The Prophetic Mission
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
The prophets of Israel were significant figures in the history of the nation. Their voices were heard and their work was done as evidence of their involvement in the nation's affairs. It has been well said that the history of Israel is the history of prophecy. The line of the prophets begins with Moses. It is significant that, when the Lord Jesus was walking the Emmaus road, He unfolded from the Scriptures things concerning Himself, and He began at "Moses and all the prophets", Luke 24. 27. Through Jeremiah God could say to Judah, "Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day, I have sent unto you all my servants the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them", Jer. 7. 25. Amos said in his message that in the early days of Israel, God "raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazirites", Amos 2. 11.
To understand the character of the prophetic office rightly, we can do no better than go back to Moses. With him it had a unique beginning. "There hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face", Deut. 34. 10-12. His relationship with God is shown clearly in the way in which the Lord defended his character in Numbers 12. 6-8. Through Moses God spoke to His people, revealing His mind and declaring His awareness of their relationship to Himself. It is worthy of notice that, in the earliest days, the accent in regard to prophecy lay not so much in its predictive element as upon its unfolding of the mind of God for the present guidance and correction of His people. It is important to understand this if we are to assess rightly the place of the prophet in the history of Israel. Moses, great though he was as a prophet, could look into the future and say, "The Lord said unto me ... I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put my words in his mouth", Deut. 18. 17-18. The prophetic office could only find its perfection in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The prophets spoke with authority. They spoke as men sent from God. Their presence and office among the people were known and they were regarded as holding a special position in the nation. Perhaps the earliest designation of the prophet was the "seer". In its simplest form this meant one who sees, but the prophet was regarded as one who was endowed with special insight from God Himself. Thus Samuel was known as "the seer", and Saul and his companions were directed to him as such, 1 Sam. 9. 9. In 2 Samuel 24. 11 Gad is called both prophet and seer.
The prophet was recognized among the people as the "man of God". This is emphasized in the record of the lives of Elijah and Elisha. Their messages came to a nation that had turned from God and was under the influence of heathen gods, introduced by the wicked Jezebel. The gods had their prophets, men of Baal, and these were destroyed by Elijah, 1 Kings 18. 40. But amidst such moral and spiritual corruption the prophets stood out as men whose characters were stamped with God-likeness. Their behaviour as well as their message marked them out as "men of God". The widow of Sarepta called Elijah this, 1 Kings 17. 18, and the woman of Shunem addressed Elisha so, 2 Kings 4. 16.
What has been called "the flower of Hebrew prophecy" is given us in the written prophets, those who spoke to the nation from the eighth century B.C. onwards. They began with Amos, and their ministry gave to the nation a rich heritage of truth. It is essentially true that in the written prophets of the Old Testament we have the embodiment of the fundamental doctrines of the Hebrew people. They are living messages from the Living God. In the Old Testament, they hold the same place of importance as the Epistles do in the New. All that was dear to the godly of God's chosen people was defended and expounded in the teachings of these men who held the truth tenaciously in their lives.
Of the prophets it could be said, as of Haggai, that they were the Lord's messengers in the Lord's message, Hag. 1.13. They did not speak as those detached from their God or from their nation. We are made to feel that the word that they gave was part of them. We notice that three of the Minor Prophets begin with the idea of a "burden": Nahum 1.1; Hab. 1.1; Mai. 1.1. They felt the weight of the words that they spoke. Amos, perhaps, sums up the sense of utter commitment to speak the word of the Lord that rested upon the prophets : "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets. The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy ?", Amos 3, 7-8. The implications are clear. If God has something to reveal, the prophets will be the vehicles of revelation. If He do s speak, then the prophets are under obligation to pass on the message to the people. The task was often carried out in the face of suffering and great personal loss. But it was through such men that God in different manners and in many parts gave His revelation to the people, Heb. 1. 1. As the fortunes of the nation declined, both in Israel and Judah, the prophets were set as watchmen to warn of the impending doom, Jer. 6. 16-17; Ezek. 33. 7. When these fortunes changed, and return from exile and restoration began, the prophets were there to encourage and inspire the nation to recapture the glory that by their sin they had lost; cf. Hag. 1. 12 to 2. 9. Whatever they spoke, their essential credential was "Thus says Jehovah". What kind of men were the prophets of the Old Testament? It is not out of place to ask this when we consider the vital importance of their mission. We must always remember that the value of human personality is never lost sight of in divine service. As James says concerning Elijah, the prophets were men of like passions with ourselves, James 5. 17. Their individuality was never overlooked in the corporate involvement of the mission in which they were engaged. Isaiah's ministry was distinct from that of Amos, although at points their times overlapped. Isaiah, the great statesman-prophet gave to his message the colour of the circumstances in which he moved. Having witnessed the majesty of the courts of earth, he was able to describe vividly the superior majesty of the court of heaven as he saw the Lord high and lifted up, Isa. 6. 1-4. Amos, the herdman of Tekoa, had a different approach to his message altogether. His was the rugged, blunt declamation of the ills of his society. So it is that two vastly different personalities are not lost in the messages that they give. Rather do they complement each other. We see the beauty of variety in the way God chooses His messengers and equips them for His service.
