How do we Understand the Role of Prophets?
When most people think of prophecy they think in terms like- “foretelling or prediction of what is to come.” To see the prophets primarily as “predictors of the future” is to miss their primary function, which was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. In the prophetical books we hear from God via the prophets. The prophet is, simply put, God’s mouthpiece.
Why are the Prophetic Writings of the OT so Hard to Understand?
Some of the prophetic books are collections of spoken oracles, and are therefore not easily understood when read through in one setting. Often times there are no hints as to when one oracle ends and the next begin.
Other than “spoken oracle” we also find poetry in the OT prophetic writings. It is important to understand the literary genre of what you are reading.
Also, there is much historical distance between us and the contemporary audience of these prophets. The contemporary audience of the prophet has many advantages over those of us who read the speakers words second hand. This is the “difficulty of context”, it is difficult to see what they are referring to and why. This is where Bible Dictionaries and Commentaries can help.
What is the Function of Prophecy?
a. The Prophets were covenant enforcers!
Israel’s law constituted a covenant between God and his people. These covenants brought “blessings” (benefits) on God’s people if they followed His word and “curses” (punishment) is they did not.
The blessings can be found in passages like;
a. Leviticus 26:1-13
b. Deuteronomy 4:32-40 and 28:1-14
These blessings were always announced with warning: If Israel did not obey God’s law the blessings would cease.
The curses that Israel could expect if they did not obey God’s law can be found in passages like;
a. Leviticus 26:14-39
b. Deuteronomy 4:15-28 and all throughout 28:15-32:42
God did not merely give his law, He enforced it. This is where the prophets come in. God announced and enforced (this can be positive or negative) through them.
b. The Prophets message was not their own, but God’s!
You will note as you read that the prophet will sometimes preface or conclude with “Thus says the Lord” or “Says the Lord.” Most of the time, the prophetic message is delivered directly as from the Lord, in first person, so that God speaks of himself as “I” or “Me.”
So the Prophets functioned like ambassadors, so what we read is God’s Word as God wished the prophet to present it.
c. There is a Pattern to the Prophetic Message!
The prophetic message can be seen against the backdrop of three issues:
a. Idolatry: Example; God had warned his people that they were to drive the Canaanites out of the land lest they take on the religious practices of the people. Israel did not drive them out and did take on many of their practices.
b. Religious Formalism: Example; the people were going through the motions of worshipping God according to the letter of the Law but without heart devotion.
c. Social Injustice: Example; the concerns of the weak and marginal in society were set aside and justice was perverted in the land; the case of the righteous was set aside and justice was perverted. Often this was done for material gain.
The message of the prophets is essentially three-fold.
1. You have broken the Mosaic covenant and must repent.
2. If you do not repent then judgment will come.
3. God is faithful to his covenants and will bring about his purposes.
Its important to remember that the prophet functions as a mediator between God and the people, specifically to convey the word of God. Graeme Goldsworthy sums up the point of OT prophecy well in his book “Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.”
“the covenant of grace mediated by Moses structures the life of the people who are elect and redeemed in the Exodus event. All prophecy after Moses reinforces and reapplies this definitive Mosaic ministry. Prophecy and Torah (law/instruction) go together since the function of a prophet was to be a mouthpiece for God as he gave his instruction to his people.”
The Gospel and OT prophecy!
The proper interpretation of any Biblical passage requires that we relate it to the person and work of Jesus Christ. We need to see all passages as they relate to the redemptive purpose of God, which Goldsworthy describes with three focal points;
1. God is Lord;
2. his people are living before him as his willing and loving subjects;
3. and the created environment within which God relates to his people.
But the reality of sin informs us that God’s rule has been repudiated and the impending judgment threatens the “undoing of the whole fabric” of God’s created order.
We understand through the OT that God’s pattern of redemption has failed to “come about” in Israel’s history since the relationship between God and man had been lost in the garden.
But- in the gospel we understand that God’s redemptive plan in Christ is the only solution. Where Israel failed, Jesus comes as the true Israel to carry out God’s purposes perfectly and “believers from all periods of history are credited with his perfection and righteousness as a gift.”