PROPHECY: What Is Prophecy? by John W. Miller

What Is Prophecy? by John W. Miller

From Meet the Prophets

A. Inductive Divinizing

Having identified the prophetic books we are going to study, having located the date and place of the men referred to in their headings (and having also now discussed their historical setting), a few words about prophecy as such may be in order.  What is a prophet?  What did it mean in the time of the prophets to prophesy?

In answering, it is important to recall, to begin with, how intensely religious the age was during which these prophets lived.  Not only in Israel, but throughout the ancient world it was simply taken for granted that divine forces were at work influencing and shaping all aspects of human existence.  It was an urgent matter therefore to find out, if one could, what these forces were like and how to deal with them.  The various ways employed for contacting this realm, or influencing it, can be referred to as “divinizing.”  Students of divinizing in ancient cultures classify the various techniques and approaches followed as either “inductive” or “intuitive.”  A brief description of each of these will help us locate Hebrew prophecy in its wider cultural context.  By far the most prevalent mode of divinizing the world of the prophets was by means of “inductive” divinizing.  By “inductive” is meant the direct study or observations of concrete objects, in this case with the goal in mind of obtaining divinely revealed knowledge.  In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, if one wished for divine guidance regarding some matter, an expert in liver divinization might be consulted.   After listening to the request, the diviner would sacrifice an animal, then examine the creases of its liver for clues to the will of the god whose advice had been sought.  (See Ezekiel 21:26 for a biblical reference to this practice.)

Similarly, patterns of oil on water, or smoke rising from an incense burner, or birds in flight, or dreams, or stellar events were also thought to yield divine revelations when studied by an expert in this way.  Peculiar daily events such as tears in the eyes of an ox, or a scorpion lurking in one’s bed, or pigs gnashing their teeth might also yield divine meanings to those aware of their true significance.  It has been estimated that thirty percent of the twenty to thirty thousand extant tablets from the library of King Asherbanipal at Nineveh have to do with omens of this nature – an indication of the fascination people had in that culture for this mode of divinizing.

Examples of divinizing practices of this type are to be found worldwide in almost every culture.  (See Oracles and Divination by Loewe and Blacker.)  Even today in our supposedly enlightened modern cultures palm readers and astrologers are still popular, the assumptions being that supernatural knowledge may be obtained through the study of objects by experts who know how to interpret them.  Inductive divinizing is thus viewed as a science of sorts by its practitioners.

B. Intuitive Divinizing

However, this was not the only way people of the ancient Near East believed contact might be established with the realm of the divine.  The gods might also on occasion take the initiative, it was thought, and speak through the “intuitions” of chosen messengers.  So, for example, in letters from eighteenth century Mari (a city of the Mesopotamian region) we read of “ecstatics” or “speakers” who heard the voice of their god speaking to them while in ecstasy, or at night through dreams.  Insights received in this manner would then be conveyed to those for whom they were intended in the form of “messages” of the god who had so spoken.  As we shall soon see, this is a speech-form that occurs often in the Bible, and in the books of the prophets especially.  It will be worth our while, therefore, to examine it more carefully.

It was not of course just diviners who received and delivered “messages” in the world of that time.  The bearer of messages was an important figure generally in ancient Near Eastern societies.  Being without telephones, to communicate at a distance one had either to send a letter or summon a “messenger.”  If a messenger was used, the message would be spoken and memorized, then carried orally to those to whom it was being sent.  A peculiarity of this mode of transmission was that the message would then be delivered as though the sender of the message was himself present and speaking.

This required that the messenger begin by identifying the one who had sent him.  If, for example, it was a certain king, he might say: “King So-and-so says this!”  Then would follow the message, spoken as though the king himself were speaking: “I request that you come at once to the palace to give account of your conduct!” (the message of the sender).  Again at the close of his message, the messenger might repeat the name of the one who had sent him: “says King So-and-so!”

