Prophecy abounded in the ancient world around Israel, as well as in the first century world of the early Christians. It ranged from the more mantic and ecstatic prophets, such as the prophets of Ba’al (or, more properly, the Ba’alim, since they were plural), and the oracle at Delphi, who breathed fumes coming from a crack in the earth, to those who read the stars or the entrails of sacrificial animals or other signs built into nature to those versed in the traditions and teachings of the deity and could advise on how to manipulate or please the deity or atone for transgressions. The lines between these were blurry, and often various types of prophets/astrologers/magicians were combined. We often see them in groups, whether in Persia, Babylonia, or Egypt. Every court had its prophets of one type or another, as did temples and other cultic locations.
Israel was no different in its need for and use of prophets, although at its best it only used prophets of Yahweh and rejected augury, “magicians,” and soothsayers. These Yahweh prophets also came in various types, parallel to the nations around Israel. Israel had its mantic or ecstatic prophets; i.e. those singing, dancing (and we would say tongues-speaking), groups that were discussed previously under the heading of glossolalia. Israel also had prophets associated with the pre-royal (Shiloh and Samuel’s sanctuaries, for instance) and royal sanctuaries, north and south, and with the royal court – men like Gad or Nathan spring to mind. In the north Ahab had his court prophets, although for the most part these were Ba’al prophets. The king (and others) needed advisors and knowledge of what God (or in the case of Ahab, the gods) had in mind. (This phenomenon, of course, produced the danger that the prophet would prophesy what the king wanted to hear, since he was paid by the king. There are parallels in priests and pastors to royalty or national leaders today.) There is also evidence that prophetic groups carried on, updated, and exegeted the traditions of Israel. While the priests were charged with teaching (and thus the shrine would become a center of official tradition interpretive and scribal activity), the prophet was the one who showed the relevance of the old traditions today: “you are experiencing this drought because you violated these terms of the covenant, and so now do this as an act of repentance.”
We know the most about Israel’s writing prophets because, well, they wrote, although we can see some of the same characteristics in prophets that did not write. What we see in these prophets in general is usually an initial call-vision (Jeremiah 1, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2, etc.), followed by a series of revelations. The revelations might be visionary, parabolic (some actions that the prophet needed to perform, sometimes without understanding the purpose until after the action was done), inspired interpretation of history (which is why the so-called historical books are called the “former prophets” in Hebrew and which is why Isaiah and Jeremiah both include historical narratives), or oracular (which may be because the prophet heard the oracle from God or that the prophet expressed in poetry the impressions from his God-given altered state of consciousness God). The prophetic books are about two-thirds poetry, i.e. shorter oracles joined together into larger books. The visions and oracles often contain plays on words of various types, or plays between words and visions. That is in part of what makes them cryptic (and difficult to translate – that Hebrew for a “basket of summer fruit” and “end” sound similar, but in English translation one wonders how God gets from “summer fruit” to making an “end” of Israel). They are generally about the immediate present or future of the prophet: Ezekiel prophesies about the fall of Jerusalem that was only 20 years in the future as a maximum, and probably much closer in time than that. Isaiah 7 prophesies about the destruction of two hostile kings within three years or so. Amos 7:17 tells a senior priest that his wife would be a prostitute in the city and he would die in exile, which in a world in which the average lifespan was 40 years would indicate an event not too far distant. Generally, one finds a near-fulfillment if one reads the prophet against the background of the world around them (the failure to do that being one of the pitfalls in interpreting the Hebrew scriptures). Prophets were also intercessors, for they prayed for the people and often were given instructions in response to their prayers. All of this can be checked out in the basic biblical studies literature on the scriptural prophets.
While most prophets we know about were men, there were also some women we know about who were prophets, such as Deborah and Huldah, and in both cases the women were married. We do not hear whether the prophetess Miriam was married. There is no indication that these women were any different in character than the male prophets – they probably had some type of call-vision, and they probably spoke in oracles, for instance, but if they were at all numerous, only a few of them made it into the historical record. Given early and virtually universal marriage in Israel, it is probably that few of the female prophets were part of prophetic bands, although some may have been.
In the New Testament prophecy is at the root of the gifts of the Spirit. The New Testament narrative starts with a prophet (and perpetual Nazirite, like Samuel), John the Baptist, who was not so much the restoration of prophecy (there were several prophets we know of in the Second Temple period, such as one of the Hasmonean kings and Honi the Circle Drawer, so the myth of “400 silent years” is indeed a myth), as the start of prophecy associated with the advent of the Messiah and his resultant rule. Therefore, Jesus was taken to be a prophet for he, like John, called people to repentance, and, like Elijah-Elisha, worked miracles (although virtually none of his were judgment miracles). He also engaged in some parabolic actions, such as the so-called cleansing of the temple. Because he did not fit any one prophetic model, people were confused as to whether he was the reincarnation of a particular prophet or the prophet predicted in Deut 18 or John the Baptist come back to life. But all the guesses were prophetic.
