Volume 6 - Issue 1

The Old Testament Prophets’ Self Understanding of Their Prophecy

By Douglas Stuart

Our concern is to answer the question, ‘How did Old Testament prophets themselves view what they were doing in fulfilling their prophetic call from God?’ This is not the same as asking, ‘What roles did Old Testament prophets in fact have?’, though it is closely related.

For the answer to our question, we have relatively little explicit data. It was obviously not the primary intention of either the authors or the compilers of the Old Testament to satisfy our curiosity about what prophets thought of themselves vis-à-vis their prophecies. Nevertheless, from an intelligent look at what they say and do, i.e. the nature of their message and actions, we may make some reasonable extrapolations about their own views toward the message they preached, and their sense of what they were doing in preaching that message.

In service of this goal, one might ask any or all of the following questions:

Did prophets consciously think that God was speaking directly through them, or is this something that later generations attributed to their messages which were in fact creations of their own intellects and nothing more?

Did prophets actually get ‘taken over’ by God’s Spirit? Was this always/sometimes/only rarely the case? Could it be that most of the time their words were their own inventions, created along the lines of and in support of the more occasional special ‘direct’ revelations from God?

Did prophets simply speak convincingly and authoritatively as a modern day preacher tries to do? And did their disciples or later redactors then collect and edit just those words (among the many they spoke) which came true in a way that makes the whole seem divine?

Did prophets actually understand all that much of what they were saying even if it was said under God’s inspiration? Did they perhaps fashion highly ambiguous, symbolic, ‘deep’ sayings to which people of faith later assigned a significance that the prophets themselves would not necessarily have understood?

Did prophets in fact understand that their message was fully from God; and what it meant and how it would apply to their own generation? Could they have had any inkling of things so distant in time from them as the new covenant, the church, the reign of Cyrus, the ministry of the Messiah? Or would they be nonplussed to find that thousands of years later parts of their oracles are exegeted by theological students as presaging these very things—the students then going on after graduation to proclaim such interpretations to congregations of Christians?

It is obvious that fully-convincing, thoroughly documented answers to all these questions are not going to be found in a brief article such as this. Complete answers require in the first place an enormous amount of exegetically sound study of Old Testament narrative passages about the prophets, of the prophetical corpus itself, and of extra-biblical evidence from the acient near east where prophecy as an institution was hardly limited to Israel and Judah. Even then, one’s chosen orientation to such heuristic issues as the general trustworthiness of scripture, the doctrine of inspiration per se, and the notion of canonicity will shape decisively one’s approach to such questions.

I propose therefore to offer, via four affirmations, my own understanding of the issues, and to suggest, with a modicum of documentation from which we can only extrapolate, what sort of evidence one would draw on to support these affirmations. It is my hope that this format will at least bring the matter into clear focus for the reader, even if it does not fully address all the relevant concerns.

Four affirmations

  1. The prophets considered themselves servants of God, vehicles through whom God himself spoke.
  2. They considered the content of their message unoriginal.
  3. They considered themselves as occupying a divinely appointed societal office, correcting illegal beliefs and practices.
  4. They understood what they preached.

We shall comment on these affirmations in order, offering a sampling of evidence from the Old Testament, and considerations based thereon. Our discussion of the prophets is meant, by the way, to refer to the orthodox, true prophets, as opposed to the many professional pretenders (cf. 1 Kgs. 22:1–28).

  1. The prophets considered themselves vehicles through whom God himself spoke

In Exodus 7:1 Yahweh says to Moses, ‘I have made you like God to Pharaoh.’ Moses, the paradigm prophet in the Old Testament, speaks with an authority not his own. So it was with the other Old Testament prophets. It is their consistent contention, and the contention of the biblical descriptions about them, that they spoke God’s word, not their own. In every case, it is God who decides who shall be a prophet (cf. Ex. 3:1ff.; Is. 6; Je. 1; Ezk. 1–3; Ho. 1:2; Am. 7:14–15; Jon. 1:1, etc.). Indeed, if one were to take the office of prophecy upon himself, this would constitute evidence that he was in fact a false prophet (cf. Je. 14:14; 23:21). From the venality and ‘pleasant oracles’ of these false prophets the true prophets took pains to disassociate themselves (cf. Am. 7:14; Mi. 3:5, 11).

