What is a…
prophet in the Bible? and who is one?

Hebrew: נָבִיא —transliteration: nabi, from a root meaning “to bubble forth, as from a fountain,” hence “to utter,” a spokesman, speaker, or prophet (compare Psalm 45:1)

True prophets

Biblical prophets are persons who convey a message from God, or teach the Word of God. In addition, sometimes God gave them a prophecy of the future to convey to the people of their time. In some cases, God used them in a miracle (e.g., Moses, Elijah the prophet, etc.).

A true prophet proclaimed the message given to him, as the “seer” beheld the vision of God (Numbers 12:6; 12:8).

Thus a prophet was a spokesman for God; he spoke in God’s name and by his authority (Exodus 7:1). He is the mouth by which God speaks to men (Jeremiah 1:9; Isaiah 51:16), and hence what the prophet says is not of man but of God (2 Peter 1:20-21; compare Hebrews 3:7; Acts 4:25; 28:25).

Prophets were the immediate organs of God for the communication of his mind and will to men (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The whole Word of God may in this general sense be spoken of as prophetic, inasmuch as it was written by men who received the revelation they communicated from God, no matter what its nature might be. The foretelling of future events was not a necessary but only an incidental part of the prophetic office. The great task assigned to the prophets whom God raised up among the people was “to correct moral and religious abuses, to proclaim the great moral and religious truths which are connected with the character of God, and which lie at the foundation of his government.”

Any one being a spokesman for God to man might thus be called a prophet. Thus Enoch, Abraham, and the patriarchs, as bearers of God’s message (Genesis 20:7; Exodus 7:1; Psalm 105:15), as also Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15; 34:10; Hos. 12:13), are ranked among the prophets.

The 70 elders of Israel (Numbers 11:16-29), “when the spirit rested upon them, prophesied.”

Asaph and Jeduthun “prophesied with a harp” (1 Chronicles 25:3).

Miriam and Deborah were prophetesses (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4).

The title of prophet was thus a general application to all who have messages from God to men.

Schools for Biblical education

But while the prophetic gift was thus exercised from the beginning, the prophetical order as such began with Samuelcolleges, “schools of the prophets”—were instituted for the training of prophets, who were constituted, a distinct order (1 Samuel 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:3, 15; 4:38), which continued to the close of the Old Testament. Such “schools” were established at Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal, Gibeah, and Jericho.

The “sons” or “disciples” of the prophets were young men (2 Kings 5:22; 9:1, 4) who lived together at these different “schools” (4:38-41). These young men were taught not only the rudiments of secular knowledge, but they were brought up to exercise the office of prophet, “to preach pure morality and the heart-felt worship of Jehovah, and to act along and co-ordinately with the priesthood and monarchy in guiding the state aright and checking all attempts at illegality and tyranny.”

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Prophets of Old Testament Scripture

There are 16 MAJOR Old Testament prophets, whose prophecies form part of the inspired canon of Scripture.

These are divided into 4 groups:

  1. Prophets of the northern Kingdom of Israel— • Hosea • Amos • Joel • Jonah

  2. Prophets of the Kingdom of Judah— • Isaiah • Jeremiah • Obadiah • Micah • Nahum • Habakkuk • Zephaniah

  3. Prophets of the Captivity period— • Ezekiel • Daniel

  4. Prophets of the Restoration period— • Haggai • Zechariah • Malachi

Hebrew words translated as “prophet”

Hebrew: נָבִיא —transliteration: nabi, from a root meaning “to bubble forth, as from a fountain,” hence “to utter,” a spokesman, speaker, or prophet (compare Psalm 45:1)

The Hebrew word Nabi is is the first and the most generally used word for a prophet.

In the time of Samuel another word, רֹאֶה (transliteration: ro'eh, meaning a “seer,” began to be used (1 Samuel 9:9). Ro'eh occurs 7 times in reference to Samuel.

Afterwards another word, חֹזֶה (transliteration: hozeh), “a seer” (2 Samuel 24:11), was employed.

In 1 Ch. 29:29 all these three words are used: “Samuel the seer (ro'eh), Nathan the prophet (nabi'), Gad the seer” (hozeh).

