PROPHECY IN THE BIBLE
When people today think of a prophet, they usually think of a person who foretells the future. In ancient Israel, however, this was not the primary role of a prophet. Rather, the prophet’s job was to hear and announce God’s will, to be the messenger of God to the king, or even to the entire nation. The prophet was called to his or her mission by God. It was not a role that could be bestowed on one by a king or by the people, or even by another prophet. The prophet might receive God’s word through a dream, or a vision, or some other spiritual experience. He or she would then reveal to the king or to the nation, by preaching, writing, or action, what God wanted them to do. God chose Saul, and then David, to be king of Israel by the prophet Samuel. The Lord called Israel to battle against the Canaanites through the prophet Deborah, who was also a judge. Haggai was God’s instrument by which He told those who returned from exile to get busy re-building His Temple. Sometimes, when it was needed, the prophet would tell the king or the nation that God was not happy with them, speak God’s judgment against them, and demand that they repent. Nathan rebuked David for committing adultery with Bathsheba and for arranging the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. Malachi chastised the men of Judah for divorcing their wives. Moses, through whom God gave His people the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), is regarded as the greatest prophet of Israel.
The prophet was often closely linked to the king, and some served as direct advisors to the kings of Israel or Judah. But, the prophet was not there to support the king’s political ambitions, or to be a “yes-man” to the king. As often as not, the prophet opposed the king’s plans when the Lord made it clear that the king had abandoned his trust in God. Because of this, many of God’s prophets suffered imprisonment, exile, or other persecutions at the hands of the kings who reigned as head of God’s people.
Prophets were not only given the unhappy task of rebuking kings and warning the nation of God’s punishments if they strayed from His will. Part of God’s plan for Israel, and the world, was the coming of His kingdom and the making of a new covenant with His people, even when they failed so badly in keeping the first covenant with Abraham. God make it known through His prophets that His promises are true, and by His power a new day would dawn that would bring peace and everlasting life: the Day of the Lord! It is these prophecies that are most meaningful for Christians, who see in Jesus Christ the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah and the hope for God’s own kingdom.
Isaiah is perhaps the best known among the prophets to Catholics because many readings from the Book of Isaiah are used in the Mass during the seasons of Advent and Lent. At Midnight Mass for Christmas, Catholics hear from Isaiah, chapter 9:
“The people who walked in darkness/have seen a great light;/Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom,/a light has shown. …/For a child is born to us, a son is given us;/upon his shoulders dominion rests./They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero/Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:1, 5
On Good Friday, the Church reads the Suffering Servant song in Isaiah 53:
“Yet it was our iniquities that he bore,/our sufferings that he endured,/While we thought of him as stricken,/as one smitten by God and afflicted./But he was pierced for our offenses,/crushed for our sins,/Upon him was the chastisement that/makes us whole,/by his stripes we were healed.” Isaiah 53:4-5
One of Jeremiah’s great prophecies is announced just before the destruction of Jerusalem, where Jeremiah reveals God’s will to create a new covenant with His people:
“The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand and to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the LORD. All, from the least to the greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34
John the Baptist is regarded by Christians as the last of the Old Testament prophets. It was his mission to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3), and announce the coming of the one Who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Evangelist wants his fellow Jews to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient Messianic prophecies. In his early chapters, Matthew quotes prophecies from Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah and demonstrates how they point to Jesus. The Gospel According to Luke recounts that, in the synagogue, Jesus Himself reads from the Book of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,/because he has anointed me/to bring glad tidings to the poor./He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captive/and recovery of sight to the blind,/to let the oppressed to free,/and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2
Jesus then sat down and announced, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
We read in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters that there were prophets in the early Church, as well. Their role was similar to that of the ancient prophets of Israel, especially to offer a word of encouragement and consolation to the Christians in their efforts to live faithfully in the struggle against sin and in the face of persecution. Paul writes of the role of the prophet as one who speaks to the people, “for their building-up, encouragement, and solace” (1 Corinthians 14:3).
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.