First of all, it is important to specify what we mean by prophets and prophetism since these words are used with a wide range of meanings. For many Christians, prophets are somewhat like seers who, already before Christ, announced his coming to save the world. When they begin to read the prophetic writings, they no longer know what to think: the idea they had of the prophets prevents them from discovering the meaning of the texts, or they simply give up.
Prophets in Israel
Human beings have always attempted to avert the fate of a future which escapes them. Diviners, necromancers and astrologers predicted to the great of this world what their future would be. Meanwhile, fortunetellers served the same function with the masses, like today’s mediums and horoscope writers. In the Old Testament, we have testimonies of this need for predictions: disguised as a simple peasant, Saul goes to the village of Endor to consult a witch (1 S 28). A century and a half later, four hundred “prophets” predict victory to the kings of Israel and of Judah, both at the court of Samaria (1 K 22).
The “sons of the prophets” in the days of Samuel and David have a few things in common with those professional prophets. In his fatherly pedagogy, God respects the necessary stages to lead people to greater maturity: at times God accepts to speak to us through primitive and ambiguous means. However, the Prophets of Israel quickly break free from these groups of hotheads, often simple and sincere people who encourage people’s faith by their charismatic manifestations, but often enough, swindlers who earn their daily bread by their predictions (Am 7:12). When the first meeting between Saul and Samuel is narrated, the authors use the opportunity to tell us that before the term “seer” was used whereas now the term used is “prophet” (1 S 9:9). In Hebrew the word “prophet” refers both to the one who is “called” and to the one who “proclaims.” The Greek Bible kept the second meaning: a “prophet” is the one who “speaks in the name of” God.
While in Oriental courts, “seers” formed a particular body along with other royal officials, in Israel prophets are people of faith, called by God, and who speak on behalf of God with total independence.
A people of prophets
The response of prophets to their call is first of all an act of faith in God’s untiring faithfulness. They communicate their faith to bring about conversions of the heart and a response from all the people to God’s call. This is why several passages of the Bible seem to ask why the prophets’ spirit was not passed on to the entire people of God. In the book of Numbers we already have Moses’ answer when the Spirit is communicated to those who could not come to receive it from him (Num 11:24). The prophet Joel announced that at the end of time, the spirit of prophesy would be given to everyone (Jl 3:1).
So, in the Bible there is a time of prophets that corresponds approximately to the period of the kings from the rule of David until the second century after the return from the Exile. Then the Spirit seems to leave and “heaven closes up,” but people continue to wait for the days of the Messiah, when communication with God will be reestablished.
Prophetism is neither connected with some type of disposition nor with social status. Isaiah was a distinguished man, one of those that the New Testament would call the elders and who were the sons of leaders of tribes or groups from the nomadic period. After the exile, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah were priests at the Jerusalem temple. Amos was probably a scribe in charge of the royal livestock. Hosea and Jonah, Amittai’s son, famous because of the tale in which he is the hero, came from the northern kingdom where they exercised their ministry. On the contrary, Zephaniah probably came from the north to Jerusalem with the refugees who fled the Assyrian invasion of the kingdom of Samaria. Micah came from a rural setting, but he belonged to an educated family probably close to the “wise men” of Judah.
The prophets are not stereotyped puppets in God’s hand. Instead they are men seized by the Spirit, men seasoned by an exceptional spiritual experience and called to speak to their people in the name of Yahweh. In the course of their preaching they keep the richness and the limitations of their time, their milieu and their personal history making each one of them a unique being.
A prophetic vision of history
Prophets accompany Israel throughout its history because Israel has one road to travel. According to Israel’s faith, history is not caught up in the vicious cycle of a perpetual starting over again as pagans viewed it. The People of God knew that humans came from God and returned to God. Of course, people’s history is not linear: it is sprinkled with weaknesses, failures and trials but also with strengths, joys and lights. Yet, one thing is certain for people of faith, the road always lies ahead, open to God’s love and mercy, a road straightened out by the power of his salvation and, in the end, flowing into everlasting communion with God. This is the light in which we must read and reread all the texts from the prophets through whom “the Holy Spirit has spoken.” Reproaches and threats, words of hope and restoration, everything expressing the love of the Father who prepares, corrects and molds his people, to allow them to welcome the fullness of light and salvation in his Son (cf. Heb 1:1-2).
We should not be surprised therefore that a good part of Israel’s history was written in the prophets’ circles. They were not only concerned with giving a chronicle of past events, but with interpreting them in order to rediscover God’s way of doing things and the successes and failures of his Covenant.