Prophets and Prophecy

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

Over the past 50 years, and especially in the past 20, there has been a tremendous increase in interest by Christians in particular, and the people in general, about the subject of prophecy. The study of the subject, especially of prophecies and predictions from the past, has grown incrementally over the years, and today well over 100,000 websites exist that proclaim to tell "everything" you need to know about it.

Within the Christian church itself, the subject has created great divisions, with one part actively pursuing not just an understanding of prophecy, but seeking out and often creating it's own "new" revelations and predictions. The other part, sadly, because of misunderstanding and reaction to excesses, has chosen to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to any consideration of the subject.

It is our intention with this study to examine, in depth, the who, what, when, why, where and how of both prophecy and prophets in the light of God's written Word. He has not left us in ignorance, nor does He expect us to ignore what He has spent so much time and effort on to tell us about.

Throughout the history of mankind, God has communicated with man in various ways. As Romans 1:20 says: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:"

This of course explains that God has put His stamp on creation in such a way that a reasonable and diligent examination of nature itself will prove His existence and reality.

What is a prophet?

God has also chosen to communicate with man on a much more specific level, by using men (and women) to speak about specific issues. In scripture, these people are called prophets, and the very first mention of them appears in Genesis.

Gen 20:7 Now therefore restore the man [his] wife; for he [is] a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore [her] not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that [are] thine.

Specifically, this passage is referring to Abraham as being a prophet. There are two words used in the Hebrew for prophet, the primary way being:

  • nabiy' {naw-bee'}
  • 1) spokesman,speaker, prophet
  • >a) prophet
  • >>b) false prophet
  • >>c) heathen prophet
Notice that the generality of the word itself can refer to true, false, or heathen, but in any case it refers to one who "speaks on behalf of."

The other word for prophet is found in Jdg 6:8 That the LORD sent a prophet unto the children of Israel, which said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you forth out of the house of bondage;

  • 'iysh {eesh}
  • 1) man
  • >>a) man, male (in contrast to woman, female)
  • >>b) husband
  • >>c) human being, person (in contrast to God)
  • >>d) servant
  • >>e) mankind
  • >>f) champion
  • >>g) great man
  • 2) whosoever
  • 3) each (adjective)
In this usage, there doesn't appear to be too much difference, other than being less specific about their being a spokesman for God. Interestingly, though, in this passage the prophet uses the time-honored greeting "thus saith the LORD," certainly indicating beyond a doubt that he (she) was speaking directly for and on behalf of God.

The phrase "Thus saith the LORD" and minor variations begins in Exodus, and ends with Malachi, and was considered by the Hebrews to be the specific "marker" to indicate that the speaker was indeed a prophet, and representing God in his communication.

In the New Testament, the word used is:

    prophetes {prof-ay'-tace}
  • 1) in Greek writings, an interpreter of oracles or of other hidden things
  • 2) one who, moved by the Spirit of God and hence his organ or spokesman, solemnly declares to men what he has received by inspiration, especially concerning future events, and in particular such as relate to the cause and kingdom of God and to human salvation
  • >> a) the OT prophets, having foretold the kingdom, deeds and death, of Jesus the Messiah.
  • >>b) of John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus the Messiah
  • >>c) of the illustrious prophet, the Jews expected before the advent of the Messiah
  • >>d) the Messiah
  • >>e) of men filled with the Spirit of God, who by God's authority and command in words of weight pleads the cause of God and urges salvation of men
  • >>f) of prophets that appeared in the apostolic age among Christians
  • 1) they are associated with the apostles
  • 2) they discerned and did what is best for the Christian cause, foretelling certain future events. (Acts 11:27)
  • 3) in the religious assemblies of the Christians, they were moved by the Holy Spirit to speak, having power to instruct, comfort, encourage, rebuke, convict, and stimulate, their hearers
  • Again, it is apparent that those who claimed to be prophets were claiming divine inspiration for their utterances.

    The upshot of this is that a prophet is one who professes to speak on behalf of God, by divine inspiration. It follows, then, that any person claiming to speak on behalf of God must also be claiming to speak infallibly, or without error, and without confusion, since God Himself is without error or confusion.

    God clarifies this situation in Deuteronomy, when He gives instruction to the Hebrews about prophets. In Deu 18:22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that [is] the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, [but] the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. We see the first test of whether or not a prophet is indeed a true prophet of God, and that is the occurance, or coming to pass, of whatever it is that the prophet spoke. The division is very clear; if what a prophet speaks does NOT happen, then the prophet is false, and to be disregarded. Further, the passage states emphatically that the person speaking is "presumptuous," which means overstepping bounds, taking liberties, speaking falsely.

    However, in Deuteronomy 13:2, God also clarifies that sometimes, He will ALLOW something to come to pass that a FALSE prophet has spoken, placing an additional burden on those who hear the "prophecy" to examine the prophecy in detail. God says that if the prophecy spoken leads to following after and serving "other gods", then that prophet is also a false prophet.

