The Prophetic Voice
Since we are delving into the prophets for a couple of months, I think it good to remind ourselves of the prophets’ mission and methods. Understanding the writings of the prophets will also give us a greater appreciation for what Jesus was doing in His ministry and what the apostles were doing in theirs.
“Prophet” is a loaded word in English vernacular. We most commonly use it to mean “a person who tells the future.” This definition reduces prophecy to predictions and fortune-telling. A meteorologist is a “prophet” in this sense. We are not surprised, then, that the Bible means something different by the word “prophet.”
A biblical prophet is a spokesman for God. Consider the introductions to each of the prophets we’ll study this quarter: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…” (Hag 1.1a); “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah…” (Zech 1.1a); “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” (Mal 1.1). Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi begin their writings the same way all the prophets do: by invoking the word of the Lord. The prophet’s mission is to speak God’s words to His people.
In this sense, Moses is Israel’s original prophet. The Law is a prophecy, i.e., the word of the Lord. Therefore Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (Dtr 18.15). Moses’ last words to Israel are a prophetic warning: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Dtr 32.46-47).
It’s useful to think of the prophets as preachers of the Law. The prophets don’t come up with new rules or new standards. Instead, they direct Israel’s attention to the words that God has already spoken through Moses. The creative work of the prophet is to show the people of his time how they have broken faith with God.
The prophet’s mission might include foretelling, but the predictions serve the message and not the other way around. The biblical prophet doesn’t perform parlor tricks or give a ten-day weather forecast. He preaches the Law to Israel then tells what will befall them if they disobey. Even in this point, the prophet’s message depends on the Law, because the Law lays out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Dtr 28).
The prophets speak truth to power. Haggai addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Malachi addresses the priests. The older prophets addressed the kings of Israel and Judah. The prophets preach from the top down, because the rulers of the people have an enormous impact on the faith of the people. Malachi upbraids the priests for causing the people to stumble: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction” (Mal 2.7-9).
We might also think of prophecy as reducing the Law to its essential features. They make things simple to make them applicable. Consider again the words of Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3.5). What does it mean to be faithful to the covenant? Malachi takes a host of laws and boils them down to true religion, sexual purity, civil justice, and social justice.
Prophecy did not cease with the Old Testament. The people we encounter in the New Testament anticipate that God’s Messiah will bring them the word of the Lord. Jesus picks up the mantle of prophet in His ministry, and He passes that mantle on to His apostles and disciples (1 Cor 12.1-11). What exactly that looked like is a matter for another week, so I want to close with some questions for self-examination. The Church exists to deliver the words of God to the world. Have you submitted yourself to God’s word? Can it be said of your message, “Thus saith the Lord,” or is it merely your own devising? Are you willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless? Will you witness against impurity and ritualism in the Church? May God bless us all with pure faith worthy of our calling.