A Biblical Definition of a Prophet.
So, how is a prophet defined from scripture?
We have the prophetic gifting, and the office of a prophet modelled for us by many people in the Bible. Using them as the template of a definition, we cannot but be on safe ground. Yet, each one is so different! Each biblical prophet has their own character, their own modus operandi, and their own emphasis. If there is one thing that is uniform about them all it is that there is no uniformity betwixt one and another. The human character of each is an incredible variable when attempting to define exactly what a prophet is in biblical references.
Prophets hear God in ways that are so diverse from, “normal Christians,” that at times people are tempted to utterly disbelieve them. Most people would rush to conferences and teaching sessions on, “How to Hear from God.” Or “How to know what God is saying.” But prophets have no problem with that at all. Their issue is what to do with what they have so clearly heard.
As a prime example, there is Moses. The interview with God at the burning bush is one of a simple explanation of how Moses would make himself plainly understood in explaining what God was saying to Pharaoh, as well as the children of Israel. Moses had an issue with how to make the point clear. He complained that he had a stutter, or something similar, and asked what to do if he was rejected.
In response to Moses’ complaint, God said something that explains God’s own definition of what one of His prophets is. A prophet of God stands before God in the same relationship that Aaron had as he stood before Moses his brother. Yahweh said to Moses, “Your brother Aaron shall be your prophet” (Exod. 7:1-2), and “you shall be to him ‘God ” (Exod. 4:15,16). Whatever God said to Moses, Moses received it alone. Then he had to repeat it word for word to Aaron with all the same nuances of tone and feeling that God had shown in relating it to him. This means that every time we read in Exodus that,“Moses said to Pharaoh,” it was never actually Moses that did the saying. It was Aaron speaking for Moses, as Moses, I assume, would have stood by watching the events in silence. No wonder Pharaoh was so angry! He must have been wondering why Moses did not want to speak to him. Moses would have spoken to Aaron in Hebrew, even though he could speak Egyptian. Pharaoh would have heard Aaron speak in Egyptian while thinking that the man Moses was ignorant of the language.
This relationship takes us into an uncharted and rarely understood concept. There are those that fight for God, and there are those that God fights for. God fights for and defends his prophets. Just as he did with Abraham in protecting him from the wrath of Pharaoh and Abimelech for lying, just as he did with Isaac when the fear of God fell on all the Canaanites so that they dare not touch him, just as God warned and prepared Jacob to leave his cheating uncle Laban, even though Jacob himself was known as a supplanter; and just as God fought for and watched over Joseph throughout those last chapters of Genesis.
Another observation concerning prophets is that they know by relating to God and hearing from God what non prophetic people only know by book reading or sermon listening. I know that prophets often hear things that nobody has even thought of before, but when they speak of commonly discussed subjects, they often have a completely new perspective. This gives them an authority that cannot be matched by academic learning. The man with an experience with God is never at the mercy of a man that has an academic appreciation of God. Elijah was incredibly assured when he announced that there would be no rain until he said so. That could not be understood by any book learning. No climate prognosticator could match Elijah in 1 Kings 17. He was confronting the political authority of a king when he said it. He had disappeared from King Ahab’s presence before the wimpish king could ask, “Elijah! How could you know such a thing and have the authority to do what you are saying?” Moses did the same when he spoke to Pharaoh. Moses did not politely ask if the people of Israel could be excused from duty. It was, “This is what God says; “Let my people go!”” “But Moses, how could you possibly know that this is what God wants?” Prophets are rarely Politically Correct. Even Nathan, when confronting the much loved King David about his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, did not quietly and respectfully ask if he could have a moment out of David’s busy day. “You are the man!” Nathan said to the King. One cannot really imagine those words being spoken without Nathan pointing straight at David’s chest. A prophet has a word and it’s a burden upon him until he delivers it.
Spontaneity is another trait of prophets. Not that every single prophetic word takes them on the spur of the moment, of course. That is just not true. But many things are spoken by prophets in the Bible that, when seen in their context, must have happened on the very spur of the moment. Abraham’s, “The Lord will provide Himself with a lamb,” is a prime example. Samuel’s declaration to Saul, “The Lord has torn the kingdom from you,” immediately after Saul had torn Samuel’s garment, must have been a word given him in that very moment. Isaiah 38:1-5 tells us how Isaiah, having told Hezekiah that he was about to die, was sent by God to return to the king and retract his words. Instead of dying in the immediate Hezekiah was told that he had 15 more years to live.
