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From a Biblical perspective, a prophet is a spokesperson on earth who proclaims God’s word, revealing things that would happen in the future. This utterance is called prophecy because it’s divinely inspired, and involves, revelation or interpretation. This essay will illustrate a study on prophecy in the Old Testament (OT), various people who met the criteria of being true prophets and identify those who were known to be false prophets. Further, an insight on different kinds of prophecy and there fulfilment will also be demonstrated.
Prophets through various scriptures in the bible were referred to as men of God or servants of God to implicate the seriousness of their status. After the fall of man, God had a divine plan to restore His love relationship with humans and this was portrayed throughout the OT. Tholuck titled the prophets as the ancient preachers of the Church, he said, “The prophets were the living depositaries of the idea of the theocracy or kingdom of God”. In other words prophecy erected from the foundation of God’s law and it was the prophets who imposed it. According to the prophetic criteria, bible theologians state that Enoch (Gen. 5: 24) and Noah (Gen. 6: 9) qualified as prophets, because God spoke through them, but it was Abraham whom God first spoke of as a prophet when He warned King Abimelech against marrying Sarah (Gen. 20: 6-7).
According to Bible theology, God chose the Israelites to be His representatives on earth to whom He could reveal Himself, by speaking through His chosen advocates known as the prophets so that all other nations could be blessed and know the true Living God. He wanted humans to know that He was their creator and He had divine plans and a purpose for them to live according to His will. He gave them His laws to which they were to live by, and He was to be their God. It was those laws that caused conflict between God and His people.
Chris Wright believed that it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets. He said, “He is the Spirit who spoke through the prophets, inspiring their commitment to speak the truth and to stand for justice”. This was affirmed by Peter in The New Testament when he contested the origin of the OT prophecies (2 Pet. 1: 20-21), and was evident when Saul got anointed as king and the Spirit of God took control of Him and he prophesied (1Sam. 10: 10). Since prophets were the mediators of God, they only spoke in the name of God, lived by faith and demonstrated the holiness of God, as Zechariah father of John the Baptist said in his prophecy that, “As He said through His holy prophets of long ago” (Luke 1: 70).
The prophets had to be fully obedient to what God required of them hoping in God’s Spirit that strengthened and worked through them. Fulfilment was a key issue in the prophetic movement. Through Isaiah, God said, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55: 10-11). Such prophecy took away any doubt about God’s will especially to the prophets themselves, who prophesied to a doubtful nation. One writer said, “The criterion of true prophecy is what it should be-truth, the correspondence between the prophetic word and the realities of history.” Any prophet who spoke oracles of other gods other than the God of Israel would be known as a false prophet. So the prophet’s main role was to communicate God’s message in its fullness. Since it was God’s divine plan to use prophets to convey His messages, He illustrated that He purposely set them apart, He said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jer. 28: 5).
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Prophets were from diverse back grounds, for example Amos was a shepherd (Amos 1:1), Elijah was a priest and Elisha was a herdsman (19:15-21). Although men were popularly used, women like Miriam; sister to Moses (Micah 6: 4); Deborah who served as an Israelite judge (Judges 4: 4); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and Noadiah (Neh. 6: 14) also served as prophets. God revealed Himself and communicated to His prophets through visions and dreams or spoke audibly to them as in the case of Moses. He said, “Listen to my words: “When there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams” (Num. 12: 6). So this is why prophets had common characteristics that identified them as God’s messengers. Their messages exposed the nature and attributes of God to men (Deut. 5:4-10); made known to men the laws of God (Ex 20: 1-17); to call the people back in obedience to God’s laws (2Chr 24:19); exhorted the people to sincerity in worship (Jer. 7:1-11); warned the Israelites of Divine judgment upon sin, both personal and national and foretold future events which God had willed especially the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 9:6).
According to the O.T, there are three sections of books which are refered to as prophetic books and they are known as; (Joshua to Kings) the former prophets, major prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), and finally the Minor Prophets (Hosea to Malachi). The prophetic ministry in the O.T intensified at the beginning of the Exodus when God appointed Moses and Aaron as His prophets with a mission to rescue and lead His people out of slavery from the land of Egypt after 430 years. God gave a specific oracle to Moses that His chosen people were being called to worship him. The prophetic movement appeared throughout The Exodus 1446 BCE and the period of the Israelite’s captivity by the Assyrians and Babylonians, to the times of Zechariah who was associated with the restoration of the temple in 521-515 BCE.
