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Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words [1]

A. Verb.

Nâbâ' ( נָבָא , Strong'S #5012), “to prophesy.” This word appears in all periods of the Hebrew language. It seems to be related to the ancient Akkadian word nabu , which in its passive form means “to be called.” The word is found in the biblical Hebrew text about 115 times. Its first appearance is in 1 Sam. 10:6, where Saul is told by Samuel that when he meets a certain band of ecstatic prophets, he too will “prophesy with them, and … be turned into another man.” This incident points up the fact that there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the biblical use of both the verb and the noun forms, just as there is in the English “to prophesy” and “prophet.” Thus, there is a wide range of meanings reflected in the term in the Old Testament.

Most frequently nâbâ' is used to describe the function of the true prophet as he speaks God’s message to the people, under the influence of the divine spirit (1 Kings 22:8; Jer. 29:27; Ezek. 37:10). “To prophesy” was a task that the prophet could not avoid: “The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8; cf. Jer. 20:7, where Jeremiah says that he was both attracted to and forced into being a prophet). While the formula “The word of the Lord came [to the prophet]” is used literally hundreds of times in the Old Testament, there is no real indication as to the manner in which it came— whether it came through the thought-processes, through a vision, or in some other way. Sometimes, especially in the earlier prophets, it seems that some kind of ecstatic experience may have been involved, as in 1 Sam. 10:6, 11; 19:20. Music is sometimes spoken of as a means of prophesying, as in 1 Chron. 25:1-3.

The false prophets, although not empowered by the divine spirit, are spoken of as prophesying also: “… I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied” (Jer. 23:21). The false prophet is roundly condemned because he speaks a nonauthentic word: “… Prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own hearts, Hear ye the word of the Lord; … Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” (Ezek. 13:2-3). The false prophet especially is subject to frenzied states of mind which give rise to his prophesying, although the content of such activity is not clearly spelled out (1 Kings 22:10). The point is that in the biblical context “to prophesy” can refer to anything from the frenzied ecstaticism of a false prophet to the cold sober proclamation of God’s judgment by an Amos or an Isaiah.

“To prophesy” is much more than the prediction of future events. Indeed, the first concern of the prophet is to speak God’s word to the people of his own time, calling them to covenant faithfulness. The prophet’s message is conditional, dependent upon the response of the people. Thus, by their response to this word, the people determine in large part what the future holds, as is well illustrated by the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching. Of course, prediction does enter the picture at times, such as in Nahum’s prediction of the fall of Nineveh (Nah. 2:13) and in the various messianic passages (Isa. 9:1-6; 11:1-9; 52:13- 53:12).

B. Noun.

Nâbı̂y' ( נָבִיא , Strong'S #5030), “prophet.” The word has a possible cognate in Akkadian. It occurs about 309 times in biblical Hebrew and in all periods.

Nâbı̂y' represents “prophet,” whether a true or false prophet (cf. Deut. 13:1-5). True prophets were mouthpieces of the true God. In 1 Chron. 29:29 three words are used for “prophet”: “Now the acts of David the king, first and last, behold, they are written in the Book of Samuel the Seer [ ro’eh ] and in the Book of Nathan the Prophet [ nabi’ ], and in the Book of Gad the Seer [ chozeh ].” The words translated “seer” emphasize the means by which the “prophet” communicated with God but do not identify the men as anything different from prophets (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9). The first occurrence of nâbı̂y' does not help to clearly define it either: “Now therefore restore the man [Abraham] his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live …” (Gen. 20:7).

The second occurrence of nâbı̂y' establishes its meaning: “And the Lord said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exod. 7:1). The background of this statement is Exod. 4:10-16, where Moses argued his inability to speak clearly. Hence, he could not go before Pharaoh as God’s spokesman. God promised to appoint Aaron (Moses’ brother) to be the speaker: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God” (Exod. 4:16). Exod. 7:1 expresses the same idea in different words. It is clear that the word “prophet” is equal to one who speaks for another, or his mouth.

This basic meaning of nâbı̂y' is supported by other passages. In the classical passage Deut. 18:14-22, God promised to raise up another “prophet” like Moses who would be God’s spokesman (v. 18). They were held responsible for what he told them and were admonished to obey him (Deut. 18:19). However, if what the “prophet” said proved to be wrong, he was to be killed (Deut. 18:20). Immediately, this constitutes a promise and definition of the long succession of Israel’s prophets. Ultimately, it is a promise of the Great Prophet, Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 3:22-23). The “prophet” or dreamer of dreams might perform miracles to demonstrate that he was God’s man, but the people were to look to the message rather than the miracle before they heeded his message (Deut. 13:1-5).

In the plural nâbı̂y' is used of some who do not function as God’s mouthpieces. In the time of Samuel there were men who followed him. They went about praising God (frequently with song) and trying to stir the people to return to God (1 Sam. 10:5, 10; 19:20). Followers of Elijah and Elisha formed into groups to assist and/or to learn from these masters. They were called sons of the prophets (1 Kings 20:35). Used in this sense, the word nâbı̂y' means a companion and/or follower of a prophet.

The word is also used of “heathen prophets”: “Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19).

This word has a feminine form, “prophetess” ( nâbı̂y'ah ), which appears 6 times. In Exod. 15:20 Miriam is called a “prophetess.” Isaiah’s wife, too, is called a “prophetess” (Isa. 8:3). This usage may be related to the meaning “a companion and/or follower of a prophet.”

King James Dictionary [2]

PROPH'ESY, To foretell future events to predict.

I hate him, for he doth not prophesy good concerning

me, but evil.  1 Kings 22

1. To foreshow. Little used.

PROPH'ESY, To utter predictions to make declaration of events to come.  Jeremiah 11

1. In Scripture, to preach to instruct in religious doctrines to interpret or explain Scripture or religious subjects to exhort.  1 Corinthians 13;  Ezekiel 37

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(1): ( v. i.) To give instruction in religious matters; to interpret or explain Scripture or religious subjects; to preach; to exhort; to expound.

(2): ( v. t.) To foretell; to predict; to prognosticate.

(3): ( v. t.) To foreshow; to herald; to prefigure.

(4): ( v. i.) To utter predictions; to make declaration of events to come.