Prophets are gifted with a penchant for knowing what God is thinking about issues, people and circumstances of life. They seem to pick out of the air some thought or statement that seems trivial in one moment – and then seismic when it is understood. They see something or perceive something in the Spirit, then quickly with a throw-away line they impact a person’s life, their relationships, or even a nation. What they say with their gift is what God is saying. It does not matter in the slightest whether it is spoken with drama or lack of it. It is not more inspired because it is said with a strong clear rhetoric or stuttered and stumbled over with a speech impediment. The word of the Lord is the word of the Lord no matter how it is delivered. It is the receiving of that word that is more important than the delivery. I am talking of a true prophet. How often have any of us seen this?
So prophets have a form of intimacy with God that most Christians do not grasp the nature of. I do not mean that other Christians do not have intimacy with God. A pox on that thought! But prophets have a particular intimacy with God that facilitates them to hear what God’s thoughts are. I believe God is whispering to the hearts of all Christians all the time. It is simply that millions do not know how to hear the voice of the Almighty. “Let him that has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
In the Old Testament “Thus says the Lord” is stated around 3500 times. As far as mankind is concerned, prophets are “Tellers” and the “mouth” of God (Jeremiah 15:19). Prophets are “impelled” and compelled by God Himself (II Peter 1:21). God deliberately and wilfully lays His thoughts in the mouth of a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18; Jeremiah 1:9). God quite literally speaks through them (II Samuel 23:2). Their messages are the “utterance of God” (I Peter 4:11). Prophets were essential for the development of revelation and the purposes of God in the Old Testament. It is my solemn conviction that they are just as essential in the New Testament church today.
Prophets see things that millions of Christians don’t glimpse or even have a clue about. That is why they are sometimes referred to as seers (I Samuel 9:9; I Chronicles 9:22; Isaiah 30:10). All seers are prophets. Not all prophets, however, are seers. Seers must first see the message before they can pass it on (I Chronicles 29:29; Isaiah 30:10). Isaiah’s entire 66 chapters are referred to as a vision (Isaiah 1:1), inferring that he saw something even when he does not say so.
When contemplating the issue we are negotiating, whoever it was that wrote Hebrews starts with, “God who at sundry times and in diverse and various manners, spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets…” (Hebrews 1:1). The modes of the prophetic experience were definitely at sundry times and in varied and diverse manners.
There are, in scripture prophecies, the sources of which were physically, tangibly seen. The prophet hears and sees with his normal bodily senses (Numbers 12:8). They see things, when in company with others, that nobody else sees. Moses sees and hears at the flaming bush (Exodus 3). Samuel hears, but sees nothing, even though the text informs us that “The Lord came and stood there, calling as at other times.” (I Samuel 3:10). In another place Daniel sees things, but hears nothing (Daniel 5:25). Abraham, meanwhile both sees and hears (Gen. 18). These men were all prophets.
There are also in scripture prophetic words received that are spiritually pictured and seen. The prophet is, “in the Spirit,” in what suggests itself as somehow out of the body, or at least in a different realm (Revelation 1:10). When this happens, it seems that to physical and worldly things, the prophet’s eyes and senses are simply closed down. The eyes of the prophet’s spirit however are open for business and very much alert (Numbers 24:3). Inwardly a prophet receives exactly what he, “sees” or, “hears.” Through inward sight a prophet receives a picture of some kind of revelation, a vision if you will, which no matter how clearly he sees it, it still requires God Himself to interpret what he has seen (Amos 7: 7; 8: 2; Zechariah 1:9; 4:4; Daniel 8:15). Something is seen, then heard, and then the prophet repeats to people what he has both heard and seen.
There are prophetic deliveries also that are seen in visions, dreams or even trances. God intensifies dreams to people so that they are aware of a divinely delivered word, as with Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and both of the Joseph’s in both Testaments. There are songs of praise that people sing where they take off and enter the prophetic realm as with Hannah (I Samuel 2), Mary and Zacharias (both in Luke 1).
But these are mechanics that can be read in any book and heard from any Bible teacher. What are the defining aspects of prophets which cannot be read about?
