Overview of Biblical Prophecy & Prophets
By David Malick

Copyright -- The Bible Studies Foundation (www.bible.org)


A. The Identity of a Prophet:

1. Prophets were known by several terms-both Greek and Hebrew:

a. The Greek term that our English term comes from is profhvth (1) (prophetes) meaning one who proclaims and interprets divine revelation.(2) It is descriptive of one who speaks forth God’s word.(3)
b. The Hebrew terms used for a prophet are primarily ayb!n* (nabi) (4) which is probably descriptive of “one called” to speak for God(5), and ha#r)h* (6) (hroeh, English “seer”) which was what prophets used to be called in Israel before Samuel (1 Sam. 9:9) because they saw visions
c. Other terms for a prophet included, “man of God,” “watchman,” “messenger of YHWH”, and “man of the Spirit”(7).

2. Prophets had characteristics which were similar and distinct of their contemporaries of the Ancient Near East:

a. Similar Characteristics with the ANE(8):

1) Sometimes they were identified with ecstatic experiences (1 Sam. 10:11-although this may be sarcastic)
2) Prophets spoke to Kings to encourage them or with criticism
3) Prophets spoke concerning military matters or building projects
4) Prophets received their messages through dreams, visions, trances, or ways that were not stated

b. Dissimilar Characteristics with the ANE(9):

1) Biblical prophets were certain of their individual calls from YHWH (cf. Isa. 6; Jer. 1; Ezk. 1; Jonah 1, et cetera)
2) Biblical prophets were holy men who were “moved by the Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21)
3) Biblical prophets were usually identified with self-control when under revelation(10)
4) Biblical prophets were usually accused of antiritualism rather than with concerns of ritualism
5) Biblical prophets were concerned with far reaching messages of exile and destruction
6) Biblical prophets often spoke to the people as well as the kings
7) Biblical prophets (especially the classical prophets [see below] spoke upon the basis of the Mosaic Covenant(11) (by which God chose a people to reveal himself and to carry out his plan in history)
8) Biblical prophets included an eschatological aspect to their messages whereby their totally sovereign God would unveil portions of His final stage of history(12)

B. Classification of the Prophets(13): The prophets may be identified within three basic categories-(1) pre-
monarchy(14), (2) pre-classical(15), (3) classical(16)-as the following chart unfolds:(17)









Nation guidance, Maintenance of justice ,  Spiritual  overseer




King and court 

Military advice, Pronouncement of rebuke or blessing




People & King

Warning, rebuke, advice; longterm vision (Isaiah)



Mouthpiece-social/spiritual commentator


Rebuke  concerning current condition of society; leads to warnings of captivity, destruction, exile, and promise of eventual restoration, Call for justice and repentance


C. The Message of the Prophet:

1. Most of the classical prophetic writings were a historic collection of sermons during turbulent times in Israel’s history with a message to the problems of the nation(19)
2. The historic messages were collected and arranged in book form thereby being intended for later generations of Israel and of those until God’s purposes in history are accomplished(20)
3. The following graph portrays four basic categories of prophetic oracles:(21)






Statement of the offense

Focus primarily on idolatry, ritualism, and social justice

Focus on not giving proper honor to the Lord


Punishment to be carried out

Primarily political and projected for near future

Interprets recent or current crises as punishment


Expected response

Very little offered; generally return to God by ending wicked conduct

Slightly more offered; more specifically addressed to particular situation


Affirmation of future hope or deliverance

Presented and understood as coming after an intervening period of judgment

Presented and understood as spanning a protracted time period
Religious:  now
Socioeconomic: Potential
Political: Eventual

4. Messages Concerning the Future:

a. Prophecy certainly was a message to a historical people
b. Prophecy was also a message to a historical people in view of God’s ongoing redemptive purpose; therefore, it unveiled God’s sovereign plan and intentions
c. In what is usually called “predictive prophecy” the “predictive” element was attached to the present situation.
d. While the human author most probably understood the historical message which he was giving, only the Divine Author could fully know the final referent if the message spoke of the future. Nevertheless, the final referent would not (and could not) contradict the historical message of the human author.(22)
e. Since Jesus Christ is the center of God’s salvation history, all prophecy somehow relates to Him.


