Biblical Prophets

by David Noel Freedman

The phenomenon of prophecy is a distinctive feature of biblical religion. In its fully developed character, it sets biblical religion apart from other religions of the ancient Near East. As in other related matters, such as worship, sacrifice, ethical principles, and practices, Israel shared much with its neighbors. But often, and specifically in matters of religion, the people of the Bible formed and forged something distinctive and different from all that came before or continued side by side. And this is particularly true of biblical prophecy.

With few exceptions the surviving materials of pagan antiquity command now only marginal academic interest—quaint reminders of a distant past—whereas the prophets of the Bible speak across the centuries with words, and out of experiences, that have direct bearing on modern lives and meaning for modern civilization.

Prophets of the Bible claim to be both foretellers and forth-tellers and base their claims upon their private access to the God of Israel, who is the ruler of history—past, present, and future. Prophecy as an essential part of Israel's theopolitical structure and the prophetic movement as an actual historical phenomenon had their beginnings with Samuel and his band of followers in the eleventh century B.C., at the point of transition from the era of the judges to the beginnings of the monarchy with the installation of Saul as royal head of the Israelite Confederation, or League of Tribes. Prophets, beginning with Samuel, played a significant, if not decisive, part in establishing but also censuring the monarchy and remained an integral part of Israelite society as long as the monarchy survived, and even beyond, when there was still thought or hope of restoring the kingship of the house of David. While God generally speaks to prophets through visions, auditions, and even dreams, with Moses he spoke face to face (Deut. 34) or mouth to mouth (Ex. 33). And whereas other prophets often only sense the presence of deity, Moses saw his actual form and person (Num. 12; cf. Ex. 33- 34).

From the biblical records of the prophets and their experiences, one can piece together a picture of prophets and their calling.

THE CALL. The divine call and commission mark the beginning of the prophet's career. In all recorded cases, the details are striking and distinctive; no two prophetic situations are exactly the same, although all share important elements. We have sufficient data for people like Moses, Samuel, Elisha (but not Elijah), and the great literary prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to fill out a composite picture. But we lack information about the call of such prophets as Nathan and Ahijah. Typically, the call is initiated by God and is often accompanied by one or more visions, along with some unusual or miraculous occurrence (e.g., the burning bush). It is the combination of circumstances that persuades the prophet (or prophetess) that he (or she) is not hallucinating but is having contact with the living God. (See Callings)

THE COMMISSION. The call is always accompanied by a commission. The purpose is to enlist or draft the prophet to carry out a mission or duty—to do something in response to the call. Some prophets are reluctant to take on such responsibility, and therefore make excuses or otherwise try to evade their calling (e.g., Moses, Jeremiah, and, above all, Jonah). Other prophets are eager to carry out their task and hasten to do so (e.g., Isaiah, Ezekiel, perhaps Hosea). The basic rules for the prophet—the marching orders, as it were—are given succinctly and eloquently in the book of Jeremiah: "Wherever I send you you shall go, and what I tell you, you shall say" (Jer. 1:7 [author translation]). In brief, the prophet is the ambassador or messenger of God, and his (or her) sole duty is to deliver the message as given.

THE MESSAGE. In most cases, the message is for others and especially for the nation, its leaders, and the people generally. Often it contains warnings and threats, sometimes promises and encouragement. Inevitably there is a predictive element, as messages are mostly oriented to the future but rooted in the past. For the most part, predictions are morally conditioned, based upon the covenant between God and Israel, offering the choice between life and death, with success as the result of obedience and failure as the consequence of disobedience and defiance. Occasionally the oracles are pronounced absolutely, guaranteeing the future, whether of destruction or restoration. Occasionally they are timebound—that is, within a specified period the events described will occur, but often no time frame is specified. Even when moral or temporal conditions are not articulated, they may be implied by the speaker or inferred by the hearers. A notable case is the flat prediction by Micah (Micah 3:12) that Jerusalem will be destroyed. A century later, Jeremiah quotes the passage not to show that the prophecy was unfulfilled (Jerusalem had not been destroyed and was still standing), or much less to indict Micah as a false prophet, but rather to argue that as a result of the prophecy, the king (Hezekiah) and the people repented, and hence Yahweh (Jehovah) forgave them and spared the city (Jer. 26:16-19). It was the prophet's message that produced the result, and therefore both he and his message were vindicated as coming from God.

THE PROPHET AS WONDER-WORKER. Miracles are clearly and strongly associated with prophets such as Moses, Samuel, and especially Elijah and Elisha—as well as Isaiah among the so-called writing prophets—but there are many prophets with little or no such connection (e.g., Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, etc.). Miracles seem to be attached to unusual charismatic individuals who were also prophets but not necessarily to the role or office of prophet. In the case of Moses, they were designed to strengthen and confirm his claims to have received an authentic and authoritative message from God, and they served to augment the function and purpose of visions and similar experiences of other prophets.

