Updated: Oct 13
PART 1 - GOD GIVES THE PEOPLE A PROPHET
In this series, we explore how prophets came to be players in the kingdom of God, how their influence has changed over the centuries and what place prophecy has in our lives now. More importantly, we consider what this teaches us about God’s desire to engage with us and how the Holy Spirit speaks to believers today.
What caricature comes to mind when you think of a prophet?
There is undoubtedly an air of mystery about the prophet and their purpose. They have been prominent figures since ancient times and continue to be a source of fascination or fear in our present-day (depending on whether your theology sees God as a loving Father or an iron fist.)
In Judaism and Christianity, the role of a prophet has a distinct calling as a spokesperson for the one true God who wants to reveal Himself and his will to his people. They are earthen vessels with unique personalities who the Holy Spirit inspires to speak the messages of God. They “prophesy”, or proclaim God’s words on his behalf.
“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)
When a prophet pops up on the scene or someone announces they have a ‘word from God’ it can raise a few questions:
Where do prophets come from? Do they just blow in on the breeze and toot their horn before being whisked away in a cloud of glory?
By whose authority do they speak? Can you argue with a word from God given by a prophet? How can you tell who’s on the take and who’s fake?
And who gets to decide who is a prophet anyway? Can you promote yourself or do you need a license? What do you do if you want to dodge the draft?
Throughout this series, I will attempt to answer some of these questions with each article exploring different stages along the paths of the prophets. In Scriptures, the role of the prophet is a significant one. Netflix writers could not come up with better episode plots than those you find in the Bible. The accounts of God, his prophets, and his people are all astounding, perplexing, and a little odd at the best of times, but they do reveal to us an insight into God's heart and will for humanity. Their contribution to the kingdom of God is often misunderstood, but on close inspection, we learn what a blessing a true prophet of God can be. To understand their unique voice it is helpful to consider when and how God first raised up a prophet for the people.
In the biblical account, before there were the prophets, there were the people. From the moment God gave humans the breath of life, He intended to converse with them. We were created with faculties designed to communicate after all. We explicitly find God’s desire to commune with his creation evident in the evening stroll He shared with Adam and Eve. Can you imagine what they talked about surrounded by newborn creation and possibilities? I'm sure they swapped food recipes at some point.
However, although God was willing to share all his wisdom with his children, their hearts sought to be equal with God. Sure enough, in the early chapters of Genesis, we discover their disobedience resulted in them having knowledge of everything good, but now also evil. Throughout the generations, people continued to create their own idols and worship creation. Intent on having control of their lives, people turned away from God and made their own gods.
Rather than turning to God for life coaching, it became common to consult anything except Him. To make sense of the phenomenon around them and turn events in their favour, people devised ways to coerce or appease these gods, any god, who might be responsible.
Even better, if you could divine what a god might want, you could offer the appropriate sacrifice to secure what you wanted (bribe away).
Finding out exactly what these gods wanted, however, was, well, complicated. Wooden idols, stone statues, carved runes, omens, and entrails all took some imagination to ‘divine’ the will of the gods. Magicians, seers, priests, prophets, spiritualists, and opportunists were all enlisted in a professional capacity to help a fellow out who sought the favor of a deity.
The problem was, these imagined gods and idols could not speak (Psalm 115:2-8). Many of God’s own prophets that came on the scene later reiterated the problem:
“Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless.” (1 Samuel 12:20-22).
“When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritualists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19)
Not only did this not make sense, but their practices were abhorrent (Deuteronomy 18:9-16).
A better way
In contrast, God continued to speak personally to people through dreams, angels, visions, and sometimes in an audible voice. God was in the habit of making contact Himself, expressing his own will and plans in his own way. Another interesting thing to note is who God would speak to. e.g. Abraham (a nomad), Hagar (a female slave girl), Abimelek (a pagan king), Jacob (a thief), to name a few. At this time, because God chose to speak to people in various ways himself, there was no intermediary or prophet necessary.
Often, God would back up what He said with signs and wonders, distinguishing himself from the useless mute lumps of wood and clay people prayed to. These signs were not omens to interpret, they were confirmation of a message God had already clearly delivered.
