The book of Judges describes the historical time period between the times of Joshua and Samuel. During this time, Israel was not a united kingdom but a loose confederation of twelve tribes. As we have already seen in chapter two, the people of God will repeat the same historical cycle multiple times during this time period. They will be faithful to God for a while, but will quickly turn away from the Lord and worship other gods. This will provoke the Lord to anger, and He will hand them over to raiders who will plunder them. After years of oppression, the people will cry out to the Lord, and the Lord will raise up a judge to deliver them from the hands of their enemies. As long as the judge lived, the people remained faithful to the Lord. But when the judge died, the people quickly repeated the above cycle (see Judges 2.10-19).
We have already read the stories of Othniel (Judge 3.7-11), Ehud (Judges 3.12-30), Shamgar (Judges 3.31), and Deborah (Judges 4-5). The story of the next judge will be told in even greater detail, taking the author a full three chapters to tell (Judges 6-8). But before we get to the story of Gideon, I would like for us to consider the transitional words of Judges 6.1-10. At first glance, it seems little more than just a restatement of the words of the second chapter, but there is a crucial difference.
1Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. 2Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. 6Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help. (Judges 6.1-6 NIV)
At first glance, there seems to be nothing new. As we were told in chapter two, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. The oppression of the Midianites was ruthless. Every year at harvest time, the raiders would invade the country and rob the Israelites of the fruits of their labors. Imagine the agony of working all year long to produce and harvest a crop only to have it stolen from you the moment it was stored in the barn. Though they tried to hide in caves and mountain clefts, the Midianites would find their stores of grain and livestock. So great was the oppression that it was impossible to count the men and their camels.
And Israel cried out to the Lord because they were so impoverished. Again, we do not see any sign of genuine repentance, only a sign of suffering. The suffering was supposed to bring them to repentance, but Israel failed to recognize this. Israel only saw the pain and ignored the sign.
God Sends a Prophet
As a result, the Lord does something in chapter six that is unique to the historical account of the judges: he sends a prophet.
7When the Israelites cried to the LORD because of Midian, 8he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 9I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. 10I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.” (Judges 6.7-10 NIV)
Other than Deborah, this is the only prophetic figure mentioned in the book of Judges. And the message of the prophet is rather simple: you have not listened to God.
And here we see one the of the primary ministries of the prophets in the Old Testament: giving a divine interpretation to historical events. We most often think of prophets as one who foretells the future, which is definitely a role that prophets often play, but it is not the predominate one. Most of the time, prophets are speaking for God, and they give divine meaning to the events in history, whether those events are past, present, or future. Historians can say “this is what happened,” but only prophets can say “this is why it happened.”
This prophet, who is not even named, simply explains the “why” behind the oppression: the people have not listened to the Lord and have worshipped the gods of the Amorites. Because of this, the raiders have come and plundered all of Israel.
Where Have All The Prophets Gone?
Turning from the period of the judges to our own historical time period, reading this story makes me wonder where the prophets of today have gone. According to the Bible, a prophet is one who speaks for God as they are carried along by the Spirit (see 2 Peter 1.21).
Prophets In The Early Church
Prophets show up prominently in the early church. The book of Acts is littered with them. On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out, the men and women gathered in the upper room prophesied (see Acts 2.16-18). In the city of Antioch where the followers of Christ were first called Christians, there were prophets who predicted that a severe famine would spread all over the entire Roman world (see Acts 11.27-28). These same prophets were present when Paul and Barnabas were set apart for ministry (see Acts 13.1). Judas and Silas were prophets in the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15.32). Many of the believers in Ephesus prophesied when they received the gift of the Spirit (see Acts 19.6). Philip had four daughters which were all prophets (see Acts 21.9). Agabus, a prophet from Judea, prophesied over Paul, telling him of his upcoming arrest in Jerusalem (see Acts 21.10-11). Prophets permeate the story of the early church.
The Spiritual Gift Of Prophecy
Prophesy is clearly listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit. Paul lists the gift in Romans 12.6, 1 Corinthians 12.28, and Ephesians 4.11. The picture that we get is that the ministry of the prophets were a regular part of the worship services of the early church. In 1 Corinthians, Paul lays out some clear guidelines about how prophets are to use their gift in a worship gathering. He writes,
29Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14.29-32 NIV)
General Teachings About Prophecy
We are told not to treat prophecies with contempt (see 1 Thessalonians 5.20), and the Bible tells us to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14.1). Paul speaks of a “prophetic message” that was spoken over Timothy when the church laid hands upon him (1 Timothy 4.14) and about other prophecies made about him (1 Timothy 1.18).
Without a doubt, there were also many false prophets in the early church (see 2 Peter 2.21), some of whom were claiming that the Lord had already returned (see 2 Thessalonians 2.1). This seems to be why the Scriptures tell us not to believe every prophesy but to test them (see 1 John 4.1 and 1 Corinthians 14.32).
Defining, And Not Redefining, Prophecy
Southern Baptists, by and large, have redefined prophecy to mean preaching, but I think that is not the testimony of Scripture. Prophecy and preaching/teaching are two different things (see Ephesians 4.11). Preaching and teaching are the gifts of explaining the meaning of the Word of God or declaring the gospel message. Prophecy is speaking for God as being carried along by the Spirit. In the New Testament examples of prophecy, when we are actually told what the content of the prophesy was, the prophet spoke a word from the Lord about current events, specifically the coming famine on Rome (Acts 11.27-28) or Paul’s upcoming arrest (Acts 21.10-11). In 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul gives guidelines for the ministry of the prophets, he speaks about “a revelation coming” to a prophet, indicating that the prophesy is not explaining the Word but is speaking on the behalf of God according to a revelation. Biblically speaking, preaching and prophesy are two different things.
Conclusion: Where Have They All Gone?
So again I ask the question, where have all of the prophets gone?
It could be that the Lord is not sending any prophets in our current age much like the period in the Old Testament when the spirit of prophecies was silenced. It could be that prophesy is no longer as needed in the church due to the prominence of the Scriptures. Or, it could be that we, as a denomination, have “despised prophetic utterances” and have created a church culture where they are not welcome or anticipated.
Let’s be honest, if a man stood up tonight in our prayer meeting and claimed to be a prophet with a message from God, I would be very skeptical of the words that came out of his mouth. I would weigh them very heavily against the testimony of Scripture, and I would most likely hold them at abeyance until they came true. And I confess that I say that perhaps to my shame.
I have prayed for the gift of prophesy, as commanded by 1 Corinthians 14.1, but have yet to receive it. I think the Lord has chosen to give me the gift of teaching instead, but still I pray for it. The closest thing to prophesy I have ever been given is a continual belief that I will live long enough to see a persecuted church in America. I fully believe in my heart of hearts that America is going to experience a time where the Lord will hand us over to raiders who will plunder us because we have worshipped the gods of this world (see Judges 2.14). While I fully believe that, I don’t know if I can stand up and say, “This is a revelation from the Lord” in prophetic style.
Why do you think that we no longer see prophets in the Baptist church today?