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I don’t remember the exact words. They went something like this: “He was a thundering paradox of a man.” These words served as the opening lines of William Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur. In this work, MacArthur was shown as a multi-faceted man whose essence could not be crystallized by a single attribute. In like manner, the prophets of the Old Testament were men of multi-faceted and multi-dimensioned responsibilities and behavior. Some of the roles carried out by these prophets include the following: First, the prophets of Israel were agents of revelation. They did not say, “In my opinion.” Instead, they introduced their statements or oracles with “Thus saith the Lord.” Though the Old Testament prophets as agents of revelation are popularly conceived as being principally men involved in foretelling, that is, predicting future events, in reality the emphasis of their activity was involved in forthtelling. Forthtelling meant that they were declaring the Word of God to their own time and to their own generations.
The second dimension of the role of the Old Testament prophet was that of being reformers. We must distinguish here between the work of reformation and the work of revolution. The Old Testament prophets had no desire to root up and cast down or to destroy the cultic structure of the nation. Rather, they called the people to return to orthodoxy, not to abandon their history. They called for a return to the terms of the original covenants that God had made with them, to obedience to the law that God had revealed through Moses, and, most importantly, to the practice of true worship as distinguished from all forms of idolatry and hypocrisy. They spoke boldly against formalism, externalism, and ritualism. But in their critique, they did not repudiate the formal, the external, or the ritual. Rather, it was the ism attached to these concepts that expressed the hypocrisy of Jewish worship during the prophetic era. The rituals, the externals, and the forms had been distorted by false forms of worship.
Third, the prophet carried out the role of the covenant prosecutor. There were legal ramifications in terms of the relationship between God and His people. The structure of that relationship was the covenant, and all covenants had stipulations associated with them as well as sanctions. There was a penalty for disobedience, as well as a reward for obedience. When Israel violated the terms of her covenant, God sent his prosecuting attorneys to file suit against them, to declare his controversy with the people. We see this in Hosea’s announcement when he called the people of Israel to solemn assembly, saying that the Lord has a controversy with His people. The announcement and pursuit of this controversy by reason of law had the prophets speaking not as priestly defenders of the people, but rather as divine prosecuting attorneys pronouncing God’s judgment and wrath upon them.
Fourth, the role of the prophet in Israel, individually and corporately, was to serve in a concrete way as the conscience of the nation. Israel was structured as a divine theocracy. There was no hard-pressed separation of church and state. When the state and the people in it wandered from the ethical structure of the nation, it was the prophet who would prick the consciences of the people and of the kings. Part of the reason the prophets lived such perilous lives was because they were called to speak boldly to the rulers of the nation, which rulers did not appreciate the intervention of the prophet. Rare was the king such as David who gave heed to the intervention of Nathan and who responded with profound repentance (2 Sam. 12:1–15). Normally, the course of the rulers was to follow the way of Ahab, to seek the very life of that prophet who dared to call him to repentance (1Kings 19:1–3). In our own culture, where we have a so-called separation of church and state, it is not the role or responsibility of the church to rule the nation. But it is the responsibility of the church to be the conscience of the nation and to call the state to repentance when the state becomes demonized and fails to serve in the cause of righteousness.
Finally, the prophets were known as rugged individualists. There were indeed schools of professional prophets who worked together executing their trade for their own livelihood. Traditionally, these were the ones who became the false prophets of Israel. The true prophets were those who usually met with God alone in the wilderness and were given a divine summons to stand against the crowd and against the false prophets. Jeremiah, for example, felt the ignominy and the anguish of always being outnumbered by the false prophets who united in their cause against the truth boldly proclaimed by him. It was Elijah who thought that he was the only one left who had not bowed his knee to Baal. God rebuked him and reminded him that he had preserved 7,000 for Himself, who had not bowed the knee to Baal. These incidents reflect the commonplace experience of the Old Testament prophet who, time after time, was called to stand alone against a secularized nation and an immoral culture. They stood their ground for the truth of God and in many cases paid the ultimate price for it. It’s on the shoulders of the prophets of the Old Testament that the New Testament church establishes the agents of revelation — which are the apostles in the language of the new covenant. And so the foundation of the church of Christ is the foundation of the prophets and the apostles.