Word Magazine June 1971 Page 9 – 11
ON THE MEANING OF BIBLICAL PROPHECY
By John C. Trevor
Professor of Religion, Baldwin-Wallace College
Every world crisis since the completion of the Biblical Canon in the first and fourth centuries has provoked certain Christians to search their Bibles for any possible parallels to so-called “Biblical prophecy.” With the present military and verbal conflicts in the Middle East, Christians are once again being flooded with claims that the ancient prophets predicted these events. The widely publicized film, “His Land,’’ sponsored by the Billy Graham Foundation, is a graphic portrayal of the process. Conservative religions literature abounds in the emphasis. In the face of the added menace of a potential nuclear confrontation between world powers, it is particularly urgent right now that every Christian pay sober attention to the historic meaning of “Biblical prophecy’’ lest he become a victim of the propagandist’s machinations. A little study now will go a long way in easing the layman’s mind in the midst of the conflicting voices and perhaps spare him the agony of disillusionment later.
Our Word “Prophet”
To understand any word, one must penetrate to its root origins, its etymology. For the word “prophet” it is especially important since it communicates an ancient concept and translates a Biblical Hebrew word. The English word is taken directly from an ancient Greek noun which literally meant “to speak for” or “on behalf of.” Thus the noun embraced the concept of speaking for someone, or a spokesman. The story of Moses at the burning bush is a good Biblical illustration, when in Exodus 7: 1 God argues with the reluctant Moses, saying, “See, I make you as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.” Aaron was to be Moses’ spokesman, or to speak for Moses.
For centuries the meaning “spokesman,” or “proclaimer,” was the primary use of the Greek and later the English. In 1615, for instance, Jeremy Taylor wrote a book entitled, “The Liberty of Prophesying.” Today its contents would be titled “The Freedom of Preaching.” for that was the subject matter. Our word “prophet and the ancient Greek meant, therefore, what “preacher’’ means today — one who is a spokesman for God. To see how the word was applied in the Bible to the spokesmen for God, read such Biblical passages as Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Amos 3:7-8, 10-16; Isaiah 6:8-10; Jeremiah 20: 7-9, and Ezekiel 3: 16-21.
In the Hebrew Old Testament the word we translate “prophet” occurs frequently after the passage in Exodus 7:1, where its meaning is clearly identified. Scholars differ, however, regarding the origin of that Hebrew word. Some say it was a word borrowed from another Semitic language, Akkadian, from a word meaning “to call.” Others think the word came from a slightly different Hebrew root meaning “to bubble up,” “to boil” (from the possible relation to epilepsy, or the ecstatic nature of the earliest prophets). Still another assumption is that there was an early verb meaning “to proclaim,” or “speak forth,” which was retained only in this noun form. Whatever the actual origin, these three suggestions, when added together, provide an excellent description of the classical Hebrew prophets. They were men who felt a deep sense of the Divine presence linked with a call to serve; they were deeply disturbed (they “bubbled” and “boiled”) by the serious inconsistency between the behavior of their nation and its people in the face of the Sinai Covenant, until they bubbled over to proclaim the Word which stirred within them from the Divine presence. They therefore were “forth tellers,” not “foretellers” — the preachers of ancient Israel and Judah who took seriously the Divine Covenant morality to which their nation had become committed at Sinai. They were the “Covenant conscience” of the ancient Hebrew-Jewish people.
The story of the development of the prophet-preachers in ancient Israel is long, and its origins are obscure in the pre-writing period of Hebrew history. There is no question, however, that the movement had emerged by the tenth century B.C., at least by the time of David.
It was then that writing became a cultural feature of Israel. We might identify an earlier stratum or level of prophecy, however, among the so-called ‘‘Judges,” whose charismatic nature, marked by religious enthusiasm, nationalistic zeal, and aggressive leadership, links them with the later classical prophets. The stories of Deborah (Judges 4-5), Gideon (Judges 6-8) and their peers read like stories of the heroes of any emerging nation. Security of the nation was their predominant concern, and sprang from their religious enthusiasm in which they saw God “fighting” for Israel.” It is hard to detect in these stories the fine ethical and moral ideals of the Mosaic Covenant from less than a century earlier, for nationalism took precedence over covenant responsibility. Establishing the security of the nation came first. The clear inconsistency between the militant stories in Joshua and Judges on the one hand and the moral emphasis in some of Exodus and most of Deuteronomy on the other hand ought to make the careful Bible student cautions about any authoritative use of these early nationalistic stories.
The Classical Prophets and Covenant Responsibility
With the stories about Samuel (a transitional figure) and especially the account of Nathan’s rebuke of David, after he committed adultery with another man’s wife, Bathsheba, a new stratum of prophecy can be identified in Hebrew history, A man of God, Nathan, dares to challenge a king who violated the rights of one of his people. The Mosaic Covenant Law had been prostituted. The condition which God had laid down at Sinai for the fulfillment of His promises of a land to Abraham’s descendants was ignored, as David behaved like any other oriental despot. With the violation of the uniqueness of Israel’s heritage in the Covenant — an ethical-moral social structure seen for the first time in human history — those loyal to the Covenant became incensed, and some felt called to thunder. “Thus says the LORD!” The era of the classical Hebrew prophets had been born.
Nathan, Ahijah, Elijah, Micaiah and Elisha left no personal writings, but an indelible impact from their Covenant concerns remained on sensitive minds in Israel and Judah for later recording. With Amos a new kind of literature appeared in the form of prophetic oracles, usually in poetic form, the more clearly to impress and preserve the stern words. Beamed to a recalcitrant nation, usually to secular-materialist kings and princes and often religious leaders, their warnings were focused on doom and punishment of the nation for her Covenant-breaking.
A desire to save the nation may have sparked the prophets concern, but it was Covenant responsibility that was clearly motivating his oracles. Amos thundered:
“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke the punishment;