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Prophesy [Full Discussion]

Despite being but a small sea creature, the late Paul the octopus stunned football fans by correctly predicting the outcome of every match of the World Cup held in Germany.

Prophets are figures that we don’t see around today although they figure prominently in the Bible, particularly later in the Old Testament with the books collectively known as the Major Prophets and Minor Prophets. In previous sessions we saw how the story of Hebrew prophesy began much earlier on with Abraham, and it reached a kind of pinnacle with Moses– but what exactly is a ‘prophet’?

We suggested first that it is a forcastser- someone who studies the past in order to predict the future. But this could be an entirely natural phenomenon, like Paul the octopus. A prophet in a religious sense need not study the past because their knowledge is of a supernatural kind.

We noted that ‘seer’  is a term which also means this but connotes a culture centred on magical beliefs rather than spiritual relationship with God. A prophet then is perhaps one who makes predictions based on God’s message to them.

If they speak this message accurately then they are called a true prophet, if not they are a called a false prophet. There is a clear sense then in which all scripture is prophesy– if it is viewed as the inspired word of God.

We also distinguished the biblical prophets from the gift of prophesy found in charismatic churches (particularly associated with the Pentecostal movement). This is a charism, an ability a Christian receives through the Holy Spirit working in them, in this case to allow God to speak through them to a church congregation.

By contrast to this kind of prophesy, the biblical figure of the prophet inspired respect and often drawing political leadership and power. Yet paradoxically almost every  prophet in both the Old and New Testament was killed. So clearly recognition as a true prophet is something that tends to occur later on, after that person’s lifetime.

Why were the prophets so unpopular then? They certainly were very gloomy and pessimistic most of the time- but being miserable isn’t a reason to kill someone. To understand the offense they caused it is crucial to recognise that prophesy needn’t be about the future as the term commonly implies, but was often about the present as well. Indeed the primary Jewish understanding of prophesy is giving an interpretation of the Law within a particular cultural/historical context. So the prophets agitated the authorities with their caustic criticism of the established order. Jesus was far from the last prophet to be killed either, since the Apostles and Paul became martyrs also.


We then turned to some passages from the major prophets, considering the nature of their message and our reaction to them.

Ezekiel 5:1-12

‘Son of man, take a sharp sword, use it like a barber’s razor and run it over your head and beard. Then take scales and divide the hair you have cut off. Burn one-third inside the city, while the days of the siege are working themselves out. Then take another third and chop it up with the sword all round the city. The last third you are to scatter to the wind, while I unsheathe the sword behind them. …

‘The Lord Yahweh says this, “This is Jerusalem, which I have placed in the middle of the nations, surrounded with foreign countries. She has rebelled more perversely against my observances than the nations have, and against my laws than the surrounding countries have; for they have rejected my observances and not kept my laws.” …

For, as I live – declares Lord Yahweh – as sure as you have defiled my sanctuary with all your horrors and all your loathsome practices, so I too shall reject you without a glance of pity, I shall not spare you. A third of your citizens will die of plague or starve to death inside you; a third will fall by the sword round you; and a third I shall scatter to the winds, unsheathing the sword behind them.

  • This is an example of poetic writing which is common in the prophets. It makes use of apocalyptic imagery as allegory, to convey a spiritual point.
  • Yet there is an explicit reference to a historical state of affairs- that the Hebrews had been rebelling against God’s laws.
  • The symbolic action of shaving quite likely represents judgement and division- a punishment in response to disloyalty.
  • It implies that the figure known as the Son of Man will be the one to carry out this judgement. In the New Testament this figure is identified with Christ.
  • What was meant by defiling the sanctuary? Bringing another god into the sanctuary. Because each ‘god’ (or idol) was the god of a nation, there were complex implications on foreign policy for bringing another god into the sanctuary. This was a deeply political act and so it seems that it refers to judgement both in a historical sense- the judgement of the Hebrew people by their enemies in battle, and in anagogical sense -that is- looking forward to God’s plan of salvation.