    Unfortunately, most throughout history, and particularly in todays church, do not apply or consider this second level of examination to determine the validity of a prophet, simply stopping at the first consideration....did it happen. Even more unfortunate is that most, today, don't even consider that requirement, and just accept without question anyone's claim to be a "prophet".and also simply accept that a prophet can "miss the mark" in their prophecy, or the prophecy is vague enough that just about ANY thing will satisfy the requirement of "fulfillment."

    What Is Prophecy?

    God, in using the vehicle of prophecy, and the personage of a prophet, had several things in mind to accomplish His purpose. As we can see in multiple passages of scripture, prophecy was designed to do several things, on a multitude of levels.

    First, God intended to tell us of things to come. This is the "fore-telling" aspect of prophecy, and we see it starting in Genesis, and ending in Revelation. Every book of the Bible contains a prophecy that contains future aspect of fulfillment. In most instances, the future aspect also contained the possibility of multiple fulfillments, with partial fulfillment being found in various times. The best example I can think of is that given in Daniel, where we are told of a time that will come when a person, better known as anti-christ, will rise to power and desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem. A partial fulfillment of this prophecy can be found in the person of Antiochus Epiphanes, who in about 167 BC destroyed Jerusalem, and slaughtered a pig in the Temple. This action partially qualified as the "abomination that causes desolation." The primary reason for considering that it was not the complete fulfillment, though, is that Jesus, some 180 years LATER, spoke of the same abomination that Daniel spoke of, but in the FUTURE TENSE..."when you see..." (Mat. 24:15, Mark 13:14).

    On other occasions, however, the prophecy is so specific that it can ONLY be fulfilled once. One example is the destruction of Babylon foretold by Jeremiah. In Jer. 51, we read that there will come a time when Babylon is destroyed so utterly, that it will be devastated to the extent that it shall NEVER rise again, and neither man nor beast shall be able to live there. While Babylon itself has been "destroyed" a number of times over the millennia, parts of it have not only continued to exist, but in recent years has been "resurrected." Much of the original stonework of the old Babylon was used by Saddam Hussein to pave various parts of Baghdad, and he also began a rebuilding program to bring Babylon back. Currently, it exists as a small city southeast of Badhdad, and is populated. However, Jeremiah says that the day will come when it shall be "utterly" destroyed.

    The second aspect of prophecy is that of "forth-telling," which is a mechanism whereby a prophet brings to our attention something that God has ALREADY said, and we are reminded in various ways of what that is. On occasion, forth-telling would also contain fore-telling. We find most of this in the writings of the major and minor prophets, where they would rehearse to their listeners things that God had done and said in the past, and the issue a warning to the people. Usually, these warnings were conditional, in that IF the people would mend their ways, and return to what God had told them in the past, then they would be ok....but if NOT, then dire consequences would fall upon them.

    In the NT, we see a good example of this in the sermon delivered by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), where he spoke to the people about things that God had previously said (Joel), and then gave gave them instructions as to WHAT to do. The instructions were conditional, in that if the people did NOT do them, they would NOT be saved, but if they did, they WOULD be saved.

    A third aspect of prophecy, and the one that seems to be the most popular today, is that of "personal" prophecy, wherein a prophet speaks to individuals about personal things. Scripturally speaking, we can find two particular examples in both the OT and the NT. First is the account in 2 Kings 20 where Isaiah was sent to Hezekiah to tell him that he should set his house in order, for he about to die. Before Isaiah left Hezekiahs house, the LORD had Isaiah return to Hezekiah and tell him that He would allow Hezekiah 15 more years, plus deliverance from the Assyrians. Interestingly, this was also a conditional prophecy in that Hezekiah had to place a "lump" of figs on his boil. To prove to Hezekiah that Isaiah had indeed spoken the word of the LORD, a sign was given by making a shadow on a sun dial move backward by 10 degrees.

    In the NT, we find in Acts 21:10-12 that a prophet by the name of Agabus gave a prophecy specifically to Paul about how he would be imprisoned and delivered into the hands of the Romans.

    In general, however, we see that the basic purpose of prophecy is that God wants to communicate with mankind about His ideas, His plans, His intentions, and how and where man is missing it!

    Who is a prophet

    Determining who is a prophet, to a large degree, depends on who you're talking (or listening) to. Some would have us believe that a prophet is anyone who preaches, and some would maintain that only those who have been to a "School of Prophecy" can be a prophet. And still others would hold that there is no such thing.

    Scripture brings us some valuable lessons as to who was, is, or can be a prophet. Some of this we've already learned just in determining what prophecy is, and what a prophet does.

    As we look at scripture, certain things become pretty evident. A prophet is one who is called by