Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

The Prophets

This article will investigate the following:-
  • Who is a prophet?
  • What are the aspects of the prophetic office?
  • Who are the Biblical prophets? Which of the above aspects did they assume?
  • How have Biblical prophets been authenticated?

Who is a prophet?

In its most inclusive meaning, a prophet is one who tells people the things that God wants them to know.

This office involves the following aspects:-
  • Recording: The history of human civilization is huge. There were some portions of this history that God wanted recorded as a message for subsequent generations. Thus, one aspect of the prophetic office is to merely record what God has done in history. There were people who wrote the historical books in the Bible, such as Joshua, Judges, etc. The prophet Moses wrote and compiled the first five books of the Bible. Most of the books of the Old Testament are named after the prophets who wrote them.
  • Conveying wisdom: There are instructions for living that God would have people follow, and He chose certain people to write these down. Prophets of this genre include David, Solomon, etc.
  • Admonition: A prophet exhorts people (usually those who claim to be following God) to genuinely follow God, telling them of the blessings that will result, and he also warns them that if they disobey God, there are dire consequences that await them. This is the usual specific meaning intended in the word prophet as used among the ancient Israelis. All the people traditionally known to the Jews as prophets fall into this category. Samuel is a good example. He had no new revelation from God, and next to nothing to say about specific events in the future, but he instructed the people of Israel in God's ways, and they called him a prophet. Moses, Zechariah, Haggai, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Ezekiel, etc. are other prophets who admonished God's people.
  • Foretelling: Prophets predict future events as God leads them to. For our convenience, let's classify predictions as immediate (relating to events in the life of the prophet) and distant (relating to events that would happen long after the prophet's death). There is a fine line dividing admonition and immediate predictions, because admonition was often accompanied by warnings about what would happen if the people didn't listen. Isaiah, Zechariah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Nahum, etc predicted the future.
  • Revelation: A prophet tells us things about God that we never knew before. This is because he has a revelation from God. Moses is an example. He delivered the law, with its innumerable acts and implements of service, rituals, rules, etc.
Usage of the word "prophet":-
  • Only on rare occasions in scripture is the word "prophet" used in its broadest sense. Abraham is called a prophet in Genesis 20:7 although he did not preach to any specific target audience. He however had brief encounters with Abimelech and the king of Sodom, and he told them something about God on those occasions (Genesis 14:22-23). A New Testament term carrying this sense is "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20). In this sense, there are thousands of prophets all over the world even today.
  • The Jews used the word "prophet" to refer primarily to the admonitory office. In this (most commonly used) sense, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Daniel, etc. are NOT prophets but Gad, Nathan, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Amos, Joel, etc are prophets.
  • The Lord Jesus called Daniel a prophet (Matthew 24:15). This is a rare occasion where a person who occupied only the fore-telling office is referred to as a prophet.

The authentication of prophets

A couple of preliminary remarks:
 
Firstly: A person who uses force to protect himself or impose his message on others is unauthenticated. The former shows that he is not completely at God's disposal but has his own agenda; the latter shows that he has failed to authenticate himself and therefore people will not believe him unless he uses force. Some examples:-
  • Jeremiah did not make any attempt to defend himself when his countrymen wanted to kill him because they did not like his message (Jeremiah 26:8-15)
  • Moses only prayed to God when his people wanted to stone him (Exodus 17:4). Moses indeed punished the people of Israel when they were at Mount Sinai, but this was because they made a golden calf after promising to worship Jehovah who had just liberated them from Egypt and provided for them. This incident had nothing to do with their acceptance of Moses or his message.
  • Amos only explained his calling to his critics (Amos 7:14-15). He did not retaliate or try to save himself by fleeing.
Secondly: The Bible claims to be perfect; it does not claim that its prophets are perfect. God used imperfect people to write a perfect book with His perfect guidance. Prophets were fallible people and they made mistakes. While it would be unreasonable to expect perfection from prophets, it is reasonable to expect them to be men of character.
 