SUCCESS AND FAILURE. On the whole, the results of the prophetic experience are themselves unpredictable, and success or failure on the part of individual prophets hardly affects their status as true prophets of God. Prophets such as Samuel and Elisha are reported to have met with much success in carrying out their missions. With Elijah and perhaps Isaiah, the results are mixed, as also with Amos, Hosea, and Micah. Ultimately, they were all recognized as true prophets, not because the leaders and the people heeded their words (often they did not), but because they faithfully reported what they heard from the mouth of God, regardless of consequences for themselves or the people to whom they delivered the message. The survival of the nation was seen to be at stake, and it was of the greatest importance to distinguish true from false prophets. This was no mere academic exercise, but required the best judgment of leaders and people alike.

TESTS OF TRUE PROPHETS. The book of Deuteronomy offers rules of procedure to decide the issue of truth and falsehood. There are two basic principles, both practical and applicable: (1) if the prophet speaks in the name of, and delivers messages from, another God or other gods, then he is automatically condemned for apostasy and must be put to death (Deut. 13:1-5); (2) if the prophet makes a prediction and in due course the prediction is not fulfilled—that is, what is predicted does not come to pass—then the prophet is judged to be false and is to be executed (Deut. 18:20-22).

But the Deuteronomic rules will not work in many situations, and the jury is thrown back on other resources. In the end, the decision cannot wait until all the evidence is in, and must be based on other factors. The chief factor (after the basic test of orthodoxy: in the name of which God does the prophet speak?) must be the impact the prophet makes on his audience: his honesty, his courage, his reliability—the ability to make real to the listeners the experience of God and his messages to the prophet and through him to the people. Later there can be confirmation and vindication.

THE PROPHET AS CUSTODIAN OF COVENANT AND COMMUNITY. From beginning to end, the emphasis in prophetic utterance is on the ethical dimension of biblical religion and how it affects the well-being of the nation and its individual members. In contrast to the cultic concerns of the priests, the prophets stress the moral demands of deity and the ethical requirements of the covenant. The survival and success of the community depend more on the righteousness of the nation than on either the cultic activities of the priests or the military, political, social, and economic exploits of the king and his coterie. The battle against idolatry and apostasy was waged unremittingly through the whole biblical period, and the leaders in the struggle were the prophets. Second to that and equally difficult and important was the obligation to one's neighbor and to the community as a whole. On these two foundations, the prophetic message was constructed, and the prophets never ceased to propound the elementary and basic truths about biblical religion and the relationship of God to his people.

PROPHETS AND UNIVERSALISM. With the great prophets of the eighth and following centuries B.C., there was an important shift, although the basic truths remained untouched. The same requirements and the same standards were upheld and applied even more sharply to an Israel prone to defection and default. With the appearance of the great world powers—Assyria in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. and Babylonia toward the end of the seventh and on into the sixth—the question of the survival of the little kingdoms of Israel and Judah (and their neighbors) became acute. The prophets raise the issue sharply and in a new way for the first time since the time of the Patriarchs, with a larger perspective on the world scene and the role of Yahweh in ruling over the nations. The place of Israel and Judah in the larger picture is defined, and a theory of world order and time frame is foreshadowed. The implications of a single God ruling the universe but with special ties to one small nation (or two kingdoms) are developed. The danger and threats to the people of God are defined more sharply, but so also are the hopes and promises of the future. Ultimately, the God of the world, who is also the God of his particular way, and a restored and revealed Israel will take their place among the nations in a harmonious resolution of conflicts—to form the Peaceable Kingdom. The ultimate vision encompasses all nations and peoples, with a special place for Israel, still obligated by essential covenant stipulations, but a leader and model for all the others. Personal faith and morality are at the core of prophetic religion, but the implications and ramifications are social, national, and ultimately worldwide.

THE PROPHET AS SPOKESMAN FOR THE PEOPLE OF GOD. Normally one thinks of the priests as offering up prayers and sacrifices to God in behalf of the people, and especially of the role of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. In the same manner, prophets may exercise the role of intercessor, but in a different context. Jeremiah mentions two intercessors, Moses and Samuel, while confirming that God himself has denied that role to Jeremiah. The most dramatic case is that of Moses in the episode of the golden calf (Ex. 32). Only Moses has the audacity and the closeness to God to demand a change of heart and mind on the part of the deity. Only Moses can command repentance on the part of God (but see JST, Ex. 32:14). And he succeeds, as the text reports. Israel is spared. A different poetic version of the same event is Psalm 90:13. It is not accidental or incidental that this is the only psalm in the Bible directly attributed to Moses.

Moses remains the unique model of a prophet of Israel because of his inspiration, his leadership, and ultimately his intercessory powers. The closing words of the book of Deuteronomy reflect this singularity: "Not has arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face" (Deut. 34:10 [author translation]; cf. Ex. 33:11). And Yahweh would talk to Moses face to face, as men and women talk to their companions (cf. also Num. 12:8): "Mouth to mouth I speak to him…and the shape of Yahweh he beholds" (author translation).

(See Prophets; the Prophet Joseph Smith; Spirit of Prophecy; Basic Beliefs home page; Scriptural Writings home page; The Holy Bible home page)


Friedrich, Gerhard, ed., and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. and trans. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6, pp. 781-861. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964-1974.

Nibley, Hugh. The World and the Prophets. CWHN 3.

Sawyer, John F. A. Prophecy and the Prophets of the Old Testament. Oxford, 1987.