The word ‘prophet’ comes from two Greek words: pro, meaning ‘for’ or ‘fore’ or ‘forth’; and phemi, ‘say’, ‘speak’, or ‘tell’. The possible combinations of these two roots show the various meanings of prophets in the Old Testament.
Perhaps the most common sense of ‘prophet’ in the popular mind is a ‘foreteller’: the prophet is someone who tells the future, who predicts events in advance, or who senses things going on elsewhere. The prophet sees what others cannot see, especially the future. The first prophets in fact were such ‘seers’. When Saul goes in search of his father’s lost donkeys, his servant directs him to Samuel, a man of God who ‘can show us our way that we should go’ to find the lost donkeys (I Samuel 9:6). Then the editor tells us that he that ‘now is called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer.’ (9:9) Although this is the oldest kind of prophet, this sense does not disappear in later Israel. In fact at every period particular men and women of God have had penetrating sight that foretells the future. Samuel sees what has happened to Saul’s donkeys. Elisha sees how the siege of Samaria will be lifted (II Kings 7:1-2). The great writing prophets foretell the destruction of the Israelite kingdoms and the coming of exile. Beyond that Isaiah sees the return from exile and the coming of the Messiah. And the Messiah himself foretells the future destruction of Jerusalem and many other things.
Modern theologians are uncomfortable with this sort of prophecy, because it implies supernatural knowledge. Many contemporary theologians would like to strip the Bible of the supernatural, or at least would like to suggest that the supernatural is largely irrelevant. But Jeremiah, who is universally recognized as one of the greatest prophets, himself asserts the authenticating role of prophecy of this sort: ‘The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the LORD hath truly sent him.’ (Jeremiah 28:9)
Although this is an important and original meaning of ‘prophet’, it is not the most important meaning. ‘Foretelling’ otherwise unknowable events is surely a sign and wonder, but signs and wonders and prophecy in this sense are religiously neutral. They can be good or evil. Satan can work his wonders too. Deuteronomy warns that if a prophet uses foreknowledge or signs and wonders to lure people away from God, ‘thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet’ (13:3). And Christ warns of those who do not do God’s will and yet at the great judgement say, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and…done many wonderful works?’ To such people Christ will answer, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’ (St. Matthew 7:22-3) Much later St. Teresa of Avila tells us that visions and charismatic gifts, however wonderful, are always to be tested against the known teaching of the Church.
So, building on the initial sense of ‘foretelling’, but moving beyond it, come the other, more important meanings for ‘prophet’. A prophet is, most importantly, someone who speaks for God and who tells forth the truth about things. The prophet tells forth God’s words about the world and its inhabitants. Consequently, we may distinguish true prophets from false prophets by considering the quality of their teaching. In Israel the peculiar and particular role of the prophets in their heyday was to puncture balloons of self-content and to hold kings, priests, and people up to account against the divine standard. There were ‘court prophets’, who flattered the kings and people and who spoke smooth and agreeable things. There were false prophets and prophets of Baal, who served interests and gods other than Israel’s demanding and jealous Lord. True prophets called for fidelity to God and for justice in dealing with one another. The false prophet, Zedekiah, tells king Ahab what he wants to hear: ‘Go up to Ramoth-gilead, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the king’s hand.’ Ahab does not want to hear from the one true prophet, Micaiah: ‘There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may inquire of the LORD, but I hate him: for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.’ (I Kings 22:12, 8) Often the one person we need to hear from is the one person who will not flatter us.
The first, great example of a prophet who speaks for God against the injustice of man is Nathan. King David, having impregnated the beautiful Bathsheba, arranges for the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to cover up his adultery. II Samuel 11 ends with the deeply ominous words, ‘But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.’ In the next chapter God sends Nathan to denounce the king. Nathan does so with a famous story of a rich man who feeds a guest by stealing a poor man’s one little ewe lamb. David is indignant about the injustice and would punish the rich man. Nathan responds, ‘Thou art the man!’ Nathan then denounces the sin of the king, and reduces David to penitence. Again and again in later Israel we find the prophets in conflict with wayward kings, with the powerful, with the popular, and with the priests. When Nathan denounces the king’s sin, he tells forth God’s judgement against adultery and a secret murder. When Nathan tells his searching parable of the ewe lamb, he speaks for God. In the punishment that Nathan describes, he also foretells (II Samuel 12:11) the future rebellion of Absalom against David. Nathan therefore shows himself to be a prophet in every Biblical sense of the word.
