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In common parlance, prophecy is often considered to be "predicting the future." For some, it conjures up images of telephone psychics and the like. Others might envision a crystal ball, or a Jamaican woman running a phone scam. It generally has a mystical connotation of some type.

On the other hand, the "prophets" of Scripture (e.g. Malachi, Habakkuk, Jonah) seem to be doing something different. Making explicit predictions about the future seems to be a small part of their function as a "prophet."

So my question is: Biblically speaking, what exactly is prophecy? Is there a Biblical definition that matches the actual practices of the prophets?


If possible (for the sake of finding a consensus Christian perspective), please support your answers using the universally accepted 66 books of Scripture that are found, for example, in the Protestant Bible.

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But I want to use Tobit! Millions of Christians have understood non-Protestant books to be Scripture, too. –  Affable Geek Aug 29 '12 at 18:38
    
I was just meditating on the meaning of 'wisdom' and as I was reading 2 Corinthians 14:2-25 I came across the word 'prophecy' - then I needed to know what it means and came across this site. –  user8825 Nov 29 '13 at 17:40
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6 Answers

After what I've studies and read here [on this site], my understanding is that 'prophecy' is God's wisdom manifested on earth as God's Word which is the Bible (including all the unpublished Scriptures, we know or not know about!).

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Welcome to the site. As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page, How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Nov 29 '13 at 23:36
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A prophet is someone God chooses to speak through. As others have said, sometimes this is foretelling the future, but more commonly God uses the prophets to speak about the present time.

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. (Deut 18:18)

I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them. (Hosea 12:10)

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Prophecy usually is thought of as "Telling of history before it happens". An example of this is Gods prophecy about the fall of Babylon. That is found in Isaiah 44:26-28. Here God predicts Babylons conquering by Cyrus the great 200 years before Cyrus is even born. Not only that, but he also tells in great detail how it would happen. The events took place just so, as it is recorded in history and the bible.

Prophecy can involve much more. It may be an inspired moral teaching, an expression of a divine command or judgment, or a declaration of something to come. We see this from great bible prophets such as Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, so on.

Anyone with teachings of a divine nature. Even a conversation with God is technically prophetic. Basically anyone claiming their words to be from god is a prophet and thus is making a prophecy.

It is defined in the Dictionary as being:

proph·e·cy (prf-s) n. pl. proph·e·cies (-sz) 1. a. An inspired utterance of a prophet, viewed as a revelation of divine will. b. A prediction of the future, made under divine inspiration. c. Such an inspired message or prediction transmitted orally or in writing. 2. The vocation or condition of a prophet. 3. A prediction.

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Thanks, but I couldn't tell whether you were saying that prophecy is "telling of history before it happens" or if you were saying that it is "any message from God"? It seems like you were saying both, and my question was which is the correct understanding. –  Jas 3.1 Nov 22 '13 at 22:15
    
It is both. Usually it is foretelling of events before it happens, but it can involve all of these –  Jeremy Nov 23 '13 at 0:06
    
Based on your answer, it sounds like all of Scripture could be considered "prophecy"... If that's what you're saying then it wouldn't "usually" be telling the future, right? –  Jas 3.1 Nov 23 '13 at 19:56
    
Also, it would be good if you could provide some sort of credible source for what you're claiming. (As it is now it just sounds like your personal opinion.) –  Jas 3.1 Nov 23 '13 at 19:56
    
I guess in that sense that the bible could be considered prophecy as it is all inspired of god. God inspired those men to write the scriptures. I will add the definition of prophecy, but my source for reasoning is from that scripture in Isaiah. What I meant by usually is that that is what is thought of when a person thinks of a prophecy. –  Jeremy Nov 23 '13 at 20:34
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Sometimes alternate post are not competing with original posts only complimenting them. I seek to compliment and amplify Affable’s post which has already more simply stated. Partly to help me straighten it out in my own mind!

I am gathering my results to your question more from a word study using the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, but not quoting him directly. Rather I used his observations to help me collect my own thoughts that I have encountered in many places.

The main problem with defining ‘prophecy’ is that you must work your way back to the ‘prophet’ and like many words in the Bible, there are various meanings, not just one. For example ‘fear’ in the Bible has so many meanings, sometimes almost contradicting each other, that you need a spreadsheet just to sort them. It is therefore the concepts that we must learn, and then we can determine the right meaning of the word as it is found in different contexts and apply our knowledge to extract its meaning in that location. Sometimes it seems bad theologians are simply those who fix one meaning to a word and then distort the Bible accordingly.

So what are the Biblical concepts of ‘prophet’?

First, the Bible early on indicating who a prophets was:

Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” (NIV Genesis 20:7)

Abraham did not do a lot of future predictions but as he represented God from among all others and in this instance acted as a mediator in intercessory prayer, he was the basic meaning of a prophet. The things Abraham had to say in general may be considered prophetic, or prophecy, due to his peculiar role.

More clearly does this high authoritative role appear in Moses, where when Aaron is made to be his mouthpiece, Moses becomes the symbol of God to Pharaoh:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. 2 You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. (NIV Exodus 7:1-2)

This is the foundation of the high level authoritative office of prophet and the function in it, representing God’s will, currently and sometimes in the future.