All of them came to their work as the result of an experience of a divine call. Because the word they spoke was Yahweh’s word and not their own, they prefaced it, concluded it, or even intermittently punctuated it with reminders like ‘Thus says Yahweh’ (kōh ’āmar yhwh) and ‘oracle of Yahweh’ (ne’um yhwh). Indeed the vast majority of the time they phrased their message in the first person, quoting Yahweh directly, as if their mouth were his mouth. There is no evidence that they simply felt permitted to do this—they clearly consider themselves required to do it.1

Regardless of how personally risky this task sometimes was, or how likely the message was or was not to be believed, they represented God and said what he told them to say. For example, Jeremiah had to relay God’s message to Judah that submission to Babylon (treason, as far as his hearers thought)—was their only option (Je. 27–28). In preaching aspects of this message he says ‘This is what Yahweh said to me …’ (27:2); and quotes God’s words: ‘Then send word …’ (27:3); ‘Give them a message …’ (27:4); ‘Say, This is what Yahweh Almighty, The God of Israel says …’ (27:4); and adds (Oracle of Yahweh’ (27:11); etc. He knowsthat those prophets who oppose him are ipso facto false prophets because God himself says so (27:16ff.). On what authority does he so firmly reject prophecies contradictory to his own? On God’s authority (28:15, 16). How could his listeners (or we) be sure? They couldn’t of course, and we can’t, except according to faith. Jeremiah however could be sure, because he knew God had given him that message to pass on. That was his self-understanding.

The prophets got some of their oracles by being allowed by God to overhear heavenly deliberations or to be told directly by God the content of his plans (cf. 1 Kgs. 17:1; 22:19; Je. 23:22; Am. 3:7). The prophets as auditors of the heavenly sōd (‘council’ and/or ‘counsel’) understand themselves to have knowledge not otherwise available to humans. The very word prophet (nābî’) in the Hebrew means one ‘called’, having a special commission directly from God. They saw themselves in a special position among mankind. Whether in ecstatic bands, accompanied by music (1 Sm. 10:5–13) or standing alone in prayer against the moral opposition of a massive state and clergy alliance (1 Kgs. 18:16–39), the prophets were God’s men and women. Sometimes called ‘men of God’ (Dt. 33:1; 1 Sa. 2:27; 9:6; 1 Kgs. 13:1), often called by God ‘my servants’ or the like (2 Kgs. 17:13; Am. 3:7; Je. 7:25; Ezr. 9:11). The prophets report their self-understanding of their prophecy in a servant mode. The master’s word ‘came to’ them.

Some of their commissionings were rather dramatic (Je. 1:9). Some were made to prophesy even against their will (Num. 22–24; cf. 1 Sa. 8; 10:18–19) or tried to avoid their commission—though without success (Jon. 1:1ff). But it was God who was behind all. They attributed their inspiration directly to the Inspirer, the Holy Spirit. There are eighteen Old Testament passages in all which link the inspiration of the prophets to the Holy Spirit.2 Indeed it is only as the prophets themselves knew with utter confidence that the word they spoke was fully God’s Word that we can expect to understand them at all. We may or may not choose to believe their words. They had no choice.

  1. They considered the content of their message unoriginal

Some years ago I served briefly as a translation consultant to a project preparing for publication a study edition of the Authorized Version of the Bible. One unusual feature of this edition was to be its ‘red letter’ Old Testament. On the analogy of so-called red-letter New Testament editions which print in red ink the words of Jesus, the Old Testament text was to print in red ink the words recorded as spoken directly by God.3

If you think about it for a moment, I believe you can guess quite easily where the printer had to use most of the red ink. Red predominated in two large blocks of sacred text: (1) the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 20–Dt. 33) and (2) the prophetical books.