The four books of the Old Testament that the Greek Bible calls the ‘Four Books of the Reigns’ or Kings, might more precisely be called the ‘books of the Kings and Prophets’. In this respect their names in the English and Hebrew Bibles, I & II Samuel and I & II Kings, are helpful, since Samuel is the first in the long series of prophets mentioned in these books.
As books of the kings, these books describe the main secular events in Israel’s history from the dawn of a united Israelite nation under Saul and David, through the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon, down until the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. As books of the prophets, these books subject the secular scene to a relentless scrutiny from a divine perspective. The prophets behold what the kings are doing, and they then speak about it, often beginning with the weighty words, ‘Thus saith the LORD God of Israel…’. These books are history of a sort. In the case of the famous story of the intrigue surrounding the succession to the throne under king David, they even present history in an almost modern guise. But even more these books are prophetic history: inessentials are ruthlessly stripped away so that God’s judgement upon human behavior may shine through.
The prophetic perspective is provided in part through the words and deeds of the prophets themselves. These prophets are not the eloquent ‘latter prophets’ who left us books written or dictated by themselves (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc.), but rather are men such as Samuel, Micaiah, Elijah, and Elisha, and the prophetess Huldah, whose words and deeds are only preserved in these books written by others. In addition, however, the editors of these books have themselves thoroughly absorbed the prophetic perspective, so that the Hebrew categorization of these books as ‘the former prophets’, rather than as ‘history books’, is correct. From the Biblical perspective the purpose of historical writing is to show God at work in the world, and to encourage and to warn us by showing various human responses to that work of God. All else is passing trivia. This is the perspective of the books of the ‘former prophets’.
So, for instance, it is often noted that the reign of Jeroboam II is treated with a mere seven verses in II Kings 14:23-9. Jeroboam is dismissed as a religious failure, who did ‘evil in the sight of the LORD’ by permitting temples outside of Jerusalem. That all of Jeroboam’s predecessors in the northern kingdom did the same simply makes the eventual destruction of the northern kingdom inevitable from the perspective of the prophets. But from the perspective of secular history, Jeroboam II was incredibly successful. During a lull in the power of the Assyrian empire, Jeroboam used the puny military and economic forces that he inherited and turned the tiny kingdom under his authority into a considerable regional power. Even the editor of II Kings mentions the political and military successes of this reign. But because Jeroboam was a religious failure from the perspective of the prophets, he is given a minimum of attention. It is true that other religious failures, such as Ahab and Jezebel, are treated at great length in I & II Kings; however, they are spectacular idolaters, the foils against whom Elijah battles and whom God destroys. Jeroboam, in contrast, is a run of the mill religious failure, who does not even rate a major prophetic denunciation, despite his secular importance. Prophetic history is meant to teach us, and the reign of Jeroboam II has little to add to the lessons already taught in I and II Samuel and I Kings. Conversely, Josiah, who was not very successful in military or political terms – he died in a failed battle with the Egyptians (II Kings 24:29) – is given three full chapters because of his religious reforms and fidelity to God.
Prophetic history certainly is not history of the modern kind, but I always look forward to reading these books in Trinitytide, when they form the first lesson at Morning Prayer for months on end. There are excellent modern historians who amass huge piles of information about their subjects but leave the reader unsatisfied. I think, for instance, of Peter Brown’s biography of Saint Augustine of Hippo or of W. Frend’s mammoth history of early Christianity. I acknowledge that these works are deeply learned and informative, but their very objectivity leaves me feeling that I am examining the subject as if it were a specimen under a magnifying glass. I do not in the end think that I understand the subject from within much better than I did before I learned all the information. I know more about Saint Augustine, but I do not yet know Saint Augustine. Prophetic history is the other way around. II Kings does not tell me much about Jeroboam II, but it tells me all that I need if I am to understand his true insignificance. However ‘modern’ the psychological and historical insights of parts of these books, they are not history in our sense. Though their human writers and editors have their own genius which often shines through, nonetheless these are fundamentally books that require us to agree with the Creed that it is the Holy Ghost ‘who spake by the prophets’.
[An old newsletter piece.]