What Do You Mean by Prophetic? Part I
“If you hear it twice, pay attention.”
That was advice I heard from a teaching assistant at school who was helping us prepare for tests, but I think it’s good advice for life in general. If you hear it twice, pay attention.
So last week when two different artist friends asked me the same question, I took note. They both asked me,
“What do you mean by prophetic?”
I can understand the confusion. In mainstream Christian circles, prophesy and prophetic gifting are seen as decidedly weird and fringe. At best they are practiced in very few Christian communities. For much of the Christian mainstream, this has also made them things to fear.
Prophesy is actually not weird or fringe. This might be surprising to some, but it is a commonplace subject that crops up frequently in the history of Israel, as described in the Hebrew scriptures, and in early Christianity, as described in the New Testament. This post isn’t a comprehensive study, but I’d like to offer a few perspectives for those wanting to practice and learn more.
When I talk to my friends about the prophetic, I am affirming an ability to hear God’s voice. We can trace this definition of the prophetic back to ancient Israel, as explained in some of the following points by Princeton's Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley.
In ancient Israel, prophets and kings went together, side by side. Sometimes prophets were outside of the king’s circle acting as critics, and sometimes they were inside, supporting his leadership. For example, in King David’s court, we can see this interplay with the prophets Gad and Nathan. Sometimes they acted in support of David, and sometimes they critiqued his behavior.
In Israel, the function of a king was to mediate God’s blessings to the people; however, what happens when that power goes unchecked? The office of the prophet was designed to prevent the abuse of that power. In this way, a prophet was not a random person. A prophet worked within a specific community as a specific institutional authority.
In pop culture, prophets are often understood to be mystics, but in the Bible, mysticism wasn't their most important trait. They are thought to be predictors of the future, but Israel’s prophets were actually more concerned with the immediate future, especially the suffering and consequences caused by sin. Prophets are also commonly seen as poets and theologians. While this can be true, it is not all that they are.
Prophets act as messengers from the divine king to the human king. They are proclaimers of God’s justice and heralds of God’s events in the immediate. Prophets primarily focus on words, on what is heard, proclaiming “the word of the Lord.” They bring communication from the divine.
(Note: prophesy was not unique to Israel. Other nations inside and outside of the Bible also had prophets.)
So, from an Old Testament perspective, a prophet is someone who hears God’s voice and works within the context of community. In Part II, we’ll see how these themes surface in the New Testament as well.