Amos 5:18-6:7

[For Yahweh says this: ]

Disaster for you who long for the Day of Yahweh! What will the Day of Yahweh mean for you? It will mean darkness, not light, as when someone runs away from a lion, only to meet a bear; he goes into his house and puts his hand on the wall, only for a snake to bite him. Will not the Day of Yahweh be darkness, not light, totally dark, without a ray of light?

I hate, I scorn your festivals, I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies. When you bring me burnt offerings… your oblations, I do not accept them and I do not look at your communion sacrifices of fat cattle. Spare me the din of your chanting, let me hear none of your strumming on lyres, but let justice flow like water, and uprightness like a never-failing stream!…

Disaster for those so comfortable in Zion and for those so confident on the hill of Samaria, the notables of this first of nations, those to whom the House of Israel has recourse!… Lying on ivory beds and sprawling on their divans, they dine on lambs from the flock, and stall-fattened veal; they bawl to the sound of the lyre and, like David, they invent musical instruments; they drink wine by the bowlful, and lard themselves with the finest oils, but for the ruin of Joseph they care nothing. That is why they will now go into captivity, heading the column of captives. The sprawlers’ revelry is over.

  • The central theme is that God scorns ritual- he wants justice and action.
  • But it never says that God doesn’t want ritual in addition to justice, but only that he doesn’t want empty ritual.
  • So this is another passage that is highly critical of peoples’ behaviour at the time, but it does also speak to the future. Amos predicted that the Hebrews would once more be taken into captivity (as in Egypt), as indeed did happen with the Babylonian exile, c. 600 BC.

Isaiah 40:1-5

‘Console my people, console them,’ says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and cry to her that her period of service is ended, that her guilt has been atoned for, that, from the hand of Yahweh, she has received double punishment for all her sins.’ A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the desert a way for Yahweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be levelled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; then the glory of Yahweh will be revealed and all humanity will see it together, for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.’

  • This passage seems to send out contradictory messages.
  • It is used near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel to refer to John the Baptist – but the author changed the word order to ‘a voice in the desert cries’.
  • The central theme is that the time of punishment (the exile) is over, that the people can return home, and that there are good things to come.

Ezekiel 36:22-27

And so, say to the House of Israel, “The Lord Yahweh says this: I am acting not for your sake, House of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.I am going to display the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am Yahweh – declares the Lord Yahweh – when in you I display my holiness before their eyes.For I shall take you from among the nations and gather you back from all the countries, and bring you home to your own country. I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your filth and of all your foul idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practice my judgments.

  • Like the previous passage this saying that a change for the good is going to come, but it is more specific. It says that this is a change God himself is going to make not to the situation but to the people.
  • There shall be a cleansing, bringing new (softened) hearts and God’s spirit among us.
  • This seems to suggest universal salvation, as it doesn’t say God isn’t going to do this to everyone.
  • So God shall make his name great and holy accross the world by doing this, rather than by force.
  • Christians interpret this as a direct prediction of Christianity and the power that it can work.
  • St. Paul alludes to it when he says that the Law is inscribed upon the heart of each and every one of us- rather than on stone tablets (Rom 2:15).

Isaiah 2:2-5

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It will happen in the final days that the mountain of Yahweh’s house will rise higher than the mountains and tower above the heights. Then all the nations will stream to it, many peoples will come to it and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths.’ For the Law will issue from Zion and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem. Then he will judge between the nations and arbitrate between many peoples. They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war. House of Jacob, come, let us walk in Yahweh’s light.

  • This famous passage seems to commend pacifism and the building of a utopian community.
  • More plausibly it should be interpreted in an anagogical sense as pointing towards a heavenly afterworld.


View the Next Part of Bible for Bluffers.


Comments on: "Prophesy [Full Discussion]" (1)

  1. Another important definition of ‘the prophet’ is what they are not. They are not a guru, someone who teaches a path of wisdom through which one may come to experience the divine. Of course someone could be both a guru and a prophet, as several of the Sikh gurus were (in composing their scriptures). But the point is that being a prophet doesn’t necessarily make you a guru, just like being a guru doesn’t necessarily make you a prophet.

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