According to Merriam-Webster, a prophet is “one who utters divinely inspired revelations.” A prophet can also be “one who foretells future events,” and it’s this latter definition that we often ascribe to the nature of prophecies. But in the Ancient Greek roots, prophet comes from the words pro (“for”) and phani (“to speak”). In this case, to speak on behalf of a god.
With that linguistics lesson out of the way, let’s rephrase this question: What is the duty of someone chosen by God to speak for Him?
I know the obvious answer: “To speak His Will, of course!” But when we talk about revealing the Will of God, what does that mean?
We’d have to go back to the Old Testament, to the Nevi’im, the Books of the Prophets. And while many Christians like to focus on what Isaiah or Jeremiah was saying in relation to the coming of Jesus, it’s important to read these areas of Scripture as more than just foreshadowing the redemption of the world by the Passion and Resurrection. We’d also need to look at how the narrative was addressed to Israel in its own time, in the years surrounding the Babylonian Exile and the building of the Second Temple of Jerusalem.
A line from the prophets that stands out to me is one that Jesus himself utters against the Pharisees and scribes in the Gospels:
“Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
For context, here are the surrounding lines from the Book of Hosea:
Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away. For this reason I smote them through the prophets, I slew them by the words of my mouth; for it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts (Hosea 6:4-6).
What the prophet Hosea expounds on is a theme of infidelity. He compares Israel to an unfaithful wife, lamenting that his people have forgotten the covenant they formed with God after being led out of Egypt. They have put their worship of other gods, like Baal and Asherah, alongside Him. But God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And while they may follow the letter of the law with sacrificial offerings, the Israelites let their hearts grow cold to the God who had saved them. They would rather know of the things of this world than know God in their hearts.
Hosea, like the other prophets, is reverent to God, being His messenger. But the prophets show no mercy toward their human audience. They talk about defeats against Babylon and salvation in the Persian victory under Cyrus the Great. They condemn the hypocrisy and infidelity of Hebrew elders and priests, who put worldly riches and exotic gods on the same pedestal as the Lord. They point out everything that steers people away from a holy life, even when doing so would be socially or politically unacceptable.
Prophets aren’t fortune tellers or astrologers. They aren’t just about “seeing the future.” They’re messengers of what’s happening now. They talk about what happens in our time.
When the religious establishment falters or loses sight of its principles, God ushers in a few firebrands in each generation to help them see clearly again. When kingdoms and churches focus more on wealth and worldly power than on the good of the people, God shakes their pillars with new voices and outstretched hands. And every prophet knows that what they say might lead to their personal doom, just as John the Baptist knew that decrying Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife (Mark 6:17) would lead to his execution.
But they speak out anyway because they are burning with what Hosea calls “knowledge of God,” and over the years, their voices are heard. Their words were known to the Jews in the time of Jesus Christ, who himself reads from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-19) and is rejected for daring to say that he has fulfilled their promise. That inner fire, that sense of a divine promise in dark times, is at the heart of Biblical prophecy, and it’s remained a core thread of Christian faith ever since.