Today I begin teaching a class on the Major Prophets to my students at Northern Baptist Seminary. Teaching a course on the prophets, especially on Jeremiah, is one of the most pleasant experiences I have as a teacher. The reason for this joy is that the ministry of the prophets of Israel mirrors the work of ministers today.
People today who speak on behalf of God have much to say about the moral, social, and religious conditions of our nation. Like the prophets of old, ministers today can speak on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and those who are politically weak. Ministers can also speak forcefully against the political structures that diminish the lives of individuals, against the religious practices that are devoid of the fear of God, and the standards of behavior that are destroying the moral foundations of our nation.
One of the marks of true prophets was the call they received from Yahweh to be a prophet. As men and women called by God, the prophets spoke to Israel and Judah on behalf of God. The Hebrew word nabi [נָביא] is translated “prophet” in English, but its literal meaning is “the one who is called.”
Jeremiah emphasized his call when he described his commission to be a prophet of God. Although Jeremiah says that the word of Yahweh came to him on the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (Jeremiah 1:2), he understood that his call to the prophetic ministry came even before he was born: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
God called people to be prophets in different ways and in different places. Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock when God called him (Exodus 3:1). The same thing happened to Amos. One day when he was taking care of his flock, the Lord told him: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). Isaiah was called when he was worshiping in the temple (Isaiah 6:1), and Samuel was called one night while he was sleeping (1 Samuel 3:3).
Human response to God’s call also varies from individual to individual. Isaiah willingly accepted the call to be a prophet. When God called him, Isaiah responded: “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8). When God called Jeremiah, Jeremiah resisted God’s call by saying that he was too young to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:6). When God called Moses, he rejected God’s call by saying: “O my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13). When Jonah received his call, he fled “from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3).
However, most prophets never mentioned their call to the ministry. It is possible that in Israel some people refused the call to be a prophet. Others, like Jeremiah, resisted the call only to respond at a later time. Although many of the prophets who appear in the Hebrew Bible received a call from Yahweh, the fact that they left no record of their call does not indicate they did not have a personal encounter with God. These prophets were called by God and sent with a mission and a message to Israel. Habakkuk, for instance, received a vision from Yahweh, but left no written statement declaring how the Lord spoke to him.
Another characteristic of the prophets of Israel was that they were called to proclaim the word of Yahweh to Israel. When God called Jeremiah, the Lord told him: “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9). The Lord also told Jeremiah: “You shall speak whatever I command you” (Jeremiah 1:7). When the unknown prophet of the exile was called to proclaim the words of Yahweh to the people who were exiled in Babylon, he asked: “What shall I proclaim?” And the voice of the Lord told him the message he was to proclaim: “[Proclaim that] all people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6).
Each prophet received a special message from Yahweh. When the prophet spoke, it was the message of Yahweh he spoke. In their proclamation, the prophets confronted the people of Israel with their rebellion against Yahweh and their violation of the demands of the covenant.
The outcome of the message the prophets proclaimed depended on the response of the people. If they repented, the Lord would change his mind and forgive the people. When the Lord told Jeremiah to write down his sermons and read them in the temple, the Lord told Jeremiah: “It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin” (Jeremiah 36:3).
However, if the people refused to listen to the word of Yahweh in the mouth of his prophets, then judgment would come upon the nation. In explaining the fall of Samaria by the hands of Assyria, the writer of 2 Kings wrote: “The LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.’ They would not listen [because they] were stubborn” (2 Kings 17:13-14).
Another characteristic of the prophets of the Old Testament is that they were able to see historical events in terms of God’s will. The prophets knew that God was at work in history, even when people around them could not understand what God was doing. When the prophet Habakkuk complained about the work of the Chaldeans, the Lord told him: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you will not believe even when you are told” (Habakkuk 1:5).
Jack Lundbom, in his book The Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 20-21 wrote: “Prophets have vision in the broad sense; that is, they have the capacity to perceive things ordinary people cannot perceive. They see that the times are out of joint, that human life before God is far from what it should be, that judgment is forthcoming, and that after judgment they are the first to anticipate Yahweh’s salvation.”
A third characteristic of the prophets of Israel was that they were endowed with the Spirit of God. The prophets were filled with God’s Spirit which gave them the power to act as God’s representative and to speak with divine authority.
An unknown prophet spoke about his mission as a messenger of Yahweh: “The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour from Yahweh and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2 NJB).
In Israel there were prophets who claimed to have the Spirit of God, but their message proved they were false prophets. The prophet Micah spoke of these false prophets as follows: “If a man of the spirit came and invented this lie, ‘I prophesy wine and liquor for you,’ he would be the prophet for a people like this” (Micah 2:11). In contrast to these false prophets and their message, Micah spoke of himself: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8).
In Hebrew, the word for “Spirit” is ruah, a word which means “wind.” When addressing the false prophets of his days, Jeremiah played on the double meaning of the word ruah and said that the false prophets, the “men of the spirit,” were nothing but windbags: “The prophets are wind, for the word is not in them” (Jeremiah 5:13).
Another characteristic of the prophets of Israel was that they were intercessors on behalf of Israel. In a sense, a prophet was a mediator between God and the people. In the Old Testament, Moses and Samuel were known as great intercessors (Jeremiah 15:1). Speaking about the false prophets in Judah, Jeremiah affirmed the work of the prophet as an intercessor. Jeremiah said: “If indeed they are prophets, and if the word of the LORD is with them, then let them intercede with the LORD of hosts” (Jeremiah 27:18).
When God called Amos and announced the judgment that was coming upon the Northern Kingdom, Amos interceded on behalf of Israel. Yahweh heard Amos’ prayer and did not send the judgment which Amos had seen in his vision.
The people knew that the prophets were men of prayer. Hezekiah sent messengers to the prophet Isaiah asking him to pray for the people left in Judah (2 Kings 19:1-4). When King Zedekiah and the people of Judah were facing a Babylonian invasion, the king said to Jeremiah: “Intercede for us with Yahweh our God” (Jeremiah 37:3). After the fall of Jerusalem, the military leaders who remained in Judah, fearing for their life, asked Jeremiah to pray for them: “Intercede with Yahweh your God for us” (Jeremiah 42:2).
Since one of the most important works of the prophets was to pray for the people, it is surprising that three times the Lord told Jeremiah not to pray for the people (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14; 14:11). The Lord told Jeremiah: “You, for your part, must not intercede for this people, nor raise either plea or prayer on their behalf; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you” (Jeremiah 7:16). The reason for the prohibition was because Yahweh knew that Jeremiah was an intercessor who prayed for the people, and since Yahweh was determined to bring judgment against the people, Yahweh was not willing to answer the prayer of his prophet.
The prophets of Israel taught the people of Israel and believers of all ages how God’s people should live. The message of the prophets was that God demanded justice from his people but that he was willing to forgive them if they turned from their evil ways. The prophet’s message of personal morality and exclusive worship of the true God is one that needs to be heard in the twenty-first century.
Other Studies on the Prophets:
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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