What Is Prophecy?
What is prophecy? Prophecy is the proclamation of a message revealed by the Holy Spirit, suited to the specific needs of the moment, in the language of those who hear it.
Wisdom is a gift from God. But so are the quiet hints, or the disquieting shouts. In our drive to measure, quantify, and make certain, we mistake mere knowledge for wisdom, and then lean so much on our own degree of knowledge that we override or dismiss the 'hints' that come from the same source as wisdom. Our spiritual lives are in such disorder that we aren't listening anymore for the things that come from that Source. As we get our spiritual lives back in order, through prayer, worship, study, and the disciplines, we can once again tune in to the signal drowned out by the static of our lives. The Spirit once again reveals to us what is true. When that happens through another person in a direct way, it is a part of what the Biblical authors meant by 'prophecy'.
PROPHECY HAS A CONTEXT
Prophecy is a sign of God's nearness and concern, that the Lord is still there with us to build up, tear down, or console (as per 1 Corinthians 14:3; Isaiah 40). Prophecy serves as God's way of getting through to people in a particular situation (2 Samuel 12:7; 1 Corinthians 14:24; Acts 8:30-35). It can, within that context, offer a view of what is to come -- especially if repentance is not forthcoming. This is true for societies as a whole -- the prophets and apostles of old pronounced judgement on all and called all to righteousness, even the pagans, for societal evil and injustice.
Prophecy is something done within a context. The context is that of God's covenants with human beings, shown through the Word as revealed in Scripture. If it is not within that context and in full accord with it, it is false and not from God, and furthermore it will quite likely prove evil in its effect. What prophecy can do for us today is to show how in daily living we have set aside the biblical truths and went our own way; it can place into the foreground what we have been avoiding and burn the true way into our hearts. It can convict us of our current path and provide us with new direction; if so, other gifts will follow which will empower the new direction.
There was much more prophecy from the Lord than what we have in Scripture. The Bible itself testifies to that. Many of the prophets spent a good deal of their time giving messages of encouragement and comfort to those who were following the Lord. Some wrote books, and likely also songs, some of which are mentioned but others were lost in history's mists. Jeremiah and Ezekiel give a few glimpses into a prophet's more usual life. What the Bible holds is a record of prophecies which bore what the later Jewish community recognized as having meaning beyond its day. Even on that front, they probably left out a lot, though nothing essential.
The Old Testament prophets spoke within the context of their tradition, using the rich oral and written poetry and stories which were the common heritage of the Israelites over the millenniums since Abraham, the stuff from which our Old Testament histories and writings were made. Some of the prophets were highly-skilled wordsmiths (Habakkuk, for example) and were even first class poets (Isaiah, for example). Prophets of the Church speak within the framework of the New Testament apostolic tradition of faith (as in Romans 12:6). Thus, in both Testaments, it is the core of that tradition which can be used to measure the prophecy's value; for us, Christ and Christ's work are the core against which all prophecy is measured (1 Corinthians 12:3; Matt 7:15-20; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21; 1 John 4:1-2). The gift of discernment of spirits also comes into play when judging prophecy.
Characteristics Of Prophecy
To be prophecy in the classic sense, the message must be from God, bearing the effectiveness of the Spirit, and bearing a piece of God's burden over us. Prophecy is usually (though not always) directed toward God's people. What we do with the prophecy is our own responsibility. In the Old Testament, the prophets often pronounced woes on other nations. Their mode of delivery implies that these woes were normally communicated in the presence of not just Israelites. The idea that prophets spoke their woes explicitly to those woed lies behind the portrayal of Jonah's trip to Nineveh -- if that were not what was expected from a true prophet, the whole scene would've been just too stupid. Amos' trip to the apostate royal temple at Bethel was done in order to deliver warnings of doom to the doorstep of the doom's main cause. By telling a prophecy directly to those involved, it can lead them to change their ways, which is why God sent the message to the prophet. Prophecy was spoken in hopes of a change, to bring about repentance.
Paul on Prophecy
The primary passage of Scripture on the gifts of the Spirit deals rather directly with prophecy: 1 Corinthians 14. The apostle Paul highly values prophecy, especially over tongues, because of how readily it edifies (makes healthier or wiser) the church. Paul's words about his own speaking in tongues ( 14:18 ) should put to rest the idea that he is casting tongues aside. He's just showing which valuable gift is more valuable, and recognizing how the value of the public use of tongues depends upon the gift of interpretation. Paul says it is better to speak few words that teach than it is to say thousands that do not. This is true not only for the gift of tongues or prophecy, but also to any Christian's everyday communications. Our speech has value when it shows us something of God. The root of all such communication (and everything else) was the subject of Paul's previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 13 -- love.
The Value of a Prophet
The prophets did not see themselves as important.
