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.

UNDERSTANDING PROPHETS (Part 1)

Not many people are that comfortable going around calling themselves a ‘prophet’. It’s not how I would introduce myself to someone at a party. But Ephesians 4 tells us that Jesus has gifted this bunch of folks to his church along with the apostles, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders: they are for every follower of Christ.

Fivefold thinking enables us to view prophets as simply ‘one of five’: some people are prophet-shaped, a God-given role, and alongside the other fivefold callings, their ultimate aim is to build up the body of Christ:

…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12-13)

That is some calling!

The problem with the word ‘prophet’ is that it has so many Old Testament style associations that can lead to misunderstanding about the prophet’s ministry. Over a couple of blogs I want to explore the role and calling of prophets, but in order to do that 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.

In this blog I’m going to focus on how prophets are wired. What makes them tick? And in the next blog we’ll be looking at how their role works out in the life of the church.

More than anything, prophets have a passion for the heart of God. That’s where their attention keeps returning to, that’s what they’ll always be chasing after.

Prophets are focused on God and they are very spiritually aware. Therefore they are acutely conscious of the gap – ok the huge gulf – between all that is beautiful, sacred, loving, righteous and life-giving in God’s presence…. and all that is broken, messed-up, unjust, sinful and dying apart from God’s presence.

The primary impulse of the prophet is to somehow bridge that gap. To find a place – any place – where they can stand between heaven and earth and facilitate some sort of connection. To search God’s heart for the words or imagery that will draw people back to God, for actions that will demonstrate a God-shaped alternative. Prophets translate God so that the world can re-orientate itself back towards him. They eagerly pursue whatever words, imagery or action will bring the much-needed realignment of created with Creator.

The gap is a place of tension for prophets: tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. They are simultaneously focussed on the glory of God and, at the same time, sensitive to the existing reality in the world around them, with all its injustice and unfaithfulness. Because of this the prophet is someone who at heart wants to challenge the status quo, bringing an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture, and questioning everything that does not reflect the values of God’s kingdom. For a prophet this often feels that they are like a fish swimming up stream.

In occupying the gap prophets are wired both for worship and for warfare. Their passion for God’s heart carries with it urgency for reverence and devotion. They prioritise prayer and the pursuit of God’s presence. But their sensitivity to injustice and unrighteousness creates such a holy discontent that they are intent on confronting the powers that oppress people, whether cultural or spiritual.

Prophets are enthusiasts for God, carrying a message that he is so much closer and so much better than we can think or imagine. With their eyes turned heavenward, and awake to divine promise, they long for God’s renewal of all things. They love to release hope and expectation in the Body of Christ, anticipating the new thing that God is doing.

Prophets are wired for the message of transformation: “We have to change! Things have to change!” Remaining as we are is never an option for a prophet. Why stay here when there is something better around the corner? They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up. As they pursue God’s heart they discern the work of the Spirit in refining and purifying his people and speak a message of transformation to the world around them.

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Does any of this resonate with you personally? You are probably a prophet if you:

  • Have a passion to see people walk more closely with God
  • Love prayer, worship and pursuing God’s presence
  • Often get a sense of what God is saying about a situation
  • Long for every Christian to hear God’s voice
  • Tend to see things a little differently from everyone else
  • Find your heart breaking for the poor, oppressed and marginalised

Whatever fivefold ministry we most closely identify with it’s important that we get a clearer understanding of the role of the prophets and embrace the particular grace they bring to the Body of Christ.