Prophets rarely seem to tow, what we may refer to as, “The Party Line.” They always seem to go contrary to what people want to hear and go down paths not even contemplated by the masses. There is nothing whatsoever that is pink and fluffy about them. In fact, it is possible to make the case that the Hebrew writing prophets, both Major and Minor, were actually speaking against Israel. They were Jewish, but definitely not run of the mill Jews. It cannot be argued with that the prophets, both the writing kind and the non writing kind collide head on and scream against the Jewish way of life in every generation in which they lived and prophesied. The prophets without favouritism or partisanship strike out at the sins of the nation. One can read through them all and not grasp the weight of the corrective message of all the writing prophets combined. They address greed and materialism (Isaiah 5: 8; Amos 6: 4-6; Micah 2: 2), excessive interest in money lending amongst themselves, in which context Interest on loans to Jews was actually forbidden, hiring of thugs, extortion (Ezekiel 22:12,13), exploitation of the poor (Isaiah1:17; Micah3:2,3; Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4-6), oppression of widows and orphans ( Jeremiah 5:28), bribery in courts of law (Isaiah1:23; 59:4), false weights in business deals (Micah 6:11; Ezekiel 45:10-12), arrogance and lack of propriety in female fashion (Isaiah 2:12-17; 3:16-24), idolatry and foreign customs that contradicted the biblical concepts (Ezekiel 8; Hosea 7:11; 5:13; 11:2; Isaiah 2: 6), false holier than thou attitudes in the midst of godless religiosity (Isaiah 58: 2-5; Jeremiah 7: 4; Hosea 7: 14; Micah 3:11), self-righteousness (Malachi 1:6 : 2:17; 3:13), dead formality (Isaiah 1:11-17; Malachi 1:1O; Amos 5:21-23; Hosea 6: 6). These “attacks of Israeli culture at different points of time was always in order to bring the nation under God’s wing and into faith.
A prophet does not succumb to the love of money (Micah 3:11). Daniel 5:17. Ezekiel 13:19). Plainly there were no Iying prophets amongst the writing prophets. Christ tells us that every single one of them died because of the contents of what they heard from God. It was the faithful declaration of what God shared with them that led to their deaths.
Prophets must be compelled and drawn along by the Spirit of God. A prophet carries an inner compulsion. A prophet is “persuaded” of the Lord” (Jeremiah 20: 7). The ministry of a biblical type prophet is under a “necessity,” laid upon him or her from above. As one writer puts it, a prophet does not have the message – the message has them. “Woe is unto me if I preach not,” is the way it is with them (I Corinthians 9: 16). These are the things that make a prophet a prophet.
They were so “pro” integrity truth and Godliness that they spoke against villainy, lack of integrity, godlessness and hypocrisy at any level of society. The prophets could never be accused of being “pro Zionism,” or “anti- gentiles.” They just spoke the truth as delivered to them from God Himself. Even when the greatest of all their national heroes failed, it is the prophets that highlight those sins and failures. What other nation of Old Testament times would even dream of highlighting their king’s acts of murder and licentiousness. Martin Luther knew the realities of this sort of thing and defied death itself when he wrote of the popes letters and decrees as, “The fartings of the Pope.” He practiced what he preached when he declared that a true historian must be a man, “with the heart of a lion to write the truth completely and defy the consequences.” None of the biblical prophets present legends of glory and bravery, purity and holiness – but they tell it as it is. Their legendary historical figures are not deified heroes that make one doubt their humanity. By all the accounts of all the prophets, even the greatest people in their history are simply tools in the hands of God (e.g. Cyrus, Isaiah 45:1), and the “saviours” and deliverers of the nation are people with faults like everybody else, “raised up” of the Lord (Judges 3: 9; II Kings 13:5; Nehemiah 9:27). They are open and truthful enough to mention what is good in the lives of the wicked (e.g. Ahab’s repentance, I Kings 21:27-29), and honest enough not to keep silent on the evil in the lives of the saintly (e.g. Abraham’s half-lie, Moses’ impatience, David’s adultery, Solomon’s idolatry and Elijah’s despondency.). Truth is the absolute essence of God’s word in the scriptures, and is part of the characteristic of a true prophet’s message.
