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The ordinary Hebrew word for prophet is nabi, derived from a verb signifying “to bubble forth” like a fountain; hence the word means one who announces or pours forth the declarations of God. The English word comes from the Greek prophetes (profetes), which signifies in classical Greek one who speaks for another, especially one who speaks for a god, and so interprets his will to man; hence its essential meaning is “an interpreter.” The use of the word in its modern sense as “one who predicts” is post-classical. The larger sense of interpretation has not, however, been lost. In fact the English word ways been used in a closer sense. The different meanings or shades of meanings in which the abstract noun is employed in Scripture have been drawn out by Locke as follows: “Prophecy comprehends three things: prediction; singing by the dictate of the Spirit; and understanding and explaining the mysterious, hidden sense of Scripture by an immediate illumination and motion of the Spirit.” Order and office .—The sacerdotal order was originally the instrument by which the members of the Jewish theocracy were taught and governed in things spiritual. Teaching by act and teaching by word were alike their task. But during the time of the judges, the priesthood sank into a state of degeneracy, and the people were no longer affected by the acted lessons of the ceremonial service. They required less enigmatic warnings and exhortations, under these circumstances a new moral power was evoked the Prophetic Order. Samuel himself Levite of the family of Kohath, (1 Chronicles 6:28) and almost certainly a priest, was the instrument used at once for effecting a reform in the sacerdotal order (1 Chronicles 9:22) and for giving to the prophets a position of importance which they had never before held. Nevertheless it is not to be supposed that Samuel created the prophetic order as a new thing before unknown. The germs both of the prophetic and of the regal order are found in the law as given to the Israelites by Moses, (13:1; 18:20; 17:18) but they were not yet developed, because there was not yet the demand for them. Samuel took measures to make his work of restoration permanent as well as effective for the moment. For this purpose he instituted companies or colleges of prophets. One we find in his lifetime at Ramah, (1 Samuel 19:19,20) others afterward at Bethel, (2 Kings 2:3) Jericho, (2 Kings 2:2,5) Gilgal; (2 Kings 4:38) and elsewhere. (2 Kings 6:1) Their constitution and object similar to those of theological colleges. Into them were gathered promising students, and here they were trained for the office which they were afterward destined to fulfill. So successful were these institutions that from the time of Samuel to the closing of the canon of the Old Testament there seems never to have been wanting due supply of men to keep up the line of official prophets. Their chief subject of study was, no doubt, the law and its interpretation; oral, as distinct from symbolical, teaching being thenceforward tacitly transferred from the priestly to the prophetic order. Subsidiary subjects of instruction were music and sacred poetry, both of which had been connected with prophecy from the time of Moses (Exodus 15:20) and the judges. (Judges 4:4; 5:1) But to belong to the prophetic order and to possess the prophetic gift are not convertible terms. Generally, the inspired prophet came from the college of prophets, and belonged to prophetic order; but this was not always the case. Thus Amos though called to the prophetic office did not belong to the prophetic order. (Amos 7:14) The sixteen prophets whose books are in the canon have that place of honor because they were endowed with the prophetic gift us well as ordinarily (so far as we know) belonging to the prophetic order. Characteristics .—What then are the characteristics of the sixteen prophets thus called and commissioned and intrusted with the messages of God to his people?
- They were the national poets of Judea.
- They were annalists and historians. A great portion of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, of Daniel of Jonah, of Haggai, is direct or in direct history.
- They were preachers of patriotism,—their patriotism being founded on the religious motive.
- They were preachers of morals and of spiritual religion. The system of morals put forward by the prophets, if not higher or sterner or purer than that of the law, is more plainly declared, and with greater, because now more needed, vehemence of diction.
- They were extraordinary but yet authorized exponents of the law.
- They held a pastoral or quasi-pastoral office.
- They were a political power in the state.
- But the prophets were something more than national poets and annalists, preachers of patriotism moral teachers, exponents of the law, pastors and politicians. Their most essential characteristic is that they were instruments of revealing God’s will to man, as in other ways, so specially by predicting future events, and in particular foretelling the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the redemption effected by him. We have a series of prophecies which are so applicable to the person and earthly life of Jesus Christ as to be thereby shown to have been designed to apply to him. And if they were designed to apply to him, prophetical prediction is proved. Objections have, been urged. We notice only one, vis., vagueness. It has been said that the prophecies are too darkly and vaguely worded to be proved predictive by the events which they are alleged to foretell. But to this might be answered,
- That God never forces men to believe, but that there is such a union of definiteness and vagueness in the prophecies as to enable those who are willing to discover the truth, while the willfully blind are not forcibly constrained to see it.
- That, had the prophecies been couched in the form of direct declarations, their fulfillment would have thereby been rendered impossible or at least capable of frustration.
- That the effect of prophecy would have been far less beneficial to believers, as being less adapted to keep them in a state of constant expectation.
- That the Messiah of revelation could not be so clearly portrayed in his varied character as God and man, as prophet, priest and king, if he had been the mere teacher.”
- That the state of the prophets, at the time of receiving the divine revelation, was such as necessarily to make their predictions fragmentary figurative, and abstracted from the relations of time.
- That some portions of the prophecies were intended to be of double application, and some portions to be understood only on their fulfillment, Comp. (John 14:29; Ezekiel 36:33)
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