What Was the Role of the Prophets?
WHEN mention is made of the Hebrew prophets of ancient times, what comes to your mind? Do you think of men who made predictions about the future? Or, do you think primarily of men who urged people to do God’s will?
The ancient Hebrew prophets did, of course, foretell certain events. Yet their prophesying was by no means limited to making predictions. This is evident from the Hebrew term for prophet, na·viʼʹ. In itself that word does not convey the thought of making predictions. Na·viʼʹ means ‘one who pours forth words abundantly’ or ‘one whose speech flows forth.’ The actual use of the term shows that true prophets were spokesmen for God, with effervescent inspired messages. Just what the commission of God’s prophets involved can be better appreciated by comparing their conduct with that of false claimants to the prophetic office.
Consider, for example, the situation in the time of the Hebrew prophet Micah. A tremendous moral breakdown had taken place in Israel and Judah. The leaders were oppressing the people, especially the poor and needy. Judges and priests had an insatiable greed for money. Bloodshed and corruption of every kind were the order of the day. A person could not trust even friends or close family members.
Surely, this was a time for exposing the error of the Israelites and appealing to them to change their ways. Is that what false claimants to the prophetic office were doing? No. At Micah 3:5 these prophets are described as leading the Israelites astray, men “who promise prosperity in return for a morsel of food, who proclaim a holy war against them if they put nothing into their mouths.” (New English Bible) So the nature of the message delivered by these false prophets depended upon their receiving payment. As long as they got their reward, they were willing to make promises of prosperity even for morally degraded people. These false prophets gave not the slightest encouragement for people to abandon their wicked ways. As a result, the people felt secure, and continued in their lawless ways. But if a person should dare not to give them something, these false prophets would be ready to ‘call down the wrath of the Lord’ upon such a one.
Jehovah’s true prophets, however, did not look for any personal gain. They appreciated that their appointment was from God and, therefore, they did not try to please men. Contrasting his own course with that of the false prophets, Micah declared: “I myself have become full of power, with the spirit of Jehovah, and of justice and mightiness, in order to tell to Jacob his revolt and to Israel his sin.” (Mic. 3:8) Courageously, Micah laid bare the sins of the Israelites—their idolatry, fraudulent practices, merciless oppression and injustices. This exposure was accompanied by predictions regarding the execution of God’s judgment against Judah and Israel. He foretold the coming destruction of Samaria, the capital of the ten-tribe kingdom, and of Jerusalem, the capital of the two-tribe kingdom.
The prophecies about coming judgment upon unfaithful Samaria and Jerusalem served a double purpose. On the one hand, they reemphasized the badness of what the people were doing. On the other hand, they encouraged the Israelites to repent, with a view to their becoming recipients of God’s mercy. That the prophecies portending calamity included also opportunity for repentance is shown at Jeremiah 18:7-10. There we read regarding Jehovah’s expressions of judgment and blessing: “At any moment that I may speak against a nation and against a kingdom to uproot it and to pull it down and to destroy it, and that nation actually turns back from its badness against which I spoke, I will also feel regret over the calamity that I had thought to execute upon it. But at any moment that I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom to build it up and to plant it, and it actually does what is bad in my eyes by not obeying my voice, I will also feel regret over the good that I said to myself to do for its good.”
NOT MERE DOOM-SAYERS
In view of the fact that God’s prophets had the responsibility to urge people to abandon their wrong ways, does this mean that they foretold merely doom and gloom? No, their proclamations often included stirring messages of hope. Though the Israelites as a whole might turn a deaf ear to the announcement of Jehovah’s coming judgment, individuals could prove that they were not in harmony with the violence and lawlessness prevailing at the time. In their case, the execution of judgment against the wicked would result in welcome relief from injustice.
Furthermore, because Jehovah is a just and merciful God, rightly inclined persons could have the confidence that expressions of divine displeasure would not continue indefinitely. This point is stressed at Lamentations 3:31, 32: “Not to time indefinite will Jehovah keep on casting off. For although he has caused grief, he will also certainly show mercy.”
In harmony with his mercy and loving-kindness, Jehovah God moved his prophets to point forward to a hope. Micah, for example, foretold a restoration to follow the desolating of the land inhabited by the Israelites. Quoting Jehovah’s word, Micah stated: “I shall positively gather Jacob, all of you; I shall without fail collect the remaining ones of Israel together. In unity I shall set them, like a flock in the pen, like a drove in the midst of its pasture; they will be noisy with men.” (Mic. 2:12) Hence, after witnessing the desolation, repentant Israelites could draw comfort from this restoration hope.
Primarily, then, the prophets served as Jehovah’s representatives to the Israelites. They were concerned about helping their fellow countrymen to follow a God-approved course and thereby to avoid calamity. They were bearers of gloom only to those who refused to do God’s will. But to persons who were rightly disposed the prophets were messengers of deliverance and hope. A basic theme running through the various prophecies is expressed in the words of Ezekiel 33:11: “‘As I am alive,’ is the utterance of the Sovereign Lord Jehovah, ‘I take delight, not in the death of the wicked one, but in that someone wicked turns back from his way and actually keeps living. Turn back, turn back from your bad ways, for why is it that you should die, O house of Israel?’”
TODAY’S PROPHETIC MESSAGE
The basic message of the ancient Hebrew prophets applies even today. As in the past, Jehovah God does not look with approval upon the lawlessness, violence, injustice and oppression that continue to increase in various parts of the earth. In his Word, Jehovah God has decreed to bring all wickedness to its end. Says the Bible: “God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who are suppressing the truth in an unrighteous way.” (Rom. 1:18) However, before the day of wrath comes, people have an opportunity to change their ways, putting themselves in line for preservation should that execution come within their lifetime. Moreover, the grand hope before all surviving that destruction is everlasting life in a righteous new order. (2 Pet. 3:9, 13) The marvelous news for our day is that the realization of that hope is very near.
Is this news not something to be proclaimed today? But who should be making it known? Would you not expect the ones doing so to be persons who conduct themselves much like the ancient Hebrew prophets? They should be persons who themselves uphold the righteous standards of God’s Word and urge others to do the same. They should be giving warning about the coming execution of wickedness and should be pointing to a glorious future in a righteous new order.
From what you have seen, are the churches of Christendom really striving to help people to change their ways? Or, have you not, rather, found that clergymen often tolerate all kinds of wrongs among their church members as long as they are receiving their pay?
What about the group known as Jehovah’s Christian witnesses? Many people have come to appreciate that there is a marked difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the churches of Christendom. They have found that the Witnesses insist that those actively associating with them live by the Bible. Have you also noted this about Jehovah’s Witnesses? If so, are you acting on what you have observed by sharing with them in helping others to live in harmony with God’s ways?