It is self-evident that the more dramatic the claims of a person, the more stringent his need for authentication. The different aspects of the prophetic office described above are not equally dramatic. A recording prophet is little more than a historian and thus needs modest authentication. On the other hand, a person who claims to have new revelation from God needs considerable authentication. So let us examine the authentication of Biblical prophets according to the roles they assumed.

Wisdom prophets

It was common knowledge that David was a man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), the anointed sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1) who risked his life for God's people (1 Samuel 19:5). This was David's authentication. God appeared to Solomon and asked him to make a request (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon requested wisdom, and it was granted to him. His wisdom was evident to the people of Israel (1 Kings 3:28) as well as foreign visitors (1 Kings 4:29-34).

People find fault with David and Solomon for their sexual immorality. David once committed adultery and murder (to cover up his adultery) but he earnestly repented (see 2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51). Solomon married 700 women and had 300 concubines; many of these women were foreigners who turned his heart from God. However, Solomon also learned his lesson - he wrote that after pursuing pleasure, he found it to be vain. Thus, these men made mistakes and repented. The average skeptic today routinely commits visual adultery (by watching pornography, TV programs with skimpily clad women, etc) but may have only one or no sexual partner. He does not have unlimited wealth, power, free time and privacy like Solomon had, and therefore cannot devote as much time and effort to sexual pleasure as Solomon did. The difference between Solomon and modern skeptics is thus one of opportunity and not character. It is therefore hypocritical of modern skeptics to find fault with Solomon - they're no better than him morally. In fact, while David and Solomon repented of their mistakes, modern day skeptics don't.

There were also other wisdom prophets like Asaph, King Lemuel, etc. about which we don't have much information. What we do know for sure (from the historical accounts in the Bible) is that they had no clout; therefore the inclusion of their writings in scripture can only be attributed to the conviction of their contemporaries that their writings were divinely inspired.

Recording prophets

The Jews had a lot of interest in their own history and genealogy (they still do). Thus, recording prophets were authenticated in that they recorded the events soon after they took place - the details being recorded were common knowledge and thus any falsehood on the part of the prophet would easily be noticed. For instance, two different authors wrote Kings and Chronicles, which are accounts of the same period in Israel's history. They agree with each other. We know that the writer of Judges was not under pressure to distort his account because he faithfully records both the successes and failures of prominent figures like Gideon and Samson. He documents shameful incidents in Israel's national history as well as Israel's victories. See The Authenticity of the Bible for a detailed examination of the recording ministry of the prophets. Their greatest authentication is the remarkable Bible they have produced.

Admonitory and foretelling prophets

Prophets of this genre include Gad, Nathan, Moses, Samuel, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Elisha, Haggai, Zechariah, etc.
They were authenticated as follows:-

  • They were men of great character and conduct. Samuel had an impeccable track record (1 Samuel 12:1-5). Nathan had the courage to confront David (who was then the most powerful emperor in the Middle East) about his adultery.
  • They had authority that others recognized as God given. When Samuel was very old, and had no clout (King Saul had clout, and was not on good terms with Samuel), he visited Bethlehem. What kind of reception did he get? "The elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, Do you come in peace?" (1 Samuel 16:4). Why did they tremble? Because they knew the divine authority that Samuel had. Similarly, the prophetess Huldah referred to King Josiah as just "the man" and he was not offended (2 Chronicles 34:23).
  • God gave some of them the power to perform miracles; Elijah and Elisha are classic examples.
  • They fulfilled the "preliminary condition" mentioned above - none of them were involved in any armed (or unarmed) conflict between them and others. Their attitude was simply: "This is what God says; I'm in your hands. Do with me as you please".
  • They made some dramatic immediate predictions which were fulfilled in the eyes of their contemporaries. See what Amos predicted about Amaziah the idolatrous priest (Amos 7:16-17). Jeremiah made similar predictions about Hananiah, the apostate priest (Jeremiah 28:15-16). His prediction was fulfilled (Jeremiah 28:17). The people of Israel saw this and thus accepted Jeremiah as a prophet although his message was extremely critical about them. Isaiah predicted that the mighty Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib would not be able to conquer Jerusalem although his armies besieged it, and the city was low on food reserves (see Isaiah 36:1 onwards). The fulfillment of these short-term predictions validated these prophets and convinced the Jews that their writings are divinely inspired.

