One through whom divine will and purpose are made known. (Lu 1:70; Ac 3:18-21) Although the etymology of the Hebrew term for a prophet (na·viʼʹ) is uncertain, the use of this distinctive term shows that true prophets were no ordinary announcers but were spokesmen for God, ‘men of God’ with inspired messages. (1Ki 12:22; 2Ki 4:9; 23:17) They stood in God’s “intimate group,” and he revealed his “confidential matter” to them.—Jer 23:18; Am 3:7; 1Ki 17:1; see SEER.
The Greek pro·pheʹtes literally means “a speaker out [Gr., pro, “before” or “in front of,” and phe·miʹ, “say”]” and thus describes a proclaimer, one who makes known messages attributed to a divine source. (Compare Tit 1:12.) Though this includes the thought of a predictor of the future, the fundamental meaning of the word is not that of prediction. (Compare Jg 6:7-10.) Nonetheless, living in harmony with God’s will requires that the individual know what Jehovah’s revealed purposes for the future are so that he may bring his ways, desires, and goals into line with the divine will. Hence, in the great majority of cases, the Biblical prophets did convey messages that were, directly or indirectly, related to the future.
Prophetic Office in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first human spokesman for God obviously was Adam, who initially conveyed God’s instructions to his wife Eve and to that extent fulfilled the role of prophet. Those instructions had to do not only with the present (for them) but also with the future, outlining God’s purpose for earth and mankind and the course humans must take to enjoy a blessed future. (Ge 1:26-30; 2:15-17, 23, 24; 3:1-3) The first faithful human prophet mentioned was Enoch, and his message did contain direct prediction. (Jude 14, 15) Lamech and his son Noah both proclaimed inspired revelations of God’s purpose and will.—Ge 5:28, 29; 9:24-27; 2Pe 2:5.
The word na·viʼʹ itself is first applied to Abraham. (Ge 20:7) Abraham was not notable for foretelling the future, certainly not in a public way. Yet God had given him a message, a prophetic promise. Abraham must have felt agitated, impelled to ‘speak forth’ about this, particularly to his family, explaining why he was leaving Ur and what God’s promise to him was. (Ge 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 22:15-18) In a similar way, Isaac and Jacob, the inheritors of the promise, were “prophets” having intimate communication with God. (Ps 105:9-15) Additionally, they gave predictive blessings to their sons. (Ge 27:27-29, 39, 40; 49:1-28) With the exception of Job and Elihu, who were evidently used by God prior to the Exodus to reveal divine truths, all true prophets were thereafter drawn from Jacob’s descendants (the Israelites) down till the first century of the Common Era.
With Moses, the role of the prophet comes into sharper focus. The prophet’s position as spokesman for God is emphasized by Jehovah’s assignment of Aaron as a “prophet” or “mouth” to Moses, while Moses ‘served as God to Aaron.’ (Ex 4:16; 7:1, 2) Moses foretold many events that saw early fulfillment, such as the Ten Plagues. However, he served even more impressively as prophet, or spokesman for God, in the delivering of the Law covenant at Sinai and in instructing the nation in God’s will. Though the Law covenant was of immense immediate value to the Israelites as a moral code and guide, it, too, pointed forward to the future and ‘better things to come.’ (Ga 3:23-25; Heb 8:6; 9:23, 24; 10:1) Moses’ intimate, often two-way, communication with God, and the greatly increased understanding of Jehovah’s will and purpose he was used to convey, made his prophetic position outstanding. (Ex 6:2-8; De 34:10) His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, also rendered prophetic service in the sense of being transmitters of divine messages or counsel (though not necessarily predictions), as did 70 older men of the nation.—Ex 15:20; Nu 11:25; 12:1-8.
Aside from the anonymous man of Judges 6:8, the only person specifically mentioned in the book of Judges as rendering prophetic service was Deborah the prophetess. (Jg 4:4-7; 5:7) However, the absence of the term na·viʼʹ does not of itself mean that others did not serve in this capacity. By Samuel’s time, “word from Jehovah had become rare . . . ; there was no vision being spread abroad.” From boyhood Samuel served as God’s spokesman, and the fulfillment of the divine messages caused all to recognize him as “one accredited for the position of prophet to Jehovah.”—1Sa 3:1-14, 18-21.