A vivid portrait of such a secular messenger at work is afforded by a report in 2 Kings 18:17-37.  There we read of the servant of an Assyrian monarch who had been sent to Jerusalem to persuade the leaders there to surrender.  To the representatives of King Hezekiah of Judah who came out to meet him, he began by saying: “Say to Hezekiah, ‘The great king, the king of Assyria, says this,'” (identification formula).  This is followed by a recitation of the king’s message spoken as though the king himself were present:

What makes you so confident?  Do you think empty words are as good as strategy and military strength?  Whom are you relying on, to dare to rebel against me?. . . And lastly, have marched on this place to lay it waste without warrant from Yahweh?  Yahweh himself said to me: March on this country and lay it waste. (2 Kings 18:20-25)

Note too, in this instance, how, when rebuked for speaking such provocative words in the hearing of the people who were listening from the walls, (2 Kings 18:26), this skillful messenger boldly repeated his message in a slightly revised form to make it even more forceful. (2 Kings 18:28-35)  From this we can see how autonomous such messengers were in the carrying out of their missions.  As personal representatives of the one who sent them, they acted on their sender’s behalf with all the intellectual and intuitive powers at their command.

It was in precisely this way, seemingly, that intuitive diviners of the ancient Near East viewed their experiences with their gods.  The “thoughts” that would come to them from time-to-time, while in ecstasy or asleep, were experienced as divine messages to be delivered to those with whom they had to do.  Thus in delivering them, they would be spoken in the same “messenger-speech” form used by secular messengers – that is, in the name of the god who had inspired them, in the first-person of that god, as though the god were present and speaking.  From the sources available to date, however, it appears that compared to inductive divinizing, this intuitive mode of divinizing was relatively rare in the cultures of the ancient Near East.

C. Israelite Prophecy

Just the opposite was the case among the Israelites, it seems.  Their inductive divinizing was rare, while intuitive divinizing appears to have been the predominant mode of contacting God – and from Israel’s earliest period of history onward.

The outstanding example of inductive divinizing in Israel was the use of certain material objects called “urim” and “thummim.” (Deuteronomy 33:8)  These, it seems, could be manipulated by experts (in this instance Levitical priests) to obtain what were believe to be “yes” or “no” answers from God.  David is said to have made frequent use of this divinizing technique during the early stages of his career. (1 Samuel 23:6, 9-12; 30:7-10)  Later on, however, even this mode of inquiry disappears, for we read of it no more after the fall of Jerusalem in 586.  It may have never been widely employed.

Instead, when divine help or advice was needed, a more typical response among the Israelites appears to have been to call upon a “prophet” or “seer.” (1 Samuel 9:6-11)  These were diviners of the intuitive type, as the terms themselves imply.  The Hebrew word translated “prophet” (nabi) means either “one who is called,” or, “or who calls,” (proclaims).  In Jeremiah 18:18 it is said of such a person that whereas priests teach and wise men give advice, a prophet (nabi’) speaks a “word” or message.  Thus a prophet in Israel was thought of as someone who received divine messages which were then spoken to those to whom the prophet was sent.  Even a glance at the books of the Hebrew prophets will reveal (as already noted) that the biblical prophets did this in precisely the same manner as intuitive prophets generally in the ancient Near East (that is, as “messengers” bringing first-person divine messages; see “Amos 1:3—2:16, for example).  Because prophets of this kind were thought to be especially close to the God who sent them, they were sometimes also referred to as “men of God.” (1 Samuel 9:6, and elsewhere)

Another term of “prophet” in Israel was “seer,” (Hebrew: ro’eh or chozeh – 1 Samuel 9:9, 11; 2 Samuel 24:11; Amos 7:12).  This expression hints at the way prophets of this type typically received the divine words that flooded their consciousness.  This might happen, as in the case of Jeremiah, as they were gazing at an almond tree blossoming, (Jeremiah 1:11-12), or a potter at work, (Jeremiah 18:1-12).  An especially graphic account of such a “seer” in action can be found in Numbers 23-24 where we are told of a certain Balaam whom the king of Moab had hired to curse Israel, just prior to its entry into Canaan. (Numbers 22:5-6)  But as he gazed upon Israel’s tents so beautifully spread out before him, it was not curses that flooded his mind, but intimations of Israel’s future greatness.

