Prophecy in the Old Testament

Who counts as a prophet?

The first prophets mentioned in the Old Testament are Abraham and Miriam. Abraham is a prophet because he is able to pray for people (Genesis 20:7, 17) and Miriam because she leads people in praise (Exodus 15:20-21). Being prophets means they have a reputation for being able to speak to God on behalf of people. Subsequent prophets such as Jeremiah also speak to God on behalf of people. Prophets may not have an official position like that of a priest, but they manifest larger than life capacity to pray or preach. What all prophets have in common is that they are intermediaries between God and people: they are able to speak to God on behalf of people, and to the people on behalf of God. Much of the contents of the prophetic books consist of messages from God, which are introduced by words such as ‘thus says YHWH’ (“the LORD” in English versions).

A prophet can acquire an official position: there were ‘official’ prophets in the Assyrian court, and Nathan (2 Samuel 7, 12) and Gad (2 Samuel 24:11) appear to have been on David’s payroll. But the Old Testament is more interested in prophets whose vocation was to stand up to kings and priests and court advisers (politicians).

Forthtellers

This confrontational stance was typical of the prophets who have books named after them, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. There were several aspects to their characteristic confrontation. They were ‘forthtellers’: that is, they were people who pronounced YHWH’s critique of the nation and of different elements within it, proclaiming that critique to prophets who disagreed with them as well as to kings, priests, and politicians. The critique could address issues relating to the people’s attitude to YHWH. For instance, people might be seeking the help of other deities. They might be seeking help from YHWH in illegitimate ways (not least, the sacrifice of children). They might be trusting in the help of other nations rather than exclusively in YHWH. The critique could also relate to life within the community. People with power and/or wealth might be using their power and wealth to gain an even bigger share of the resources of the nation as a whole.

Foretellers

Prophets were also ‘foretellers’, people who revealed what YHWH was intending to do. These revelations did not relate to far off events unrelated to the lives of their contemporaries. They were warnings and promises of things YHWH intended to do that would directly affect their contemporaries. (At the end of this article we will consider a possible exception to this statement, in the form of ‘messianic prophecy’.) When people thought that the nation was secure (or that they needed to take action to ensure its security), prophets were inclined to say that catastrophe was coming. When people thought the nation was finished, prophets were inclined to promise them good news from YHWH.

Both as forthtellers and as foretellers, we may suppose that the prophets wanted nations, communities, and individuals to turn back to YHWH, to change their ways and their thinking. Yet they do not very often directly urge people to repent. They leave them to work out that they must turn back and that God will then have mercy on them.

The prophetic books

In the Old Testament the books from Isaiah to Malachi are commonly referred to as ‘The Prophets’ (in Jewish terminology, ‘the Latter Prophets’). For the most part, they are not books which are written in a clearly organized and coherent fashion and can be seen to have a beginning, a middle, and an end (like Genesis or one of Paul’s letters; Ezekiel is the most obvious exception). The prophetic books are compilations of messages given on different occasions, by individual prophets or by their followers. The compilations manifest some organization, but they are mostly more like collections of sermon notes than books. Indeed, some long chapters in Jeremiah and Ezekiel read like sermons. On the other hand, most of the messages of most of the prophets are in verse, so their books might rather be compared to collections of poems.

Seeing them as anthologies of short self-contained messages also helps one to see one way in which Daniel is not a prophetic book like the rest of the prophetic books; it is a well-organized collection of stories and visions. In the Jewish order of the Scriptures, Daniel does not come among the Prophets. The description of the prophetic books as compilations of sermon notes also underscores the distinctive nature of the book of Jonah, a carefully-told tale about a prophet.

How did the prophetic books come to be?

In Isaiah 8:16 the prophet commissions the binding up and sealing of his testimony or teaching, and he backs up the commission with a declaration that he intends to ‘wait for YHWH’—to wait for YHWH to do what his prophecies have threatened. Jeremiah 36 gives a vivid account of how Jeremiah collected his sermon notes in a similar context a century later. Jeremiah 36 may be a ‘story based on fact’ rather than an account of exactly what happened, but even if so, it gives us some clues that help to round out what Isaiah says.

