The prophetic gift existed long before the prophetic office was instituted. Thus Enoch had the former (Jude 14); so Abraham is called a prophet (Ge 20:7) as are also the patriarchs (Ps 105:15). The office was first instituted under the Mosaic economy; but even then the gift was not always connected with the office; for example, Daniel was endowed largely with the gift, but was never called to the office, as living in a heathen court where he could not have exercised it. So David (Mt 13:35; 27:35). Hence the writings of both are classed with the Hagiographa, not with the prophets. Moreover, though the office ceased with the close of the Old Testament dispensation, the gift continued, and was among the leading charisms of the New Testament Church. |Prophet| (in Hebrew, from a root, |to gush out like a fountain|) meant one acting as spokesman for another (Ex 7:1); so, one speaking authoritatively for God as interpreter of His will. |Seer| was the more ancient term (1Sa 9:9), implying that he spake by a divine communication presented either to his senses or his mind: as |prophet| indicated his authority as speaking for God.
Christ was the only fountain of prophecy (1Pe 1:11; Re 19:10; also Ac 16:7, the oldest reading, |the Spirit of Jesus|), and declared God's will to men by His Holy Spirit acting on the minds of the prophets. Thus the history of the Church is the history of God's revelations of Himself in His Son to man. The three divisions of this history, the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian dispensations, are characterized each by a distinct mode of God's manifestations -- that is, by a distinct form of the prophetic gift. (1) The theophanic mode characterizes the Patriarchal dispensation: God revealing Himself in visible appearances, or theophanies. (2) The theopneustic mode, the Mosaic: God revealing Himself through God-inspired men. (3) The theologic mode, the Christian: God revealing Himself, not merely at intervals as before, but permanently by inspired writings (|the oracles of God,| 1Pe 4:11).
In the first or patriarchal age, men work no miracles, unlike all other primeval histories, which abound in miracles wrought by men: a proof of genuineness. All the miracles are wrought by God without man's intervention; and the divine communications are usually by direct utterance, whence the prophetic gift is rare, as God in this dispensation only exceptionally employs the prophetic agency of men in it: only in Ge 20:7, is the term |prophet| found. In the second or Mosaic dispensation, God withdraws Himself more from direct communication with man and manifests Himself through human instruments. Instead of working miracles directly, Moses, Joshua, &c., are His agents. So in His communications He speaks not directly, but through Moses and his successors. The theocracy needed a new form of prophetic gift: God-inspired (theopneustic) men must speak and act for God, the Head of the theocracy, as His administrators; the prophetic gift is therefore now connected with the prophetic office. These prophets accordingly are acting, not writing, prophets. The latter did not arise till the later ages of this second dispensation. Moses acted as a legislator; Joshua, the Judges, and Samuel as executive prophets; David and Solomon as devotional prophets. Even in the case of the writing prophets of the latter half of the Mosaic dispensation, their primary duty was to speak and act. Their writing had reference more to the use of the New Testament dispensation than to their own (1Pe 1:12). So that even in their case the characteristic of the Mosaic dispensation was theopneustic, rather than theologic. The third, or Christian dispensation, is theologic, that is, a revelation of God by inspired writings. Compare 1Pe 4:11; 2Pe 1:16-21, where he contrasts |the old time| when |holy men spake by the Holy Ghost| with our time when we have the |sure word of prophecy|; or, as it may be translated, |the word of prophecy confirmed [to us].| Thus God now reveals His will, not by direct theophanies, as in the first dispensation; not by inspired men, as in the second; but by the written word which liveth and abideth for ever (as opposed to the desultory manifestations of God, and the noncontinuance in life of the prophets, under the two former dispensations respectively, 1Pe 1:23; 2Pe 3:2, 16). The next form shall be the return of the theophanic manifestations on earth, in a more perfect and abiding form than in the first age (Re 21:3).
The history of the prophetic office under the Mosaic dispensation falls into three divisions. (1) The first ends with the age of Samuel and has no regular succession of prophets, these not being needed while God Himself ruled the people without an hereditary executive. (2) The second period extends from Samuel to Uzziah, 800 B.C., and is the age of prophets of action. Samuel combined in himself the three elements of the theocracy, being a judge, a priest, and a prophet. The creation of a human king rendered the formal office of prophet more necessary as a counterpoise to it. Hence the age of the kings is the age of the prophets. But at this stage they were prophets of action, rather than of writing. Towards the close of this second period, the devotional and Messianic prophecies of David and Solomon prepared the way for the third period (from 800 B.C. to 400 B.C.), which began under Uzziah, and which was the age of written prophecy. (3) In this third period the prophets turn from the present to the future, and so the Messianic element grows more distinct. Thus in these three shorter periods the grand characteristics of the three great dispensations reappear. The first is theophanic; the second, theopneustic; and the third, theologic. Just as the great organic laws of the world reappear in smaller departments, the law of the tree developing itself in miniature forms in the structure of the leaf, and the curve of the planet's orbit reappearing in the line traced by the projected cannon ball [Moore].
Samuel probably enacted rules giving a permanent form to the prophetic order; at least in his time the first mention occurs of |schools of the prophets.| These were all near each other, and in Benjamin, namely, in Beth-el, Gilgal, Ramah, and Jericho. Had the prophet been a mere foreteller of events, such schools would have been useless. But he was also God's representative to ensure the due execution of the Mosaic ritual in its purity; hence arose the need of schools wherein to study that divinely ordained institution. God mostly chose His prophets from those thus educated, though not exclusively, as the cases of Amos (Am 7:14) and Elisha (1Ki 19:19) prove. The fact that the humblest might be called to the prophetic office acted as a check to the hereditary kingly power and a stimulus to seeking the qualifications needed for so exalted an office. The Messianic Psalms towards the close of this second period form the transition between the prophets of action and the prophets of word, the men who were busy only with the present, and the men who looked out from the present into the glorious future.
