Prophecy is the most common means though which God has communicated with people throughout history. In fact, you could summarize the story of prophecy as ‘the story of God speaking to His people through human messengers.’ This was how God guided His people, informed them how to act in certain situations, and warned them of things to come. Now, when most people think about prophecy they think about ‘foretelling’, but in most cases it is ‘forth-telling’. Simply, proclaiming the truth. Now, when prophets are ‘foretelling’ events it is important to remember:
“The Old Testament prophets’ words are the very words of God. When a true prophet predicts events, those events surly come to pass according to the word of the Lord which he spoke to the prophet.”
Since the prophets words are the very words of God, God’s people are obligated to believe and obey them. When Israel disbelieved or disobeyed the prophet they were held responsible as unto God. The prophets were the very ‘mouth pieces’ of God.
It is also important to understand that all prophecy is grounded in God’s covenant faithfulness. All of God’s actions in the Old Testament are related to His covenant promises. In fact, the principle expression of His relationship to His people is covenant. “The existence of prophecy among [His] people was a great blessing, for it indicated that God cared about them enough, even in their sins, to speak personally to them.”
God’s covenant promises stand behind the prophets, in fact, the covenant promises are the foundation for the whole process of redemption. This is important to understand as we read the prophets. The prophets pick up on themes from Israel’s past and thus imply the continuation of God’s [covenant] faithfulness.” Within this context the prophets speak of the future fulfillment of all God’s purposes.
Thus, in the Old Testament God speaks through prophets in order to communicate His ruling word, governing history for His purposes. Now, there are different audiences relating to the message that God delivers through these prophets, His ‘mouth pieces.’ Sometimes the focus of the message is on a remnant or few, other times the message is directed at the whole nation. Either way, the prophetic message could be summed up in three parts:
1. Prophets identify specific ways in which God’s people have broken the covenant.
Throughout the prophets this message is delivered in several contexts. These include social injustice and oppression, insincere worship, mixing pagan religion with the true faith revealed by God, and false worship of idols.
2. Prophets warn and pronounce the judgment of God on those who are unfaithful to the covenant.
The prophets call for repentance among the people or else they will experience the judgment of God. Sometimes this is issued in the destruction of specific important cities. Whether it’s the end of the nation or the end of the world the judgment of God is immanent because Israel continually rejects God’s grace.
3. Prophets speak a message of comfort and grace to the faithful.
The comfort and grace of God was offered to those who rested in trusting that God would bring about His promises. This would have been hard for them to see in their context, but God had greater plans for redemption:
“From our perspective we can see that nothing has gone wrong with God’s plan. The problem is human sin, and it becomes even clearer that this problem cannot be dealt with by those things that God had done [thus far] for Israel in her history. [But God]…in His wisdom led His people in a series of distinct stages of revelation towards the fullness of time when salvation would come in power.”
A Prophetic Warning to God’s Covenant People
“From the time God establishes Israel as His chosen people under the terms of the covenant, there exists the warning against covenant-breaking disloyalty. It was largely the prophets’ responsibility to make this warning clear…As the mouth piece of God, the human mediator of the Word of God, the prophet reveals God’s plan for salvation.”
All of this should be viewed in the context of a covenant relationship. We must remember that Israel did not deserve the good favor granted to them by God. God chooses absolutely without any condition, and chooses a people who are undeserving. What we come to see as redemptive history unfolds is that God’s plan of salvation not only applies to the Israelites, but will one day in its fullness have significance for all the nations of the earth.
“From the beginning there can be no dispute that the grace of God means that election is unconditioned by any virtue in those who are chosen, and that salvation is a free gift received by faith alone.” Yet, at the same time people are responsible for their actions. Therefore we cannot let unconditional election or free grace undermine God’s judgment. In redemptive history we can see God’s deserving judgment against wickedness revealed in the days of Noah, against Babel, against Sodom, against Pharaoh, and against the pagan Canaanites.
