Understanding the Prophets

By James M. Rochford

Picture2The major and minor prophets constitute a large section of the Bible, and yet, many believers have never read them. As pastors have often quipped, “You better read the book of Obadiah, because someday you’ll meet him in heaven… and you’ll be embarrassed if you haven’t read his book!” More importantly than this, however, is the fact that the prophets are an important part of Scripture that offer deep insights into the plan and mind of God.

Why don’t Christians like reading the Prophets?

Christians often ignore the prophets because they are so difficult to interpret. It is difficult to understand the historical backdrop of these books. In order to read the prophets, you almost need to read a history book first! These books weren’t written in a vacuum, but were written to real people in a historical context. Since moderners are often ignorant of this history, the prophets don’t fit very well into our daily Bible reading plan.

Moreover, the prophecies are difficult to interpret properly. Some of their prophecies refer to their own time period; others refer to the future Exile; others refer to Jesus’ first coming; still others refer to Jesus’ second coming. Additionally, when sorting between premillennial and amillennial views, it is often difficult to discern if prophecies refer to Israel or the Church—to the Millennium or the New Heaven and New Earth. There is no doubt about it. Studying the prophets is difficult business!

What is a prophet?

The Hebrew word for “prophet” is navi’ (this is the same word used for the blue people in Avatar by the way…). According to the Bible, a “prophet” is one who speaks on behalf of someone else. In Exodus, we read, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet’” (Ex. 7:1). Scholar Mark Rooker writes, “Nā occurs over 300 times in the OT and is cognate to the Akkadian verb nābu, “to call.” Based on this parallel scholars have concluded that the Hebrew prophet was one who had been “called by God.” The prophet was one who was commissioned to speak on God’s behalf, not unlike a modern-day ambassador representing his homeland.”[1]

Prophets were also referred to as a “seer” (hozeh), which was an advisor to the king. For example, we read, “When David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer” (2 Sam. 24:11). Sometimes, prophets were called a “seer” (ro’ eh), “servant” (‘eved), “man of God” (‘ish ‘elohim), a “son of man” (ben ‘adam; cf. Ezek. 2:1), a “company of prophets” (havel nevi’ im), or “sons of the prophets” (beney nevi’ im). Some scholars argue that these terms refer to separate and distinct roles in Israel. But Rooker notes, “The terms often appear interchangeable (see 1 Kgs 16:7,12 with 1 Chr 29:29; 2 Chr 19:2; Isa 29:10; 30:10).[2]

How do we identify a true prophet?

Moses set up the criteria for identifying a true prophet. As you read through this section of Scripture (Deut. 18:15-22), what criteria does Moses give for identifying a true prophet?

15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.

16 This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, or I will die.’

17 The Lord said to me, ‘They have spoken well.

18 I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.

19 It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.

20 But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’

21 You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’

22 When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.

Based on this passage above, how did the Jewish people identify a true prophet from a false prophet?

What was the difference between Hebrew and Pagan prophets?

Rooker explains some of the key differences between Hebrew and Pagan prophets: “Most Israelite prophetic announcements address the entire nation (not just the king). The Israelite prophet confronts the people with a socio-ethical directive and a national purpose, threatening utter extinction as the consequence of disloyalty. This feature, unique to Israelite prophecy, is based on Israel’s covenant relationship with God wherein God chose one nation and revealed Himself in His ongoing relationship with that nation. Israel’s unique covenant relationship with God stands behind the prophets’ words. Thus only in Israel do prophets appeal to God’s holiness as the standard for measuring society. Pagan gods were often depicted as incorrigible and immoral as the people. In a very real sense, what is distinctive about Israelite prophecy is the incomparability of Israel’s God. This God, unlike pagan gods, has a plan for the entire world and He controls history, guaranteeing the fulfillment of the prophetic word.”[3]


Comparison with Hebrew and Pagan Prophets

Pagan Prophets

Hebrew Prophets

Religion—performed rituals to get the gods to speak or invented it themselves

Revelation—God chose people to approach and speak to
Manipulation—performed divination and magic to twist the deity’s arm

Submission—listened to what God said and indebted to his guidance and protection

Realpolitik—based on pragmatism

Divine wisdom—based on God’s will which often isn’t practical or “wise” in the sight of people
Vox populi (LATIN: “Voice of the people)

Countercultural—often goes against what the people believed or practiced


[1] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 362.

[2] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 361.

[3] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 363.