These writings include predictions that would have been impossible to test in ancient times, but have turned out to be true. So for us on this side of history, these fulfilled prophecies are the greatest authentication of these prophets. We thus have confidence about as-yet-unfulfilled prophecies. For instance, Ezekiel has prophesied an attack on Israel by a consortium of nations including Russia and Iran (see Ezekiel 38:1 onwards).

Revelatory Prophets

Very few prophets have given substantially new revelation about God. The Main Message of the Bible was delivered to the first man and woman - the first three chapters of the Bible, and has been unchanged ever since. However, there has been an enormous elaboration in the details in the rest of the Bible.

In the first three chapters of the Bible, we read that God made the universe, including man, that our first parents rebelled against God, and that God has promised to send a savior who is to be commemorated through animal sacrifice. The two great subjects to be elaborated are therefore:-
  • The mode of life that God expects from man
  • The identity and work of the great savior who is to come
There are only two prophets that God has used to provide primary revelation concerning these things: Moses and the Lord Jesus (the saviour himself). Only two?! What about Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the dozens of other Biblical prophets?! The answer is that they only elaborated what Moses had already communicated:-
  • By way of admonition, the later prophets warned the people that they should obey the commandments that Moses had already delivered. They did not deliver any new commandments!
  • By way of predictions, one of the the great themes of the prophets after Moses is about how God would send Israel to exile because of her rebellion, allow the Gentiles (other nations) to have pre-eminence over Israel, but bring Israel back to her land and restore her. But this is exactly what Moses said would happen!
  • Another great prophetic theme is the coming prophet of prophets. Isaiah in particular writes a lot about him - but Moses had already mentioned him! (See Deuteronomy 18:15-18)
John summarizes it this way:-

"The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" - John 1:17

Moses was God's instrument in telling us that He would fulfill His purposes through a nation: Israel. (Glimpses of this had earlier been revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Moses got the law from God. This included:-
  • Moral laws (for everyone)
  • Judicial laws (for the nation of Israel)
  • Ceremonial laws - laws for Israel concerning sacrifices and other ceremonies that would symbolize the great work of the coming saviour
  • The Covenant that God made with Israel
Since Moses made phenomenal claims to revelation, he needs phenomenal authentication. Let's have a look.

The authentication of Moses

About five centuries before Moses lived, God told Abraham, the ancestor of the Israelis, that his descendants would spend time in a foreign country, be oppressed there, have demographic growth there, and be brought out of there back to Israel (Genesis 15:13-14). About a hundred years later, Jacob (Israel) who was Abraham's grandson moved to Egypt with his children. When Joseph (Jacob's son and leader of the Israelis) was dying, he told the Israelis: "God will surely visit you and take you out of here to [Israel]" (Genesis 50:24). After Joseph's death, the Israelis fell out of favor with Pharaoh and were enslaved. After nearly four centuries of slavery, Moses shows up. He approaches the elders of Israel and tells them that God has appointed him to get Israel out of Egypt and to the land of Israel. Now observe the following:-
  • Moses' claims fit in with everything the Israelis had learned from God in the past.
  • He had "on the spot" miracles to authenticate himself there and then (Exodus 4:1-9).
  • Aaron went out from Egypt and met Moses at Mt Sinai, and they returned together to Egypt without coordinating things in advance. They could do this only because God led them both. [If you claim Moses sent a secret message to Aaron, you have to explain his reluctance in Exodus 4:13].
Thus, Moses already had advance authentication.

