Defining the Role of Prophets in the Bible

Meet the men (and women!) called to guide God's people through troubled waters.

12.01.13Prophets.jpg
Photo (c) by pederk / Getty Images

Because I'm an editor during my day job, I sometimes get annoyed when people use words in the wrong way. For example, I've noticed in recent years that many sports fans get their wires crossed when using the terms "lose" (the opposite of win) and "loose" (the opposite of tight). I wish I had a dollar for every Facebook post I've seen where someone asked, "How could they ​loose that game when they were winning by two touchdowns?"

Anyway, I've learned that these little foibles don't bother normal people. It's just me. And I'm okay with that -- most of the time. But I do think there are situations where it's important to get the right meaning for a specific word. Words matter and we help ourselves when we can refer to important words in the right way.

Take the word "prophet," for example. Prophets played a major role throughout the pages of Scripture, but that doesn't mean we always understand who they were or what they were trying to accomplish. Thankfully, we'll have a much easier time understanding the prophets once we settle on some basic information.

The Basics

Most people make a strong connection between the role of a prophet and the idea of telling the future. They believe that a prophet is someone who makes (or made, in the case of the Bible) a lot of predictions about what's going to happen.

There is certainly a lot of truth to that idea.

Most of the prophecies recorded in Scripture that deal with future events were written or spoken by the prophets. For example, Daniel predicted the rise and fall of several empires in the ancient world -- including the Medo-Persian alliance, the Greeks led by Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire (see Daniel 7:1-14).

Isaiah predicted that Jesus would be born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and Zechariah predicted that Jewish people from around the world would return to Israel after its restoration as a nation (Zechariah 8:7-8).

But telling the future was not the major role of the Old Testament prophets. In fact, their prophecies were more of a side effect of their main role and function.

The primary role of the prophets in the Bible was to speak with the people about the words and will of God in their specific situations. The prophets served as God's megaphones, declaring whatever God commanded them to say.

What's interesting is that God Himself defined the role and function of the prophets at the beginning of Israel's history as a nation:

18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.
Deuteronomy 18:18-19

That's the most important definition. A prophet in the Bible was someone who spoke the words of God to people who needed to hear them.

People and Places

To fully understand the role and function of the Old Testament prophets, you need to be familiar with Israel's history as a nation.

After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, Joshua ultimately led the military conquest of the promised land. That was Israel's official beginning as a nation on the world stage. Saul eventually became Israel's first king, but the nation experienced its greatest growth and prosperity under the rule of King David and King Solomon. Sadly, the nation of Israel was split apart under the rule of Solomon's son, Rehoboam. For centuries, the Jews were divided between the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah.

While figures like Abraham, Moses, and Joshua can be considered prophets, I think of them more as the "founding fathers" of Israel. God began to use prophets as the primary way of speaking to his people during the period of the judges before Saul became King.

They remained God's primary way of delivering His will and words until Jesus took the stage centuries later.

Throughout Israel's growth and regression as a nation, prophets arose at different times and spoke to the people in specific locations. For example, among the prophets who wrote books now found in the Bible, three ministered to Israel's northern kingdom: Amos, Hosea, and Ezekiel. Nine prophets served the southern kingdom, called Judah: Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

[Note: learn more about the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets -- including why we use those terms today.]

There were even prophets who served in locations outside of the Jewish homeland. Daniel communicated God's will to the Jews taken captive in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. Jonah and Nahum spoke to the Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh. And Obadiah declared the will of God to the people of Edom.

Additional Responsibilities

So, the prophets served as God's megaphones to declare the will of the Lord in specific regions at specific points in history. But, given the different circumstances each of them encountered, their authority as God's emissaries often led to additional responsibilities -- some good, and some bad.

For example, Deborah was a prophet who also served as a political and military leader during the period of the judges, when Israel had no king. She was largely responsible for a huge military victory over a larger army with superior military technology (see Judges 4). Other prophets helped lead the Israelites during military campaigns, including Elijah (see 2 Kings 6:8-23).

During the high points of Israel's history as a nation, the prophets were subtle guides who provided wisdom to God-fearing kings and other leaders. For example, Nathan helped David get back on course after his disastrous affair with Bathsheba, (see 1 Samuel 12:1-14). Similarly, prophets like Isaiah and Daniel were largely respected in their day.

At other times, however, God called prophets to confront the Israelites about idolatry and other forms of sin.

These prophets often ministered during times of decline and defeat for Israel, which made them singularly unpopular -- even persecuted.

For example, here's what God instructed Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Israel:

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it down.’"
Jeremiah 37:6-8

Not surprisingly, Jeremiah was often accosted by the political leaders of his day. He even ended up in jail (see Jeremiah 37:11-16).

But Jeremiah was lucky compared to many of the other prophets -- especially those who ministered and spoke boldly during the reigns of evil men and women. Indeed, here's what Elijah had to say to God about his experiences as a prophet during the rule of evil Queen Jezebel: 

14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:14

In summary, the prophets of the Old Testament were men and women called by God to speak for Him -- and often lead on His behalf -- during a chaotic and often violent period of Israel's history. They were dedicated servants who ministered well and left a powerful legacy for those who came after.