Go to YouTube, type in the name of any sport equipment manufacturer, and watch one of the thousands of ads associated with that brand. Every ad tells a story, and every story has a hero—usually well-known sports stars who signed multimillion-dollar advertising contracts to promote the brand. These spokespersons tell us of “victory” or “endurance” or “success.” When they look into the camera, sweat dripping and exhaustion palpable, they suggest that, we too, may be able to succeed.
Prophets in Scripture were spokespersons too. They did not speak on their own behalf. They spoke on God’s behalf and communicated His words. They did not have office hours. Their personal lives were often intricately entwined with their ministry.
They did not sign multimillion-dollar advertising contracts for their troubles.
The most common Hebrew term used to describe a prophet is nabi’. The word can be used as a noun (“prophet”) or as a verb (“to prophesy”). Abraham is described as a nabi’ in Genesis 20:7. We don’t know if Abraham ever made any public pronouncements about the future—though he was privy to God’s perspective when YHWH told him about the sojourn of his descendants and their servitude that would last 400 years (Gen. 15:13). He communicated God’s blessings to people surrounding him and interceded on their behalf (Gen. 18:16-33; 20:17). Scholars have repeatedly debated the exact meaning of the term underlying nabi’ and have concluded that it has both an active as well as a passive meaning.
The active meaning describes the task of a prophet: one who calls out on behalf of someone else. The passive meaning emphasizes the specific calling of a prophet: one who has been called or appointed. Both elements are key to understanding the ministry of biblical prophets. Isaiah’s awe-inspiring call experience offers a good example of this latter aspect of prophetic ministry (cf. Isa. 6). One could not study to be a prophet and speak on God’s behalf.1 No one became a prophet because their father had been a prophet. God called—and the prophet responded.
Often God’s call caused trepidation, consternation, and a strong sense of incompetence. Jeremiah hears God’s call, but feels inadequate, too young, and out of his depth (Jer. 1:6). God insists, as He had insisted again and again for others—and then He empowers (verses 7-10). God’s call always comes with His empowerment.
The passive meaning emphasizes the prophetic message: prophets speak on God’s behalf—not in their own name (Ex. 7:1; Num. 12:1-8). They don’t follow their own agendas—even though some biblical prophets seemed to forget this now and again. Balaam’s attraction to cash and honors led to his engagement by the Moabite king Balak. The prophet for hire was called to curse the people of Israel on their way to the Promised Land (Num. 22-24). Jonah’s warped attitude to divine grace and compassion relating to non-Israelites (see Jonah 4:2) led him to try to flee “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3, NKJV). We wonder about the logic behind this. How can one flee from the Creator of the world, who holds everything in His hands? Clearly prophets, like most of us, suffered now and again from a lack of logic and a distorted sense of reality.
Biblical prophets received God’s revelation in many ways. Sometimes God spoke directly to them (Num. 12:6-8; Deut. 18:18); sometimes He revealed His will through a vision (Isa. 1:1; Jer. 1:11-19) or a dream (Dan. 1:17; 2:19; Zech. 1:8). An Egyptian pharaoh (Gen. 41:1-8) and a Babylonian king (Dan. 2, 4) both were recipients of prophetic dreams. God can use anyone (including an abused donkey, cf. Num. 22:28) to reveal His will to a world urgently needing to hear from Him. In all cases, prophets communicated God’s will to those listening (the original audience) and those reading (later generations of readers, including us today).
Not all prophets wrote down their messages, though most seem to have preached. Some wrote books (or, better, scrolls [cf. Jer. 36:1, 2]), while others did not. We know very little about the prophet Ahijah, who ministered during the reign of Jeroboam I in Israel (1 Kings 11:29). He appears several times at crucial moments, but then disappears from sight.
God’s prophets spoke clearly and pointedly to the larger world in Old Testament times. The public square was a familiar place them.
Some prophets wrote books, even though those books were never included in the biblical canon. The books of Nathan the prophet or Gad the seer are not part of our Bible (1 Chron. 29:29). Both Nathan and Gad were bona fide prophets during the reign of King David. God obviously knew that their writings would not be needed later on to communicate concisely and comprehensively His plan of salvation.
All prophets, however, communicated with everything they had. Hosea is told by God to marry “a wife of harlotry . . . , for the land has committed great harlotry” (Hosea 1:2, NKJV). Scholars have wondered what exactly that means. It is clear that God used Hosea’s love life and family relations as visible object lessons to communicate His love and care for His people.
Media savviness and dramatic enactments are not something that is unique to the twenty-first century. When the prophet Ahijah meets Jeroboam, the future king of the northern kingdom, he tears a perfectly good garment into 12 pieces and hands Jeroboam 10 of them (1 Kings 11:29-40). That’s quite an entrance. Translation: God is giving you the 10 northern tribes as a kingdom. Walk in God’s ways; keep His statutes and His commandments. Consider this a sermon illustration that cannot easily be forgotten.
The prophet Elisha commands King Joash of Israel to shoot arrows out of a window, and connects this with a message promising Israel’s victory over the Arameans (2 Kings 13:14-19). Isaiah walks three years barefoot and without outer garments through Jerusalem because God told him to do so. It was an object lesson of judgment against Egypt and Ethiopia (Isa. 20:1-6). Imagine seeing that half-naked prophet making his way through the capital city, day after day!