Modern skeptics often point to these events in anger in order to wage emotional war against, what they see to be, the barbaric God of Christianity. But such judgments must be understood in light of the complete biblical picture of man’s rebellion against God. As for God’s elect, all of God’s judgment must be seen in context of the covenants God had made with them. There are firm warnings against turning away from the covenants.
“Israel is saved by grace alone, but to be saved is not merely to be acquitted of guilt. It is a positive restoration to fellowship with the living God. There is always a real choice in front of the people of God: the way of life or the way of death, covenant blessings or covenant curses.”
Basically, God makes it clear through the prophets that Israel cannot go on enjoying the blessing of the covenant while it rebels against the responsibilities of life in covenant with God. Over and over again God sends prophets to warn the people and call them back to Himself. The prophetic office from Moses to Elisha must be understood in light of God’s salvation, instructing His people how, and calling them back, to live in fellowship with Him. Here are a few examples:
- Samuel has the role of helping the Israelites understand life under kingship.
- Gad and Nathan function to minister to David as the kingdom develops.
- Elijah and Elisha minister to Israel after the division from Judah and call the people back to true faith when infiltrated by foreign gods.
Through the prophets God warns individuals that if they persist in unbelief they will be cut off from the covenant people and by implication their blessings. Furthermore, if the whole nation persists in unbelief it will forfeit its blessings. So, the covenants are both conditional and unconditional. “The condition is that those who reject the covenant in unbelief will find the blessings of the covenant removed from them.” But God’s promises are unconditional in the sense that He will bring about His promises in spite of His peoples unbelief. In other words, God will not allow rebellion to frustrate His purposes in fulfilling His covenant originally made to Abraham.
A Prophetic Cry on Behalf of God’s Covenant People
After the reign of Solomon there is a steady decline in the condition of Israel, which continues for another 400 years. Things continually got worse; the people lived with no regard for their long-term future. “One wonders why the people did not see their condition and do something about it?” But, theologically we understand that the sinful nature of man will resist the call of continual reformation.
Another reason for the national decline is the separation of the northern tribes of Israel, which leads to syncretism with Canaanite people and their religious beliefs. The southern tribes also practice unbelief by accepting some of the pagan practices. “As time goes on it becomes clear that the limit is being reached”, and after Solomon the covenant curses become a reality. Yet, God continues to use the prophets to call the people to return to Him and to covenant faithfulness.
As the nation continues to crumble one might wonder what was happening to God’s plan. Looking back from Abraham to Solomon God performed mighty acts of salvation for His people.
- Israel’s denial of God’s kingdom leads to bondage in Egypt, where God mightily delivers them from captivity into freedom.
- God binds them to Himself in a covenant relationship at Mount Sinai. This shows that redemption is more than release from bondage, but also a life in fellowship with God.
- This freedom and fellowship is shown in Israel’s entry into the Promised Land and the establishment of their nation under the rule of God.
But after Solomon one might wonder what happened to the promises of God? The sinful people continue to deny God’s rule, the nation continues to rebel, and the kingdom disintegrates. Seemingly, God’s promises have begun to fade. But in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha there is a shift in the message proclaimed by the prophets.
Thus far, the “Books of Moses” had been the record of God’s covenant, and His acts of salvation for His people. During this time, “the main task of the prophets…is to call Israel to faithfulness to the covenant.” But, as the decline of the nation progresses and the prophets begin to have new posture and a new perspective.
While the prophets continue to remind Israel of their failure to keep the covenant and threaten the judgment of God upon their sins, there is a new aspect to their ministry. What emerges is a recognition and cry for help, because Israel is incapable of true repentance and covenant fidelity. Therefore, they cry to God as the only one who can save them from total destruction. There is no tangible evidence of the promised kingdom of God.
An Unfinished Story?