This may perhaps serve to illustrate the role the Old Testament prophets played. They were of course spokesmen for God, persons through whom he proclaimed his word, both to his own covenant people, and often to the rest of the world. What he spoke through them was almost exclusively related to the original covenant he had given through Moses. If there had not been a covenant, it is hard to imagine what sorts of things Israelite prophets, if they had existed in the same sense, might have had to say. Perhaps they would have introduced particular aspects of Yahweh’s will to particular people at particular times.4 In the absence of any previous covenantal revelation, perhaps they might have developed and promulgated some sort of relatively enlightened social ethics as a counter force to the oppressive characteristics of the society they lived in.5

But there was a covenant, and the prophets were raised up by God to summon people back to obedience to that covenant. The Old Testament prophets did not think of themselves as innovators.

Consider the situation of Hosea, for example. His prophecies date from the reigns of Jeroboam II and the several succeeding northern kings (i.e. circa 750–722 bc). This means that the legal stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, ritual, religious, ethical and civil, had been known in Israel for as much as six hundred years6 by the time he, the second earliest of the ‘writing prophets’, came on the scene.

When one carefully examines the message that Hosea preached it becomes evident that this message has in essence two facets only: (1) to call people back to obedience to the Mosaic covenant; (2) to remind them of the blessings and cures contained in that covenant. There is no passage in the book that does not have the Mosaic scripture as its basis. God’s words of judgment or blessing fall into the categories already proclaimed in the covenant curse and blessing passages, especially those of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28–33. Indeed, a remarkably high percentage of key vocabulary words and metaphors in Hosea reflect the previous revelation of a single chapter of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 32.7

For a single example of Pentateuchal allusion in a single verse, consider Hosea 4:2.

Cursing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery break forth, and the idols crowd against one another.8

Here in this verse, six of the ‘ten commandments’ are mentioned, though not strictly ‘cited’. In three cases (murder, stealing, adultery) the very vocabulary word of the two-word prohibition in Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5 is repeated. In the remaining instances (cursing, lying, idols …) the term used in Hosea 4:2 summarizes a relatively longer commandment that in its entirety could hardly be cited in the poetic context of Hosea 4 without utterly disrupting the poem.

This example is only one among hundreds that could be adduced from the prophetical books. But it makes our point adequately. According to their inspiration to do so, the prophets recast and re-ordered the covenant stipulations. They took the mostly prose legal material and shaped it (mostly poetically) especially employing a rich imagery via metaphors and allegories, God’s purpose through them being to express the essence of the covenant message effectively. Their inventiveness is always in service of the long-extant Mosaic covenant. What they do cannot be described as innovation, i.e. making new theological points.

  1. They considered themselves as occupying a divinely appointed societal office, correcting by divine word illegal beliefs and practices

When the prophets are called to excoriate Israel or other nations what they attack in effect are crimes against the covenant. These crimes were sometimes religious-doctrinal, that is crimes of heterodoxy (cf. Hos. 2:4–13; Ezk. 8:6–16) and sometimes civil-ethical, that is crimes of heteropraxy (cf. Am. 8:5–6; Is. 1:15–17), and quite often they were of both sorts, intermixed (Mic. 3:8–12; Ezk. 7:15–27). The covenant provided a paradigm for all the nations of the earth and Israel alike (cf. Am. 1:3–2:15; Mic. 5:5–15).

Such a ministry was sometimes considered the equivalent of treason (Am. 7:10–11). It was not anything that the prophets themselves initiated, however. Yahweh’s word was the agent of correction, not the prophet. As Amos answers the complaint that his preaching was unfairly negative, he offers no response of his own. His appointment to office was God’s doing (‘Yahweh took me … and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel …” ’). He answers Amaziah not with his own rejoinder, but with God’s: ‘Therefore, this is what Yahweh says …’ (Am. 7:14–17).