With the establishment of the monarchy, an almost continuous line of prophets appears. (Compare Ac 3:24.) Gad began prophesying prior to Samuel’s death. (1Sa 22:5; 25:1) And he and the prophet Nathan were prominent during David’s reign. (2Sa 7:2-17; 12:7-15; 24:11-14, 18) As did other prophets later, they served as royal advisers and historians. (1Ch 29:29; 2Ch 9:29; 29:25; 12:15; 25:15, 16) David himself was used to deliver certain divine revelations and is called “a prophet” by the apostle Peter. (Ac 2:25-31, 34) The divided kingdom saw faithful prophets active in the northern and southern kingdoms. Some were used to prophesy to the leaders and people of both kingdoms. Among exilic and postexilic prophets were Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The prophets played a vital role in maintaining true worship. Their activity served as a check on the kings of Israel and Judah, for they boldly reproved erring rulers (2Sa 12:1-12) and declared God’s judgments against those who practiced wickedness. (1Ki 14:1-16; 16:1-7, 12) When the priesthood deviated and suffered corruption, the prophets were Jehovah’s means for strengthening the faith of a righteous remnant and for pointing the way back to God’s favor for those who had strayed. Like Moses, the prophets on many occasions acted as intercessors, praying to God in behalf of king and people. (De 9:18-29; 1Ki 13:6; 2Ki 19:1-4; compare Jer 7:16; 14:11, 12.) They were especially active in times of crisis or great need. They gave hope for the future, as at times their messages foretold the blessings of Messiah’s government. In this way they benefited not only those then living but future generations down to our day. (1Pe 1:10-12) Yet, in doing this they endured great reproach, mockings, and even physical mistreatment. (2Ch 36:15, 16; Jer 7:25, 26; Heb 11:32-38) Those receiving them favorably, however, were blessed with spiritual and other benefits.—1Ki 17:8-24; 2Ki 4:8-37; compare Mt 10:41.
Means of Appointment and Inspiration. The office of prophet was not received because of line of descent; however, several prophets were Levites, such as Samuel, Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and some prophets’ descendants also became prophets. (1Ki 16:7; 2Ch 16:7) Nor was it a profession entered on one’s own initiative. Prophets were selected by God and appointed by means of holy spirit (Nu 11:24-29; Eze 1:1-3; Am 7:14, 15), by which means they also knew what to proclaim. (Ac 28:25; 2Pe 1:21) Some showed great reluctance initially. (Ex 3:11; 4:10-17; Jer 1:4-10) In Elisha’s case, his divine appointment came through his predecessor, Elijah, and was symbolized by Elijah’s throwing his mantle, or official garment, over Elisha.—1Ki 19:19-21.
Though appointed by Jehovah’s spirit, it does not appear that the prophets spoke continually under inspiration. Rather, God’s spirit ‘came upon them’ at certain times, revealing the messages to be announced. (Eze 11:4, 5; Mic 3:8) This had a stirring effect upon them, impelling them to speak. (1Sa 10:10; Jer 20:9; Am 3:8) Not only did they do things that were out of the ordinary but also their expression and manner doubtless reflected intensity and feeling that were truly extraordinary. This may explain in part what is meant by individuals’ “behaving like prophets.” (1Sa 10:6-11; 19:20-24; Jer 29:24-32; compare Ac 2:4, 12-17; 6:15; 7:55.) Their total concentration and zealous boldness in their mission might cause their behavior to appear strange, even irrational, to others, just as a prophet so appeared to military chiefs when Jehu was anointed. Yet, on realizing that the man was a prophet, the chiefs accepted his message with full seriousness. (2Ki 9:1-13; compare Ac 26:24, 25.) When Saul, in pursuit of David, was caused to ‘behave like a prophet,’ he stripped off his garments and lay “naked all that day and all that night,” during which time David evidently escaped. (1Sa 19:18–20:1) This does not mean that prophets frequently went naked, for the Biblical record shows the contrary. In the two other cases recorded, the prophet went naked for a purpose, to represent some facet of his prophecy. (Isa 20:2-4; Mic 1:8-11) The reason for Saul’s nakedness—whether to show him as a mere man, divested of his royal garments, impotent against Jehovah’s own regal authority and power, or for some other purpose—is not stated.
