response from his preaching. When Jonah preached in Nineveh, the whole city believed God and fasted. Even the farm animals were made to fast (Jonah 3:5-9). This was a result that Jonah had hoped would not happen.

We know only what God wants us to know about them, with a little extra from history. But a lot of what they did day to day was not recorded. We know very little about most of their lives. However, there is mention of groups of sons of the prophets at Bethel and Jericho associated with Elijah and Elisha, but the relationship is not fully clear whether it was educational or something else.

The true prophets of God were very successful as God counts success. As we count it, some could be considered failures, but God’s requirements were to preach His message, and as they did that faithfully, they were totally successful.

Prophets and the prophetic office are mentioned in the New Testament, but as far as we are aware, there have been no men or women in the position of prophets in our time. When God has need of them in the future, He is well able to provide them. After all, we read in Ephesians 4:11-12 that Jesus Christ gave to His Church “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  We also know that in the future, two Witnesses will prophesy for 3 ½ years (Revelation 11:3-6).

Much, if not most, of the Bible was written by prophets, beginning with Moses and ending with Malachi in the Old Testament. Interestingly, in the New Testament, we are informed in Acts 13:1: “Now in the Church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Saul, who later was named Paul, had been teaching powerfully in the synagogues, so he fulfilled the role of a teacher, but he is also referred to as a prophet in the above-quoted Scripture. When we look at his writings, he made many prophetic statements, so he also fulfilled the role of a prophet as well as an apostle. This means that at least fourteen books in the New Testament were written by a prophet. We would also assume that the apostle John was a prophet, even though he is not expressly identified as such. Still, he wrote the book of Revelation and he was commanded to prophesy about many peoples and kings (Revelation 10:8-11). We do not read about any prophetess since the beginning of the New Testament church, even though some women “prophesied” or spoke under inspiration.

To those of us who have access to the Hebrew Bible, they may notice that in the original order of the Old Testament books, the book of Daniel is not included in the section of the prophets but in the section of the writings.  This is believed to be because all the other prophets worked among the tribes of Israel and Judah and prophesied mainly (but of course not exclusively) to and about them. However, Daniel’s prophecies are mainly about Gentile nations and kings, only occasionally mentioning Israelite people as the activities of the Gentiles would impact upon them. There is another major difference. In most of the other prophetic books and historical books, the expressions “Thus says the LORD” and “The word of the LORD came to me” are used very frequently. They are used when God is announcing something. However, they are never used in the book of Daniel except once in reference to Jeremiah. This shows a considerable difference between Daniel and the other prophetic books, even though the book of Daniel is very clearly a prophetic book, which has to be read together with the prophetic book of Revelation.

So, to answer the question, what was the role of a prophet? Their roles were many and varied. God raised them up to fulfill His purpose at certain times—mostly to correct the leaders and the people when they were straying from God’s Way of Life. They were also used to prophesy future events, often as warnings of what would happen to nations and people when they displeased God. Finally, they wrote much of God’s revelation to man to be recorded forever.

For further information, please read our Q&A, “Are there any true prophets in God’s Church today?”

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)