As promised, here is some background information on the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. We moved through the information pretty quickly on Sunday, and it is a pretty complex situation.
What Is A Prophet?
The Hebrew word translated as prophet is nabiy (נביא). The word itself is very old and we’re not entirely sure what it originally meant but it seems to carry a sense of speaking authoritatively. It is used for both the prophets of YHWH and the prophets of false gods.
The writer of 1 Samuel mentions that until the time of David, prophets were called seers (ro-eh, ראה), which comes from the verb that means “to see”. The word continued as a synonym for prophet throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but it gives us a clue as to the shift that takes place around the time of David.
From David to Zedekiah (the last king of Judah), the prophets’ role varied. They were originally advisors to the kings, but over time, they became much more, even taking their case to the people when the king refused to receive it. In either capacity, they were considered the mouth of God. They spoke YHWH’s words. Even those who opposed them acknowledged it.
Some Important Prophets
During David’s reign, he had one primary prophet – a man named Nathan. He first appears shortly after David has made Jerusalem his capital (2 Samuel 7) and continued in his role into the reign of David’s successor Solomon (1 Kings 1). Nathan had tremendous access to the king, even challenging David’s authority at one point (2 Samuel 12).
David also had a seer named Gad (2 Samuel 24:11) which implies that at least to some extent, the two positions might have been distinct. Of course, Gad appears toward the end of David’s reign so it might also be possible that Nathan was getting older and was at least sharing his role with Gad.
Following David’s example, most of the kings of Judah continued to rely on a prophet as their spiritual advisor. The prophets seem to have lived outside the capital and usually were subtle influences on the kingdom (1 Kings 11:29, 16:7).
In the northern kingdom of Israel, which split from the southern kingdom around 920 BCE, prophets were often in conflict with the kings. Most notable are Elijah and Elisha who lived and worked during the reign of the Omrid kings of Israel. The Omrids were Ba’al worshipers, so the Yahwehist prophets found a lot of things to do in Israel and the conflict ultimately brought about the downfall of the Omrids.
The southern king Hezekiah (reigned 715-686 BCE) partnered with the prophet Isaiah, who wrote the biblical book of the same name, and their partnership seems to have been very successful. Hezekiah and Isaiah were responsible for a Yahwehist revival in the south that sustained the kingdom for nearly a century after Hezekiah’s death.
The last prophet of the southern kingdom was Jeremiah whose persecution reveals how far the kingdom had slipped from the ideals of David and Hezekiah’s day. The kings Jeremiah served under – the sons of a righteous king named Josiah – went to all kinds of extremes to discredit him. Even after the fall of the kingdom to the Babylonians, Jeremiah did not get any rest. Ultimately, he was carried away to Egypt against his will. Jeremiah authored two books – Jeremiah and Lamentations – that appear in the Hebrew Scriptures.
There are of course, many other prophets, most of whom are never named in Scriptures. The ones who wrote books and appear in the Hebrew Scriptures cover a wide range of periods throughout the history of Israel.
One last note. The terms major prophet and minor prophet have to do with the length of the book, not with the role of the prophet. Prophets like Haggai and Zechariah actually had a pretty important role in the history of the Jews after their exile in Babylon. The brevity of their biblical books is not reflective of the influence they yielded as advisors to the governor of Judaea, Zerubabel.