What is prophecy in the Bible? And what is a prophet? And why do I feel I want little to do with either?
My personal allergy to the word “prophecy” stems from the fact that most contemporary discussion thereof involve a vast departure from the biblical understanding. From Harold Camping’s dating of the end of the world to the Left Behind’s depictions of the apocalypse, there exists an element of the church (popular at times) that focuses almost exclusively on the “the last days.” It is only at the end of the world, they believe, that one’s eternal destiny is sealed, thus placing incredible importance on the state of one’s soul at the time of these culminating events.
Crucial to this worldview are “prophets” – those to whom special, spiritual vision is granted. Prophets possess decoder ring to the divine plan – they have seen the roadmap of future history and can decipher it for the rest of us. This unique insight may be a result of individual, divine revelation, or the prophet’s personal cleverness in solving riddles; but the result is the same: the prophet knows the future and can save humanity the dire consequences of our present course if only we will heed their warnings.
Such perspectives on prophecy are hardly new! And though Jesus himself described such efforts as futile (Matt. 24:36), people have been predicting the day and hour of his return since the words left his lips. But this is not what the Bible means by prophecy, nor is it the role of a biblical prophet.
Rather, a prophet is simply a spokesperson – one called by God to speak God’s word of direct address to a particular audience (why many declarations of the prophets begin with the phrase, “Thus says the Lord…”). Moses, for example, is described as a prophet (the greatest, in fact – Deut. 34:10), not because of any predictions of the future, but because he was the conduit of God’s word to Israel.
Prophets exist throughout the entire biblical narrative (e.g., Aaron, Samuel…), but it was in the period of the monarchy after the reign of Solomon that prophets come to the fore (and we have numerous books of the Bible devoted to recording their pronouncements). And the reason God calls people to prophetic office is that this is the period when Israel begins to turn sharply away from her role as God’s partners in the project of salvation. Just as Israel reachers her greatest earthly security, she turns not to the work of reaching out to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3), but towards increasing her wealth and political standing.
And it is this inward turn that God must correct! If – as we have already demonstrated – salvation is a necessarily collaborative process between God and humanity, what is God to do if his elect partners reject their role? If Israel becomes an agent not of reconciliation, but of sin, she must be stopped. And that “stopping,” says God, will come by means of Israel’s earthly enemies, if she does not change her ways. And thus the prophets of the monarchic period become voices of warning to the people of God – declaring that judgment awaits if the relationship with God is not restored. Such warnings are not warnings of eternal torment, but they are intended as fearsome visions of what will befall God’s beloved if they persist in sinful rejection of the covenant. As any loving parent must – when their children are harming themselves and others – God will punish in order to bring his people back to the good.
In this episode, we look deeper in the sinfulness of Israel and the work of the prophets in calling for repentance. The words are poetic and sometimes prophetic language is deeply symbolic, but the words are always to the here and now (with lessons to be learned in future generation.)