Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!

Numbers 11:29

The Bible study group that I lead recently tried to answer a surprisingly complicated question: What is a prophet? There are many prophets in the Bible, people like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and John the Baptist. We know that they are prophets, but what exactly is a prophet? These biblical prophets all have very different backgrounds, and live very different lives. They are priests and farmers, married and single, young and old. They are very different from one another, but they do share some similar characteristics. 

They were all called by God to speak on God’s behalf. (This is why so many of their statements begin, “Thus says the Lord.”) Many times, this word was not accepted. (As Jesus said, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” – Luke 4:24) Sometimes the biblical prophets were called to speak a word of judgment, and other times a word of hope. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, the biblical prophets “criticize and energize.” But always the word that they share is not theirs, but God’s. They often speak poetically. In fact, the poetic portions of the prophetic books make up their single largest part. Why? Perhaps because their message was not just about information, but transformation. And perhaps this is why they sometimes let their lives speak rather than their words. 

As our Bible study group continued to explore what it means to be a prophet, we realized that there are a few other characteristics of these prophets that are very important. First of all, the biblical prophets not only spoke for God, they also spoke to God. They prayed, interceding before God on behalf of God’s people. In fact, the very first time that the word “prophet” appears in the Bible, Abilimech is told of Abraham that “he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live” (Genesis 20:7). Prayer and prophecy are closely linked throughout Scripture. Before any of the prophets spoke to God’s people, they spent time listening to God. And after they spoke to God’s people, they spent more time praying over their experience. 

The prayers of these prophets often led to a particular place: grief. An important role the prophets played was to help their community to grieve. We don’t always do this well in our culture. We tend to hide or deny our grief. But the prophets were instrumental in helping their communities to grieve and to lament, and how that is needed in our time! What did the prophets grieve? That the world did not look the way God envisioned it. They grieved over the injustice seen in their communities, and especially over the plight of the poor. They lamented the lack of faithfulness that they saw in their community. They were called by God to point this out, and to call them to return to the Lord, but also to mourn. Motivated by their call and by their desire to be faithful, these prophets often suffered, willingly, on behalf of God’s people.

But the prophets also celebrated with God’s people, when it was called for. I love the fact that the third time “prophet” is used in the Bible, it is used of the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister. After God’s people were led safely across the Red Sea, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing” (Exodus 15:20). That, too, is what it means to be a prophet!

But there is one more characteristic shared by all the biblical prophets: They all loved God’s people, passionately and deeply. They knew the truth of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). And so, they loved God’s people. But they loved them enough to confront them when they turned from God. They loved them enough to upset them when needed. They loved them enough to share sharp words of judgment when needed. But when this was needed, they always shared these difficult words with tears in their eyes and hearts filled with love. 

But what about today? Are there still prophets among us? We wrestled with that question, too. We thought of prophets in our time like Martin Luther King Jr. But we also realized that all followers of Jesus have a prophetic role to play in this world. We may not all be prophets, in the literal, biblical sense, but we are all called to speak to our corner of this world on God’s behalf. We are all called to love our friends and community enough to confront them when needed. We are all called to pray on behalf of God’s people. And sometimes we are called to make sacrifices for those whom God loves. 

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!

Numbers 11:29

What does it mean to be a prophet today? We can learn from the prophets of old how to live out our own prophetic vocation, whatever it may be. How to love God’s people, and  pray for them. How to mourn with them, and how to confront them when needed (with tears in our eyes). And, of course, when God is doing wonderful things in our midst, we can learn from the prophets of old to take up our tambourines and dance. 

There is a lot we can learn from the biblical prophets as we seek to live out our call to follow Jesus, and as we share in the prophetic ministry. And as we do this, may God grant us all the words, the wisdom, the courage, and the love that is needed.

6 thoughts on “What Is a Prophet?

  1. This is amazingly right on for me, and for this time in our lives. I have served in all of the ways you underline as part of prophetic ministry; the one aspect I cannot identify with is that as prophets spoke for the LORD they often spoke about the future. But recently when I explained my urges to speak out about injustice in our nation, using a “prophetic” voice, it was misunderstood as my claiming to be a prophet like these famous Old Testament ones. I believe that a true, broader understanding of the role is much needed in our communities. Thank you for affirming that I must continue to follow the Lord’s leading when it comes. May many others also be encouraged!

    Liked by 1 person

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