Following God’s explicit command, Jeremiah wore a yoke, pointing to Judah’s coming captivity (Jer. 27:1, 2). He also bought the field of a relative in his hometown of Anathoth during the final siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 32:1-12). At that moment Anathoth had already been occupied by Babylonian forces. Who would buy property that they could not possess? God wanted to send a powerful message of hope: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land” (verse 15, NKJV) was His message to those willing to listen. Exile would not be the last word.
Many more examples could be added here. Consider Ezekiel’s miniature clay city portraying Jerusalem surrounded by siege ramps and battering rams—used as a sign for God’s people to live in God’s reality (Eze. 4:1-3). All these signs and activities were meant to communicate in ways that were meaningful and relevant to an audience that needed to hear a word from the Lord but were not always ready to actually listen. Prophets were a crucial part of God’s media strategy.
Old Testament prophets were not crazy women,³ and men, who walking around half naked, and playing with miniature siege models, or carrying yokes around town. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern prophets of the surrounding cultures, they also were not financed (and controlled) by the monarchs of Israel or Judah. While some addressed kings and courts, they spoke first and foremost to God’s people—and the larger world surrounding them. Let’s examine five aspects of their message.
1. Old Testament Prophets Engaged the World
Scholars have noted that about 15 percent of the content of Old Testament prophetic books was directed to the nations surrounding Judah and Israel.4 Amos’ strong denunciation of Edom’s pitiless persecution of “his brother” (i.e., Israel) in Amos 1:11, 12 serves as a good illustration that God’s justice was not limited to Israel. God takes note of abuse—any abuse, for as the Creator of the universe, His principles of justice are always valid and don’t depend on a particular cultural context. God takes note when a child cries in pain. God remembers physical or moral atrocities. God’s prophets spoke clearly and pointedly to the larger world in Old Testament times. The public square was a familiar place for them.
2. Old Testament Prophets Engaged God’s Covenant People About Their Ethical Conduct
God called prophets to remind His people that justice and mercy are central parts of His law. “Proclaim in the palaces at Ashdod,” says Amos, “and in the palaces in the land of Egypt, and say: ‘Assemble on the mountains of Samaria; see great tumults in her midst, and the oppressed within her. For they do not know to do right,’ says the Lord, ‘who store up violence and robbery in their palaces’” (Amos 3:9, 10, NKJV).
Nations neighboring Israel are called to witness the social abuse and oppression that can be seen in God’s people. “They do not know to do right” is God’s verdict. It’s not an intellectual problem. It’s a problem of action and right-doing.
Prophets, often at great risk to their own lives, spoke uncomfortable truths.
Hosea offers a resounding indictment of God’s people: “Hear the word of the Lord, you children of Israel, for the Lord brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: ‘There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, killing and stealing and committing adultery, they break all restraint, with bloodshed upon bloodshed’” (Hosea 4:1, 2, NKJV). This is public courtroom language. God brings a charge against His people, based on His covenant law, i.e., the Ten Commandments. The list of infractions can be checked off (“swearing, lying, killing, stealing, committing adultery”), resulting in the final summary: “They break all restraint.” Prophets, often at great risk to their own lives, spoke uncomfortable truths.
3. Old Testament Prophets Unmasked Religious Formalism
Prophets consistently critiqued the senseless performance of sanctuary ritual. Religious activity without heart transformation is useless and counter to God’s purpose for His people. Here are two well-known examples.
“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, NKJV). Hosea puts sacrifices, ordained by God in His law, in juxtaposition to covenant mercy (or khesed, a key term of biblical theology). Outward piety involving costly sacrifices can never replace the internalization of the underlying principles and concepts expressed by the sacrifices.
Amos offers a second example: “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24, NKJV). Religious forms without justice and righteousness will not do. In fact, God “hates” them, for they ultimately function as innoculations against heart transformation.
4. Old Testament Prophets Stood in the Breach
Moses, the prototype of Old Testament prophets, interceded again and again for Israel (Ex. 32:11-14; Num. 11:2; 12:13; 14:11-19). Likewise, Amos interceded twice when confronted with God’s judgment against Israel (Amos 7:1-6). Intercession shows the heart of a person. Intercession points beyond us and covers the world in grace. Intercession echoes divine care. When Israel’s prophets interceded on behalf of others, they anticipated the great Intercessor who prayed for His disciples in His darkest hour (John 17:6-26).
5. Old Testament Prophets Shared Hope
While judgment figures prominently in most Old Testament prophetic books, hope is never far away. “On that day,” writes Amos at the end of his book, “I [God] will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old. . . . I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them” (Amos 9:11-14, NKJV).
Beyond judgment there is a future. God’s future is bigger and better than can be imagined. Isaiah 65 and 66 offer more details of this hope-filled messianic kingdom: an earth made new; a people restored; a hope revived. “It shall come to pass,” says the Lord, “that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear” (Isa. 65:24, NKJV).
Old Testament prophets were called to speak on God’s behalf—to the world surrounding them, to God’s people and their leadership. They spoke on God’s behalf, using imagery and words that could be understood by their audiences. They reminded God’s people that pious religious forms without heart transformation were empty and useless. They unabashedly spoke about ethical living and the close connection between God’s law and the way we live. Often they became intercessors, pleading to God on behalf of the people. They always pointed to the great hope that has driven generations of God’s children to move forward by faith.
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as associate editor of Adventist Review.