Function of the Old Testament Prophets

Below are the various roles Old Testament prophets performed in their service to God.

Covenant Enforcement Mediators – To understand what God would say to us through these inspired books, we must first have a clear understanding as to the role and function of the prophet in Israel. The prophets spoke for God to His people.  They functioned to call Israel back to God, which meant a call back to faithfulness to their Covenant relationship with God; i.e., back to the Law of Moses.

In accomplishing this primary purpose, they confronted Israel’s sin and demanded repentance. Simply stated, the prophets were “covenant enforcement mediators.  There was a covenant relationship between God and His people.  This covenant contained not only the rules which they were to keep, but it describes the sorts of punishments that God will necessarily apply to His people if they do not keep the Law, as well as the benefits He will impart to them if they are faithful.

What is important is that God does not merely give His Law, but He enforces it. Positive enforcement is blessing; negative enforcement is curse. This is where the prophets come in.  God announced the enforcement of His Law (both positive and negative) through the prophets.

Moses as a Model – Moses was the mediator of God’s Law when he first announced it, and thus is a paradigm (or model) for the prophets. They are God’s mediators, or spokesmen, for the covenant. Through them, God reminds people in the generations after Moses that if the covenant is kept, blessing will result, but if not, judgment will come.

Blessing and Cursing – The kinds of blessings that come for faithfulness are found in Leviticus 26:1-13, Deuteronomy 4:32-40, and Deuteronomy 28:1-14.  Generally, these may be categorized as life, health, prosperity, agricultural abundance, respect, and safety. 

But these blessings are announced with a warning of curses (punishments) if Israel is not obedient and faithful to the covenant.

The curses are found in Leviticus 26:11-39, Deuteronomy 4:15-28, and Deuteronomy 28:15-32:42. Generally, these may be categorized under ten “D’s”:  disease, drought, dearth (scarcity), danger, destruction, defeat, deportation, destitution, and disgrace.

These same categories apply in what God communicates through the prophets. One must always bear in mind that the prophets did not invent the blessings and curses they announced. They reproduced God’s Word, not their own.  They are always corporate, referring to the nation as a whole. Blessings or curses do not guarantee prosperity or dearth to any specific individual.

Through them, God announced His intention to enforce the covenant and always in accordance with the categories of blessing and curse already contained in the law. If we will take the trouble to learn those chapters from the Pentateuch, we will be rewarded with a much better understanding of why the prophets say the things they do.

  • When God wants to announce blessing for the nation through the prophet Amos, He does so in terms of metaphors of agricultural abundance, life, health, prosperity, respect, and safety (see Amos 9:11-15).
  • When He announces doom for the disobedient nation of Hosea’s day, He does so according to one or more of the ten “D’s.” For example: destruction in Hosea 8:14 or deportation in Hosea 9:3.  These curses are often metaphorical, though they can certainly be literal as well.

Statistically speaking, a majority of the prophets announce curse because in the time of their prophecies {generally 800 – 587 BC}, the Israelites (north and south} were heading for punishment.

After the destruction of both kingdoms, i.e., after 586 BC, the prophets were moved more often to speak blessings rather than curses because once the punishment of the nation is complete, God resumes His basic plan, which is to show mercy.  Deuteronomy 4:25-31 gives a nutshell description of this sequence:

In the future, when you have children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time, do not corrupt yourselves by making idols of any kind. This is evil in the sight of the LORD your God and will arouse his anger.  Today I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you. If you disobey me, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed.  For the LORD will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive.   There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone, gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.  From there you will search again for the LORD your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.   “When those bitter days have come upon you far in the future, you will finally return to the LORD your God and listen to what he tells you. For the LORD your God is merciful– he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the solemn covenant he made with your ancestors.  

As you read the prophets, look for these simple patterns: either (1) an identification of Israel’s sin followed by a prediction of cursing, or (2) an announcement of God’s faithfulness and love for her followed by a prediction of blessing, depending on the circumstance. Most of the time that is what the prophets are conveying.