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What Was a Prophet?

Heinrich Kirchner

Communication between the human and the divine realms occurs in many ways. One primary channel in the biblical tradition is through the prophets, male or female, who are summoned by God to speak to their community, present and future, with that confident and thunderous introduction, “Thus says the Lord!” These same prophets may also intercede with God on behalf of the people, and may also speak their own words. In times of crisis the prophets speak of needed obedience to God and trust in God. They speak of disaster and judgment but also of survival and hope, addressing their own community and the world beyond. Being charged with communicating who God is and what God does (Amos 3:7), they challenge those in power and the people generally.

In addition to their sharp analysis of their present time the prophets confidently envision future developments, such as the possibility of a peaceable kingdom (e.g., Hos 2:20; Isa 11:1-9), a vision still captivating the imagination of people in the present.

The prophets primarily speak for God but they also speak their own words. Amos 3:7 explains: “The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Whereas Jer 20:7 expresses anguish at the people’s rejection of the prophet’s word from God: “I have become a laughingstock all day long.”

As representatives of a charismatic tradition—having a direct connection with God, and privileged to “listen in” on God’s secret deliberations (note 1Kgs 22:17-23)—the Israelite prophets represent two contrasting directions. They are strongly rooted in the tradition of “I am the Lord your God, from the Land of Egypt,” emphasizing the Exodus tradition of liberation and the Mosaic covenant of exclusive loyalty to God. At the same time they are distinctly innovative, emphasizing that the God who brought out Israel from the land of Egypt also brought out the Philistines and the Arameans and had an interest in the people of Kush (Amos 9:7). Prophets in the times of the Judean exile in Babylonia and during the difficult time of reestablishment in the land, announced that the anticipated Messiah, God’s anointed one, was actually the Persian king, Cyrus, who would promote the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple (Isa 45:1; and see Isa 44:28). And in the same inclusive spirit it was a prophet who affirmed that foreigners who followed the Lord and eunuchs who were faithful to the covenant were welcome in God’s “house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isa 56:3-7), and it was a prophet who anticipated a continuing line of prophets (Joel 2:28-29)!

Above all, the prophets of ancient Israel challenge their world—and all those who still honor their words—to “observe what is right and do what is just” (Isa 56:1).

  • Herbert B. Huffmon

    Herbert B. Huffmon has taught about the Hebrew Bible for more than 50 years, principally at Johns Hopkins University and at Drew University, and has also served for many years as a part-time minister. He is a minister member of Newton Presbytery.