What Was a Prophet? by Herbert B. Huffmon

Communication between the human and the divine realms occurs in many ways. One primary channel in the biblical tradition is through the prophets, male or female, who are summoned by God to speak to their community, present and future, with that confident and thunderous introduction, “Thus says the Lord!” These same prophets may also intercede with God on behalf of the people, and may also speak their own words. In times of crisis the prophets speak of needed obedience to God and trust in God. They speak of disaster and judgment but also of survival and hope, addressing their own community and the world beyond. Being charged with communicating who God is and what God does (Amos 3:7), they challenge those in power and the people generally.

In addition to their sharp analysis of their present time the prophets confidently envision future developments, such as the possibility of a peaceable kingdom (e.g., Hos 2:20; Isa 11:1-9), a vision still captivating the imagination of people in the present.

The prophets primarily speak for God but they also speak their own words. Amos 3:7 explains: “The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Whereas Jer 20:7 expresses anguish at the people’s rejection of the prophet’s word from God: “I have become a laughingstock all day long.”

As representatives of a charismatic tradition—having a direct connection with God, and privileged to “listen in” on God’s secret deliberations (note 1Kgs 22:17-23)—the Israelite prophets represent two contrasting directions. They are strongly rooted in the tradition of “I am the Lord your God, from the Land of Egypt,” emphasizing the Exodus tradition of liberation and the Mosaic covenant of exclusive loyalty to God. At the same time they are distinctly innovative, emphasizing that the God who brought out Israel from the land of Egypt also brought out the Philistines and the Arameans and had an interest in the people of Kush (Amos 9:7). Prophets in the times of the Judean exile in Babylonia and during the difficult time of reestablishment in the land, announced that the anticipated Messiah, God’s anointed one, was actually the Persian king, Cyrus, who would promote the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple (Isa 45:1; and see Isa 44:28). And in the same inclusive spirit it was a prophet who affirmed that foreigners who followed the Lord and eunuchs who were faithful to the covenant were welcome in God’s “house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isa 56:3-7), and it was a prophet who anticipated a continuing line of prophets (Joel 2:28-29)!

Above all, the prophets of ancient Israel challenge their world—and all those who still honor their words—to “observe what is right and do what is just” (Isa 56:1).

Herbert B. Huffmon, "What Was a Prophet?", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/what-was-a-prophet


Herbert B. Huffmon

Herbert B. Huffmon
Professor Emeritus, Drew University

Herbert B. Huffmon has taught about the Hebrew Bible for more than 50 years, principally at Johns Hopkins University and at Drew University, and has also served for many years as a part-time minister. He is a minister member of Newton Presbytery.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The ancient African nation just south of Egypt. They enjoyed particular military triumphs in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

of or relating to Moses or the writings attributed to him.

The act of relating a prophecy, or inspired message.

Amos 3:7

7Surely the Lord GOD does nothing,
without revealing his secret
to his servants the prophets.

Hos 2:20

20I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.

Isa 11:1-9

The Peaceful Kingdom
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the sp ... View more

Amos 3:7

7Surely the Lord GOD does nothing,
without revealing his secret
to his servants the prophets.

Jer 20:7

Jeremiah Denounces His Persecutors
7O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingsto ... View more

1Kgs 22:17-23

17Then Micaiah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go h ... View more

Amos 9:7

7Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor an ... View more

Isa 45:1

Cyrus, God's Instrument
1Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their rob ... View more

Isa 44:28

28who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose”;
and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
and of the temple, “Your foun ... View more

Isa 56:3-7

3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”4For ... View more

Joel 2:28-29

God's Spirit Poured Out
28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
... View more

Isa 56:1

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey
1Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be reveal ... View more

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