What is a prophet? What is he sent to do? Peter describes prophets as "holy men of God [who] spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). But is that the whole story?
"The Hebrew word for prophet, nabi, means 'one who announces or brings a message from God.' Our word 'prophet' has essentially the same meaning, one who speaks by divine inspiration as the interpreter or spokesman of God, whether it be a message of duty, a warning or a prediction of future events. The twofold meaning is due to the two senses of the preposition pro (in the Greek from which our word prophet is derived), 'for' and 'before'; so a prophet is one who speaks for God, and one who tells before hand what is to take place" (Peloubet's Bible Dictionary, 1971, "Prophet, Prophecy").
It is important that we understand the role of these prophets. Daniel refers to prophets as "Your [God's] servants…who spoke in Your name to our kings and our princes, to our fathers and all the people of the land" (Daniel 9:6). They were messengers whose role went far beyond revealing the future. They also gave instruction, pointed to lessons from history, reminded the people of their covenant with God, showed kings and nations their sins and proclaimed God's call to repentance. As God's spokesman, the Bible sometimes referred to a prophet simply as "a man of God" (1 Samuel 2:27).
God usually revealed His will to prophets through visions and dreams. They saw, in clear mental images, what God wanted them to convey to the people—such as, "The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:1). They then described, in their own words and style, what they saw or heard (Isaiah 2:8). Sometimes God told them what to say. Many prophetic passages are introduced with the words, "Thus says the Lord…" (Isaiah 44:6; Jeremiah 8:4; Ezekiel 11:5).
Israel's spiritual decline
From shortly after the death of Joshua to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the spiritual condition of the people of Israel deteriorated. Only during part of the reigns of a few kings—David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah—were ancient Israel and Judah considered relatively righteous and obedient nations.
Under Solomon's leadership, Israel reached the pinnacle of its expansion, prosperity and fame. However, Solomon's heavy taxation spawned misery and resentment. Meanwhile his pagan wives influenced him to turn away from God to idolatry.
Immediately after the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam ignored the advice of his senior advisers to reverse Solomon's excessive taxation, a policy that threatened to divide the kingdom. The northern tribes especially resented such heavy taxation and, under the leadership of Jeroboam, 10 tribes revolted and reorganized into a separate kingdom.
Almost immediately this new kingdom, the house of Israel, adopted forms of idolatry for its religious ceremonies. Judah, the southern kingdom, retained the right form of worship and at times experienced spiritual reawakenings under righteous kings that included Hezekiah and Josiah. But even Judah generally failed to curtail the spread of idolatry within its borders.
The moral and spiritual climate in both kingdoms degenerated, with first a rapid decline in the house of Israel followed by a prolonged decline in the house of Judah. Rulers and subjects alike began disregarding their covenant with God. God specifically condemned their idolatry and ignoring of the Sabbath day, the time He had set apart for weekly rest and worship.
Soon the afflictions and punishments for disobedience that God had spelled out in detail in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 began to affect both kingdoms on a grand scale. Through His prophets, God pleaded for repentance for several centuries with both the house of Judah and the house of Israel. For the most part the people ignored and scorned the warnings of the prophets.
At first the prophets used only the spoken word to condemn the two nations' moral and spiritual corruption. They pleaded for repentance. The two prominent prophets during this long period of spiritual and moral decline were Elijah and Elisha. We read about their work near the end of the book of 1 Kings and in the early chapters of 2 Kings. Ultimately the prophets began to proclaim their prophetic warnings not only with spoken appeals but with written prophetic messages.
Written prophecy became necessary
As Israel and Judah further slid into moral and spiritual degeneracy, God would soon dramatically increase His punishment for their sins. He sent His prophets with a new and terrifying warning to announce to both nations: Unless you repent of your collective sins—particularly your covetousness, idolatry and Sabbath-breaking—captivity and exile will soon be your fate. Foreign conquerors will invade your borders, destroy your cities and carry your survivors to faraway lands.
In those days empires often intimidated nearby smaller kingdoms into submission simply by the threat of invasion. The weaker countries usually consented to become vassal states to the powerful rulers, who demanded total allegiance. As long as the vassal states paid the required tax or tribute—and maintained their allegiance to the more powerful empire—they generally were allowed to govern themselves. But any insubordination was quickly crushed, and additional restrictions to their freedom were imposed. If the vassals again tried to shake off the control of the superior power, they were routed by military force and the survivors carried away into exile.
Why was the threat of exile to Israel and Judah so important to God that He wanted it recorded in writing for future generations? Why did He decide that the whole world must know why and how He would disown His chosen people for a time? After all, God had promised this land to the descendants of Abraham forever. How could He take it away from them without destroying His own credibility?
