Prophets figure very prominently in the Old Testament. In fact, prophets wrote most of the books of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).
The three main divisions of the Old Testament are called The Law, The Prophets and The Writings. The Law (Genesis through to Deuteronomy seems to have been written by Moses, who is referred to as a prophet in Deut 18:15. The Prophets were books written by, well, prophets. They include everything from Joshua to 2 Kings and from Isaiah to Malachi in modern Protestant Bibles.
The third section, the Writings, was written by a mixed company of writers, of whom some are also identified as prophets, such as Daniel and some of the writers of Psalms, such as Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman (all listed as prophets in 1 Chron. 25).
Beginning with Samuel, there seem to have been colleges or “schools of the prophets” instituted for the training of prophets (1 Sam. 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:3, 15; 4:38), which continued to the close of the Old Testament. Such “schools” were established at Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal, Gibeah, and Jericho.
The “sons” or “disciples” of the prophets were young men (2 Kings 5:22; 9:1, 4) who lived together at these different “schools” (4:38-41). These young men were taught not only the rudiments of secular knowledge, but they were brought up to exercise the office of prophet, “to preach pure morality and the heart-felt worship of Jehovah, and to act along and co-ordinately with the priesthood and monarchy in guiding the state aright and checking all attempts at illegality and tyranny.”
What Is a Prophet?
Being a prophet was not primarily about predicting the future. They talked a lot about the future, but their task was not to predict the historical future. Their job was to let the community know what God wanted them to do or to refrain from doing in their current circumstances.
This often meant describing contingent futures. In other words, God would ask the prophet to describe the ultimate outcome of their current or projected course of action. He or she might then prescribe an alternative course that would avoid the negative outcome predicted by God. Only rarely would a prophecy be unalterable if the offending behaviour changed for the better or the worse.
Prophecy and the Spirit of God are tightly woven together in the fabric of the stories of ancient Israel. As an example, when the burden of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness became too much for Moses the prophet, God provides assistance in a fascinating way, as described in Numbers 11:16-29.
The seventy elders of Israel (Num. 11:16-29 NKJV)
“The LORD said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone… So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the Tent.
“ Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again.
“However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
Note: There seems to be some ambiguity as to whether the 70 elders prophesied again or whether they did not cease prophesying from that point on among the various translations available. Newer translations seem to agree that they only prophesied that one time. At any rate, prophesying was to be linked with the work of God’s Spirit even to the point that Israel’s first king, Saul, was seen to prophesy once he was anointed as king.
Comparing Numbers 11:16-29 with Acts 2
As far back as Numbers 11, the Spirit of God is associated with prophecy and prophets. When the 70 elders of Israel are appointed to help Moses judge cases wisely, they are initiated with a portion of the spirit God had placed upon Moses and they immediately prophesy. The “speaking in tongues” of the disciples of Jesus in Acts 2 differs from this only in that they spoke their prophetic words in languages they had never learned before.
I think the story in Acts 2 is intended to remind early believers of the “elders” in the story in Numbers 11. The Holy Spirit has been working in the prophets throughout the history of Israel, both before and after their exile from the Promised Land.
It looks like Moses finally gets his wish from Numbers 11:29 at that fateful Pentecost! The era of the church becomes the era in which all of the people who answer Jesus’ call become “prophets” by being given the Holy Spirit. The prophetic ministry does not die out in the New Testament, as we will examine in the next instalment.