The Role of the Prophet in Relation to Israel


Throughout the Ancient Near East, kings of nations were often deified and worshipped. Some kings were also considered priests whom would later become gods upon their death; however, within the social and religious life of Israel, there was a separation of divinity and the monarchy. In other words, the Israelites did not view their kings as gods nor as priests. While kings and priests played major roles and had significant influence in Israel, the primary focus was always on the covenant between God and his people. Even with this focus, kings and priests were tempted to deification and ritual corruption, and this is where the prophets played a major role. The prophets operated with independence and freedom in relation to the kings and priests, and so they helped prevent and safeguard against kingly deification and priestly corruption.[1] “It was this independence that gave the prophets the singular opportunity to transcend power structures and labels and to serve as social critics when the necessity arose.”[2]

The prophets held such an independent role due to being spokespersons for God. The prophets spoke on behalf of God conveying his message, intention and agenda.[3] They were endowed with a dynamic and prophetic word that was not their own.[4] “The word of God reverberated in the voice of man.”[5] Deuteronomy 18:18 states, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (NIV). Even Balaam, who was rebellious and greedy, had to submit to God and proclaim the message God gave him; he states, “Behold, I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (Num 22:38 ESV).


Another role of the prophets was that of covenant enforcers. As mentioned above, the Israelites were distinct in the ancient Near East due to their covenantal relationship with God, and so when the Israelites were not adhering to their covenant obligations, the prophets would intervene on behalf of God in order to point them back to the relationship. The prophets called the people back to covenant obedience, and they reminded them of the blessings and the curses that would result based on their decision.[6] God loves his people and shows great attentiveness and concern when they stray from him, and so God reaches out to his people through the prophets. Abraham Heschel writes,


The basic feature of pathos and the primary content of the prophet’s consciousness is a divine attentiveness and concern. Whatever message he appropriates, it reflects that awareness. It is a divine attentiveness to humanity, an involvement in history, a divine vision of the world in which the prophet shares and which he tries to convey. And it is God’s concern for man that is a the root of the prophet’s work to save the people.[7]

God is holy, just, and compassionate, and so he must address the sins of his beloved people; therefore, the prophets serve as God’s prosecuting attorneys who give indictments with the hope that the outcome will be repentance. The three major indictments against Israel were idolatry, social injustice and religious ritualism.[8]

The central aspect of the the covenantal relationship was in God’s statement, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exod 6:7 NIV). Furthermore, God commanded that the Israelites have no other gods, and that they refrain from worshipping idols (Exod 20:3-4). From their earliest days, the Israelites worshipped idols and other gods. They would even try to synchronize their worship of God with the gods of their neighbors. This syncretistic idolatry was a rejection of the covenantal relationship and blatant disobedience of the commands against false worship; therefore, the prophets called them to repentance and a return back to God.[9]


When the Israelites turned away from God, they also lacked concern for social justice. Not only did their relationship with God suffer, but their relationship with others also suffered. God communicated his desire for justice for all and for the care of weaker individuals. He demanded that the Israelites show fair treatment to workers (Deut 24:14-15); practice justice in the court system (Deut 19:15-21); and take care of widows, orphans and sojourners (Deut 24:17-22).[10] The prophets addressed the Israelite’s injustice and failure to defend the rights of the needy, and they called the Israelites back to the heart of God. Micah 6:8 states, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV).

The hearts of the Israelites were often far from God, and so their relationship waned and was replaced with ritualism. They went through the rituals motions, but they forgot that the rituals were the means to the relationship with God. They had a flawed perspective acting as if ritual was all they needed in order to be in right standing with God. They arrived at the illogical conclusion that their ritual observance would cover their sins of Idolatry and social injustice. The prophets confront this religious ritualism by proclaiming that God is not concerned with their many sacrifices, but rather he is concerned with their heart posture in relation to him (e.g. Isa 1:11f). [11]

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Prophets (Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 474-479.[2] R.A. Mason, “Prophecy and Society” Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. eds. Boda, Mark J., and J.G McConville (IVP Academic, 2012), 1290.[3] Andrew E. Hill, and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament (Zondervan Publishing House, 2009), 309. [4] Heschel, The Prophets, xiv. [5] Heschel, The Prophets, xiv. [6] Marvin C. Pate et. al. The Story of Israel: a Biblical Theology (InterVarsity Press, 2004), 92.[7] Heschel, The Prophets, 483. [8] Pate et. al. The Story of Israel, 92[9] Pate et. al. The Story of Israel, 93-94. [10] Pate et. al. The Story of Israel, 94. [11] Pate et. al. The Story of Israel, 95.


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