Eventually, God decided to take aside a unique group of people, the Israelites, so He could turn their hearts towards him. He promised that He would lead them and love them himself (Genesis 12:1-3). God reassured them; “You will be my people, and I will be your God”. (Exodus 6:7). I would suggest this has always been and will continue to be, God's desire for all of us.
A crucial conversation occurs
When you read some of the accounts of God speaking to people directly, it’s hard not to notice his flare for theater (whatever it takes to get our attention, right?). One of the most extraordinary examples is when He called a man named Moses to be a leader for this fledgling nation, Israel. In the most daunting job interview ever, God spoke audibly to Moses from a tree He set on fire. The conversation between the two of them is fascinating and is the first of many recorded exchanges between the two (read it here Exodus 3).
With Moses now acting as commander in chief, God secured for Israel their freedom from slavery in Egypt. By the time God had extracted his people (with just a few gob-smacking miracles on the way), the people of Israel had become familiar with God’s physical presence. God was guiding and teaching them, primarily by giving instructions to Moses of when to safely stop, start, eat and drink.
Three months after their escape God has a special announcement to make to all the people (Exodus 19-20). He gave let them know in advance how to prepare themselves because, unlike the false gods they had previously approached for party favors, His glory was a consuming fire!
“God, the blessed and only Ruler, [is] the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)
However, God, in His mercy, wanted to make himself known. Gathered at the foot of a mountain, God’s holy presence shook the heavens and earth. The people's hearts trembled. But this time, instead of giving the message to Moses, shockingly, God spoke to them all.
“The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. At that time I, [Moses] stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.” (Deuteronomy 5:4-5)
“These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness.”(Deuteronomy 5:22)
Take a moment to imagine yourself seeing and hearing what they did that day. The Lord spoke face to face, (i.e. personally, not through a messenger), and proclaimed it in a loud voice so everyone could hear. There was to be no misinterpretation of the commands God was giving. No one could accuse Moses of making it up or acting on his own authority. Nothing was to be lost in translation. God made sure everyone there that day heard His voice for themselves. What a privilege and awesome experience!
Stop it we don't like it
It was utterly remarkable, that God would speak with mere mortals, let alone care about them. Once again, God was showing his willingness to speak with his people. However, regardless of all the evidence of his grace and mercy, instead of drawing near, the Israelites pulled back in fear. Moses writes about the people's response to hearing God’s voice for themselves:
“The Lord our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer. For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived?“ (Deuteronomy 5:23-25) **
When my children were in kindergarten they were taught how to verbalise their discomfort with something someone said or did to them. In an effort to stand up to bullying or offensive behaviour, they were given language to resist by saying; “Stop it! I don’t like it!”. The louder the better. Here we find the Israelites effectively putting their hands to their ears and shouting, “Stop it! We don’t like it!”
Why would they respond like this? It seems that in spite of all God had done for them, they still failed to understand He was not a vindictive or spiteful bully at all. He was a loving father.
“In the desert and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place. In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 1:31-32)
At the mountain when the Israelites heard his voice for themselves, God demonstrated that He would not strike them dead, but rather, He would accept and bless them. Jesus nailed this truth home. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Our willingness to hear from God comes from our depth of trust in Him. This must be rooted in the truth of God's everlasting love, otherwise, we will continue to live in fear of judgment and never approach Him to find our healing and freedom.
You do it
Nevertheless, the Israelites couldn’t bear to hear the voice of God for themselves ever again. Instead, they wanted someone to stand between them and God and relay the message. They went to Moses and pleaded with him:
“Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (Deuteronomy 5:25)
The Israelites stepped back and said to Moses, “You do it”. They may have stopped consulting false gods (for now), but they were content for Moses to go on their behalf to speak with the true God, seeing as he seemed so good at it anyway. The people wanted a proxy, someone to stand-in on their behalf.
God gives the people a prophet
Surprisingly, God told Moses He would allow this if it meant they would turn their hearts to him.
“The Lord heard you when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me; “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always so that it might go well with them and their children forever!
“Go, tell them to return to their tents. But you stay here with me so that I may give you all the commands, decrees, and laws you are to teach them to follow in the land I am giving them to possess.” (Deuteronomy 5:28-30)
This arrangement seemed to be a satisfactory compromise. The people settled into an understanding that Moses would act as an intermediary between them and God. They would take their requests to Moses and he would intercede on their behalf. Moses, in turn, would report back God’s response. They even pitched a tent for these discussions and everyone would turn out to watch.
“Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp.
And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.
Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent." (Exodus 33:7-10)
During these frequent mountaineering trips and tent visits, God gave Moses instructions for life. They covered communal living, social structures, justice, health and safety, marriage, children, horticulture, and more. He gave him the blueprint for establishing true worship, including the priesthood and the offerings. He explained all the blessings He wanted to give them and warned them of the dangers that lay ahead so they could avoid trouble. He made promises to protect and care for them.
God repeatedly expressed his love and mercy and He reminded them of his special covenant (Psalm 147:20). Helpfully, He even offered them 'The Good Life For Dummies' by reducing the instructions to 10 basic rules for living.
The relationship Moses had with God was raw and honest and awesome. Over time it developed from one of distant deity to heart-to-heart. What was so remarkable is the way in which God chose to do this;
“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:7-11)
After initially hiding his face from God when he first heard his voice (Exodus 3:6), Moses later had to hide it from people because, after every conversation with God, he was so full of the glory of God, he shone like a polished mirror (Exodus 34:29-35).
It shows us we don’t need to listen to God out of fearful obedience but from love. If we are in doubt of this, Jesus makes it explicit: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
This is unlike any god ever known in the ancient world. Present not aloof, intimate not dismissive, deliverer not slaver driver.
There was conversation... Questions. Answers. Probably some inside jokes.
Whenever Moses sat and spoke with God in the Tent of Meeting, he was in the presence of perfect love. This may even have been the true origins of glamping. Not a bad way to spend your day, if you ask me!
The role of a prophet becomes a permanent position
At the modest age of 120, Moses knew his time was finished. He made arrangements for the spoken words God had given him to be written down for the priests. Filling five books, this became known as the Torah, the Scriptures revered by the Jews and later comprised the first part of the Old Testament. These were not just words etched on stone, they were living and active, spoken by God Himself (Acts 7:37-38). That is why God still speaks to us through these passages today and it is still the Word of God.
Aware that he was soon to die, Moses had spoken with the Lord about a successor. His protégé, Joshua, would lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, but the Lord would also choose someone else to take Moses' place as a spokesman for the Lord. Moses got the Israelites together and made this announcement:
“The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy18:14-18)
Again, God was reminding his people they are not to seek answers or power from anyone but Him. He would continue to speak to them personally and care for them through his chosen representative. Moses was the first to serve as a spokesman for God, but this arrangement would stay in place.
It was official. The role of the prophet was now a permanent position.
Appointed and anointed by God, the prophet had a specific role to fulfill. They would speak the exact words of God, and whether it was to direct, warn, rebuke or encourage, to accept their words was to obey God. Therefore to reject them was to reject God Himself.
The role of the prophet was a position of importance and honour.
It was a good plan.
The question was, how long would it last?
Summary of Part 1 - God Gives the People a Prophet
Before there were the prophets, there were the people. Our heavenly Father has always desired to speak to his children.
God often speaks to people personally in creative ways: dream, visions, angelic messengers, and at times his audible voice.
Shame can cause us to hide our face from him, while our self-centeredness can refuse to listen to him.
Because of their fear, the people asked for someone else to listen to God on their behalf.
Because of God's love, He gave the people a prophet to speak to them on his behalf.
Coming up next: Part 2 | The Pursuit of A King
“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
Questions to Consider
Do you have any fixed ideas on how you think God speaks to people? What expectations do you have when He does?
Do you see any similarities between yourself and Moses or the Israelites in your response to God’s voice?
What feelings arise when you think of God speaking to you? Excitement? Fear? What do you think is behind that?
What do you think the Israelites missed out on when they decided they did not want to hear God’s voice for themselves?
What did not change between God and the people even with a prophet in place?
Review the conversations between Moses and God. What can you learn from his relationship with God?
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* All scripture is quoted from NIV translation unless noted
** Note: The same account in Exodus explains in more detail the trips up and down the mountain Moses made at this time, including how, when he was gone for over forty-days, the Israelites got bored and made an idol. Moses has to repeat the process but their response to hearing God’s voice was the same both times. ‘Stop it, we don’t like it.