STUDY 1: THE NATURE OF OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY

© Rosemary Bardsley 2017

When we hear the words ‘prophets’ and ‘prophecy’ a confusing muddle of concepts come to mind. Probably the strongest is the idea of prediction of the future. While prediction is indeed a part of biblical prophecy it is by no means the only part, or even the major part.

Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible called the books that we understand to be history ‘the former prophets’ – that is, Josuha to 2Kings. The books that we call ‘major prophets’ and ‘minor prophets’ the Hebrew Bible calls ‘the latter prophets’ or ‘the writing prophets’.

Essentially, a prophet is a person who proclaims the word of God to his generation. This word may or may not include prediction of events in the immediate future or the long term future. But even these predictions have application to the prophet’s contemporaries. They stand as either warnings of judgement or words of hope and encouragement.

From the New Testament perspective, the whole of the Old Testament is predictive of Jesus Christ. This predictive/anticipatory element of the whole Old Testament, including ‘the Law’ – the books of Moses, is affirmed by Jesus Christ.

Task 1: How do these texts define the Old Testament as prediction and proclamation of Christ?
John 5:36-47

Luke 24:25-27

Luke 24:44-46


We find, then, that while ‘prophecy’ is not limited to ‘prediction’, neither is ‘prediction’ limited to ‘prophecy’. Prediction (and therefore proclamation) of Christ comes in multiple forms – in verbal predictions (popularly termed ‘prophecies’), in the history of Israel, in individual persons who in a limited way are ‘types’ of Christ, in the rituals and feast days of Israel, in physical objects – such as the ark, the ‘manna’, or the temple. We deprive ourselves of immense and impactive insights if we limit anticipations of Christ to the verbal predictions scattered randomly through the Old Testament. We also deprive ourselves if we read the prophets [Isaiah to Malachi] looking only for predictions, without realizing that here through these prophets God reveals absolute and eternal truth about himself.

Note: There is a line of thought in contemporary Christianity [‘the New Apostolic Reformation’] that believes that there are ‘prophets’ today through whom God is giving new revelation that is as authoritative as the written Word. This is a highly dangerous departure from the fundamental Christian concept of the authority and finality of Scripture. If today’s ‘prophecies’ are as inspired and as authoritative as is claimed, then the finality of the written Word, and therefore its authority and trustworthiness, are compromised. We can have confidence in the reliability of the written Word only if it is the final and complete Word.

Importantly, it is clear from the New Testament that Jesus Christ is God’s final self-revelation. All that God is is in Christ. There is nothing more for us to know about God than what we see when we look at Jesus. To propose additional revelation, beside and beyond Jesus Christ, is to display a perilous ignorance of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is to diminish his deity. It is to depart from biblical faith.

For deeper thought:
Think deeply about these verses. In what way do they outlaw any further revelation of God beside or beyond Jesus Christ?
John 8:19

John 10:30

John 12:44,45

John 14:6-9

Colossians 1:19

Colossians 2:3

Colossians 2:9

Hebrews 1:1-3


A. SUBSTITUTES FOR THE REAL THING (Deuteronomy 18:9-22)

The message of Deuteronomy was originally written for those who were about to enter a land where there was no knowledge of the one, true God. In this absence of God and his Word the land was full of wickedness and empty of truth. In this absence of God people were involved in all sorts of customs completely contrary to the way of God. In particular, they sought to have some kind of knowledge of and control over their lives by interacting with occult practitioners.

The Israelites were forbidden to participate in these practices:

‘When you enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there’ (18:9).

Task 2: Read Deuteronomy 18:10-11, then list these ‘detestable ways’:

 

 

 

All of these are directly concerned with either getting information about the future, or manipulating the future, and therefore their lives, in some way. They are expressions of the human rejection of living by faith in the one, true God, and of refusal to trust him and his sovereign power and fatherly love. They are also expressions of the lostness and vulnerability of man without God, of the fearful urgency to have some control over their lives.

The real thing, as opposed to the above substitutes for the real thing, is the word of the Lord, spoken by men raised up by God. When we really know God as he has revealed himself through his spokesmen, the prophets, we do not need to know the future, because we also trust God.

Discussion topics:
[1] How have you personally, or people you know, sought information about the future?


[2] How does ‘knowing’ the future give the (false) appearance of having control of your life?


[3] Contrast these psychic means of ‘knowing’ the future with faith in the biblical God.


[4] How does the emphasis some Christians put on ‘finding the will of God’ express a similar lack of trust in God’s fatherly care?


B. CHARACTERISTICS OF A TRUE PROPHET (Deuteronomy 18:14-22)

Task 3: From Deuteronomy 18:14-22 list seven characteristics of a true prophet

 

 

 


Task 4: Read Deuteronomy 13:1-5 to learn very important additional information. What other factor is involved in identifying a true prophet?

 


From these two passages we learn that the key factor that identifies a prophet as a true prophet is correct theology [Deuteronomy 18:20, 13:2,3]. Not even miracles, nor the miraculous fulfilment of a prophet’s predictive words, are to impact us if a prophet’s teaching about God or attitude to God are faulty.