As the frequent references to such prophet-seers in our biblical sources indicate, the divine insights of such men were as seriously attended to in Israelite society as were the thoughts of wise men and priests – indeed, in many instances, more so.  Some prophet-seers of this kind were affiliated with worship centers where they could be regularly consulted on matters as trivial as finding lost donkeys, (1 Samuel 9).  Others were isolated figures who, prompted by the voice within them, acted alone and with complete autonomy to anoint kings, (1 Samuel 10), or divide kingdoms, (1 Kings 11:26-39), or challenge an entire people to put away false gods, (1 Kings 17).  Then again we read of them living in separate communities with other prophets, (2 Kings 2), or in groups associated with kings’ palaces, (1 Kings 22).

All, however, seem to have had one thing in common.  They were not inductive divinizers of the type common in the ancient world, but rather “heard” God speaking and on this basis brought “messages.”  Indeed, in at least one famous text, Deuteronomy 18:9-12, the point is made that the kind of inductive divinizing in vogue among Israel’s neighbors is “detestable” by comparison with the wonderful way Israel’s God, Yahweh, speaks through his prophets.  Here the founder-prophet Moses is singled out as the model figure.  Yahweh, it is said, will “raise up” a prophet like him “from among your own brothers” and that is the kind of prophet to be heeded, not the other kind.  Elsewhere it is said of this same Moses that Yahweh spoke to him “plainly,” “face to face,” and not in riddles or dreams, (Numbers 12:6-8).  Where such prophets are present (and the promise is given in Deuteronomy 18:18 that such prophets will be available to Israel in each generation) alternative-type diviners and soothsayers are not only detestable; they are superfluous.

What manner of persons then, in summary, were the Israelite prophets?  They were diviners of the intuitive type.  Their messages came to them not by deciphering obscure objects, but as inspired thoughts.  The more precise conditions for the reception of such thoughts, in their case, will become clear as our study proceeds.  It might be noted in a preliminary way, however, that they do not seem to have valued ecstatic moods to the same extent as the Mari prophets, for example.  Their messages were born, it seems, in a quieter frame of mind, while meditating or at prayer.  Indeed, Jeremiah tells us in one of his more revealing self-disclosures that at times divine thoughts forced their way into his consciousness even when he did not want them to, (20:8-9).  This suggests that the greatest of Israel’s prophets might be thought of as messengers of unsolicited thoughts that broke in upon their consciousness in spite of themselves, sometimes.

D. The God of the Prophets

But who was it who inspired these prophets of Israel in this way?  In the world of the prophets there were many gods, many religions.  Seen in this context, it is not enough to know simply that they were prophets, or what kind of prophets they were (prophets of the intuitive type).  One must also ask what God it was these prophets believed had summoned them to be his messengers.  His name appears on virtually every page of their books.  Indeed, their revelations regarding him are among their most urgent and substantive messages.  Who was he, and what did he mean to them?

Two observations may help us in beginning to get acquainted with this preeminent feature of the prophetic world: the God who spoke to the prophets was understood by them to have (1) a quite specific name, and (2) a quite well-defined character.

1. God’s Name

The name of God of the prophets faces us on almost every page of their writings.  It is not to God in the abstract that they refer so repetitiously and eloquently as author of their messages, but to a God bearing a unique and particular name: Yahweh (not “Lord,” substituted for this name in most translations).  This, of course, is the same name for God found elsewhere throughout the Old Testament scriptures.  It is the name repeatedly invoked in prayer in the psalter.  It is the name of the one who is regarded as the giver of the laws in the law codes of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.  It is the name pointed to in the Book of Proverbs as the source of true wisdom (“the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom”).  It was the divine name given to Moses when at the burning bush he wished to know who it was that was speaking to him there, (Exodus 3:16).  It is the name of the God who subsequently guided Moses in bringing Israel out of slavery and in whose name they settled in their new Canaanite homeland.

So important was this name to the devout in Israel that protecting it from abuse or misuse was one of the three most important religious duties, (Exodus 20:3-7).  In fact, in the course of time so holy did it become that the Jewish people stopped using it altogether, even when reading their sacred scriptures.  It was they who began the tradition of substituting a title for this name, Adonai, or “Lord” instead of Yahweh.  Since then most Christian translators have done the same, the outstanding exception being the Jerusalem Bible.

