The Role of the Prophets

I have recently read the book of Amos (Old Testament), named after a prophet of the Living God. And it got me to thinking about the role of the prophets both in Scripture and in society today.

Amos 3:7 is one of my favourite verses in the whole Bible. As I am reading the Bible through in a version that is new to me (New English Translation) it once again grabbed my attention.

“Certainly the sovereign LORD does nothing without first revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.”

It caught my attention because it really does not do justice to the verse in the original Hebrew. Let me quote it in the version I have been reading for years (English Standard Version).

“For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”

The Hebrew word for “secret” speaks of the intimate counsel of God. God is known for taking the upright “in His confidence” and giving warning or instruction to His people.

Job 29:4 NET “…just as I was in my most productive time, when Godʼs intimate friendship was experienced in my tent…”

Proverbs 3:32 NET “or one who goes astray is an abomination to the LORD,

but he reveals his intimate counsel to the upright.”

In biblical times, God particularly chose to speak through handpicked, distinct leaders who would deliver His message to the people. These prophets were responsible to stand in His council and receive His Word, and then to declare that Word to the people with absolute fidelity.

Jeremiah 23:18, 22 NET “Yet which of them has ever stood in the LORDʼs inner circle

so they could see and hear what he has to say? Which of them have ever paid attention or listened to what he has said? … But if they had stood in my inner circle, they would have proclaimed my message to my people. They would have caused my people to turn from their wicked ways and stop doing the evil things they are doing.”

The prophets could take no credit for what they said. Their duty was to say what God said. Nothing more, nothing less. The apostle Peter captured the prophet’s role in speaking and writing for God. “Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophetʼs own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

It was a fearsome responsibility that required deep humility. Amos begins his prophecy by reminding his readers that he is only a shepherd from the small village of Tekoa (Amos 1:1). At Jeremiah’s prophetic commissioning, he pleads that his youth is a hindrance (Jeremiah 1:6). When God calls Moses to stand before Pharaoh — the most powerful ruler on earth — and tell him to let God’s people go free, Moses fears that his poor speech will prevent him from being effective. So God gave Moses a spokesperson: his own brother, Aaron. Moses would be the leader and tell Aaron what to say, and Aaron would say it (Exodus 4:15).

Moses’ relationship to Aaron prefigured the relationship God would eventually have with His own spokespeople, the prophets of Israel: “He will speak for you to the people, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were his God” (Exodus 4:16 NET). God would supply the prophets with what needed to be said, but they would be the ones to say it.

The prophets’ role was not to be creative but to be faithful. They were brought into the intimate confines of God’s counsel, receiving things that the people ultimately needed to hear. In fact, ““For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). It was never God’s intention to catch His people unaware. Rather, He used prophets like Amos to give Israel fair warning that if they did not change their sinful ways, they could expect God to act.

Prophets did not speak only to warn, chastised, or announce judgment. They also spoke God’s Word “…for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NET). In other words, their purpose was also to teach so that God’s people would know how to live in times of crisis and times of calm.

In the New Testament era, the other side of the prophetic calling – forthtelling the Words of God instead of foretelling the actions of God — gets more attention. There were certain prophets active in the church who foretold the future:

Acts 21:8-11 NET “On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. (He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.) While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us, took Paulʼs belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ʻThis is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.ʼ”

But in writing about the role of church prophets and prophecy, Paul said, “But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3 NET). In the New Testament, the emphasis was on building up the Body of Christ through exhortation and encouragement in the face of persecution.

1 Corinthians 14:4-5 NET “The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened.”

Whether the counsel of God in Scripture warns His people, speaks of future events, reveals gifts and callings, or instructs them in how to live in difficult times, the purpose of the prophets was the same: fidelity and faithfulness to the direction of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit of God warns and directs Christians today. And like the prophets of old, the responsibility of the prophets (and those who prophesy) is to faithfully do as He directs.