The third period, that from Uzziah to Malachi, includes three classes of prophets: (1) Those of the ten tribes; (2) Those of the Gentiles; (3) Those of Judah. In the first class were Hosea and Amos. Few of the writing prophets belonged to Israel. They naturally gathered about the seat of the theocracy in Judah. Hence those of the ten tribes were mostly prophets of action. Under the second class fall Jonah, Nahum, and Obadiah, who were witnesses for God's authority over the Gentile world, as others witnessed for the same in the theocracy. The third class, those of Judah, have a wider scope and a more hopeful, joyous tone. They fall into five divisions: (1) Those dwelling in Judah at the highest point of its greatness during its separate state; namely, the century between Uzziah and Hezekiah, 800-700 B.C., Isaiah, Joel, and Micah. (2) The declining period of Judah, from Manasseh to Zedekiah, for example, Zephaniah and Habakkuk. (3) The captivity: Jeremiah. (4) The exile, when the future was all that the eye could rest on with hope; for example, Ezekiel and Daniel, who are chiefly prophets of the future. (5) The restoration: to which period belong the three last writing prophets of the Old Testament, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. John the Baptist long subsequently belonged to the same dispensation, but he wrote nothing (Mt 11:9-11); like Elijah, he was a prophet of action and preaching, preparing the way for the prophets of word, as John did for the Incarnate Word.
To understand the spirit of each prophet's teaching, his historical position and the circumstances of the time must be considered. The captivity was designed to eradicate the Jews' tendency to idolatry and to restore the theocratic spirit which recognized God as the only ruler, and the Mosaic institutions as His established law, for a time until Messiah should come. Hence the prophets of the restoration are best illustrated by comparison with the histories of Ezra and Nehemiah, contemporaries of Malachi.
Of the three prophets of the restoration, two, Haggai and Zechariah, are at the beginning of the period, and the remaining one, Malachi, is at the close. The exile was not one complete deportation of the people, but a series of deportations extending over a century and a half. So the restoration was not accomplished at once, but in successive returns extending over a century. Hence arises the different tone of Haggai and Zechariah at its beginning, and of Malachi at its close. The first return took place in the first year of Cyrus, 536 B.C.; 42,360 persons returned under Shesh-bazzar or Zerubbabel and Joshua (Ezr 2:64). They built an altar and laid the foundations of the temple. They were interrupted by the misrepresentations of the Samaritans, and the work was suspended for fourteen years. The death of Smerdis gave an opportunity of renewing the work, seventy years after the destruction of the first temple. This was the time when Haggai and Zechariah arose, the former to incite to the immediate rebuilding of the temple and restoration of the Mosaic ritual, the latter to aid in the work and to unfold the grand future of the theocracy as an incentive to present labor. The impossibility of observing the Mosaic ritual in the exile generated an anti-theocratic indifference to it in the young who were strangers to the Jerusalem worship, from which the nation had been debarred for upwards of half a century. Moreover, the gorgeous pomp of Babylon tended to make them undervalue the humble rites of Jehovah's worship at that time. Hence there was need of a Haggai and a Zechariah to correct these feelings by unfolding the true glory of the theocratic institutions.
The next great epoch was the return of Ezra, 458 B.C., eighty years after the first expedition under Zerubbabel. Thirteen years later, 445 B.C., Nehemiah came to aid Ezra in the good work. It was now that Malachi arose to second these works, three-fourths of a century after Haggai and Zechariah. As their work was that of restorers, his was that of a reformer. The estates of many had become mortgaged, and depression of circumstances had led many into a skeptical spirit as to the service of God. They not only neglected the temple of worship, but took heathen wives, to the wrong of their Jewish wives and the dishonor of God. Therefore, besides the reformation of civil abuses and the rebuilding of the wall, effected through Nehemiah's exertions, a religious reformer was needed such as was Ezra, who reformed the ecclesiastical abuses, established synagogues, where regular instruction in the law could be received, restored the Sabbath, and the Passover, and the dignity of the priesthood, and generated a reverence for the written law, which afterwards became a superstition. Malachi aided in this good work by giving it his prophetical authority. How thoroughly the work was effected is proved by the utter change in the national character. Once always prone to idolatry, ever since the captivity they have abhorred it. Once loving kingly rule, now contrary to the ordinary course of history, they became submissive to priestly rule. Once negligent of the written Word, now they regarded it with reverence sometimes bordering on superstition. Once fond of foreign alliances, henceforth they shrank with abhorrence from all foreigners. Once fond of agriculture, now they became a trading people. From being pliable before, they now became intensely bigoted and nationally intolerant. Thus the restoration from Babylon moulded the national character more than any event since the exodus from Egypt.
Now the distinction between Judah and the ten tribes of Israel disappears. So in the New Testament the twelve tribes are mentioned (Ac 26:7; Jas 1:1). The theocratic feeling generated at the restoration drew all of the elect nation round the seat of the theocracy, the metropolis of the true religion, Jerusalem. Malachi tended to promote this feeling; thus his prophecy, though addressed to the people of Jerusalem, is called |the word of the Lord to Israel| [Mal 1:1].
The long silence of prophets from Malachi to the times of Messiah was calculated to awaken in the Jewish mind the more earnest desire for Him who was to exceed infinitely in word and deed all the prophets, His forerunners. The three prophets of the restoration being the last of the Old Testament, are especially distinct in pointing to Him who, as the great subject of the New Testament, was to fulfil all the Old Testament.