Jehovah used various methods to inspire the prophets: verbal communication through angels (Ex 3:2-4; compare Lu 1:11-17; Heb 1:1, 2; 2:1, 2), visions that impressed God’s message on the conscious mind (Isa 1:1; Hab 1:1), dreams or night visions given while the prophet slept (Da 7:1), and messages conveyed while the person was in a trance (Ac 10:10, 11; 22:17-21). On occasion, music might contribute to the prophet’s receiving the divine communication. (1Sa 10:5; 2Ki 3:15) Similarly, the proclamation of the inspired message was effected in diverse manners. (Heb 1:1) Generally the prophet spoke it, both in public places and in sparsely populated regions. (Jer 7:1, 2; 36:4-13; Mt 3:3) But he might dramatize the message by use of symbols or symbolic acts, as in Ezekiel’s portraying the siege of Jerusalem by use of a brick, or in Hosea’s marriage to Gomer.—Eze 4:1-3; Ho 1:2, 3; compare 1Ki 11:30-39; 2Ki 13:14-19; Jer 19:1, 10, 11; see DREAM; INSPIRATION; VISION.
Distinguishing the True From the False. In some cases, such as that of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus, God’s prophets performed miraculous works that attested to the genuineness of their message and office. Not all, however, are recorded as performing such powerful works. The three essentials for establishing the credentials of a true prophet, as given through Moses, were: The true prophet would speak in Jehovah’s name; the things foretold would come to pass (De 18:20-22); and his prophesying must promote true worship, being in harmony with God’s revealed word and commandments (De 13:1-4). The last requirement was probably the most vital and decisive, for an individual might hypocritically use God’s name, and by coincidence, his prediction might see fulfillment. But the true prophet was not solely or even primarily a prognosticator, as has been shown. Rather, he was an advocate of righteousness, and his message dealt primarily with moral standards and their application. He expressed God’s mind on matters. (Isa 1:10-20; Mic 6:1-12) Hence, it was not necessary to wait perhaps for years or generations to determine whether the prophet was true or false by fulfillment of a prediction. If his message contradicted God’s revealed will and standards, he was false. Thus, a prophet who foretold peace for Israel or Judah, at a time when the people were engaging in disobedience to God’s Word and Law, of necessity was false.—Jer 6:13, 14; 14:11-16.
Jesus’ later warning concerning false prophets paralleled that of Moses. Though using his name, and giving “signs and wonders to lead astray,” their fruits would prove them “workers of lawlessness.”—Mt 7:15-23; Mr 13:21-23; compare 2Pe 2:1-3; 1Jo 4:1-3.
The true prophet never foretold simply to satisfy human curiosity. Every prediction related to God’s will, purpose, standards, or judgment. (1Ki 11:29-39; Isa 7:3-9) Often the future events foretold were the consequence of existing conditions; as the people sowed, so they would reap. The false prophets lulled the people and their leaders with soothing assurances that, despite their unrighteous course, God was still with them to protect and prosper them. (Jer 23:16-20; 28:1-14; Eze 13:1-16; compare Lu 6:26.) They imitated the true prophets, employing symbolic language and actions. (1Ki 22:11; Jer 28:10-14) While some were outright frauds, many were evidently prophets who became delinquent or apostate. (Compare 1Ki 18:19; 22:5-7; Isa 28:7; Jer 23:11-15.) Some were women, false prophetesses. (Eze 13:17-23; compare Re 2:20.) A “spirit of uncleanness” replaced God’s spirit. All such false prophets were to be put to death.—Zec 13:2, 3; De 13:5.
As to those measuring up to the divine standards, the fulfillment of certain “short-range” prophecies, some being accomplished in just a day or a year, gave basis for confidence that their prophecies relating to a more distant future would also see fulfillment.—1Ki 13:1-5; 14:12, 17; 2Ki 4:16, 17; 7:1, 2, 16-20.
“Sons of the Prophets.” As Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar explains (Oxford, 1952, p. 418), the Hebrew ben (son of) or benehʹ (sons of) may denote “membership of a guild or society (or of a tribe, or any definite class).” (Compare Ne 3:8, where “a member of the ointment mixers” is literally “a son of the ointment mixers.”) “The sons of the prophets” may thus describe a school of instruction for those called to this vocation or simply a cooperative association of prophets. Such prophetic groups are mentioned as being at Bethel, Jericho, and Gilgal. (2Ki 2:3, 5; 4:38; compare 1Sa 10:5, 10.) Samuel presided over a group at Ramah (1Sa 19:19, 20), and Elisha seems to have held a similar position in his day. (2Ki 4:38; 6:1-3; compare 1Ki 18:13.) The record mentions their building their own dwelling place and the use of a borrowed tool, which may indicate that they lived simply. Though often sharing quarters and food in common, they might receive individual assignments to go out on prophetic missions.—1Ki 20:35-42; 2Ki 4:1, 2, 39; 6:1-7; 9:1, 2.