Indeed the prophets were neither radical social reformers nor great religious thinkers or pioneers. It was Yahweh’s word that accomplished these tasks. Yahweh was the reformer, the theologian, the author of words and events. The nature of his reforms and his religious demands was contained already in the law. The prophets were ardent patriots, as the covenant demanded. For those to whom the covenant sanctions demanded punishment, they insisted on that punishment at God’s behest, denouncing the guilty party, even if king (2 Sa. 12:1–14; 2 Sa. 24:11ff.; 1 Kgs. 18:4; 20:42; Ho. 1:4) or priest (Ho. 4:4–10; Am. 7:17; Mal. 2:1–9). By God’s word they installed kings (1 Kgs. 19:16) and deposed kings (1 Kgs. 21:17–22), or even declared war (2 Kgs. 3:18–19; 2 Chr. 20:14–17) or against war (1 Kgs. 12:22–24; Je. 27:8–22).

By the mid-eighth century, prophecy as a national institution appears to have hit a low point in its responsiveness to Yahweh, comparable in some ways to the days of Ahab (874–853) when prophets of Baal and Asherah dominated the religion of the nation. The mid-eighth century saw the corruption of the nation by pagan worship and a largely paganized Yahwism (Ho. 2:4–13; 3:1; 5:4–7) as well as social and moral decay. The rich oppressed the poor openly and greedily (Am. 2:6–8; 4:1; 6:1–7), with apparent state support. The prophets brought against this sin their sole weapon: Yahweh’s word. Denouncing the sin and the sinner, proclaiming judgment according to the covenant curses of deprivation, devastation, disease, deportation and death.9 It is clear from their language and their demeanor that the prophets consciously accepted this role to plead the case of the oppressed (Dt. 24:19–22) against the oppressor (Lv. 19:9–18). In some cases this brought them even into the role of intercessor (cf. 1 Kgs. 18:6; 2 Kgs. 19:4; Am. 7:1–6) though still on the model of Moses (Ex. 32:30–35; cf. Dt. 9:18–21), and still entirely at God’s sufferance.

  1. They understood what they preached

By this affirmation we do not intend to imply that the prophets were fully cognizant of every conceivable implication or ramification of the words God gave to them. For example, we cannot assume that they understood exactly how and when God would perform the promises for Israel’s future beyond the level of detail that the prophetic oracles themselves contain. We do wish to suggest that they did not preach words fully or partly meaningless to themselves, the significance of which can now for the first time be understood by modern exegetes.10 The evidence suggests that even those prophecies delivered in a manner called ‘ecstatic’ were comprehensible to the prophets who spoke them. There is nothing to support the idea that the rational, cognitive faculties were bypassed in the course of any inspiration. We judge that there is sufficient evidence for this contention, though largely inferential in nature, and sometimes involving speculation.

a. The prophets display a keen awareness of exactly what their message can or will result in. Jonah flees at first from his divinely appointed task because he understands full well his cry against Nineveh might serve as a vehicle for Assyrian repentance and therefore avoidance of God’s wrath, an eventuality he finds intolerable (4:3). Micaiah knows exactly how objectionable his true prophecy will be to Ahab, so first sarcastically delivers a false prophecy (2 Chr. 18:14). He knows very well how the destruction he prophecies will affect even the prophets who oppose him (verse 24) as well as the king (verse 27).

b. The intercessory stance sometimes assumed by the prophets demonstrates their awareness of the implications of their revelation. Even the symbolic visions of locusts and fire (Am. 7:1–6) clearly indicate to Amos the unsparing wrath of God, against which he intercedes. Jeremiah is actually forbidden by God to intercede for Israel against the wrath to come (7:16; 11:14; 14:11). God’s message to him is not simply of what might happen if but what will happen no matter what. The prophet who would be the first to see the implication of this message would have been inclined to intercede with God had he not been proscribed from it.

