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Prophets as Emissaries of the Divine King

Dear Church Family,

On Sunday mornings at 9:15-10:15 am in the sanctuary, we have Sunday school for all ages. We are using a video series called “He Gave Us Prophets,” combined with teaching and discussion, in order to better understand, interpret, and apply the prophets of the Old Testament. If you’re interested in reviewing the video lessons that we are using for this class, you may find them online here: https://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/HGP. Also, if you’re interested in reviewing the summaries that I’ve been writing in these weekly emails, you find those on the HCPCA church website here: https://www.hillcountrypca.org/pastors-blog/category/he-gave-us-prophets.

Continuing with these reviews, here is a summary of some of the things that we learned and covered in our most recent Sunday school class.

Overview of Lesson #2 – A Prophet’s Job

In our second lesson in our series on series on how to better understand the prophets of the Old Testament, we sought to better understand the job (or role) of the prophet as described in Scripture. Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the job of a prophet in Bible as having only to do with telling the future. However, there are many other aspects to a Biblical prophet’s job, and one of the ways to better understand their role is by examining how they are described in the Bible – specifically, what are their job titles in Scripture.

Prophets’ Job Titles

Primary Terms or Job Titles: The primary terms for a prophet are nabi (in the Hebrew Old Testament) and prophetes (in the Greek New Testament). Both terms are translated into English from the original languages as “prophet.” Nabi means a called person (e.g., Genesis 20:7; Exodus 7:1) and prophetes means one who predicts or proclaims (e.g., Matthew 21:11; Acts 21:10).

Secondary Terms or Job Titles: As we dive deeper into the Old Testament, however, we find that prophets are referred to by several other terms, as well. Prophets are called “servants” (2 Kings 21:10; 24:2); “seers” (1 Samuel 9:9; 2 Samuel 24:11); “guard” or “watchman” (Isaiah 21:12; Hosea 9:8); “messenger” (Isaiah 42:19; Malachi 3:1); and “a man of (or from) God” (Deuteronomy 33:1; 1 Samuel 9:6; 2 Kings 8:11).

What these primary and secondary job titles tell us is that while prophets would sometimes speak of future events, they were those who were called by God to declare God’s Word and to stand watch over the spiritual life of God’s people.

Job Transitions

Regarding the job of the prophets, the second major topic that we covered were the several different general historical eras of God’s people in the Old Testament in which prophets ministered.

(1) Pre-monarchy (before 1,000 BC) – during the time before the establishment of kings in Israel, there were relatively few prophets who ministered on a generally informal basis.

(2) Monarchy (1,000-722 B.C.) – During the times of the rein of kings in Israel (when Israel was one nation, but also when it became divided into Israel and Judah), there were large numbers of prophets who ministered on a much more formal basis. These prophets would speak to the broader population of Israel and even to other nations, but their main focus was to declare God’s Word (warnings of His curses and promises of His blessing) to the king who ruled over God’s people. Some served in the courts of the kings in an official capacity, while others were outright rejected by the kings.

(3) Exile (722-538 B.C.) – In 722 B.C. northern Israel's capital of Samaria fell to the Assyrians. And in 586 B.C. Judah’s capital of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. During this time of exile, there were fewer prophets who operated on a more informal basis. The two best known prophets from the time of the exile are Daniel and Ezekiel.

(4) Post-exile (after 538 B.C.) – As the people of God began to return to the land and begin to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, God raised up a few prophets in a bit of a more formal role to encourage both the leaders and the people of God to remain faithful to the Lord. These prophets included Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Job Expectations

When we put all of these things together, we learn that the job expectations of the prophets of the Old Testament are much different than popularly imagined. Many people have thought of the prophets as being similar to the mediums, shamans, or fortune-tellers of the other nations of the Ancient Near East; however, that was not the case at all.

The prophets whom God raised up and sent out in the Old Testament functioned more like emissaries or ambassadors than shamans or fortune-tellers. In the ancient world, oftentimes the emperor of a large nation or empire would enter into a pact or a treaty with the king of a smaller nation or city. These kinds of treaties are called “suzerain-vassal treaties” (where suzerain means emperor and vassal means servant).

In similar fashion, God had entered into covenant with the people of Israel. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brough them into the Promised Land. As their suzerain, God promised to care for the people of Israel and protect them. And, as God’s vassal people, Israel was expected to remain faithful to the Lord, to worship and serve Him as their king.

One of the places that we clearly see this suzerain-vassal relationship in Scripture is in the outline of the book of Deuteronomy. The form and structure of Deuteronomy follows the same pattern of the suzerain-vassal treaties that were common among the other nations of that time:

(Deut 1:1-4)             Preamble
(Deut 1:5-4:43)        Historical Prologue
(Deut 4:44-26:19)    Laws and Stipulations
(Deut 27:1-30:20)    Sanctions: blessings and curses
(Deut 31:1-34:12)    Succession

This suzerain-vassal relationship between the Lord and His people helps us to better understand the role of the prophets. The prophets of the Old Testament functions as emissaries and ambassadors who reminded God’s people of the terms of the covenant treaty. Prophets were emissaries who bore messages from the great Suzerain on His heavenly throne, and they took those messages to his vassal nation, Israel.

Conclusion

Understanding the job or role of the prophet – as an emissary sent by God to His people in order to remind them of the terms of their covenant treaty – is essential for understanding of how to interpret and apply the writings of the Old Testament prophets. It also reaches and reminds to place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, the perfect and final Prophet, Priest, and King. I hope you will join us on Sunday mornings at 9:15 am.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch