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Prophecy (in the Bible)


The primary sense of prophecy in the Bible is not prediction, but rather the word of a man inspired by God to speak in His name. First and foremost, it was revelation and admonition, though the element of prediction was never lacking, and it became increasingly important as Biblical revelation progressed. However, the effort to fix more exactly the Biblical concept of prophecy runs up against a familiar problem: the Bible does not itself provide definitions. Still, the Bible does have a quasitechnical vocabulary in the area of prophecy as well as certain regular ways of utilizing sayings considered prophetic. This vocabulary and these uses are the means to a more exact idea of the Biblical concept of prophecy. see revelation, concept of (in the bible).

The belief that the prophet received and communicated the word (dābār ) of Yahweh, was expressed in the formula "thus says Yahweh" that was used to introduce the prophetic oracle. This same idea is contained in the phrase "utterance [n e'ūm ] of Yahweh," which became more and more common as a designation of the prophetic saying in later times. The use of vision (āzôn ) to designate the prophetic word points up another aspect of OT prophecy. The older Hebrew vocabulary, then, emphasized that prophecy was revelation from God to the prophet, which he passed on to others, rather than prediction.

However, the concept of prophetic promise and fulfillment was early associated with Hebrew prophetic activity, as is seen in Nathan's promise that David's line will endure (2 Sm 7.816). Indeed, the regular appearance of prophets whose words are fulfilled in the history of the kings of Israel and Judah is a basic part of the theological interpretation of Israel's history as the working out of God's word, as may be seen in the Books of kings. Again, Deutero-Isaiah (see isaiah, book of) points up the future reference of God's word when he uses the fulfillment of Yahweh's prophecies as an argument for His supremacy over the gods of the nations (e.g., Is 41.2629;42.9; 43.12). Actually, the argument runs: Yahweh, not another god, foretold these things; but the one who can best foretell is the one who produces something; therefore Yahweh must have produced the things foretold, and so He alone must be the effective God, that is, the only true God. An idea such as this probably represents the high point of sophistication in the OT theological conception of prophecy.

The men of the last centuries of OT times were much concerned with the fulfillment of prophecies (e.g., Dn 11.14; Sir 36.1417), so much so that prediction, especially the foretelling of the last things, tended to obscure the other elements in the old concept of prophecy. see eschatology (in the bible). In this atmosphere it is not surprising that at a later period predictions were sought in every part of the OT, not merely in the strictly prophetic books. Even so, the older idea of revelation and admonition, God's word directed to the prophet's contemporaries, was not lost; e.g., in Sir 46.20, the elements of prediction and of admonition were neatly combined.

The NT sees the coming of Christ and the Church as the definitive fulfillment of prophecy, which it therefore conceives primarily as prediction. The Gospel according to St. matthew develops this concept most thoroughly, but the argument from fulfillment of prophecy is basic to the NT kerygma from its beginnings (see Acts 2.1436). In the manner of the times prophecy as used in this argument is not limited to the words of the OT prophets strictly so-called. For the NT the whole of the OT spoke of Jesus Christ. (see type and antitype.)

Finally, it must be noted that the NT Church was fully conscious of its own charismatic prophets, members of the community whose prophecies not only predicted

the future (e.g., Acts 11.28) but served for the present edification of the community (e.g., 1 Cor 14.3, 31).

See Also: prophet; prophetic books of the old testament; prophetism (in the bible).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 192930. j. chaine, God's Heralds, tr. b. mcgrath (New York 1955). h. h. rowley, ed., Studies in O.T. Prophecy (Edinburgh 1950). o. eissfeldt, "The Prophetical Literature," The O.T. and Modern Study, ed. h. h. rowley (Oxford 1951) 115161. a. feuillet, "Les Prophètes écrivains et la préparation de l'Évangile," Cahiers Évangiles 3 (1951) 2754. t. c. vriezen, "Prophecy and Eschatology," Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953) 199229.

[d. j. mccarthy]

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