God keeps His promises
God wants the world to know that He always keeps His promises. He specifically promised Abraham and David that their descendants, their seed, would inherit and rule over a particular land—the land of Canaan—forever. But through the prophets God then told Israel and Judah that He would drive them out of that land. This required an explanation.
How could God expel His people from the Promised Land into captivity and exile and still keep His promises? Would God abandon His promises and covenants? Would David's dynasty cease?
God determined to answer these questions in advance. He wanted no scoffer to have legitimate reason to accuse Him of ignoring or abandoning His promises and covenants. He chose to permanently record why He was sending the descendants of Israel—both kingdoms—into exile.
So He sent His prophets not only to warn but to record what He planned so all peoples could read—in advance—His plans to restore Israel as one kingdom. One of the first prophets to write about the impending exile of the northern kingdom of Israel exclaimed: "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). God commissioned such prophets not only to warn about impending disasters but to explain that He would later fulfill every promise He had ever made.
With this background, we read that God had the prophets record for all generations what the future would hold. This is history written in advance.
The same prophecies that foretold the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah give specific details concerning the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of the throne of David. These prophecies explain that the Messiah—as the Son of David and the Son of God—will restore, at His second coming, the kingdom of Israel as part of His own worldwide Kingdom.
Through these prophecies, God provides mankind with proof of the reliability of His promises and covenants. Prophecy establishes God's credibility and faithfulness for all who take the time to study and accept His Word.
Just as God had earlier demonstrated—by Israel's miraculous Exodus from Egypt—that His promises of nationhood to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were reliable, so He will demonstrate the complete reliability of His Word by fulfilling everything He has announced through the mouths and pens of His prophets. Through them He revealed the good and bad aspects of the future of Israel and that these things will demonstrably affect the future of mankind.
Even more important, when everything is said and done, God will have demonstrated that He and He alone is the One who has ultimate power over our destiny. He will have proved beyond a shadow of doubt these words: "I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done … Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it" (Isaiah 46:9-11).
God will demonstrate that He is God
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God explains the great purpose for the events He has revealed to us:
"'I will set My glory among the nations; all the nations shall see My judgment which I have executed, and My hand which I have laid on them. So the house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God from that day forward. The Gentiles shall know that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity; because they were unfaithful to Me, therefore I hid My face from them. I gave them into the hand of their enemies, and they all fell by the sword. According to their uncleanness and according to their transgressions I have dealt with them, and hidden My face from them.'
"Therefore thus says the Lord God: 'Now I will bring back the captives of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel … When I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them out of their enemies' lands, and I am hallowed in them in the sight of many nations, then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer'" (Ezekiel 39:21-28; compare with Exodus 6:7).
God put these prophecies in writing so all humanity will be able to understand and believe in His great power and truthfulness. All peoples will then have incontrovertible evidence that they can trust Him as the living and faithful God. If God should fail to keep a single promise, His word would always be suspect. Prophecy explains how He will keep His promises—both to punish those who rebel against Him and to bless those who yield to His instructions.
God intends to use His prophecies—and their astounding accuracy—to demonstrate to all that He is indeed the God of truth. They will come to realize the reliability of Jesus Christ's plain statement concerning God: "Your word is truth" (John 17:17).
God will confirm His credibility
We must remember the promises made to Abraham and David and the covenant God established with Israel. God binds Himself to be faithful to His word. Therefore He has obliged Himself to restore all the inheritance and all the blessings He took away in the exile of Israel and Judah.
Again, through Ezekiel, God said: "Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; they shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they ever be divided into two kingdoms again.
"They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. Then they shall be My people, and I will be their God" (Ezekiel 37:21-23).
So convincing will be the evidence of the reality of God that real repentance accompanied by a stunning transformation in the way the people of Israel respond to Him will come to pass. "'And a Redeemer will come to Zion [Jerusalem], and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,' declares the Lord. 'And as for Me, this is My covenant with them,' says the Lord: 'My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring's offspring,' says the Lord, 'from now and forever'" (Isaiah 59:20-21, NASB).
The apostle Paul reaffirmed this concept centuries later: "For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob'" (Romans 11:25-26).
No room will be left for doubt of God's existence and reliability. Proof that He is real and that His Word is to be trusted will stand overwhelming and irrefutable.
Once the descendants of ancient Israel accept the undeniable evidence that God has inspired and faithfully fulfilled the prophecies written in His Word, Christ will begin to teach the other nations this same truth. God will then have brought all nations—all of humanity—to repentance. The books of prophecy in our Bibles will provide the indisputable evidence that God can accurately foretell the end from the beginning.