Function of the Prophet
What use did God make of these men of diversified talents, experience, training, and education? What was the range of the activities of prophets in carrying out their prophetic function? In consideration of the exercise of the prophetic gift, attention has been focused so largely on the element of prediction that many times the broader aspects of the function of the prophets have been obscured or entirely lost from view. Theirs was a broad work, by no means restricted to foretelling the future. These were men who filled an important place in the history of God’s people, not only because of their multiplied responsibilities in the community or nation, but because of the nature of the messages sent to the people through them. Not only were they used to reach the professed people of God; they were delegated to carry the word of the Lord to the world.
Spoke for God. The primary reason for the calling of a prophet was that he might serve as a mouthpiece for God. He was to say to the people what God would say if He should veil His glory and come personally among them as a man. The people’s needs were numerous and diverse. Messages were needed by individuals, families, cities, and nations. To God’s personal representative, the prophet, was entrusted the responsibility of delivering the messages.
Revealed God’s purposes. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets.” Amos 3:7. In the purposes of God, His plans are revealed to His people so that they might know how to co-operate with them. Long ago Christians would have given up in despair had it not been for the assurance, “I will come again.” John 14:3. To the Old Testament believer the promise of the coming Messiah was his sustenance when he saw the sin of his nation and the decay of its leadership. To the bitterly disappointed and disillusioned Israelites in Babylonian captivity Jeremiah’s prediction of deliverance at the conclusion of seventy years of bondage was a star of hope. Insight into God’s purposes for the future was intended to strengthen and encourage, to fortify and prepare men and women to meet the crisis. There were times when the most courageous hearts would have failed had it not been for the repeated assurances of the Lord’s purpose to bring deliverance.
Because God can penetrate the future and man cannot, the Lord has used His knowledge of the future as one of the evidences that He is God. The striking nature of the predictions has directed such attention to them that other, equally important, phases of the work of the prophets have received scant thought. To many, “prophet” connotes “predictor.” When one recognizes the broader nature of the prophets’ work he gains a better understanding of God’s plan and has a deeper confidence in it.
Strengthened and guided rulers. An Assyrian army over which Sennacherib had placed Rabshakeh (Isaiah 36:2) surrounded the city of Jerusalem. Rabshakeh mocked Hezekiah and scorned the God of Israel. Hezekiah in his terror and grief sent a group to talk with Isaiah and to seek counsel from the Lord through the prophet. “And Isaiah said unto them, Thus shall ye say unto your master, Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words that thou hast heard, wherewith the servants of
the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Behold, I will send a blast upon him, and he shall hear a rumor [report], and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.” Isaiah 37:6, 7.
How courage and strength must have surged through Hezekiah when his servants hurried back with the word, “Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid.” Had there been no explanation of the Lord’s plan attached to the message, Hezekiah would have been strengthened by the assurance that the Lord had promised to be with him in the crisis.
When David decided that he wanted to build a house for the Lord, he talked his plan over with Nathan the prophet. Nathan instantly agreed that the plan was a wise one, and he encouraged David to go forward with it. But this was not according to God’s purpose, and that night the Lord spoke to Nathan and told him to give David the message that his son was to build the Lord’s house. 2 Samuel 7. The word of the prophet was accepted as the word of the Lord to guide the king, and his cherished plan was abandoned. David’s disappointment was at least partly relieved by the fact that he was permitted to gather materials for the temple, even though he was not to undertake its building. 1 Chronicles 22:14.
In war or peace, prosperity or adversity, the leaders who wished counsel might have it. Unfortunately many sought no help, and others to whom it was sent rejected it. Men in places of leadership were particular objects of God’s concern. He made every approach possible to reach them and to give them the aid He knew they needed, even if they recognized no need themselves. He wanted them to be steadfast in their allegiance to Him and in upholding the high principles of the theocratic government. He desired to direct them so that they would make no mistakes in their leadership. With such backing and counsel, every one of the kings of ancient Israel might have made his reign an outstanding success and the people would have been greatly blessed.