There is a mention of many false prophets in the O.T. God clearly warned the Israelites never to approve of such prophets, and he would test them to see if they would remain faithfully (Deut. 13: 1-5). It was a warning that was repeatedly issued with an example of Hananiah a false prophet in Judah in the reign of King Zedekiah. (Jer. 28: 1-17). God even approved of the death of such prophets when He said, “But if any prophet presumes to speak anything in my name that I have not authorised him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die” (Deut. 18: 20). Prophet Elijah also challenged Jezebel’s prophets of Baal to show that he was serving A Living God, unlike all other gods that were worshiped in the land. He killed 450 false prophets from that confrontation (1 Kg. 18: 19-40).
Prophets could also be manipulated or bribed to defy God, as in the case of King Balak of Moab who asked Balaam to curse the Israelites. “Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed” (Num. 22:6). Balaam’s response indicated that he communicated with God (Num. 22: 9-41). God revealed that He could use anything to prophecy as was in the case of Balaam’s donkey (Num. 22: 28). Another aspect of prophetic experience, involved the prophet himself who performed portents to support the prophecy e.g. Isaiah walked naked for 3 years in the land (Isa. 20:2); Hosea expressed the prophecy by being obedient to what God told him. “Go and marry a prostitute so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution. This will illustrate how Israel has acted like a prostitute by turning against the Lord and worshiping other gods.” (Hos. 1: 2).
Though God’s prophets differed on how they prophesied, the emphasis of their messages was common. It was about sin, judgement, wrath of God, repentance, love, mercy and forgiveness of a compassionate God. For example Moses was a law giver and urged the Israelites repeatedly never to take on the pagan practices of the people of the Promised Land because God Himself would raise another prophet like him to continue a prophet’s great role. (Deut. 18: 14-17). The Prophet Elijah was a spiritual revivalist, and Isaiah’s prophecies were upon the royal house of Judah. Prophets suffered persecution, and they were often disregarded, despised and rejected especially by rebellious kings and people who had hardened hearts and continually disobeyed God’s law, “But the people would not listen and continued to follow their former practices.” (2 Kg. 17: 40).
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Unger’s Bible dictionary quotes, “The genius of Old Testament prophecy was rather, a prediction of the future arising from the conditions of the present and was inseparably connected with the profoundly religious and spiritual message the prophet was called to proclaim to his own generation.” Some prophecies of the OT were Forth telling prophecies that called back people unto their God in terms of repentance and change, as in the case of Jonah when God relented and withdrew plans of disaster upon Nineveh (Jonah 2).
Fore telling prophecies, gave the people time to obey, seek and pray honestly to God, a significantly important feature of Biblical prophecy. Such prophecies promised restoration and events that would be fulfilled in the future declaring salvation, especially those that announced the coming of a Messiah who would come at God’s appointed time, as the final perfect sacrifice to God who would redeem mankind and fulfil the reconciliation of God and man (Hos. 14; Amos 9: 11-15).
Overall, Jesus was the completion of the prophetic scriptures in the OT. Jesus testified in His time that He was the reference point of the OT prophecies. “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” (Psalm 2:7). Bible Scholars, G and R Konig said, “Jesus is unique among all people in history in that he is the fulfilment of centuries of Messianic prophecies, which are found in the Old Testament that foretold his place of birth, details of his life, his mission, his nature, his death, and his resurrection.”
From a theological perspective, God affirms both His power and right to judge, and His steadfastness in the end to save. Jeremiah prophesied of the new covenant, whereas Ezekiel had a vision of a new temple centre stage (Ezek. 40, 48). Isaiah is also memorable for its Messianic promises (Isa 9:2-7, 11:1-9), and ideas of new creation and Exodus.
If Judgement and salvation are the fabric of the OT history, it explains why so much of it was the work of the prophets, because God expressed His heart through the prophets in order to restore His relationship with man. Prophecy is one of the major ways in which God communicates His will to mankind even up to this age as written: Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Luke 10: 23-24). The prophetic movement was a significant phenomenon in history of Divine revelation. Therefore, without the prophecies in the Old Testament, humans wouldn’t know of God’s intentions. This can only be summarised as God’s Divine love for mankind.
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