Michael S. Heiser
Most people think a prophet is someone empowered by God to foretell the future. No doubt, prophets announced God’s intentions, but forecasting future events wasn’t their primary job description. A prophet’s chief task was to serve as God’s mouthpiece to His covenant people Israel and to her enemies. So how did someone become a prophet? Was there some sort of heavenly qualification? In fact, there was.
You might think the standard for a prophet was whether their words came to pass exactly as uttered (Deut 18:15–22). But that’s actually a bi-product of the real litmus test, which we read about in Jeremiah:
For who among them has stood in the council (sôd, סוד) of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? [The LORD says] … “If they had stood in my council (sôd, סוד), then they would have proclaimed my words to my people.” (Jer 23:18, 22 ESV)
What does it mean to “stand in the council”? Jeremiah elaborates: “to see and to hear his word … to pay attention to his word and listen.” The one essential test of a prophet—that preceded their ability to deliver a divine message—was that the prophet had to see and hear God in His council.
In the Bible, God and His heavenly host were thought to live and conduct business in the divine throne room. This assembly, with God as its CEO, is called “a divine council” (Psa 82:1; 89:5–7).1 God chose prophets and commissioned them directly for ministry. When a prophet “stood in the council,” they had a direct encounter with God in His throne room. This motif of “standing in the council” is a repeated pattern in the Bible.
In the case of Isaiah, the prophet was transported to the throne room of Yahweh (Isa 6:1–6) to receive his call to service (Isa 6:8–9). For Ezekiel, the circumstances were reversed, with the throne of the LORD coming to him (Ezek 1:1–14, 26–28). Jeremiah was also commissioned via a direct encounter with God. At the beginning of his ministry the “word of the LORD” came to him (Jer 1:4) and appointed him a prophet. The “word” is identified as Yahweh (Jer 1:6–7) who has come in human form. He reaches out His hand to touch Jeremiah’s mouth (Jer 1:9). It was this encounter that distinguished Jeremiah from false prophets.
The pattern began with the first man, Adam, as Job 15:7–8 indicates: “Are you the first man who was born? Or were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council (sôd, סוד) of God? Have you restricted wisdom to yourself?” Eden was the abode of God and his heavenly host. If Job could say he had such access, then he could speak with authority about his innocence.
Proceeding from Adam, Enoch and Noah “walked with God” (Gen 5:22, 24; 6:9). The former “prophesied” (Jude 14–15), while the latter is called a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5). God appeared visibly to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3; 15:1–6; compare Acts 7:2–4), Isaac (Gen 26:1–5) and Jacob (Gen 28:10–22; 31:11–13; 32:22–32; compare Hosea 12:3–4). Moses was commissioned at the burning bush (Exod 3:1–15). The elders of Israel under Moses were commissioned directly by Yahweh (Num 11:24–25), as was Joshua (Deut 31:14–23; Josh 5:13–15). The book of Judges records dramatic appearances to Gideon (Judg 6) and the “word” of the Lord “appearing” to Samuel, the last of Israel’s judges, when he was a boy: It “stood” (1 Sam 3:10) before Samuel to inform him of Eli’s fate.
Many New Testament figures also began their ministries with a direct divine commissioning. For example, the Father and the Spirit were present at Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:16–17), an event that told astute observers that Jesus was in the prophetic line. Paul’s famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus was crucial to proving his status as an apostle in the prophetic tradition (Acts 9:1–9; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8). And it is no accident that the commissioning of the disciples at Pentecost was accompanied by divine fire (Acts 2:1–4), since fire is a frequent element of divine throne room commissioning scenes in the Old Testament (Exod 3:1–3; 24:17; Isa 6:6–7; 66:15; Ezek 1:4, 13, 27; Dan 7:9–11).2
Amazingly, the New Testament applies this commissioning to every believer. Every Christian is united to Christ and is commissioned to not only spread the gospel (Matt 28:18–20), but also to be Jesus to the world (2 Cor 3:18; 4:11; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 2:21; 2 Pet 1:4). Every believer is Christ’s ambassador (2 Cor 5:20), having met Christ through the gospel. As the prophets before us, we are now God’s mouthpieces.