Encouraged the people to faithfulness. “If ye forsake the Lord,” Joshua warned the people shortly before his death, “and serve strange gods, then He will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that He hath done you good…. Now therefore put away, said he, the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the Lord God of Israel.” Joshua 24:20-23.
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Revelation 2:10. This was the Lord’s encouraging message to His faithful children as given through John the revelator.
“He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.” Luke 16:10. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” were the words of the greatest of the prophets. Matthew 25:21.
Frequently words of encouragement are interwoven with reproofs and rebukes; seldom are they found standing alone. There are always new steps forward to be taken by God’s people. One of the leading activities of the prophets was to encourage the people to hold fast the ground they had already gained and press on to new accomplishments. Every forward step meant that some fault needed to be overcome, some weakness strengthened, some desire subdued. Encouragement could in no way be separated from the instruction and reproof that also came through the messengers.
Protested against evils. Whether their burden was to resist social injustice, to root out idolatry, or to protest against immorality, the prophets were equally vigorous in their approaches. At times it seemed to the prophet that no other dissenting voice than his was raised, but in such a case his responsibility was increased rather than lessened. The prophet’s protests were God’s protests, and were delivered regardless of consequences.
“Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take
them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage. Therefore thus saith the Lord; Behold, against this family do I devise an evil, from which ye shall not remove your necks.” Micah 2:1-3.
“Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed Me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed Thee? In tithes and offerings…. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in Mine house.” Malachi 3:8-10.
“Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood.” Hosea 4:1, 2.
In imagination we can see the prophets standing alone, as did Jesus in the court of the temple, proclaiming: “Take these things hence; make not My Father’s house an house of merchandise.” John 2:16. Usually their words of protest were not their own, but were prefaced with “Thus saith the Lord.” Perhaps they would not have had courage to speak out if it had been left to their own initiative, but as God’s spokesmen they could not refrain. At one time Jeremiah decided that he would speak no more. “Then I said, I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name. But His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” Jeremiah 20:9. Evil was rampant in Israel and Judah during the lifetime of most of the prophets, and through these men the Lord maintained a constant protest against corrupt practices and personal sins.
Directed activities. Destruction and building were both essential parts of the work of a prophet. The dual responsibility is well expressed in the Lord’s commission to Jeremiah: “See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms,
to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:10. Many a modern city is engaged in a slum-clearing project in which handsome buildings replace dilapidated tenements. First, the ground must be cleared of the old before the new can be built. Tearing down is as essential as building up. Although it may appear that the words of the prophets were more of tearing down than of building, it must be remembered that this task had to be performed repeatedly. It is easier to allow a building to slip into decay than it is to keep it new in appearance. Each time the old timbers must be removed and replaced before more new building can be done. In every forward move in God’s work the prophets were present, either in positions of leadership or in close counsel with the leaders.
As a prophet, Moses directed the building of the sanctuary. The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets were guided, gave David detailed plans for the construction of the house of God that became Solomon’s temple. 1 Chronicles 28:11, 12. In the days of the rebuilding of the temple, after the Babylonian exile, “Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem: and with them were the prophets of God helping them.” Ezra 5:2. On the Day of Pentecost the spirit of prophecy possessed the apostles and directed them in the establishment of the early Christian church. Paul was called to enter new territory and to open new areas for the preaching of the gospel. He went forward or held back as the Spirit indicated that he should do.
It is not difficult to trace through the Old and New Testaments the direct influence of the prophets in the constructive activities of God’s people. The tragedy of the situation is that their counsel was seldom fully heeded. Had the instruction of the Lord, given through the prophets, been followed, the neighbors of Israel would have said, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Deuteronomy 4:6.
