Prophets in Perspective
by B. Davie Napier


Prophetism and Prophet

Broadly defined, Biblical prophetism begins with Moses and continues without critical interruption in a distinguished succession of persons through both Testaments of the Bible. This prophetism in the broad sense is simply a particular way of looking at history: The meaning of history is to be found only in terms of God’s concern, purpose, and even participation in history. In this broad definition of prophetism, then, the whole Bible is "prophetic" since it consistently reflects this passionately theological understanding of history.

The very arrangement of the biblical books in the Hebrew canon of scripture presupposes this definition of prophetism.1 Between the first division of the Law and the third division of the Writings, the central category of the Prophets embraces not only the books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve prophets from Hosea to Malachi (all together termed "Latter Prophets") but also the historical writings of Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings ("Former Prophets") In this way the Hebrew Bible formally and appropriately acknowledges that prophetism is more than the prophet and his work, that it is also a way of looking at, understanding, and interpreting history.

More narrowly defined, of course, prophetism is the function of a particular succession of men — notably, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Second Isaiah. These prophets all appear within the span of about two centuries, between, roughly, the middle of the eighth and the middle of the sixth centuries. They are preceded and even anticipated, however, by a Nathan in the tenth century and an Elijah in the ninth, and they are followed by a succession of distinguished but lesser lights in the sixth and fifth centuries.

The influence of this prophetism of the prophets on the biblical record itself is overwhelming. No significant segment of biblical literature has come down to us unmodified by that prophetic epoch.2

The Terms in the Bible

The Hebrew word for prophet is a common noun appearing more than three hundred times in the Old Testament. It is applied to a remarkable range of characters appearing from Gen. 20:7 to Mal. 4:5, and to surprisingly disparate personalities from Aaron (Exod. 7:1) to Elijah (I Kings 17-19, 21) , from the "true" to the "false" (e.g., I Kings 22) , from the relatively primitive (e.g., I Sam. 10) to the relatively sophisticated (the Isaiahs, for example) , from the highly visionary (see Ezek. 1-2) to the concretely ethical (Amos, or Nathan in II Sam. 12, or Elijah in I Kings 21) , from the seemingly objective perspective (of Amos, for example) to the intensely participating attitude (of Jeremiah) This is only to suggest the breadth of range of application of the term in the Old Testament.3

In the New Testament the term appears commonly in reference to the prophets of the Old, and predominantly in Matthew and Luke-Acts. Both Jesus (Matt. 21:11; cf. Matt. 13:57, Mark 6:4, and Luke 4:24) and John the Baptist (Matt. 11:7 ff. and parallels) are regarded as prophets. Paul understands that the essential prophetic function continues in the life of the church (see I Cor. 12 and 14) Judas and Silas, for example, are subsequently interpreted in that role (Acts 15:32) ; while the early Christian community at Antioch knows the presence of "prophets and teachers" (Acts 13:1). Like the Old Testament prophet, the New Testament prophet conveys the divinely imparted meaning of history (cf. Acts 21:10) , but signs of degeneration are suggested in Paul’s implicit condemnation of extreme manifestations of prophecy in I Cor. 13. It would appear that the role of prophet in the New Testament sometimes assumed the same extreme ecstatic form that appears also in the Old.

Prophet in Biblical Hebrew

The Hebrew term for prophet, the only term appropriately so translated, is nabi’. I Sam. 9:9 recalls the fact that "he who is now called a prophet (nabi’) was formerly called a seer (ro’eh)." The Greek translation of this verse in the Septuagint 4 presupposes a slightly different text, conveying the sense that the term "seer" was in the past simply a common, popular name for prophet. The fact remains that one term only is normative in the Old Testament. What does that term, nabi, mean? Unfortunately, we do not know and cannot now determine the original meaning of the root. Two verb forms frequently appear (pi’el and hitpa’el) , unquestionably derived from the noun, but they simply mean "to play the nabi’ role"; that is, "to act the nabi’ part." It is a good guess, but only a guess, that the lost Hebrew root is related to cognate Accadian and Arabic words meaning "to call" or "to announce." The underlying meaning of the Hebrew noun might be, then, "an announcer," or "the one who announces" the purpose and activity of God. Or, is the passive sense primary? Is the prophet the recipient of the announcement of God; is he then one who is called?

Even if we were certain of the original meaning of the root underlying the Hebrew noun we could hardly take this as conclusive evidence of the basic understanding of the Old Testament prophet in the middle centuries of the first millenium B.C. Rather, we will have to understand the sense of the term nabi’ from the person of the prophet himself as he appears and functions in the community of ancient Israel.


1 See The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952) I, 32 if.

2 So Gerhard von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Munich, 1957) , I, 76.

3 For another kind of survey of prophetic variety, see H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord (London: Lutterworth Press, 1952) , pp. 102 if.

4 The Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek beginning in the third century, B.C.