I have had the honor of journeying through the Old Testament with Elmer Martens in my final semester at the Biblical seminary I attend. At this point in our course on Old Testament Theology, we’re looking at the prophetic writings and prophetic patterns in the Old Testament.
Today, Dr. Martens said…
“People think of prophets as people who tell the future. That’s not the point! Prophets are better understood as analysts of the present realities in light of what they know about Yahweh. With respect to the predictive aspects of their prophecies, we could see those as a God-given capacity to help God’s people see the future trajectory of present realities if things don’t change.”
That’s a quote I can run with! It’s also a perspective that helps me see a very strong bridge between the gift of prophecy in Old and New Testaments (though I agree there are some substantive differences).
A prophetic pattern
In our discussion of prophecy, Martens suggested a pattern that can be seen in most of the prophetic writings in the Old Testament.
- Summons (something like “hear ye, hear ye”)
- Accusation (something like “this is what you did”)
- Transition (something like “this is what I’m like in contrast”)
- Announcement (something like “this will happen unless there’s change”)
With this pattern in place, prophecy functions (as Martens suggests) as an analysis of the present with future implications — all based on what God is like. In addition, prophecy almost always functions as an edifying and loving proclamation, even if the love is “tough” and corrective. It is always intended to preserve God’s people, and to help them to return to their vocation to reflect him in the world.
An example from Micah 3
9 Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, 10 who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. 11 Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the LORD and say, “Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.” 12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Micah 3:9-12)
- Summons: v. 9 — “Hear this, you…”
- Accusation: vv. 9b-12 — “you…who detest justice and make crooked all…”
- Transition: v. 12a — “therefore, because of you…”
- Announcement: v. 12b — “Zion shall be plowed as a field…”
If not primarily prediction, then what?
There is definitely predictive language in this prophecy from Micah (and every other Old Testament prophet), but it is not given to prove that Micah can tell the future — and it’s not even about telling the future.
In Martens’ grid for understanding prophets and prophecy, Micah can bee seen as a Divinely gifted analyst of Israel’s present realities, as a teacher of the ways of the Lord to God’s people, and as a voice of course-correction for people along the lines of God’s purposes.
So, prophecy isn’t clairvoyance, fortune-telling, or future-telling for its own sake.
It’s a God’s-eye view of reality, insight into the nature of God Himself, and insight into the inevitable kinds of things that happen when we live in God’s world in ways that run contrary to His good intentions for us.