Any skeptic among the elders of Israel would have a simple retort: "Alright. If God has really sent you, prove it: go talk to Pharaoh and get us out of here!"

That's exactly what Moses did - he got the people of Israel out of Egypt without any military strategy - it was all God's doing. Here we have phenomenal authentication: one man leads out about 2.5 million civilians out of the most powerful country in the world (whose king did not want to let them go). They meander for 40 years in the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia before entering (what is now known as) Israel.

Public opinion is unstable. So although the people of Israel were thrilled that Moses had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt, they often rebelled against him. Moses' greatness lies in the fact that he never defended himself. Those who opposed Moses, such as Korah and even his own siblings, got blunt reminders from God that it was He who had appointed Moses, and so no one should dare to say a word against Moses (see Numbers 16:1-35, Numbers 12:1-15).

On one occasion, there were only two people outside the tribe of Levi, namely Joshua and Caleb, who stood with Moses about entering Palestine. The others wanted to return to Egypt - furious with Moses for having led them on what they considered to be a doomed mission. Thus, Moses was outnumbered at least 11 to 1. In any other nation, this would have led to civil war, the assassination of Moses, dispersion of people, etc. But Israel stayed together. How? God miraculously made it clear that Moses, Joshua and Caleb were right and everyone else was wrong. The people admitted their mistake (Numbers 14:40). Incidents such as these constitute authentication for Moses because they illustrate that his lack of political or military prowess was more than made up for by divine backing.

Was Moses hungry for power or fame?
  • When God asked him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, he refused. He was content to feed sheep in the obscurity of the Arabian desert. He tried to coax God to send someone else to the point of kindling God's anger (Exodus 4:14).
  • During their journey to Israel, Moses complained to God that he was being given the responsibility of handling Israel although he had not given birth to them! (Numbers 11:12)
  • When God said that He would destroy Israel and make a new nation whose progenitor would be Moses, Moses begged God not to do so.
  • Moses was only too happy to share his powers and responsibilities with others (see Numbers 11:27-29).
  • Even when God told Moses that He would not let him into the Promised Land, there was no let down in Moses' commitment to leading the people of Israel.
  • Moses NEVER participated in any armed (or unarmed!) conflict between his followers and those who disagreed with him.
All these observations show that Moses was not hungry for power or fame. To any of his contemporaries, there was no doubt that Moses was indeed a prophet beyond compare. With absolutely no effort to defend himself or impose himself on others, he was acknowledged as God's hand-picked man. Note how the Israeli leaders from Ephraim and Manasseh addressed him as "lord" (Numbers 36:2). The Reubenite and Gadite leaders referred to themselves as "thy servants" while speaking to Moses (Numbers 32:5).

Summary: Moses made phenomenal claims about being a prophet - and he (or rather, God), backed it up with phenomenal authentication.
 
The Lord Jesus was the prophet of prophets, greater than Moses, and much more than a prophet, and he had the necessary authentication. His message was elaborated on by the Apostles, the New Testament equivalent of prophets. Miracles were one way in which they were authenticated. Other ways are mentioned in the Authenticity page. As the Bible comes to a close, Jesus gives a very simple message: there is nothing more to be added. There will be no more prophet or apostle.

Conclusion

Ever since the beginning of the world, God has been speaking to people through his messengers. That job is finished now because the content of these messages is now written in the Bible. The Biblical prophets make up a spiritual hall of fame. At the lower rung (if I can reverently use the term) are people like Iddo, Gad, etc. On the next rung are the so called "minor prophets": Haggai, Malachi, Hosea, Amos, etc. Then there are the "major prophets": Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. Towering above all these figures is that spiritual giant who chose to be afflicted with God's people rather than choose luxury and the pleasures of sin in Egypt: Moses. But even Moses fainted in his work (Numbers 11:11-12). The ultimate prophet who carried things right through is none other than the Son of God; Jesus Christ.