Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets

The prophets of old are an interesting bunch. Their words are challenging and their behaviour is very strange at times. But we can’t ignore them.

The Old Testament prophets make up a sizeable chunk of the Bible; indeed a whole genre of biblical literature is devoted to them. If we include both the writing prophets who produced the Bible’s prophetic literature (Isaiah through to Malachi) as well as the additional characters identified as prophets (such as Elijah) their ministry spans virtually the whole of the Old Testament narrative. Thousands of years after they were recorded their writings and actions speak powerfully to the contemporary church and to the world around us.

But how closely related are the Hebrew prophets of old to the fivefold prophets of the New Testament and the church today. What can we learn from their lives, words and ministry?

There are two dangers in studying Old Testament prophets: at one end of the spectrum we ignore them completely; at other end we base our understanding of prophetic ministry wholly on them.

To properly take hold of the role and ministry of prophets we have to move away, to a certain extent, from an Old Testament perspective and grasp a broader paradigm more influenced by the new covenant we now live in. The church of Jesus is born into the age of the Spirit and we require new wineskins. But at the same time we have to find a way to allow the prophets of Israel to speak into the realities of the church today and to learn what we can from their ministry and their experiences of God. When we take time to understand their context they have much to teach us.

It’s important to recognise that the Hebrew prophets operated in a very different context compared to the New Testament church. In Old Testament times the ability to hear the voice of God was quite rare. We see a concentration of the prophetic gift in a small number of people. Most people couldn’t hear God’s voice, because they didn’t have the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit they couldn’t weigh and discern either. So the onus was on the prophet to get it right and deliver the prophetic word faithfully. Under the old covenant, the prophets were commissioned by God to speak his words with an absolute divine authority, and the people listening to these words were expected to treat them as the ‘very words of God’. There was no room for error and the response to a false prophet was to have him stoned (Deuteronomy 18:20).

So, if that’s the context, what was at the heart of their role and ministry?

As we seek to understand the breadth of their calling, a helpful framework is to consider the two primary dimensions of prophetic expression:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

We see the Old Testament prophets engaging in both dimensions. In our next blog we’re going to focus on the Horizontal dimension. But here are some reflections on the Vertical dimension.

The Vertical: At the heart of the prophets’ message was the reminder of who God’s people really were. A people defined by their covenantal relationship with Yahweh the one true God. An alternative community to every other culture around them, shaped by God’s incomparably alternative reality.

The prophets held out hope to God’s people by reminding them that, at the end of the day, they belonged to Yahweh.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour… Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you.” Isaiah 43:2-4

In communicating God’s heart to his people the prophets did all they could to keep the Israelites’ attention on God. They helped them understand their present circumstances through the eyes of God, and encouraged them with words of future hope: speaking of a time when he would bring restoration to all things.

But there was an ongoing battle – an internal battle – that overshadowed the prophets’ ministry and in some ways defined it: the relentless pull of idolatry.

Idolatry was the prevailing sin of the Israelites, the dark cloud they could never escape from. The idols they turned to held out a false promise and a quick fix. The prophets knew that these idols appealed to a distorted sense of identity: if I bow to this idol my life will be better and people will like me. In succumbing to idolatry God’s people were denying their true identity and living out of a false one. Jeremiah conveys this reality very powerfully:

“Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord. “For my people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

The agonising message that Jeremiah had to deliver was: in turning away from your true love, you are tearing up your covenantal identity.

That’s why the call to holiness is so central to the prophet’s message and they would constantly promote worship of Yahweh because worship is one of the best ways to stay true to the covenant and stay faithful to God.

The tragedy of the story is that the people of God forgot who they were. And under the old covenant the only response the prophets could give to an idolatrous people was judgement and death.

For us today we can celebrate our new and better covenant, but we would be wise to heed the warnings of Israel’s prophets: to stay true in our devotion to God and to pursue his heart and presence above all else. Let’s seek to grow a prophetic culture that helps ensure our eyes stay fixed on Jesus and him alone.