C. THE PROPHETS – AN EXPRESSION OF GOD’S MERCY TO SINNERS

It would be wrong to assume that the provision of prophets was inaugurated by God as an alternative to the kind of divination listed in Deuteronomy 18:9-13. True prophets are not God’s alternative to divination of the future, rather, divination of the future by occult or psychic means is a human substitute for the real thing: God speaking to humans.

The reason behind God speaking through prophets is stated in Deuteronomy 18:16:

‘For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”’

This is a reference back to Exodus 20:19.

God’s choice to speak to humans through prophets is a condescension, a divine compromise, a merciful accommodation to the fearful, guilt-ridden hearts and minds of human sinners. In Eden God spoke with Adam and Eve personally; but because sinful humans are fearful in his presence, because humans are condemned in his presence, he speaks through his prophets – they are his spokesmen. God affirmed the rightness of this human awareness of guilt and fear in the presence of God [Deuteronomy 18:17].

For deeper thought:
To what extent is this sense of alienation, this fear in the presence of God, removed for those who are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ? Provide scripture texts to support your answer.

 

 


Consider the significance of Hebrews 1:1,2, where God speaking through the prophets is contrasted with God speaking through his Son.

 

 

D. THE MESSAGE OF THE PROPHET

Far from being focused on predicting the future, the message of the prophets had five consistent components:

[1] The basis of the message of the prophets is the Law of God. The first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses, are viewed by the Jews as The Law (the Torah). These constitute the foundational revelation given by God to Moses. In Numbers 12:7-8 we are given God’s opinion of Moses, and the high esteem in which God viewed him. Moses is the prophet par excellence of the Old Testament. He, above all other prophets, is the one who foreshadows or typifies Jesus Christ. [Check Deuteronomy 18:17ff.]

[2] The message of the prophets reminded people of the former activities of God (mostly those recorded in the books of Moses). The purpose of this reminder was:


To encourage the people to persist in hope in their present circumstances.
To exhort the people to remain obedient to the Lord.
To point out the inconsistency of their present sin in the light of God’s past mercy – who God is and what God had done for them.

[3] The prophets spoke against present sin, and called people to repent.

[4] The prophets announced the judgement impending because of present, persistent sin.

[5] The prophets announced the immediate and long term availability of grace.


E. THE AUTHORITY OF THE PROPHET

The word of the true biblical prophet is the word of God. Whether it is recalling past events, defining God’s person, describing present conditions, predicting future events, exhorting people to repentance, godliness, obedience, hope or trust, or announcing judgement or grace, the word of the prophet is the word of God. When we read through any of the prophets the phrase ‘the Lord says’ or something similar occurs repeatedly. We are left without doubt that what the prophet says, God says.

How did the prophets get God’s word?

[1] Moses - face to face (Numbers 12:8)

[2] Visions - Numbers 12:6; Isaiah 6; Jer 1; Amos 7,8; Ezekiel 1-3.

[3] Dreams - Numbers 12:6; Jeremiah 31:26.

[4] Most commonly: ‘The word of the Lord came’ - this is the basic experience of the prophet. God conveys his words to and through the prophet, by his Spirit.

Task 5: What do these verses say about how the word of God came to the Old Testament prophets?
2Peter 1:21:


2Timothy 3:16:

 

F. PROPHETS IN THE PURPOSE OF GOD

The Old Testament prophets had an important place in the purpose of God. This was particularly focused on the people (the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob) God had chosen to be the vehicles of his self-revelation and of his redemptive work.

[1] The prophets were used by God to proclaim his word and purpose to their contemporaries.

[2] The prophets were used by God to reveal his saving purpose in Jesus Christ (Luke 24:25-27; 44-47; John 6:39,46; 2Timothy 3:16-17; 1Peter 1:10-12).

[3] Along with the New Testament apostles, the Old Testament prophets are the source of God’s word for the Church (Ephesians 2:20).

[4] Thus the Old Testament prophets, revealed, recorded and predicted salvation history: from the record of creation and the fall in Genesis to the consummation of all things in Revelation. This is the primary and most significant role of the Old Testament prophet. Everything else is incidental to this purpose of God focused in Jesus Christ. With the coming of Christ and his salvation, with the establishment of the Church, and with the completion of the written Word, this role of the prophet has been completed.

[5] This obviously sets a perimeter around the activity of ‘prophets’ today. We must ask ourselves an important question: is the primary role of a prophet today to reveal new truth, to predict the future or to proclaim God’s already revealed truth to the contemporary generation? Given that God’s eternal saving purpose has been accomplished in and through Christ, and will be consummated in his return, there is actually nothing more that needs to be revealed. The role of the prophet today is to take the already revealed truth and apply it to the contemporary generation to elicit repentance and faith in those who do not already believe and obedience and trust in those who believe.

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As we study Isaiah we will find that only a portion of his message predicts events that were at the time still future. Most of Isaiah is proclamation of the nature and standards of God, identification of present sin and exhortations to repentance and renewal, as well as straight reporting of historical events. His predictions include warnings of the judgements that would fall upon Judah and various nations, and teaching about the first and second comings of Christ.