What Exactly Is a Prophet?

The Lord said to me [Moses], “...I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him.” 

Deuteronomy 18:17-18

In Bible times, some people listened to God. Some people talked to God. Prophets were the listeners. Priests were the talkers. Priests took requests of the people to God, asking God to forgive, heal, or bless—whatever the worshipper sought, bringing an appropriate sacrifice.

In the flip of a coin, if priests were heads, prophets were tails. For prophets took God’s requests to the people:

Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”  I said, “Here I am. Send me.” 

Isaiah 6:8

The Lord reached out and touched my mouth and said, “Look, I have put my words in your mouth! Today I appoint you to stand up against nations and kingdoms.”

Jeremiah 1:9-10

What kind of people did God select as prophets?

They didn’t fit a tidy profile, like priests did. Legit priests descended from Aaron, older brother of Moses. They also met certain moral and physical requirements: They couldn’t shave their beard, marry a divorcĂ©e, or have an obvious physical defect such as blindness (Leviticus 21).

Prophets, however, seemed to have had just one main thing in common: God handpicked them. Some were rich advisors to kings, while others were poor. And some were women, but most were men.

Prophecy Stats

More than a fourth of the Bible is prophecy—warnings, promises, and predictions.

That’s more than 8,000 of the Bible’s roughly 31,000 verses.

The Bible didn’t come with chapters and verses. Paris scholar Stephen Langton added chapter divisions in the 1200s, to make it easier to find a passage.

Two hundred years later, Rabbi Isaac Nathan added verse divisions to the Jewish Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.

A century after that, in 1551, Paris scholar Robert Estienne published the first New Testament with chapters and verses. That was just in time for the famous King James Version of the Bible, published 60 years later in 1611.

Chosen from this diverse pool of human beings, prophets included:

Like translators today, prophets were entrusted to deliver someone else’s message—God’s message. This message sometimes promised hope. More often, though, it warned the people of trouble ahead unless they made some changes.

Prophets urged the Jews to honor their ancient agreement to serve God in return for his blessings. If the people refused, the prophets warned, they would suffer the consequences written into their contract with God: disease, famine, and eventually invasion, defeat, and exile from their homeland (Deuteronomy 29).

Does God Have Prophets Today?

Perhaps, but it’s hard to know for certain.

Some ministers call themselves prophets, insisting that they speak God’s Word when they preach from the Bible. Some end their sermons by saying, “This is the Word of the Lord,” a phrase more often recited after reading the Bible aloud in a worship service. It’s also a lot like the phrase some Bible prophets used to introduce their message: “Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel!” (Hosea 4:1).

The difference between Bible prophets and today’s preachers is that prophets didn’t get their messages secondhand. The messages they delivered came directly from God to them—most often through visions and vivid dreams.

Some Christian scholars say that since we now have the Bible, which contains everything people need to know about God and salvation, there’s not as much need for prophets as there was in ancient times.