As far as we know, the prophets who have books named after them were all people who failed to get people to listen to them, whether they brought bad news or whether they brought good news (you don’t need a prophet to say something that people will agree with). Thus among the reasons for collecting their sermon notes was to bring home their entire message to the people who were the objects of their preaching, and to put it into writing so that its truth could be vindicated when it came about.

How did the prophetic books develop?

It wouldn’t be surprising if the fulfilment of the warnings of prophets such as Amos and Hosea in the fall of Samaria in 722 increased conviction that their words indeed came from YHWH. Maybe these prophets had already had their prophecies written down, as Isaiah and Jeremiah did. The preservation of their scrolls then suggests that they or their followers knew that their words did not lose significance when they had been fulfilled. For instance, the messages that Amos and Hosea proclaimed in the northern kingdom of Israel were taken to Judah in the conviction that Judah also needed to listen to them—the Amos and Hosea scrolls include some notes that suggest how they apply to Judah. And it wouldn’t be surprising if a similar dynamic applied to prophetic collections such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These two prophets had their message confirmed by the fall of Jerusalem in 587. They, too, had followers who preserved their words. Their followers, too, perhaps expanded on their messages to show further how they applied to the next generation.

The book of Isaiah is a monumental example of this process. The concrete historical references in Isaiah 1—39 all relate to kings of Judah, and occasionally the people of Samaria, and kings of Assyria in the time of Amos and Hosea and of Isaiah’s contemporary Micah in Jerusalem. In contrast, the historical references in Isaiah 40—55 relate to the life of Judah nearly two centuries later, when Assyria has yielded power to Babylon and Babylon is about to yield power to Persia. The messages in Isaiah 40—55 issue from preaching in that new context by Judahites who are familiar with the message Isaiah declared two centuries previously. They proclaim the kind of message that Isaiah would deliver if he were here now. And Isaiah 56—66 then relates to the time a few more decades later; the process of re-preaching continues as the message of Isaiah 1—55 gets applied to Judah after Persia has gained control of the Middle East.

Prophecy after the prophets

So prophetic books exist because prophets and their followers believed their words came from YHWH and that they had things to say way beyond the time in which they were originally delivered. And they continued to exist because the leadership of the Judahite community eventually recognized their importance in such a way that the books gained a place (alongside the Torah and the story from Joshua to the fall of Jerusalem that’s told in Joshua to 2 Kings) as part of what came to be ‘Scriptures’.

Prophecy in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament

At the end of the Old Testament period, in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the New Testament, prophecy came to have new significance. When the prophets had talked about the future as it was to affect people in their own day, they had talked in concrete terms about situations in their day, but they had also talked in big terms about ‘the day of the LORD’ and about a king who would live up to the Davidic ideal in a way that most occupants of David’s throne did not. In other words, they talked about a Messiah, though they did not use that word.

The Qumran community and the followers of Jesus were convinced that the day when these hopes would find fulfilment was imminent or had arrived, and they used the prophetic books in a new way to help them understand what God was doing in their day. One can see how this process worked by reading a passage such as Matt 1:18—2:23 and looking up the prophecies Matthew quotes. Matthew’s process is not to start from an Old Testament text and ask what it might mean for today, nor is he trying to prove that Jesus is the Messiah by noting how Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecies. Matthew and his readers know that Jesus is the Messiah; Matthew’s process is rather to start from something that has happened and to look to the prophets for illumination on what the event means.

Further reading

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Rev. ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
Day, John, ed. Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel. New York; London: T & T Clark International, 2010.
McEntire, Mark. A Chorus of Prophetic Voices: Introducing the Prophetic Literature of Ancient Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015.
Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology, vol. 2: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions. 2 vols. London: SCM Press; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1975.
Sweeney, Marvin A. The Prophetic Literature. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005.