As we read the message of the prophets we realize that while the Israelites are repetitively warned of God’s judgment, they are largely unrepentant. So as one comes to the end of the Old Testament we find that nothing has been resolved and it becomes clear that it is a “book without an ending.” But the story continues.
Looking back we see that God would ultimately save those who had faith in Him and His promises – completely, finally, and gloriously. So, from our perspective we need to understand that all of God’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament are expressions of grace that function as ‘shadows’ of something greater to come But as we look back we see that God allows this shadow to fade so that the full light of the gospel may be revealed in its place.
Throughout the whole history of redemption God has been progressively revealing Himself and His plans. In the end we see that He is faithful to His original covenant commitment. He is therefore, the savior God who restores His people and all of creation to His kingdom; He makes “all things new.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
a. Jesus is the true and greater Israel
We understand through the Old Testament that God’s redemption has failed to “come about” in Israel’s history since the relationship between God and man had been lost in the garden.
In the gospel we understand that God’s redemptive plan points to Christ as the only solution – for sin and unrepentant hearts. While the prophets continuously called the people to repentance, there was no covenant faithfulness. Thus the prophets called to God as the only one who can bring about true change – and He answered with Christ.
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.”
b. Jesus is the true and greater prophet.
Jesus is the true prophet heralding God’s kingdom. Not only does Jesus proclaim God’s prophetic word, He is God’s Word. Jesus is greater in than the Old Testament prophets because He is not a mere messenger sent to God’s people, He is God himself, come in the flesh. While Jesus is a prophet, He is more than that, He is the one to whom the Old Testament prophets pointed to. Remember, it was Christ who proclaimed to the disciples:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
So, while the Old Testament prophets were messengers who declared ‘thus says the Lord’, Jesus had the authority to declare ‘But I say to you.’ The life and work of Jesus in revealing God’s redemptive purposes is the climax to the prophetic office of the Old Testament. Just as we read in the book of Hebrews:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
Let us be thankful that Christ earned all the covenant blessings by living a perfect life. Christ also consumed all the covenant curses on the cross. And by placing our faith in Him we are offered eternal life and the blessings that only He deserved, and are saved from the curses we deserve.
- W.A. Grudem, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 704.
- 2 Chronicles 20:20, 29:25, 36:15-16; Haggai 1:12.
- 1 Samuel 8:7; 1 Kings 20:36; 2 Chronicles 25:16; Isaiah 30:12-14.
- W.A. Grudem, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 706.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 192.
- The prophet has no message of his own but can only report the message God has given him.
- Isaiah 10:20-23, 11:11-12, 14:1-4, 40:1-2, 46:3-4, 51:11, 61:4-7; Jeremiah 23:1-8, 29:10-14, 30:10-11, 31:7-9; Ezekiel 34:1-16, 36:22-24, 37:15-22; Micah 2:12.
- A good summary of this function of the prophetic office can be found in 2 Kings 17:13.
- Jeremiah 22:4; Zechariah 6:15.
- God warns of destroying Samaria and Jerusalem.
- Jeremiah 4:23-28; Isaiah 24:1-3; Amos 7:4; Zephaniah 1:2-3.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 184.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 181.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 181.
- Deuteronomy 8:11-20; 28:1-48; 30:15-20.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 181.
- Consider the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18.
- Leviticus 17:10; 20:1-6; 24:13-17.
- Deuteronomy 8:1-20; 28:15-68.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 182.
- 1 Kings 12:25-33; 16:29-34.
- 1 Kings 14:21-24.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 183.
- From Samuel to Elijah and Elisha.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 184.
- Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 197.
- Isaiah 54:7-10; Jeremiah 33:14-26; Hosea 2:16-23, 11:8-11.
- Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:16-21; Hebrews 1:1-2.
- John 1:1-3, 14-18; 14:16.
- Luke 24:27. Also see Acts 3:18, 10:43, 26:22; Romans 1:2; 1 Peter 1:10.
- Matthew 5:28, 32, 34, 44.
- Hebrews 1:1-2.