Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Prophets of the Hebrews

Posted by foryourfaith on September 2, 2011

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The popular idea of a prophet is someone who tells the future, but the biblical prophets were mainly forth-tellers – that is, they proclaimed truths on contemporary political, social, and moral issues. They were preachers of righteousness, never hesitating to pronounce disaster if God’s will was thwarted. Prophecy in Old Testament times is not to be confused with divination, which was a practice generally frowned upon by the Israelites.

For the Hebrews, prophecy was the primary method of spiritual education. The first Hebrew prophets were the Naba’im. These were patriotic, dervish-like men who roused the Israelites to fight their heathen enemies. They were forerunners of the writing prophets, who ranged from country people, such as Amos, to aristocratic statesmen like Isaiah. Their works, dating from the age of written prophecy (c. 800-300 BC), occupy a quarter of the Old Testament. In addition, communities known as “sons of the prophets” sprang up in various cities in Israel and Judah. These guilds seem to have had theological, monastic and scholarly purposes – their members collected and retold the stories of the prophets until the time came to write them down.

O induce fantastic events, prophets might employ symbols of authority, such as a rod or mantle, as when Elijah used his cloak to part the River Jordan. Others used personal techniques – Elisha’s minstrel played him into a trance. Prophecy declined after the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 BC, Ezekiel being one of the last great practitioners.

Prophets told the future in four ways. Sometimes they had genuine knowledge of future events. When the Syrians besieged the city of Samaria, Elisha promised that, on a particular day, food for the starving defenders would become available. When one noble ridiculed the prophet, he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.” That night, the Syrians panicked and fled, abandoning their provisions. In their fight for the Syrians’ food, the Samaritans trampled the mocking lord to death.

The prophets also predicted the outcome of contemporary events. Jeremiah, for example, tried to warn Zedekiah of Judah that relying on Egyptian aid against Babylon would have disastrous consequences. Jeremiah’s advice was unwelcome, and he was arrested as a subversive. Later he witnessed the destruction of Judah that he had tried to prevent.

Sometimes prophets saw the far distant future, particularly the coming of the Day of the Lord. On this day, said several prophets, including Isaiah, God would judge the nations and create a messianic golden age. The earth would be “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” And when Daniel dreamt of four great beasts emerging from a wild sea, and a divine court arising in judgment, it symbolized a temporary victory by a blasphemer, but eventual victory by God and the saints.

In the fourth type of prophecy, the writer might proclaim a truth of which he was not fully aware. For example, Isaiah foretold that “a young woman [virgin] shall conceive.” He might have been referring to his own wife, but indirectly he prophesied the virgin birth of Christ. The child’s name – Immanuel, or “God-with-us” – also pointed to the future Christian message. Although chapter 53 of the Book of Isaiah is a close description of the sufferings of Jesus, Isaiah did not specifically “foresee” Christ.


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