With the advent of the Holy Spirit, prophetic speech becomes rooted in the church. The Hebrew Scriptures are reinterpreted in the light of Jesus (narratively this starts happening in both Acts 1 and 2), the people are called to repentance, and the sentences of God are announced (Ananias and Sapphira, for example). Prophecy is clearly Paul’s most favored gift in 1 Cor 14, even if, because of the mixed nature of human beings, it must be discerned or sifted.
Against this background, what is prophecy? It is at root delivering a message from God in a manner in which God directs. One is “speaking forth,” which can mean foretelling, but usually does not mean foretelling and is more likely to be revealing what actually is. It is often simply telling the person or group how God sees a situation and calling them to deeper commitment. It is not exegesis of the scriptures, the passing on of tradition, for it has an immediacy in speaking from God rather than a mediated speaking from God that is found in laying out the scriptures and tradition. At the same time, the prophet may use the scriptures, reading them at a different level than the exegete does.
Who prophesies? First, in the New Testament all believers are potentially prophets, fulfilling Moses’ wish that all God’s people prophesy, and the Joel citation cited in Acts 2 (in which the scripture is altered so that the prophetic gift is emphasized). Thus, prophecy (in the Christian sense) can be given to anyone who follows Jesus. But there are those in the church who were so characterized by prophesy that they were called prophets. They are mentioned in Acts 13, for instance, and in Eph 4, as well as in 1 Cor 14 (where only two or at most three are to prophesy before there is a pause for evaluation by the leaders of the community). We do not hear of these people having a call-vision and we do not hear of their full-time work being prophesy (then again, most of the Hebrew prophets seem to have had other jobs as priests, or, in Amos’ case, as a shepherd). That does not mean that some did not have call-visions and that none did serve full-time as prophets (although the latter is less likely than the former), but it does mean that the New Testament writers did not feel it necessary to state such experiences as qualifications. It is clear that prophets were still around at the end of the first century and into the second century, not just John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, but the sometimes-traveling prophets mentioned in Didache 11 and the prophets mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas. Later, while not called prophets, many of the great saints as well as named monastic leaders exhibit the gift of prophecy. This gift has certainly never ceased, even in groups that believe it has ceased (I know of instances in the Plymouth Brethren movement in which prophetic phenomena were expressed, but, of course, never called prophecy).
How does prophesy come about? It is based in a soul that is quiet and has drawn near to God in a listening attitude, although sometimes God chooses to override our “noise” and speak anyway. Like all spiritual gifts, it usually originates in an impulse from the Spirit, a revelation. This may be an auditory or visual “vision” (and in works like Ezekiel this vision was at times shared by others, at least in part, so it could be external or internal), but it is often a quiet word within. Sometimes it is a heightened awareness of something external, such as seeing a flower and suddenly thinking of it as a parable from God. The same can happen with scripture, when one “sees” something in scripture that may have nothing to do with the context, but is God using the scripture as a means of speaking to the people. It may be a numinous dream, such as Joseph had in Matthew 1 and 2 or Paul had in Acts 16:6. Each of these is a form of revelation, but revelation is only the first step in prophesy.
The next part is the interpretation. What does this mean? Some people have received revelation all their lives but have never realized it was God and so have never paused to reflect on and interpret it. Sometimes the meaning is clear, but sometimes it is not. When Paul was in the storm-tossed ship, the divine messenger he experienced, probably in a dream (although, the case of Peter in Acts 12 shows that one may see a divine messenger at night and think it is a dream, when it is in reality an objective event) gave him an explicit message for those on the ship. But the dream-vision in Acts 16:6 could have been a temptation to leave Asia Minor or a divine call to leave Asia Minor for the Iberian Peninsula. Paul, either due to an immediate inward knowing or due to reflective, listening prayer, took it to mean the latter, perhaps after mutual discernment with the others in his company. I have heard very prophetically gifted people get accurate revelation, but give it the wrong interpretation, for they jumped too quickly to the conclusion of what it meant and did not take it to prayer or discernment with others. That is why good prophetically gifted people are humble, and humility is an important part of delivering prophetic words. “I believe that God wishes me to tell you (whether the “you” be individual or group) . . . Does that make any sense to you?” is a good way of delivering a prophetic word. One may, perhaps, speak with more boldness if a group has prayed through a word and believes it is indeed a word from God, although even then there is the danger of “group think” – groups have their collective prejudices and ideas. It is not just individual people who are fallen and fallible and may mix in “their stuff” with a true word from God.
Part of the interpretive discernment is whether the revelation (perhaps with interpretation) is for oneself or for others, and if it is for others, is it to be shared privately or in a public setting? Failure to ask the “who is it for” question has led to many a true divine revelation being used in a harmful manner. The rule of love is important. Along with this there comes the question of when the word should be shared, which we turn to next.