Prophets in the New Testament

Greek: προφήτης —transliteration: prophétés —a prophet (an interpreter or forth-teller of God’s will)

Greek: προφητεία —transliteration: prophéteia —meaning: prophecy

In New Testament times, the prophetical office was continued. Our Lord is frequently spoken of as a prophet (Luke 13:33; 24:19). He was and is the great Prophet of the Church.

There was also in the Early Church a distinct order of prophets (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5), who made new revelations from God. They differed from the “teacher,” whose office it was to impart truths already revealed.

The prophet Elijah is frequently mentioned in the New Testament.

Named Biblical prophets

  1. Abraham
  2. Ahijah
  3. Amos / Book of Amos
  4. Asaph
  5. Balaam
  6. Barnabas
  7. Daniel / Book of Daniel
  8. David
  9. Elijah
  10. Eldad
  11. Elisha
  12. Eliseus
  13. Enoch (Jude 1:14-15)
  14. Ezekiel / Book of Ezekiel
  15. Ezra / Book of Ezra
  16. Gad
  17. Habakkuk / Prophecies of Habakkuk
  18. Haggai / Book of Haggai
  19. Hosea (Hoshea) / Prophecies of Hosea
  20. Isaiah / Book of Isaiah
  21. Jahaziel
  22. Jeduthun
  23. Jeremiah / Book of Jeremiah
  24. Jesus Christ
  25. Joel / Book of Joel
  26. John / Book of Revelation
  27. John the Baptist
  28. Jonah / Book of Jonah
  29. Joshua
  30. Malachi / Prophecies of Malachi
  31. Medad
  32. Micah / Book of Micah
  33. Moses
  34. Nahum / Book of Nahum
  35. Nathan
  36. Nehemiah / Book of Nehemiah
  37. Noah
  38. Obadiah / Book of Obadiah
  39. Oded
  40. Samuel / Books of Samuel / Books of Kings
  41. Simeon (Luke 2:29-35)
  42. Zechariah / Book of Zechariah
  43. Zephaniah / Book of Zephaniah

Biblical prophetesses

  1. Anna
  2. Deborah
  3. Huldah
  4. Miriam
  5. see: prophetess

False prophets

Hebrew: קָסַם —transliteration: kosem —meaning: a “diviner” or soothsayer, one who practices divination

In Joshua 13:22 Balaam is called a kosem. This word is used only of a false prophet.

A false prophet claims to speak for God but does not.

Jesus Christ solemnly warned,

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will [a]know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. —Matthew 7:15–20 NASB

Woe to you when all the people speak well of you; for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way. —Luke 6:26 NASB

The Apostle Peter also warned,

But false prophets also appeared among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their indecent behavior, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. —2 Peter 2:1–3 NASB

Likewise, the Apostle John said,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now it is already in the world. —1 John 4:1–3 NASB

The future deceiving false prophet of Satan (and his end) is described in the book of Revelation,

And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire, which burns with brimstone. —Revelation 19:20 NASB

And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. —Revelation 20:10 NASB

Dr. John MacArthur explains this about false teachers and prophets,

They have a ready hearing among most people, because they say only what people like to hear. Just as did ancient Israel in Jeremiah’s time, people today like it that way (Jer. 5:31). They want to hear illusions, not truth. They are enamored with pleasure and fantasy and resent being confronted with anything disquieting and condemnatory. They want encouragement but not correction, positive words but not negative truth. They will accept grace as long as it is cheap grace and does not reflect against their own sinfulness, inadequacies, and lostness.

The creed of the false prophet, if he has any at all, will be vague, indefinite, and ethereal. No demanding truth will be absolute or clear-cut, and every principle will be easy and attractive.

False prophets can also be identified by their converts and followers. They will attract to themselves people who have the same superficial, self-centered, and unscriptural orientation as they do. “Many will follow their sensuality:” Peter tells us, “and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned” (2 Pet. 2:2). They have many followers because they teach and promote what the majority of people want to hear and believe (cf. 2 Tim. 4:3).

Their followers will be like them-egotistical, proud, self-centered, self-indulgent, self-willed, and self-satisfied, while being religious. They will be both self-oriented and group-oriented, but never God-oriented or Scripture-oriented. —Dr. John F. MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Moody Publishers: 2006)

More about false prophets

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Article Version: July 14, 2021