Jeremiah and his “jeremiads,” Isaiah announcing the Messiah in the guise of a “suffering servant,” Ezekiel and the dried-up bones that gather and take flesh … The great prophets of the Bible entered into the collective imagination as misunderstood visionaries, having ended badly for denouncing the establishment of their time. Biblical prophecy, however, is much broader and more complex.
Who is a Prophet?
The Greek word “prophet” refers to the Hebrew “nabi,” which means “to call, proclaim, announce.” This verb is understood in both active voice and passive voice: the prophet is the one who, called by God, speaks and calls in God’s name. The prophets of the Bible live an intimacy with God. This particular relationship allows them to reveal to others the requirements of the faithful relationship with the Creator.
There are two types of prophets in the Old Testament: the “elders,” who appeared at the same time as the first kings of Israel in the ninth century BC, such as Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, Nathan, Gad, and who have not left any writings: and the “writers,” who have been attributed prophetic collections and biblical books (Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel …).
Among “Writers” the Tradition distinguishes “Major Prophets” and “Minor Prophets which only a way to divide the Old Testament prophetic books. The Major Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. In our Church, the Minor Prophets are also called “The Twelve.”
The Major Prophets are described as “major” because their books are longer and the content has broad, even global implications. The Minor Prophets are described as “minor” because their books are shorter (although Hosea and Zechariah are almost as long as Daniel) and the content is more narrowly focused. That does not mean the Minor Prophets are any less inspired than the Major Prophets. It is simply the will of God choosing to reveal more to the Major Prophets than He did to the Twelve.
What are the characteristics of prophets?
The prophets of the Old Testament have very various profiles. Some are the prophets of the court (Isaiah) and others of the marginalized (Micah). There are men and women (Deborah, whose hymn is one of the oldest texts of the Bible, Nathan, Zephaniah) and men from the working class (Amos), young prophets (Samuel) and elders, lay people and priests (Ezekiel and Zechariah).
They are usually married, but Jeremiah was celibate, and Ezekiel widowed. Some prophesized permanently, others occasionally. Their call of vocation is not uniform either: some present themselves to God (Isaiah), others obey to a divine order (Amos, Hosea); some discuss (Jeremiah), others hesitate (Samuel) or even refuse, before accepting the will of God (Jonah) and the mission entrusted.
What are the common traits of prophets?
The prophets are all “Men and Women of the Word,” and this characterizes their mission: they speak to echo the Word of Another. They are passionate for God, with the double meaning of the passion – love, and suffering: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty,” writes Jeremiah (15:16). Yet this word is also a source of torment. Because of it, the prophet is rejected and persecuted: “Under the weight of your hand, I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15:17)
What is their mission?
Contrary to what one would imagine, their primary role is not so much to announce the future as to be “the critical conscience of Israel in action.” The prophets speak in the name of God, whence the expression that opens their interventions: “The Word of the Lord.” They seek to understand the will of God, the meaning of His action, when misfortune falls upon the people, and also ask some explanations from God: “I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guardpost. There I will wait to see what the Lord says and how he will answer my complaint.” (Habakkuk 2.1).
In the political actuality of their time, the prophets are, according to the metaphor of Ezekiel, a watchman (33,7) facing the invader of Israel, but at the same time facing the dysfunctions and injustices among their people.
Prophets often keep their distances from the worship, the rituals, and the religious institutions of their times. They are also severe towards kings and powerful. What characterizes them is the critique of the duplicity and hypocrisy of the establishment. They are above all men denouncing the lies.
Prophets criticize the present, but also give perspectives, open the horizon. The prophets have shaped the essential framework of the people’s hope for Messiah.
They defended the weak, but they also announced the Messiah who will bring light to men, will destroy evil by becoming Servant, and through a sacrificial love will seal the new Covenant that allows sinners to participate fully in the life of God.
The Bible scholars generally accept that 351 prophecies have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The announcement of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection is found only in the prophets, just as the announcement of the new Creation and the eternal covenant, that is, everything that proclaims Christ. It will make Philippe say to Nathanael in the Gospel of John: ” We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” (1:45).
Are there prophets in the New Testament?
Between the 2nd and the 1st century BC in Judaism, prophets give place to the wise and the Jewish rabbis. Nevertheless, we found prophets in the Gospels: Anne, Simon, and John the Baptist. According to our Church Tradition St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the Old Testament, which bridges the Old and the New Testaments together.
The Prophecy is also a part of the threefold office of Jesus Christ. Church Fathers state that Jesus Christ performed three functions (or “offices”) in his earthly ministry – those of Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:14-22), Priest (Psalm 110:1-4), and King (Psalm 2).
The eminent Church Historian Eusebius of Cesarea (AD 260/265 – 339/340) worked out this threefold classification, writing: “And we have been told also that certain of the prophets themselves became, by the act of anointing, Christs in type, so that all these have reference to the true Christ, the divinely inspired and heavenly Word, who is the only high priest of all, and the only King of every creature, and the Father’s only supreme prophet of prophets.” (Hist. Eccl. 1.3.8)
Indeed, in the Gospels, Jesus is presented as a prophet. Crowds identified him as “Jesus the prophet” (Matthew 21:11). He spoke of himself as a prophet: “No prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Luke 4:24); “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ “(Lk 13:33). He also foretold his passion and resurrection.
The Acts of the Apostles mention prophets Jude and Silas, who exhort the community (15:32) and the four daughters of Philip (21: 9).
In the Epistles of St Paul, prophecy is seen as a gift of the Spirit, a “charisma” among others. “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.” (1 Cor 12:28). Exegetes wonder about the status of New Testament Prophets, who existed in all communities. Were they permanent or casual? Residents or homeless? Information is lacking, but in the apostolic writing the prophet is described as one who “edifies,” “exhorts,” “encourages” (1 Cor 14: 3)
The prophets of the 21st century
At our baptism, we were marked with Holy Oil (Myron) as a sign that we are consecrated to God and anointed by the Holy Spirit. Our anointing also was a sign that we are joined to Christ and share in his threefold mission as Priest, King, and Prophet.
In the Acts of the Apostles, after the Pentecost, Peter quotes the words of Joel: “‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”(Acts 2:17).
This universality does not exclude the possibility that some are more particularly recognized as prophets, in virtue of their intimacy with God and their commitment to the week and poor.
There will always be at any given time, men or women, able to ring the alarm, to say the essential and to shout loudly, as the prophets did, to open the way to the reception of the Messiah, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Thus, let us pray to our Heavenly Father for the grace to experience fully our baptismal anointing so that we become prophets for our time and especially that we recognize those prophets around us, whose lives challenge us on many levels.