Finally, there is timing. Some prophesies were to be “sealed up” for some period of time, while others were to be spoken immediately. One sees that in Revelation, where the messages of the seven thunders were sealed and were not to be communicated, but Revelation as a whole was to be communicated to the seven churches immediately, for the time of its fulfillment was “soon,” and the churches needed its encouragement to stand during trial. I had finished speaking at a conference in England and had set the group to praying for and ministering to one another, when, turning from cleaning off the white board I had used, I saw a group on the far side of the room. I had no idea what they were praying about. I had the impulse within, “Tell that man that God loves him.” I protested in my heart, “That is so banal. Everyone knows that truth. Am I making this up?” But the impulse persisted, so I walked slowly up to the group and took in what was going on, deciding that I needed to risk that this was God’s word. At an appropriate break in the prayers, I said, “I have the impression that Jesus wants to say to you that he loves you . . .” (and perhaps I said a bit more). The man collapsed to the ground in tears. “Oh,” I thought, “I guess that was from God.” It was so commonplace. It was clearly not false, but still so common. But I had God’s timing right (for once) and the word struck home like an arrow from a well-aimed bow. Therefore, the one with the impulse that contains revelation and interpretation must also pray that God will give him or her the timing and the means of delivery. Usually the delivery is verbal, but, like Agabus in Acts, it may be acted out (he took Paul’s belt and tied up his own hands and feet and then gave a verbal interpretation).
Finally, as noted above, prophecy needs evaluation or discernment. Paul speaks about this as group action in 1 Cor 14. In the Torah both Deut 13 and Deut 18 give tests for a prophet (Does the message accord with the Torah? Does any predictive element come true? Notice that even if a predicted sign or wonder takes place, the message is to be rejected if it does not accord with the Torah.) In Didache 11 two tests are given: (1) does the prophet live an ethical life; does he live what he teaches, and (2) is the prophet profiting from his prophecy? If he tries to do that, reject him or her and his prophecy, no matter how deep or spiritual it may seem. The same is true in Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11, for there it is clear that a prophet should not accept remuneration nor should he or she allow themselves to be used as diviners, i.e. they should not respond to people who come to them asking for a word from God. This was what happened in 1 Samuel, for instance, when Saul goes to Samuel asking about his lost donkeys, after having been assured by his slave that the slave had a bit of money, apparently enough for proper remuneration of a “seer” in those days. Elisha would later refuse a gift from Naaman, setting a standard that continues into the New Testament and beyond: one does not make a living from prophecy; the prophet should not profit from his prophecy. Of these tests, the most important is that of the godly life, which flows through all the literature. If the prophet does not live what he or she teaches, then reject them as a prophet, or reject the prophecy if it is a person who only occasionally prophesies. If the prophet is ungodly, then absolutely reject what they prophesy, for it will be tainted, even if there is a core of truth. Holiness of life is fundamental, for otherwise the whole of the prophetic word is twisted. It may be a true word, but it will be warped in some way.
This differentiates the prophet from the teacher. The elder who labors in teaching is especially to be given a full wage (1 Tim 5:17-18 – the word for wage or financial remuneration and for honor is the same in Greek and double is often used for “full” in Scripture). Prophets are never said to be remunerated. Perhaps this is because teaching and preaching take more preparation and are more time consuming, not leaving time to do other work. Perhaps this is because teaching often required copies of the Scriptures and the like, which were expensive. Whatever the case, the teacher is to be remunerated. It is not that teaching is not a spiritual gift, one associated with knowledge and wisdom. I have often been teaching and, as usual, drawing things out on a whiteboard or chalkboard and realized that I had written on the board something that I did not know beforehand. I would, after the class, copy what I had written on the board to, first, check it out and, second, incorporate it into later teaching. And there are times when I will say something while giving advice to a student or perhaps someone in the confessional, and afterwards will think, “Did I say that? That was so wise. Where did it come from?” Or someone will tell me that something I said changed their life, and I cannot even remember saying it. That is where the words of wisdom and knowledge show up in teaching, but such phenomena do not mean that there is not a lot of preparation and study (and prayer) involved. God often builds on the foundations that have already been laid. (The word of knowledge that is often spoken of in charismatic circles is usually a prophetic word, a visual or auditory revelation that initiates the prophetic person’s approach to the person or initiates a prayer for healing.)
Prophecy is a powerful gift, and that is why Paul valued it so much. At the same time, it can be very abusive. I have heard a lot of junk prophecy (perhaps because the timing was off, perhaps because it was for the person and not for the group, perhaps because it was just junk). I have experienced and seen abusive prophesy. Those tests of life and the discernment of others are very important for it to stay healthy. But when it is healthy, it can build up and strengthen the community and bring people to repentance in powerful ways. In fact, a good deal of what we find in the Patristic writers is probably prophetic. Maybe when we get together after this age, we will get a chance to ask them, “How did you get that teaching?” Then we will know from their answer whether I am right about that or not.