c. Even the oracles about the future appear quite comprehensible to the prophets. This is partly because the oracles themselves are so clear. After all, how could Ezekiel misunderstand what God was going to bring about in Israel after the conversation in Ezk. 37:1–14 had concluded? That Israel will be reconstructed and returned from exile is crystal-clear. But the evidence goes even beyond this. Hosea’s artfully alarming portrayal of the coming Judean counter-attack on Benjaminite territory in 732 bc (Ho. 5:8–10) includes this confident assertion: ‘I proclaim what is certain.’ Amos’ statements about prophetic insight are paradigmatic: ‘Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing his counsel to his servants the prophets’ (3:7). Indeed, the process is not really a voluntary one: ‘The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?’ (3:8). It is noteworthy that God’s revelation is given to his prophets as well as through them.

Oracles of future deliverance and blessing display the same level of creative involvement stylistically, and the same level of specificity as regards the application of covenant blessings (renewal of people and land, agricultural abundance, changes in natural phenomena, etc.) that characterize other types of oracles. It is a misunderstanding to consider the prophets ‘vague’ on the future. Their oracles are usually just as clear about the future as about the past; for this they have Mosaic precedent (e.g. Dt. 4:25–31). Virtually all the prophets function partly as predicters. But their predictions are consistently related to contemporary circumstances and events, so that those actually hearing the message are motivated by its portents to respond to the covenant (cf. Is. 30:6–18), and not just regaled with glimpses of the future. In other words, there is a practicality to futurism, which implies a comprehensibility. An irrational apocalypticism (and the Old Testament contains none of that) could hardly be applied to people’s existential concerns in the way that the Old Testament prophets, whether apocalyptic or not, are led to apply their revelations.

In some cases God patiently explained first to the prophets exactly what he would do, before the prophets were to pass it on to others (Ezk. 14:2ff.; Dn. 7:16–28; 10:4ff.; 12:8–10).

d. The specific nature of most prophecies, giving particular directive for particular circumstances, implies that the prophets would comprehend what God was saying through them. If they had not, the prophets might simply have pronounced general, invariable answers for given kinds of problems. In fact, their oracles in relation to a given problem varied enormously depending on the specifics of the situation. God’s word through Isaiah about the deliverance of Jerusalem (Isa. 37:33–35) was hardly the right answer for Jeremiah to give in the days of Zedekiah (cf. Je. 27). This in turn could not apply to the yet later days of the exile (Je. 50).

e. The personal involvement of the prophets in seeking acceptance for their divinely appointed word suggests that they fully understood its significance. It is unlikely that they would have contended so ardently for the authority of their message before kings, prophets, priests and people if they did not share God’s sense of urgency that the word be believed. It is not unreasonable to conclude that they saw then, just as well as we can see now, how important belief in God’s word through them would be for Israel and the nations.

f. The prophetic oracles were so carefully composed that it seems unlikely that the prophets did not fully comprehend them. Group oracles (characteristic of the earlier periods for the most part), highly polished complex poetic oracles (g. Is. 5:1–30; Ho. 4:1–19) and dramatic oracles requiring lengthy preparation or execution (e.g. Ho. 3:1–3; Ezk. 4:1ff.) are not the kind of thing one could easily undertake ‘in the dark’, so to speak, mindless of their meaning.

g. In some instances, prophets were afforded unusual knowledge by God, of things humanly impossible for them to learn (2 Kgs. 6:12; Ezk. 8:3–11:25). These narratives emphasize the keenness and detail of the prophets’ knowledge, in contrast to the entranced opacity that would be expected if the prophets did not really understand the revelation given to and through them.11

Finally it must be noted that even the most exhaustive analysis of prophetic self-awareness, far beyond the depth of this brief scan, would never be able to reveal much of the inner self of the Old Testament prophets. Our modern fascination with introspection and psychological probing was simply not shared by the ancients. Therefore we must recognize the emphasis that the Scripture itself makes: as regards the prophets, their prophecy was in fact God’s prophecy; and their self-understanding depended on his self-revelation.12

1 Cf. J. Bright, Jeremiah (Anchor Bible Vol. 21, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), pp. xxiv–xxv.

2 See J. A. Motyer, ‘Prophecy, Prophets’, New Bible Dictionary (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), p. 1039.

