The Question Box

The Role of the Prophet

Reprinted from THE HERALD of November, 1949

What was the function of an Old Testament Prophet?

Richard G. Moulton in The Modern Reader’s Bible has written very instructively on this subject. The following is little more than a condensation of his remarks. "In approaching this subject one misconception needs special notice. It seems almost impossible to eliminate from the popular mind the idea that "prophecy" means "prediction." Yet this is a purely modern modification of its meaning. It rests upon a false etymology: the pro in this word is not the pro which means beforehand (as in prospectus), but the other pro which means in place of (as in pronoun): a prophet is one who speaks in place of another. When Moses had been shrinking from the mission to Israel on the ground of his inefficiency as a speaker, and Aaron was granted him as an assistant in this respect, the words were: `See, I have made thee [Moses] a god unto Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet’ (Exod. 7:1)."

As Aaron is thus the mouthpiece of Moses, so regularly in Scripture the prophet is the mouthpiece of God. Of course prophecy, like any other form of literature, can contain, and in fact does contain, predition: but such predictions are the accident, not the essence of prophecy. Yet in traditional interpretation the ideas that prophecy must be prediction has distorted the study of the books; particular passages, often of minor importance, have been over-accentuated, while the spiritual richness of the books when read as literary wholes, has usually been missed.

In this broad sense every one who stands forth as a representative of God has a claim to the name of prophet. Moses thus speaks of himself; Deborah is called a prophetess. But there is a more specific sense to the word. Israel began as a theocracy. The government of God was exercised through such as Moses and Joshua. Later, when the people insisted upon visible kings, prophets, who had hitherto appeared sporadically, became a settled order, ready at any time to appeal from the secular kings to the Divine Ruler of Israel. They were prophets as representing the Theocracy. They were not the equivalent of pastors—they were statesmen; and not statesmen merely, but opposition statesmen. They did not minister to sympathetic congregations, but flung themselves into active life as antagonists of the prevailing system.

To this must be added an important distinction between the earlier and latter prophets. The earlier prophets, such as Elijah, were men of action. There is no "book of the Prophet Elijah;" men like Elijah and Elisha entered into literature as heroes of stories which others narrate. But the latter prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, without ceasing to be men of action, are also men of letters. Thus for these latter prophets there is a double function. To their own generation they, like their predecessors, are leaders of national action. But beyond this function their literary gifts have fitted them for a wider and perpetual audience. The same spiritual message which they have from day to day fitted to passing emergencies, they now, through these other literary channels, convey to succeeding generations.

This double function of the later prophets has a bearing upon the interpretation of prophecy. As an illustration, consider the first chapter of Isaiah. We call it a discourse. But in what sense is it a discourse? If it be read side by side with one of the orations of Deuteronomy a great difference will be found. In every sentence of the latter we are conscious of the presence of a great audience, and the influence of an audience upon a speaker, The oration was actually spoken by Moses to an assembly of Israelites. In the chapter of Isaiah we have impassioned oratory, but without anything to suggest a visible audience or a particular occasion. The matter of this chapter will no doubt have been used by Isaiah on fifty or a hundred occasions; used as a whole or in parts; in formal address or passing remonstrance, as he labored, in season and out of season, in his prophetic vocation. The content of the chapter is something different—the essence of the message, the concentration of these multiplied prophetic ministrations, stripped of what is accidental or occasional, has adapted itself to a different literary type, and become universalized in its appeal. And what is true of so simple a thing as discourse is yet more true in application to the more elaborated prophecies of the nature of rhapsodies and doom songs. This should be specially borne in mind when studying the "Rhapsody of Zion Redeemed"—a happily phrased caption which Moulton gives to the last twenty-seven chapters of Isaiah.

Much of what we have presented foregoing applies equally to the New Testament prophets. An instructive paragraph from Scripture Studies, Vol. VI, page 246, is in point here. We quote:

"The word `prophet’ is not generally used today in the broad sense in which it was used in olden times, but is rather understood to signify a seer, or foreteller. The word prophet, however, strictly signifies a public speaker—an orator. A seer of visions or a recipient of revelations might also be a prophet, in the sense of a declarer of same; but the two thoughts are distinctly separate. In the case of Moses and Aaron, Moses was the greater, being the divine representative, and the Lord said to him, `See, I have made thee a god [mighty one or superior] unto Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet’—spokesman, mouthpiece’ (Exod. 7:1). . . . Several of the Apostles were seers in the sense that they were granted a knowledge of things to come . . . they were nearly all prophets, too, that is public orators—especially Peter and Paul."

The meaning of the word does not change even when applied to our Lord. Moses had spoken of the prophet which should arise, like unto himself (Deut. 18:15, 18; Acts 3:22); while, when our Lord came, the people said of him: "This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world" (John 6:14). In the exercise of his office as prophet, our Lord represented—was truly in the stead of, the spokesman, mouthpiece, or word of—God. As Brother Russell points out in the Manna for September 25, even now our Lord "gives us, as our Prophet or Teacher, wisdom by his Gospel."

Jesus our Shepherd, Savior, Friend,
Our Prophet, Priest, and King,
Our hearts in gratitude ascend;
Accept the praise we bring

It is in this same sense of forthtelling, expounding, instructing (rather than foretelling) that the word applies to the great Prophet of the age to come. Of that Prophet our glorified Lord Jesus is to be the Head, the glorified Church, the Body-members. For ourselves, we may give thanks that the privilege is still ours of making our calling and election sure to membership in this company; for the world of mankind as as a whole, we may rejoice at their prophet (all unbeknown to them, but nevertheless sure) of being granted an opportunity for deliverance from present sin and death conditions to everlasting life in the Millennial Canaan to which this great Prophet shall lead them.

P. L. Read