More important were God the Speaker, the message, and those whom the message was for. And the prophet's job was to serve the Speaker. Nor could they get much consolation from their task, for it often met with failure. The message was given to the intended people, who then turned away from them, mocked them, and even killed them. Eventually both of the Israelite kingdoms paid the price for that, the price that the prophets so much wanted not to have happen: the end of their nation. Yet, how could it be called a failure? For the promises given through the prophets became the groundwork for the rebirth of a people who are still with us today, and for the coming of the One who would be the fulfillment of those promises. The prophets succeeded because they were loyal to their task -- to speak what the Speaker speaks.
Two Prophets, and Discerning True Prophecy
The Bible has a rather difficult standard for true prophecy. I think the best test case in the whole of the Prophetic Writings is in Jeremiah 28:1-17, where Hananiah ben Azzur spoke, specifically claiming to be speaking for God. He prophesied that Judah was about to be freed from Babylon. At that same time, Jeremiah was going around Jerusalem wearing a wooden yoke around his neck (27:2), symbolic of the Babylonian rule that Judah was being commanded by God to accept. Jeremiah was saying 'serve the King of Babylon, and live!'. Upon hearing Hananiah speak, Jeremiah expressed his hope that this would indeed prove true, but then gave a warning (28:8-9):
"From early times, the prophets preceding you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many great nations and kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his word comes to pass."
Hananiah did not like this. He went up to Jeremiah and broke the yoke off his neck, saying that the LORD said that Babylon would fall within two years -- the opposite of what the LORD had told Jeremiah. So the contrast was set. What did God want Judah to do? Serve Babylon, or trust that God would free Judah from Babylon's grip?
Jeremiah knew what the answer was. He'd spent his entire lifetime warning that if Judah did not change its crooked, deceitful, prideful ways, it would fall, and the price would be exile from the land they treasured. Now, with Babylon's forces ruling the entire region and arrayed to attack Jerusalem, the punishment was at hand. He didn't want it that way. He wanted his people to live in peace. But that would mean not scheming and fighting against Babylon as they were doing, but being humble and repentant before God.
True Prophets Listen
Hananiah was reading God wrong. He thought God would automatically act harshly against the enemies of His chosen people, no matter how sinful those people were. It's not the first or last time that someone's patriotism overpowered all else. No doubt, the Spirit was trying to speak to Hananiah, who was treated as a respected prophet with a track record, and even Jeremiah treated him as a peer. But Hananiah wasn't listening at all, and you can't speak for God when you don't listen to God.
Afterward, the Lord spoke to the prophet who was actually listening -- Jeremiah. God told him that Hananiah was to be punished for lying about God's will for the covenant people, and the sentence was death before the year was out. (Actually, it took only about two months.) And in short order, Babylon finished the task of defeating Judah, and swept Judah's leaders and part of the population into exile. The nation did not serve the king of Babylon, and thus stopped living as a nation, just as Jeremiah said.
The key difference between the two prophets is TRUTH. One understood what the truth was, the other didn't care what the truth was. The truth will win out; God insists on it.
A lot of people, then and now, think of prophets with an image of shaking and twisting and such. And the Bible talks about prophets sometimes being in such a state. But uncontrollable ecstasy doesn't make something a prophecy. Nor must it be spoken immediately. A prophecy can come as a dream, or by an author's painstaking writing. Prophecy may come as an inner impression, a visualization or vision, or maybe even take off from an earlier passage of Scripture. God is using the prophet to communicate what is most important for a specific place and time and situation, all of which are at hand (for instance, when Jeremiah spoke in his temple sermon, or what Baruch wrote down for delivery to the king, or when Amos traveled to Bethel). The prophet gives the message a literary or oratory shape, but the prophet doesn't create the message itself. That comes from the One who spoke through the prophets. It might have meaning for another time, but it always had meaning for its own time.
A Note on Prophets and Angels
It's a fine line between an angel's task and the task of a prophet, an evangelist, or anyone who brings us a word from God that we really don't want to hear. The figure that wrestled with Jacob, or the "herald angels" of Jesus' birth and of the resurrection, were of course supernatural. But it's not always that clear. Sometimes an angel might be only one step from the prophets. For God's truth-tellers have the task of telling someone what God's will for them is. Then, they leave the results to the people who hear it and God's Spirit at work in them. Christians are commissioned, sent out to spread the word of Jesus Christ to others who don't know or understand. In this way, every Christian and every congregation is a 'messenger'. Not an angel in the sense of a non-material divine creature, but an envoy who is sent with word from God -- in a sense, a mal'ak from the human side of the created order. The apostle Paul uses a description like this in 2 Corinthians, when he calls the Corinthian Christians "a letter of Christ". He wasn't calling them prophets. He was saying that non-believers read Christ by way of the lives of believers. The question is, then, who receives the prophecy that the messenger brings, and what do they do with it?