‘Prophets’ in English Bibles usually renders Hebrew ‘nebi'im’, though other terms are used. Thus there were ‘seers’ (Hebrew, ro'eh, a seer, 1 Sam. 9: 9), who passed on messages from God received in dreams or divination. There were also sorcerers and soothsayers who engaged in necromancy and whose activities are condemned as pagan practices (Deut. 18: 10–11). They also claimed to predict future events, and in this they were indistinguishable from traditional characteristics of the prophets of the Lord as recorded in the stories of the books of Samuel and Kings. But in the Deuteronomic tradition in the mid‐6th cent. BCE it is Moses who is regarded as the prophet (nabi) par excellence. He is the man of authority who conversed with God ‘face to face’ and who wrought signs and wonders (Deut. 34: 9–12), and looked to the future (Deut. 18: 18). Miracles continued to be one of the authenticating marks of prophets such as Elijah and Elisha in the 9th cent. BCE (though before then Nathan was recognized as a prophet in the court of King David (2 Sam. 7) about 1000 BCE). But also the commonly held view that prophets were above all inspired to foretell future events is based on the Deuteronomic text. A true prophet was recognizable if his predictions were fulfilled (Deut. 18: 22), which could be a long time ahead; or a non‐fulfilment could be adapted to circumstances. Tyre was not captured by the Babylonians (573 BCE. Cf. Ezek. 26: 7–14), so two years later (Ezek. 29: 17–20) the fate of Tyre has been replaced by Egypt as a recompense for the King of Babylon. Prophecy of divine punishment, for example, is seen by the Deuteronomist as fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BCE), which was not an incomprehensible disaster, because it happened in accordance with prophecy. Prophets also played a regular and respected role in Israel's religious and social life. Although they were sometimes threatened (Amos 7: 10–13; Jer. 26: 8) or ignored (Isa. 6: 9 ff.), they were on the whole accorded remarkable toleration even when their utterances were feared and resented. Several enjoyed royal protection (Isaiah, Huldah, Jeremiah); some, under the early monarchy, had support by membership of a prophetic guild (2 Kgs. 4: 38). Some may have been held in awe on account of the ecstatic and paranormal phenomena and frenzy (1 Sam. 10: 6) which were characteristic and, in some cases, even suspected of being an indication of possession by an evil spirit (1 Kgs. 18: 26–9; Jer. 29: 24–8). At any rate there were times when prophets were struck with aphasia (Ezek. 3: 26) and hallucinations (Jer. 4: 19), and some were conspicuous for wearing distinctive dress (2 Kgs. 1: 8). There is no evidence that prophets had disciples who were responsible for collecting their masters' utterances (the only possible reference to such a custom, Isa. 8: 16, is difficult to interpet) but Jeremiah had a secretary (Jer. 36: 4), and someone at any rate collected the teachings of Isaiah for preservation and for reinterpretation and additions during the Exile.
Although prophets engaged in normal community life (Amos 1: 1) and constantly expressed praise for Jerusalem (Isa. 2: 3) or were even employed in the Temple services (Ezek. 1: 3), they uttered their prophetic oracles, sometimes reluctantly, when the word of the Lord compelled them (Jer. 1: 6). They were often fiercely critical of the sacrificial system (e.g. Isa. 1: 10 ff.; Amos 5: 24–5) when it was divorced from moral responsibility. They were not, however, opposed to such worship in itself, as is evident from the wealth of liturgical material in the prophetic literature (e.g. Isa. 38 and Hab. 3). Isaiah had his great vision in the Temple and there discovered that holiness rebuked the sinfulness of himself and society (Isa. 6: 5).
Prophets were often critical of royal courts and institutions and policies, and were then felt to be very threatening by the Establishment. At the same time it was part of the prophetic convention to utter strong denunciations when appropriate against the nation's enemies, even if the crimes had been committed some time ago (Amos 1: 3–2: 6) and the enemies would never hear them. But the people of Israel would hear them, which then rendered the denunciation of Israel itself all the more telling. Prophets were upholders of social justice; they condemned owners of property (Mic. 2: 2), men who were persistently drunk (Joel 1: 5), and women who adorned themselves excessively with fine clothes and jewellery (Isa. 3: 6–23). They warned that punishments were in store for the nation's iniquities, though in the end, since God would never be unfaithful to his covenant promises—there remained the consolation of a strong hope. When the prophets condemned religious abuses (Isa. 1: 9–17) and social vice (e.g. Isa. 5: 8), and gave political advice (Isa. 7: 4; Jer. 32), there were differences of emphasis between prophets in what they proclaimed. But all accepted the basic doctrine that Israel was chosen by God as his special people, and that this had moral consequences. The prophets were one of the influences on the ideology of the covenant eventually formalized by the Deuteronomist school. This conviction enabled the people's faith to survive the hardships of the Exile and the hazards of the Return in the 6th cent. BCE. After the prophets of that era (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) prophecy disappeared, under a cloud of suspicion and antipathy (Zech. 13: 2–6). Thereafter characteristic communication between God and the people was in the form of apocalyptic, though there is no clear line of demarcation between that and prophecy. The prophets' hope of ultimate salvation combined with their threats of judgement, which is apparent in a late oracle such as Isa. 58: 1–12, became part of the content of apocalyptic expectations for the day of the Lord.
Prophecy was not a uniquely Israelite phenomenon. Discoveries at Mari have uncovered letters (18th cent. BCE) which describe activities of religious men similar to that of the OT prophets. Within Israel there could be ‘false prophets’, as when Hananiah was challenged by Jeremiah (Jer. 28); the truth could only be discovered by the people who heard their dispute by waiting to see what happened (Deut. 18: 21–2). Nevertheless unfulfilled prophecies are faithfully recorded: Micah predicted in the 8th cent. BCE that Jerusalem would fall (Mic. 3: 12), whereas his contemporary Isaiah predicted that the city would be saved. It would seem that over the years these prophets acquired a kind of unique authority. The non‐fulfilment of a single utterance was less important than the whole context of the nation under hostile oppression. Seen like that, prophecies were validated.
There are prophets in the NT who had a kind of specialized office (Eph. 2: 20) and they can be traced up to the second half of the 2nd cent. Then they disappeared, possibly because a rash of false and spontaneous prophecies made them suspect to leaders of the Church. Paul is certainly not very enthusiastic about this ministry: utterances were to be tested (Rom. 12: 6; 1 Cor. 12: 3). But it was more acceptable than unintelligible speech, and is mentioned in every list of spiritual gifts. It was regarded as helpful in building up a community of faith (1 Cor. 14: 1–5), but, unlike OT prophecy, it seems that only exceptionally (Acts 11: 28) was NT prophecy associated with foretelling the future.