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What Is A Prophet?

How is a prophet different from a priest? Is a prophet born or made? Is he a prophet for a short while, because he is called to a task, and then he ceases to be a prophet? How is a true prophet distinguished from a false one? What is a prophet?

It may seem unusual, at the end of a series on the prophets, to ask a question that might have been answered at the beginning. Perhaps, logically, it should have been asked in the opening article, but the reason for postponement is that the experience of meeting the men who played the role in their time may provide material for a more informed and critical answer.

The work of the prophet is usually concerned with crisis. It has its special significance in a specific period of time. The situation may not seem particularly critical to the people that receive the prophetic messages because they are not always aware of the meaning of the events that happen around them, but God's eyes see the crisis. Every time of choice is a critical time in human experience. The role of the prophet is to reveal the nature and true significance of the situation by the word of the Lord.

A priest served in a recognized framework of behaviour. There were clear guidelines inside which he worked. A prophet had no such framework and his behaviour and message were often in conflict with the conventions of his time. There were standards by which his message could be measured but the people neglected to use them.

People long to be flattered. They want glorification, approval and support. The true prophet cannot provide what they want. His message is measured against the historic word and is its living reality in the present. The people of Israel measured it by other standards and refused to hear. They tried to close the prophet's lips by persecution or murder. It was not only enemies that would threaten a prophet, his friends posed a different kind of threat. He was a lonely man.

The prophets were called by God. They were not self-appointed to their work. In a number of cases there was a vision that preceded the call. Isaiah described the stages of his summons in detail in chapter 6; there was a vision, purification, the call and the response. Jeremiah describes similar circumstances and Ezekiel also. The first fact that any prophet had to face was his own total unworthiness to handle the message that was being delivered through his lips.

We know very little about the schools of prophets that existed in the days of the early kings, or what part they played in the life of the nation, but by the time of the minor prophets the men whose messages have been preserved for us all seem to have stood on their own. No human experience or training was able to fit them for the task of their lives.

It must have been a very fearsome thing for ordinary men to find themselves responsible to bring the battering ram of the word of the Lord to bear on the complacency and ignorance of the people. It is not surprising that the response would be, "I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips". There was no room for pride or self-satisfaction in a prophet.

It is important to clarify this point about the prophetic task. The prophet did not say, "I don't like what is going on and I will speak my mind in the name of the LORD". He did not adopt a religious or philosophical standpoint and spread propaganda to involve other people in his ideology. He was abandoned to the word of the LORD, beyond the security of his personal ideas or safety.

It is true that a great part of the message of the prophets was addressed to social issues and much has been made of this at different times by people who seemed to want to confine the gospel to social issues. The emphasis of the prophets is strong evidence of God's involvement, and there is no doubt that God is concerned with human society. He has always been concerned with the relationships of people, whether private or social or business. The reason for the concern with such issues is that relationships with other persons are a part of spiritual crisis. We have enough information in the epistles of James and John alone to convince us that relationships and the way we deal with other people are of the greatest importance.

The sins that were attacked were many. It may be interesting to notice that the same sins were attacked by the Lord Himself when He spoke to the people. He spoke against the abuse of economic power, false leadership, blindness and narrowness of vision, and pride.

The prevailing popular idea of a prophet is that he is a seer to tell the future. Emphasis has been laid upon the ability to foretell events with accuracy and precision. While it is true that much of their message is concerned with future events, the predictions are incidental td the main purpose of the message.

God is a God of history and in the Old Testament it was largely the history of Israel, but that history is not just the story of the past, it is also the future. The future is as clearly defined by God as the past except that a great deal has to be expressed in conditional terms, because its nature is consequential. "If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. And they shall pass through it, hardly bestead and hungry" (Isaiah 8, 20, 21 A.V.).

Unfortunately for human history, the positive conditions were rarely fulfilled and the negative conditions were met frequently. It was unusual that the predictions of a message like Jonah's were not fulfilled because a nation changed its ways and sought the way of life.

When a word of prophecy is given, it must be heard and obeyed if there is to be any blessing. It does not have to be heard and obeyed because God always leaves men with a choice. The role of the prophet is to make that choice very clear and plain by rolling back the mists of prejudice and misconception and bringing in the light of God's word. He leaves people with the truth and with the responsibility for making a decision.