Characteristics of prophetic people
What is a prophet anyway?
A prophet is someone who speaks to people on behalf of God. A prophet made known the will of God, called people back to God, and warned the people of God’s judgment for the bad things they did. Prophets were also often used by God to announce events that would occur in the future. For example, many prophets in the Old Testament preach about the coming of the Messiah.
A mouth for God
The prophets were extraordinary people on the one hand. They did not express their thoughts and ideas, but a particular message from God for the time. They were a kind of “mouth for God” so that God could speak to the people through the prophet. On the other hand, prophets were also very ordinary people with very different backgrounds.
For example, Amos was a pure sheep breeder, while Isaiah came from a high-ranking family. But no matter how various the prophets were, one thing applied to them all: it is God who chooses them to speak to the people through them.
What did prophets talk about?
Prophets were used by God to let the people know that He was not satisfied with how they lived. We often read in the Bible that the people of Israel are disobedient to God, and a prophet then had the task of making the people realize that they were on the wrong path.
For example, many prophets showed that God would punish the people if they did not return to a lifestyle that God had in mind. God also uses prophets to encourage people in difficult times. If only the people trust God, it will all be alright.
Not an easy task
Many prophets certainly did not have it easy. They spoke on behalf of God, but the message from God was not precisely gratefully received. This also often had consequences for the messenger. Thus Jeremiah is locked up in a cage and made fun of. The people could not appreciate and accept the message. God tells Ezekiel that he must speak to the people, but God immediately makes it clear to him that the people will not listen to him.
The same Ezekiel is given the task of showing through symbolic actions how dissatisfied God is with the people. A kind of street theater. He has to bake his food on cow dung while lying on his left side for 390 days and on his right hand for 40 days.
Brief history of the Biblical prophets
In the first instance, we see prophets performing in groups . They are characterized by their clothing (hairy cloak and leather belt, as in 2 Kings 128; cf. Mat. 3: 4), live on alms and travel around. Their performance includes music and dance, creating an ecstasy in which the prophet senses contact with God. Saul also happens when he meets prophets (1 Sam. 10, 5-7).
However, when Biblical prophecy develops from a prophet group to an individual person , the ecstatic descriptions fall away. The prophet simply reports that the Lord God has spoken to him. The how of that speaking is totally subordinate to what God has spoken. These loners, who no longer understand themselves as group prophets (see, for example, the negative answer of the prophet Amos in Am. 7,14), form classical prophecy, which also includes prophecy of scripture because they have made the step of writing their prophecies.
This writing is primarily a protest against the refusal attitude of the listeners of the prophets to accept the message that these brought on behalf of God (see, for example, Isaiah’s performance in Isa. 8,16-17). In this way the prophetic words were also preserved for the next generation. This naturally led to further literary growth of what we now know as the prophets. From this classical prophecy, Moses is looked back, after the Babylonian exile regarded as a prophet and indeed the greatest of all prophets, as in Deuteronomy 34.10.
Indeed, all of Israel’s history is interpreted as a succession of prophets: starting with the direct self-revelation of God on Mount Sinai, there have always been intermediaries, prophets, of whom Moses was the first (thus: Deut. 18,13- 18). (van Wieringen pp 75-76)
Classical prophecy only fully develops in Israel from the 8th century. In any case, it is about the prophets whose prophecies and messages have been delivered. They are called ‘scripture prophets’. In the 8th century Amos and Hosea occur in Northern Israel: Amos with its fierce criticism of social abuses; Hosea with his passionate call for loyalty to the original encounter of the Lord in the time of the desert. In the southern kingdom of Judah, Isaiah appears shortly afterwards. Together with Micha, he gives his interpretation of the war that is currently being waged by the king of Syria and Israel against Jerusalem.
Isaiah interferes in politics, like his predecessors Elijah and Elisha. He calls on Ahaz and afterwards Hezekiah not to trust in Assyria and Egypt, but only in the Lord. In 721 the North Kingdom falls and Jerusalem is besieged. Micah’s prophecies are also a sharp indictment of all corruption and abuse. His language is even rougher than that of Amos. For him too, the only guarantee for the future of Israel is faithfulness to the Lord. Otherwise everything ends in destruction. Even the temple will not be spared.
Jerusalem is indeed facing the catastrophe in the 7th century. The prophecies of Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk guide this process. But especially those of Jeremiah, who occur until the first half of the 6th century among the last kings of Judah. Again and again the warning can be heard that there is only one answer to the crisis: faithful to the Lord. In 587 the unavoidable happens: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the deportation of a large part of the population to Babel.
The Babylonian exile is, just like the exodus and the conclusion of the covenant, a key moment in the history of Israel. Much more than a one-off historical event, she becomes a living, bearing memory. In a tragic but not barren way, Israel gets to know his Lord and himself in a new way. The Lord is not tied to temple, city, country or people. Israel, for its part, learns to believe without claiming any privilege. Seated by the streams of Babylon, “abroad,” it will recharge and learn to trust in God alone.
Once that catastrophe of destruction and deportation is a fact, the tone of many prophets changes. Ezekiel, who is a contemporary of Jeremiah and who preaches among the exiles, will now especially encourage and call for confidence. He helps them to cope with the loss of the land and especially the temple. Also an unknown prophet, the so-called deutero-Isaiah, proclaims his message of comfort during that period: the first success of the Persian king Cyrus with his reconciling religious policy is a sign to him of the impending liberation and return to Jerusalem.
From the end of the exile, the prophets follow each other without precise chronology. Haggai and Zechariah accompany the first attempts to restore the temple. An unknown third prophet from the school of Isaiah, the trito-Isaiah, speaks to the returned exiles in Jerusalem. Then come Malachi, Obadiah, Joel.
The end of Biblical prophecy starts from the 3rd century. Israel is now without official witnesses of God’s word. Gradually people are looking forward to the return of the prophets or to the coming of the prophet (cf. Dt 18,13-18). This expectation is also present in the New Testament. Jesus is recognized as this prophet who had to come. The early Church, by the way, has seen a revival of prophecy. Although all receive the spirit as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (cf. Acts 2,17-21), some are explicitly called “prophets.”
They are the interpreters of God’s word for the Christian congregation. Prophetism may have disappeared in its official form, fortunately, the Church has known people in all times who, in line with the Biblical prophets, have surprisingly updated God’s offer and the ability to respond to it. (CCV pp 63-66)