Taught. The prophets were not classroom teachers as such, although some of them seem to have taught in this fashion. However, it was through them that the people learned the principles of the kingdom of heaven. They made plain the high standard required of all God’s people. Their sermons were teaching sermons, filled with practical, helpful instruction. So fully does the Bible, given through the prophets, set forth the kind of life and character exemplified by Christ that it shares with Him the name “the Word.” Precept is laid upon precept, and line is added to line to round out the concept of a godly life. In true teaching fashion, problems are approached repeatedly from a variety of angles so that none need fail to understand how to apply the principles in his own life. To give this instruction to all generations “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 2 Peter 1:21.
Other responsibilities. It can also be shown that the men God chose as prophets served their nation as consultants and counselors for every phase of individual and national activity. In addition, they gave warnings of what would result from certain courses of action. They reproved sin in individuals and in the nation as a whole. They pronounced the judgments of God as consequences of sinful policies and evil conduct. There was no matter too small or too large to warrant the attention of God through the prophet, no corner so dark that light could not penetrate it and help be given. At times the performance of miracles figured prominently, as in the days of Elisha. Again, the preaching ministry was outstanding, as in the experience of Samuel and Jeremiah. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these men did all the things that needed to be done. They were serving in God’s stead, speaking for Him, acting for Him, representing Him before their fellow men.
The ministry of the prophets was not limited to the Hebrew nations. Through some of the prophetic messengers the Lord tried to win the Gentile nations to the truth. Abraham was sent
to witness for the true God in Egypt, where multiplied deities were worshiped. At least partly because of the failure of Abraham it was necessary for the Lord to send Joseph, and later to raise up Moses to give the Egyptians opportunity to learn of the true God. The story of Jonah is highlighted by the repentance of Nineveh in response to the preaching of the reluctant prophet. Daniel’s prophetic ministry led to his elevation to one of the highest positions in Babylon, and resulted ultimately in the conversion of its greatest monarch. In freedom or captivity Paul reached out into Asia Minor, Greece, some of the Mediterranean islands, and Rome. All these and others, undoubtedly many unmentioned in the Bible, touched the lives of the nations with the word of the Lord. “Go ye into all the world” is not only a last-day injunction; it has been the Lord’s objective for His people in every generation.
Prophets, then, were not unlike other men. They were men who needed the converting power of the Holy Spirit, who struggled with the temptations that are common to men, and they sometimes lost the battle in their own lives. They were men whose sorrows affected their lives as deeply as ours move us. They married, reared families, taught their children and learned from them, rejoiced in their triumphs, and grieved over their failures. They knew what it meant to see beloved children turn from the Lord. At least one knew what it meant to have an unfaithful wife. Another was not permitted to grieve over the death of his wife. They became weary and discouraged as did other men, and at times they chafed under the tasks the Lord gave them.
If you had lived in ancient Palestine, a prophet might have been your father. If so, he would have held you on his knee, smiled at you, talked to you, played with you as fathers always have. Or he might have been your next-door neighbor with whom you would have visited while he hoed his garden. Or you might have climbed trees with him when he and you were boys.
At the same time prophets were men in whom the Lord placed great confidence. A sense of responsibility weighed heavily on them. Whether they came from the royal palace, the plow, the herd, or the service of the temple, an inner compulsion made it impossible for them ever to be unconscious of their calling. These prophets were carefully chosen with attention given to their talents, weaknesses, and mental quirks. They were individuals whose personalities might be classified today as introverted or extroverted. Sometimes the tasks to which they were called were extremely distasteful to them, but God knew His men and used them to the extent of their abilities, even empowering them to go beyond what they or we would consider possible.
These little insights lurk everywhere through the Scriptures. When we find them, they make the men of the Bible, and the Bible itself, warmer and more alive. They enable us to put ourselves into the Bible picture to see how we belong to it and it to us. Far from taking away any of the dignity of the men or the solemnity of their messages, these pictures open doors of understanding that might otherwise be closed permanently to us. If we consider the ministry of Jesus, and then try to understand how God called men in many generations from all walks of life, and sought to accomplish through them as much as possible the same kind of ministry that Jesus performed, we will begin to gain a more adequate view of the significance and function of the Bible prophets.