There are three important ideas that must be taken into account in studying the lives and ministry of the prophets.
1. The Source of Prophecy lies in divine inspiration. Each messenger was conscious that he was engaged in a divine mission. There was a definite point in his experience when he received a call Xo go to the people with a "word", given to him of God. This was a factor deeply borne in to the consciousness of each prophet. The actual circumstances of the call are not always recorded. But both vision and voice are usually behind the vocation of those who held the prophetic office. Variety is seen again here, and the wonderful ways in which God attracts men to His work. The vision of the sanctity of the throne and the temple grips Isaiah. Ezekiel sees the incredible brightness of the same throne, but also sees the movements of government and the living character of divine purposes. But to Amos it was the quiet influence of the word as he was taken from the herd to serve the Lord. Spectacular or otherwise, the call was all important for it bred in these men the deep conviction that they were entrusted with a vital mission to the nation.
2. The Prophets were Men of their own Times. They spoke out of their involvement with their generation. This builds prophecy into history. Too often this aspect of prophecy is overlooked. The historical background to the messages of the prophets must be taken account of. It has been well said that, "the various prophecies . . .will continue to keep their secrets, unless we can paint the portrait of the human author on the glowing canvas of his own age. No other key will unlock the treasures to the modern mind". It is possible for us to know the spiritual condition of the people of God at each stage of their history by the messages of the prophets which are recorded for us. They were literally "men who had understanding of their times". Thus we are able to learn how God reacts to the different aspects of the nation's sin. They were not men who stood apart from the people's fortunes. We see in Jeremiah the deep compassion that a prophet could feel for his people. Tears ran down his face as he felt personally the awful burden of their sin, Jer. 13. 17. It is noticeable that when Daniel prays to his God he does not say "they" but "we" as he confesses the sins of his people, Dan. 9. 5-11. It was Ezekiel who sat among the captives by the river Chebar, astonished at their plight, Ezek. 3. 14-15. History is thus unfolded in conjunction with the message of the prophets. Their voices were so often unheeded and the nation, both in Israel and Judah, reaped the fruits of disobedience and rebellion. Yet how valuable to us are the words spoken in the course of the history of God's chosen people, words which came as the prophets fulfilled their mission.
3. The Prophets saw Beyond their Times. The predictive value of the prophets of the Old Testament is vitally important in the unfolding of divine purposes. The Messianic hopes of the faithful remnant burned brightly in their hearts. They were men that had vision. Many of their predictions were fulfilled in their lifetime. They saw the judgment of God upon a people who finally sinned beyond repentance. The captivities of Samaria and Jerusalem bear witness to this sad fact. How many events of which the prophets were the contemporaries could be summed up "as he spake by the hand of all his servants the prophets", 2 Kings 17. 23. But there were matters of which they spoke that were far outside the scope of their times. The prophecies concerning Christ and His coming were far beyond their understanding. The wonder of divine inspiration is seen here, and their accuracy is truly amazing. The foretelling of the virgin birth of Christ in Isaiah 7. 14, and the place of His birth in Micah 5. 2 are but two examples. Peter makes this clear when he says that it was the Holy Spirit in them that searched out these things, 1 Pet. 1. 11. It was thus that these men of God spanned the centuries and looked on to the time of the final glory of the Messiah and the new heaven and new earth, Isa. 65.17.
So it is that we are able to study the lives and times of men with a mission and a message. We can end with the words of another. "Knowledge of Hebrew prophecy is knowledge of the lives of glorious personalities; only when name after name of the prophets calls up the memory of lonely insight into truth, of unbreakable loyalty to duty, maintained through scorn and hatred and despite despair, can its splendour be realised." They were men who served their God and their generation well.
To be followed by eight papers dealing with ten prophets.