In the language of the Bible, a prophet is someone who speaks a message from God. Sometimes the message is addressed to the king or some prominent person. At other times it’s meant for the people as a whole. Prophets don’t appear among the people of Israel until there are kings. They function as an important counter-balance to the ancient belief that kings spoke in the name of God and therefore their actions were not to be questioned.
The first prophet is Nathan, who is sent from God to King David to warn him that he has sinned in murdering his loyal soldier Uriah, so that he could marry Uriah’s wife. In this story David listens to the words of the prophet and acknowledges that he has done wrong (the story is told in the 12th chapter of the first book of Samuel). Nathan was the first in a prophetic tradition of speaking truth to persons in power. Often this meant that the prophets suffered ridicule and persecution or were imprisoned and even killed. Future kings were not as honest as David and preferred to get rid of the prophets rather than answer to the truth and reform their own actions.
Prophets flourished through the reign of the kings and continued after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were toppled and the Jewish people sent into exile. During the time of the kings the message of the prophets was one of warning the kings and people that they were not worshipping God properly and in fact offending God by neglecting the needs of the poor and helpless. These prophets were strong advocates for social justice. During the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon prophets continued to be present but their message changed to one of hope and consolation, encouraging the people to perservere by assuring them that God had not abandoned them.
Prophets continued to be present among the people for a short while after they returned from exile and rebuilt Jerusalem. During this period a priest named Ezra and a governor named Nehemiah brought about a revival in the observance of Jewish law among the people. As interpreters of the law became more important, the role of prophecy seems to have declined. However, John the Baptist and Jesus both recall the prophetic tradition in their words and actions.
There are 18 books in the Old Testament that are attributed to prophets. Some of them are compilations of the work of more than one prophet. These writings cover the period between 750 and 450 B.C. There are also prophets mentioned in the Old Testament, like Nathan, Elijah and Elisha, whose writings were not preserved, if they ever in fact existed. There seem to have been many more prophets who lived during this period but whose names and messages have been lost to history.
Today we sometimes misunderstand prophets to be individuals who predicted the future. Prophets did not understand themselves as such. Their words were addressed to the people of their own time. But because they often articulated timeless truths, their messages still bear relevance for us today.