A title, however, is no substitute for a name.  The title “Lord” (in Hebrew: Adonai), for example, points to a role or function and can be applied interchangeably to a variety of people.  As a result it is somewhat abstract (like king, queen, president).  A name on the other hand is unique to the person bearing it (even if the same name is used for a variety of people).  Individuals become closely and emotionally associated with their names.  Hence, to know the names of people is to have access to their inner being.  It is a preeminently personal way of establishing a bond with them.

Moreover, names may have meanings symbolic of the qualities of the people who bear them.  In any event such was the case in the world of the prophets where children’s names were frequently chosen with an eye to unique circumstances or characteristics of the children involved.  (See Genesis 21:4; 25:25026; 30:24; 1 Samuel 4:21.)  This is why in a study of the prophets it is by no means irrelevant to note the meaning of their names (as we shall).

What then is the meaning of “Yahweh”?  What flooded the minds of those who invoked it in prayer or praise or received messages from the one bearing it (as did the prophets)?  We cannot be certain of this, but some think the name itself, in Hebrew, may be a third-person causative form of the verb, “to be.”  If so, its meaning would be: “He causes to be,” (or creates).  Hence, it may be conjectured that Yahweh was revered above all as a God who “causes to be” or creates.

If we ask what it was he had created to have merited this attribution, the answer seems to be: he had created a people!  This, in any case, is what is explicitly stressed about him in the Deuteronomic Song of Moses: “Is this [Yahweh] not your father, who made you, by whom you subsist.” (Deuteronomy 32:6)  Psalm 100 says the very same thing:

Acclaim Yahweh, all the Earth,
serve Yahweh with gladness,
come into his presence with songs of joy!
Be sure that Yahweh is God,
he made us, we belong to him,
his people, the block of his sheepfold. (Psalm 100:1-3)

For the prophets then, God was no abstraction, but a living reality bearing a name that itself bears testimony to his father-like power and grace in creating a people.  (See Isaiah 1:2; Hosea 11:1-4; Isaiah 63:16.)

2. God’s Character

But the God of the prophets not only had a name.  He was also viewed as having a well-defined character, one marked by two qualities especially: compassion and zeal (or “jealousy” as it is sometimes referred to).

Christians are especially vulnerable to mistaken notions at this point.  They are prone to think of the Old Testament God as an angry deity who is quick to punish his people when they sin.  Many believe that it was Jesus who first taught us that God is compassionate and loving.  On the contrary, if the Israelites generally, and the prophets in particular, were certain of anything, it was that Yahweh was kind and gracious.  For had he not delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, (Exodus 20:2)?  And had he not given them good laws to live by, (Psalm 19:7-11)?  And had he not brought them to a wonderful land and delivered them again and again from their enemies there, (Judges 5; Amos 2:9; Psalm 33)?  “Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy. . . . ” (Exodus 34:7)  These are the words Moses heard regarding Yahweh his God when he passed before him early one morning on Mount Sinai. (34:1-5)  If we are going to understand the prophets, it is essential that we remember that for them Yahweh was first and foremost (and above everything else) a God of compassion.

However, compassion and tenderness were not his only qualities.  For it was also said of him that he was a zealous (or “jealous”) God. (Exodus 20:5; 32:16; 34:14) in the sense that he wanted his people to have no other gods, (Exodus 20:3, Deuteronomy 5:7).  It was this unique quality that prompted the Israelite people to proclaim his “oneness,” (Deuteronomy 6:4), and then eventually that he alone is God and there is no other, (Isaiah 45:14).

In summary then: the god of the prophets had a name, Yahweh.  It characterized him as the exalted Father-Creator of  his people.  In addition, he was regarded as kind, forgiving and good, but also as jealous in his desire to be his people’s only God.

Obviously, these few comments regarding the god of the prophets do not exhaust the subject.  Perhaps they will help us begin our study with some sensitivity to the importance of this facet of their experience for the messages they were inspired to bring.


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