To the Hebrew prophets, their national history was a writhing, living entity that spoke clearly, giving directions for the present, and setting goals for the future. All of history impacts the now, and even more so is this true of Israel. Read my previous sentence and remember it the next time you negotiate any of the prophetic books of scripture. God lives outside of time, and so the prophets talk in ways that are so excitingly violent in their movement, things were happening at that moment, precipitating incredible things for the future – and it is all related to their history.
Prophets know how to repent. Repentance is a key plank of their message. Because of that fact, never speak evil of a fallen prophet. Even when one has fallen from grace, repentance, which is the Christians mightiest weapon, will cause them to rise again. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed, and do His prophets no harm.” God says no such thing concerning Pastor’s, evangelists, teachers or Apostles. There is no record in the Bible of a prophet who fell and did not recover.
In the New Testament we are told to weigh up the spirits and not to receive everyone who speaks to us claiming to be “In the Spirit.” We cannot and must not ever differentiate the weight of a person’s gifting from their character- that is New Testament teaching. That aspect was slightly different in the New Testament. We have wicked Balaam hired as a prophet, and he spoke the word of the Lord. Jonah had some ungodly motives. The prophet of 1 Kings 13 was a liar – but he was a prophet. In the New Testament it must not be so. The person having the divine spirit from above must be meek, peaceable and humble. What comes from above is above all. Prophets are called to refrain from all impurity of this world. They are content with fewer of the wants and needs that other men desire. This is the biblical characteristics of a prophet. These aspects of character impact the message he delivers.
The Spirit speaks and so the prophet speaks. If the Spirit does not speak, the prophet has nothing to say. Prophets act in a way that makes healing, deliverance, blessing, prophecy and breakthrough seem to come at their own whim and fancy. Such a thought, of course, is a lie. True prophets will never pray or speak prophetically without the Spirit’s intimation and suggestion. Some Christians are always ready with something to say or pray. Jesus, the ultimate of all prophets, could not even leave to go to a Jewish feast until He had been prompted by the Spirit (John 7:6). A true prophet only moves as per the will of the Father. A true prophet will speak what will happen, or, unknown to him, what has happened. What he says is by the intimation of the Spirit. No intimation of the Spirit, no word from the prophet.
Prophets are endued with a degree of authority over death. Faith in Christ, in its very essence confronts death. The one who has faith in Him that conquered death hell and the grave must have some degree of grasp over death itself. Abraham’s faith defeated the deadness of both his own body and his wife’s. Elijah defeated death altogether by not dying, Elisha called somebody back from death, Moses went up a mountain to meet death as it seems nothing about him was diminishing with old age. Isaiah gave one king extra years of life, virtually telling death to keep its distance from Hezekiah for another fifteen years. Both Peter and Paul emulated their Master and brought the dead back to life. Paul was left for dead, but then rose up and returned to the city of those who had “killed” him. John went up higher and saw the souls of the dead. Prophets deal with death, and they deal with it savagely. Departure from this life can be delayed by prayer or by waiting on God (Isaiah 38:4. Luke 7:2). We will all continue to be challenged by issues that violate our conscience or lead, we suppose, to our deaths. Human assistance or sympathy will not and cannot delay anybody’s departure from this life. Departure from this life, death itself, is on the way to meet us all one day, but can be delayed. On top of that, people can die before their time (Ecclesiastes 7:17).
When a prophet hears from God, things may seem spontaneous to him, but are well planned by God. Some things that seem too profound to be spontaneously delivered, are exactly things that just fell on them at that moment. The prophet will strike the axe to the root of a person’s problem. How many times have I heard people say that “A” is the problem they need prayer for, while the prophet answers, “I cannot even see issue “A” but I know that issues “X”, “Y” and “Z” are dominating your life. That is the prophet laying the axe to the root of a person’s problem. That strike will shake the leaves, rot the roots and lay the offending tree very low. The true prophet will open people’s spiritual eyes as he gives what has been given from above.
Having said all these things, we have to add that anything that seems to stereotype a true prophet has an empty ring about it. All prophets a radically different characters and have their own idiosyncrasies that, if majored on more than they should be, can lead people astray.
If we reduce it all to its naked minimum, a prophet is a man or woman of God, that hears exactly what God is thinking and saying to certain people, or on certain issues and he simply says it “as it is.” A prophet must be a Christian who is relating to the Father through Christ and in the power of the Spirit. He or she will hear things from heaven that the majority do not.