Prophets in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The Greek word pro·pheʹtes corresponds to the Hebrew na·viʼʹ. The priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, acted as prophet in revealing God’s purpose concerning his son, John, who would be “called a prophet of the Most High.” (Lu 1:76) John’s simple mode of life and his message were reminiscent of earlier Hebrew prophets. He was widely recognized as a prophet; even Herod felt some restraint because of him. (Mr 1:4-6; Mt 21:26; Mr 6:20) Jesus said John was “far more than a prophet.”—Mt 11:7-10; compare Lu 1:16, 17; Joh 3:27-30.
Jesus, the Messiah, was “The Prophet,” the long-awaited one foretold by Moses. (Joh 1:19-21, 25-27; 6:14; 7:40; De 18:18, 19; Ac 3:19-26) His ability to perform powerful works and to discern matters in a way beyond the ordinary caused others to recognize him as a prophet. (Lu 7:14-16; Joh 4:16-19; compare 2Ki 6:12.) More than all others he was one in God’s “intimate group.” (Jer 23:18; Joh 1:18; 5:36; 8:42) He regularly quoted earlier prophets as testifying to his divine commission and office. (Mt 12:39, 40; 21:42; Lu 4:18-21; 7:27; 24:25-27, 44; Joh 15:25) He foretold the manner of his own betrayal and death, that as a prophet he would die at Jerusalem, “the killer of the prophets,” that his disciples would abandon him, that Peter would deny him three times, that he would be resurrected on the third day—many of these prophecies being based on earlier prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Lu 13:33, 34; Mt 20:17-19; 26:20-25, 31-34) Beyond this, he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. (Lu 19:41-44; 21:5-24) The precise fulfillment of all of these things within the life of those hearing him gave solid basis for faith and conviction as to the fulfillment of his prophecies relating to his presence.—Compare Mt 24; Mr 13; Lu 21.
Pentecost, 33 C.E., saw the foretold outpouring of God’s spirit on the disciples at Jerusalem, causing them to ‘prophesy and see visions.’ They did this by declaring “the magnificent things of God,” and by inspired revelation of knowledge about God’s Son and what this meant for their listeners. (Ac 2:11-40) Again it should be remembered that prophesying does not mean solely or necessarily predicting the future. The apostle Paul stated that “he that prophesies upbuilds and encourages and consoles men by his speech,” and he held prophesying forth as a proper and particularly desirable goal for all Christians to strive after. Whereas speaking foreign tongues was a sign for unbelievers, prophesying was for believers. Yet even the unbeliever attending a Christian meeting would benefit by prophesying, being reproved and closely examined by it so that “the secrets of his heart become manifest.” (1Co 14:1-6, 22-25) This, too, indicates that Christian prophesying did not consist mainly of prediction but instead often dealt with things relating to the present, though clearly proceeding from a source beyond the ordinary, being inspired by God. Paul counseled on the need for good order and self-control in congregational prophesying, so that all could learn and be encouraged.—1Co 14:29-33.
There were, of course, certain ones particularly selected, or gifted, to serve as prophets. (1Co 12:4-11, 27-29) Paul himself had the gift of prophesying, yet he is primarily known as an apostle. (Compare Ac 20:22-25; 27:21-26, 31, 34; 1Co 13:2; 14:6.) Those especially designated as prophets, such as Agabus, Judas, and Silas, appear to have been outstanding spokesmen for the Christian congregation, second only to the apostles. (1Co 12:28; Eph 4:11) Like the apostles, they not only served locally but also traveled to different points, gave discourses, and also foretold certain future events. (Ac 11:27, 28; 13:1; 15:22, 30-33; 21:10, 11) As earlier, some Christian women received the gift of prophesying, though always subject to the headship of the male members of the congregation.—Ac 21:9; 1Co 11:3-5.