The wholeness of the Bible is composed of three parts: the Torah or Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the “other writings.” This prophetic body constitutes the second block of the Hebrew Bible, and its importance is also secondary to the Torah. However, because of their privileged position in the synagogue liturgy (cf. Lk. 4,13 ff.), the Prophets were considered writings of great theological importance, especially in the exercise of fundamental theology (Lk. 24:27).
We have to recognize that the term “prophets” can be in itself a variety of confusions. Therefore, it is important to analyze the different readings that have been made about these books.
In Ben Sira (Sirach or Ecclesiasticus), a book of the second century BC, it is seen that in the Judaism of that time, any Jewish leader could be considered a prophet. The prophets are seen by Ben Sira as characters of his time who with their words and works had an influence on their generation. They do not lack references to prediction of the future in their praises; for example, regarding Isaiah: “By the spirit of might he saw the last things and comforted those who mourn in Zion. He revealed what was to occur at the end of time, and the hidden things before they came to pass” (48:24-25).
Later, the prophets were seen in the Christian books as they announced and predicted Jesus. Therefore, the only texts chosen are the ones that are useful to approve it. But we find in the prophets’ messages that concern each one of us in our current situation as believers. The activity of the prophets was to announce and denounce. It was an oral preaching activity: “Listen to the Word ...”, “Go and say ...” It is read frequently. Logically, this activity was public.
The agora of the Hebrew people was the gateway to the walled cities: a place suitable for legal transactions and business. This preaching was also done in sanctuaries and in the Temple itself.
It is important to remember that the prophets’ ministry was performed to a specific audience in specific circumstances. Thus, names and places that are mentioned in the texts said a lot to the people who listened; each life situation has shaped the preaching. Some of these oracles were considered worthy of being preserved. This means that there is much of prophetic preaching that we will never recognize.
In the post-exilic prophets, there are texts that formally are exhortations, but whose intention is to emphasize the weakness of the listener. It is then possible to distinguish the linguistic form (expression) of the communicative function (intentionality). Thus, we have for example an ironic use of the exhortation:
“Go to Bethel and sin;
go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three years” (Am 4:4).
The function of the prophet is to draw attention, advise, exhort. From this derives an understanding of what a prophet is: the one that leads to conversion. In Jeremiah 25:3-7 the whole prophetic ministry is summarized around this purpose. This cannot be generalized to all prophets as we would see if we read the prophet Amos.
Something that we must always keep in mind are the so-called “oracles of salvation.” They are announcements of a good future in the historical sense of returning and restoration of the people. It arises during and after the exile, which confirms a characteristic of prophecy: it always goes against the grain. (Threat and accusation during times of prosperity, and announcement of salvation during times of despair).
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (Is 40:1-2).
The fact that the revelation of God in Christ is superior, unique, and definitive does not nullify the role of the prophets. The human being has changed very little. The great transformations that the world has experienced since those times of the prophets have not affected the heart. In their relations with God, the man of today, the woman of today, does not differ much from those women and men.
The message of the prophets is applicable to our day, and will always be an announcement of change, hope, and salvation.