There is also another sense of prophet found later on in the scriptures where there were actual schools of many prophets. For example we meet groups of prophets after Samuel anointed Saul and said to him:

As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, timbrels, pipes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. (NIV 1 Samuel 10:5-7)

These prophets are represented as having an ‘experience of God’ so that it is more ecstatic then it is necessarily predicting the future. In this sense even inspired worship, even through just instruments at times, in this experience of God is prophecy. The musicians were called to prophecy under this sense of the word:

David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. Here is the list of the men who performed this service: (NIV 1 Chronicles 25:1)

All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the Lord, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God. (NIV 1 Chronicles 25:6)

As the Old Testament progresses this ecstatic experience of prophecy diminishes and the actual writings of prophets and individual prophets come to the forefront. This may be considered the true developed office. In this sense we find that period of the prophets indicated in the New Testament more frequently:

“Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. (NIV Acts 3:24-25)

This final authoritative official office of the Prophets focused on the word of the prophets as they were written and as they foretold of Christ.

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.(NIV 1 Samuel 3:19)

This formal office of prophet ended with John, as the whole purpose of the position was to predict Christ:

For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. (NIV Mathew 11:13)

As we leave John and transition to the New Testament, the twelve Apostles become the new high authority, even higher than the prophets:

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28)

However just as the term prophet has many senses even Apostle may refer to something other than the 'high authoritative office of the twelve', who were called by the visible Christ, but that is another subject.

There is another difference in the New Testament that carries the word ‘prophecy’ into a new sense. Unlike the Old Testament where the Prophets had high authority and who alone seemed to have the Spirit, in the last days this role would change. Upon the ending of that high role, some aspects of it, namely the experience of the Spirit and even gifts of seeing God’s will for our current situation and even in Acts and other places a gift of prophecy that could predict future events was long foretold by Joel:

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women,
 I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (NIV Joel 2:28-29)

In this sense under a new meaning of prophecy, after the high official office ended, everyone prophecies by experiencing the Spirit and some may also (at least in those days) have a gift to predict future things by that same Spirit.

With respect to Jesus he is not directly a Prophet, Apostle, Priest, or King but is Messiah making him The Prophet, The Apostle, The Priest, The King and so none who claim to be those things in such a way as to imply there is something more needed are false, apostles, prophets, etc.:

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. (NIV Hebrews 3:1)

Just as the Prophets ended in that their primary purpose was to write down those prophecies which were fulfilled as Christ appeared, so as the twelve Apostles established the doctrines of the church in the New Testament, having completed their task the office, in that sense also ceased. We now have teachers and preachers who make known God’s word to us, and in this sense they maintain this ancient tradition of prophecy. All prophecy speaks of Christ, for this is the current and future will of God, that we adore him, in the Spirit of worship and love.

Note: Whether the gift of prophecy in narrow future foretelling sense may, or may not exists today is back into the cessation, non-cessation argument, or somewhere in-between, which is not directly related to the overall meaning of 'prophets' who 'prophecy'.

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Perhaps two of the most famous minor prophets will illustrate that prophecy is not so much about telling the future as the present.

Jonah, for example, only issues a single proclamation about the future - "Forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed," - and even that one ends up not coming to pass because of God's grace. Amos, another prophet, makes very few predictions about the future, but again, the thrust of his message is that God's people need to shape up! This is true of Hosea, Malachi, and many others.

The non-writing Prophets - Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, share the same distinction.

Indeed, we say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was "prophetic" in many of his missives against segregation in the United States.

The point is that a prophet is one who is given a message by God. (Indeed Malach-i means "My Messenger") The prophet is then told to deliver this message to His people, however God chooses. When Jeremiah refuses, he says it burns in his bones. When Ezekiel does what God says, his wife dies and he can't mourn, he ends up lying on his side for years at a time, and generally looking like a nut. Indeed, when Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, he is simply called a "prophet" for the act.

The point is simple that a prophet is a messenger of God. If that message says something about the future, then it is because God wishes to give a message about consequences. (Indeed, John the Revelator is apocalyptic, not prophetic!).

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Jonah was an established prophet outside of just "his book", too - see 2 Kings 14 –  warren Aug 29 '12 at 18:47
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"Prophecy" has at least verbal two connotations in the Bible - fore-telling and forth-telling. Merriam-Webster defines the verb thusly:

V| to utter by or as if by divine inspiration; to predict with assurance or on the basis of mystic knowledge; to give instruction in religious matters {preach}

Foretelling

Foretelling is saying what the future will be or hold before it happens. This is the sense in which most people I know think of "prophecy" - the OT predictions of the Messiah, Jesus' warnings against Jerusalem, John's Revelation, Daniel's interpretation of the king's dream of the statue, etc.

Forthtelling

Forthtelling is proclaiming truth (or news). It is likely that Baalam was hired to do this second kind of prophesying by Balak (king of the Moabites).

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Thanks for the answer. You say "it is likely that Baalam was hired to do this second kind" ... could you provide a source for this claim? –  Jas 3.1 May 1 '13 at 3:49
    
@Jas3.1 - it came up in a sermon I heard a few years ago, don't recall now where the preacher referenced it from –  warren May 1 '13 at 12:26
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Balaam was hired to curse Israel because Balaak knew he was a prophet (the things he said were true or came true). –  mojo Jan 16 at 18:28
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