3 These editions of the New Testament have not generally been popular precisely because marking Jesus’ words in red ink tends to give the impression to the reader that they are more important—perhaps even more sacred—than are the ‘regular’ words printed in black.

In the case of the Old Testament, to print the words of God in red suggests that somehow the other words are just a bit less directly the words of God. Thus the red letter approach in practice unfortunately may serve to promote a sense of canonicity that elevates some kinds of biblical statements above others.

In regard to the OT prophets, the editors usually found it impossible to decide when the prophet was speaking and when God was speaking, so closely does prophetic speech blend with divine speech. A prophet need not say ‘Thus says Yahweh’ to quote God (e.g. 1 Kgs. 21:20–22).

4 This is exactly what a non-empirical, evolutionistic approach to OT history tends to conclude.

5 Such a view of the prophets as innovators gained prominence in past generations on the theory that if the Mosaic law had been in existence, the prophets would have cited it more as the basis for their ethics. This theory prevailed because its proponents were unaware of two facts: (1) No ancient law codes were ever cited precisely in court cases or prophetic oracles anywhere in the ancient world. ‘Chapter-and-verse’ citation of legal formulations or precedents is strictly a modern legal development. (2) The Old Testament prophets do refer to the Mosaic law in all sorts of ways, and rather constantly, but largely periphrastically and paraenetically as opposed to verbatim. It would make little sense for God to assign them the task simply of repeating the words of the pentateuchal covenant. His word through the prophets was rather designed to cajole, threaten, invite and otherwise motivate the people to return to the covenant already revealed.

In this connection, note that the New Testament speakers and writers, including Jesus, cite the Old Testament verbatim only rarely. The percentage of word-for-word citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament is about as small as the percentage of such citations from the Mosaic law in the prophets. The vast majority of the ample references in later portions of scripture to earlier portions take the form of allusions rather than citations.

6 This assumes a date in the mid-fifteenth century for the exodus. This early date, once out of favour with archaeologists, has recently gained a number of adherents among both evangelical and non-evangelical archaeologists. Cf. provisionally J. Bimson, Redating the Exodus and Conquest (JSOT Supplement Series 5, Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1978).

7 A complete documentation of the interconnection of Hosea with the Pentateuch will appear in the author’s forthcoming commentary on Hosea. On Dt. 32 and Hosea, see W. Kuhnigk, Nordwestsemitische Studien zum Hoseabuch (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1974), pp. 35–39.

8 On the translation of dāmîm as ‘idols’ rather than ‘bloodshed’ see Kuhnigk, op. cit., pp. 26–28.

9 The prophets frequently employed alliteration in both prosaic and poetic oracles. These five ‘d’ terms do happen accurately to summarize the general categories under which the covenant curses may be grouped.

10 This does not mean to suggest that the prophets were always able immediately to understand everything God’s word implied. Sometimes they were confused about its significance for a period, until the word’s meaning was clarified to them (cf. Je. 32:25–44). The parallels to the situation of Jesus’ disciples at times (e.g. John 12:16; 13:7; 13:22ff.; 14:26f.) are inescapable.

11 Jeremiah’s ability to re-dictate a large corpus of prophetic oracles (Je. 36) is often cited as evidence that the prophets knew the content of their prophecy ‘cold’ as it were.

12 On the lack of introspection in biblical sources, see K. Stendahl, ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’, Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963), pp. 199–215; also published in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), pp. 78–99.

Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA