Eli T. Evans
The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BC proclaimed God’s word in sprawling poems and stories. Yet they were more than just messengers; they became part of the message. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first three chapters of Hosea. Here we find the heartbreaking story of Hosea’s marriage to an unfaithful wife—an allegory of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. His dogged pursuit of his wife in spite of her misadventures parallels Yahweh’s unwavering commitment to redeem His people from sin.
Hosea’s autobiography-as-oracle transforms stark imagery into something intensely personal. He becomes more than preacher—he is a character in his own sermon. This melding of person and message is a standard feature or “trope” of the Bible’s prophetic books. As the following tropes demonstrate, the biblical prophets weren’t afraid to get personal when preaching God’s word.
All in the Family
Hosea retells his personal life in terms of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, down to the names he chooses for his children: Jezreel, the site of a political mass murder and later a battlefield; Lo-ruhamah, which means “no mercy”; and Lo-ammi, meaning “not my people” (Hos 1:3–11). Isaiah also chooses telling names for his children: Shear-jashub, which means “the remnant will return,” and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (Isa 7:3; 8:1–4). More than just a mouthful, these names transform the prophet’s family into self-declaring sermons, prompting the question wherever they go: Why that name?
Prophet as Prop
In lieu of a personal story, prophets sometimes resort to performance to illustrate their oracles—often in graphic ways. Isaiah goes naked for three years “as a sign and a portent” of what will happen to Egypt and Cush (Isa 20:1–6). Jeremiah purchases a field to illustrate how ownership of Israel will eventually be transferred back to the exiles (Jer 32:1–15). A well-known episode has Jeremiah soaking his spoiled loincloth—spoiled just as the people of Israel are spoiled (Jer 13:1–11).
The book of Ezekiel takes this trope to its logical extreme: He lays siege to a model of Jerusalem made from a brick and then lies on his side for over a year, bearing the sin of the people of Israel; after that episode, he shaves his head and burns his hair (Ezek 4:1–17; 5:1–4), carries baggage and digs a hole in the wall (Ezek 12:1–20), and then brandishes a sword (Ezek 21:1–32). These antics are meant to bring attention to the prophet and his message in the hopes that “perhaps they [the people] will understand” (Ezek 12:3).
Prophet as Interlocutor
Sometimes the prophets engage in an extended conversation or argument with a divine being or Yahweh Himself. The book of Habakkuk is a give-and-take between the prophet’s “Job-like” omplaints and Yahweh’s responses. The “call narratives” in Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1 echo Moses’ protests at the scene of the burning bush. Many of Jeremiah’s oracles alternate between monologue and dialogue, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether God or Jeremiah is speaking. Daniel 7–8 ends with a conversation between Daniel and “one having the appearance of a man” (Dan 8:15–26).
Prophet as Spirit Traveler
The prophets sometimes offer their readers descriptions of the spiritual realm. In some cases, the prophets gain the information they describe through visions. This is the case with Daniel, who remains stationary while the angel Gabriel parades various monsters and events in front of him. Similarly, both Isaiah and Ezekiel have visions of God on His heavenly throne, but transposed to the earthly realm—by the Chebar river or near the temple (Ezek 1; 10; Isa 6:1–6). Also, while the Apostle John is “in the spirit,” he is invited to “come up here” to stand in heaven before the throne (Rev 4:1–2).
All of these prophetic actions point to the ultimate melding of message and messenger: Jesus Christ. While John the Baptist is called a prophet, he is cast in the mold of Elijah, not one of the later literary prophets (Matt 11:11–15). He leaves no poetic epic, except that the Messiah he proclaims is the very embodiment of the Word of God (John 1:1–8). Nor does Jesus participate in His own prophecy merely as prop or performer. In Him, prophet and prophecy become one. Where the prophets’ lives and messages align by means of allegory, Jesus is the Father’s message in person—His purpose, will, and Word perfectly expressed (John 5:19; 14:8–11; Heb 1:3; Col 1:15).
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).