The Office of the Prophet in Old Testament Times -- By: S. Herbert Bess

Journal: Grace Journal
Volume: GJ 01:1 (Spring 1960)
Article: The Office of the Prophet in Old Testament Times
Author: S. Herbert Bess

The Office of the Prophet in Old Testament Times

S. Herbert Bess

Professor of Old Testament
Grace Theological Seminary

This article was read before the National Fellowship of Brethren Ministers, Winona Lake, Indiana, August 18, 1959.


When one undertakes to make a comprehensive study of the men in the OT who bore the name “prophet,” and of the activities of those who are said to prophesy, he is confronted with a bewildering and perplexing variety. He need not be very astute to observe that there is a marked difference between Saul, who stripped off his clothes and prophesied, lying naked all day and all night (1 Sam 19:24), and Isaiah or Amos, whose thunderous “thus saith the Lord” exposed the moral corruption of the nation. Modern students of the OT seek to categorize the various kinds of prophets by coining such terms as “frenzied” or “ecstatic” prophets, “canonical” or “writing” prophets, “cultic” prophets, “false” or “professional” prophets, the “prophetic guild,” and the like. But the Bible itself uses the term “prophet” to refer to all of these, and others.

In an effort to find a common definition which will embrace all the phenomena, etymology has been often resorted to, but according to my understanding, without positive results. The verb to prophesy, nibbaʾ or hithnabbeʾ is used preponderantly to signify the preaching of the message of God. An example of the usage is found in Amos 7:14ff, which reads: “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore-trees: and Jehovah took me from following the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.” While I have not analyzed every usage of the verb in the Old Testament, it surely must be safe to say that in the great majority of cases the word means to declare God’s message. However, there are unquestionably a few places in the Bible where the word is used to mean “to behave in an uncontrolled manner.” The verb is used of Saul when he lost his self control and hurled a javelin at David (1 Sam 18:10), or when he stripped off his clothes and rolled about on the ground. It is also used of the prophets of Baal on Carmel when they danced about and cut themselves with knives (1 Kings 18:28, 29). But the usage of the verb does not establish the meaning of the noun “prophet,” because the verb was derived from the noun, and simply means to “play the prophet.” It ma...

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