(1) BAGD, s.v. “profhvth"“, p. 723.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Hill and Walton seem to be correct in distinguishing the biblical concept of forthtelling from the common concept that a prophet foretells the future since a prophet only speaks God’s plans and intentions, and since God’s plans are not predictions so much as pre-stated certainties from the sovereign of all causation (A Survey of the Old Testament, pp. 314-315.

(4) BDB, s.v. “ayb!n*”, p. 661.

(5) La Sor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, p. 298- 299; R. K. Harrison, Introduction, pp. 741-742. See also Exodus 4:15ff; 7:1).

(6) 1 Samuel 9:9; Isa. 30:10; BDB, s.v. “ ha#r) “, p. 909 meaning one who sees (perhaps a vision) from har.

(7) La Sor, Old, p. 298.

(8) Prophets were known in the Mari tablets of the eighteenth century B.C. and in the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the days of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal (681-633 B.C.) See Hill and Walton, A Survey, pp. 309-310.

(9) Much of this information comes from Hill and Walton Survey, p. 311.

(10) La Sor, Old, p. 300; See R. K. Harrison’s extended discussion and bibliography, Introduction, pp. 752-754

(11) The judgments were restatements of the covenant curses (Lev. 26; Deut. 27-28); YHWH would determine the time of the judgments as the Judge, and the judgments would be executed by foreign nations. Only through a New Covenant (Deut. 30; Jer. 31) could the nation be restored after they fell under judgment (Elliott E. Johnson, “Elements of Recognition”, Dallas Theological Seminary, p. 53).

(12) Some central passages which speak to this theme are found in the words of the prophet Isaiah (41:21-24; 43:10-13; 44:6-11; 45:20-21; 48:3-7. Post-exilic prophets had the days when YHWH would complete his program (“latter days”, or “those days”) as a central focus (La Sor et al, Old, p. 304. The Day of the LORD (Day of YHWH) would be the time when YHWH would consummate his judgment and blessing.

(13) La Sor et al offers a complete list with central passages, Old, pp. 301-303.

(14) These are Deborah, Samuel (although Samuel is transitional as the last of the judges and the first of the monarchical [pre-classical] prophets). They were called prophets because: (1) they were chosen in order to received revelation, (2) Moses is the prototype of a prophet [Deut. 18:18; 34:10], (3) Samuel marked a time when prophecy resumed [1 Sam. 3:7-9]. See La Sor et al, Old, pp. 300- 301.

(15) These are scattered throughout the historical books including oracles by Nathan, Elijah, Elisha.

(16) These are most commonly identified with the “writing” prophets from the eighth through fourth century B.C. primarily including those who wrote books (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Obed, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).

(17) Hill and Walton, A Survey, p. 311.

(18) Jonah is unique because it does not contain a collection of prophetic oracles to the nation, but is narrative about the prophet.

(19) Elliot E. Johnson, “Principle of Recognition”, Class notes, Dallas Theological Seminary, p. 52.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Hill and Walton, A Survey, pp. 313-315.

(22) The Divine Author would use the human author to communicate His message often with a reference beyond the conscious awareness of the human author. This might be illustrated as follows: If I say to my daughter, “I don’t love kisses from anyone as much as from you”, there would be limits to my statement (e.g., it does not include my wife). Yet, If someone brings a child to me and says, “Did you mean more than Alice?”, I would say, “Yes, even though I did not have Alice in mind when I made that statement, Alice does fit with what I have said.” I am speaking as the “human author” here. But if my sayings were inspired, God would say, “Yes, and Alice is specifically whom I had in mind!” Since the message is the Divine Author’s message, there are at times references beyond (but not in conflict) with the human author’s awareness.