Archive for the ‘Prophet’ Category

There is much discussion – and much confusion – abroad today with regard to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.  I would not attempt a facile resolution to the many difficult aspects of that issue.  But I would suggest that there is one element of the question which is much overlooked, and without which the broader issues cannot be helpfully pursued.  That element is the very distinctive ministry of the Spirit vouchsafed those assigned positions of leadership in the Theocratic rule of Yahweh over the covenant nation, Israel.  The following is a redacted excerpt from my doctoral dissertation.  It is a brief survey of the appearances of that phenomenon in the narrative of the Old Testament.  A slightly more complete version (with footnotes) can be found on this page.



It is significant that Joshua is identified as “a man in whom is the Spirit” (Num 27:18).  The reference is to a very important Old Testament ministry of the Holy Spirit, identified as a “special enduement” which “had to do primarily with the regal functions of those who stood as mediators of the divine government of Israel” (McClain).  Bright acknowledges this Holy Spirit enablement as appropriate to the theocratic arrangement, which he defines as “the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.”


This distinctive ministry, which might be termed a “theocratic anointing,” was a special intervention by the Holy Spirit by which an individual was equipped to fulfill some responsibility pertaining to the theocratic kingdom.  At the inception of the theocratic arrangement between Israel and Yahweh, God’s Spirit enabled craftsmen to manufacture all the accouterments of the nascent levitical system – the tabernacle which would serve as the throne room of King Yahweh, the vestments of the high priest, the implements and utensils to be employed in the sacrificial services.  Those men had lived their entire lives as slaves; they evidently possessed no skill other than making mud bricks.  But the Lord filled them with “the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood” (Exod 31:3-5; cf. 28:3; 31:6-11; 35:31-35; Neh 9:20; Isa 63:11).


The theocratic anointing is most often referenced in connection with the individual (or individuals) given the responsibility of ruling over the covenant people in the name of Yahweh.  Although there is no record of the Spirit coming thus upon Moses, implicit evidence of such a ministry can be found.  When the lawgiver grew weary and asked Yahweh for help in judging the people, God told him to select seventy elders, and then promised, “I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you shall not bear it all alone” (Num 11:17, 25, NASB).   Later, Moses momentarily forgot his place and suggested that he was in some sense responsible for bringing water from the rock (Num 20:1-13); in the Psalter it is recorded that he “rebelled against His Spirit, so that he spoke rashly with his lips” (Ps 106:33).  Moses had been vouchsafed the enabling Spirit to equip him to function as the representative of Yahweh; when he spoke words suggesting that he deserved some of the honor for what was being done, it was interpreted as rebelling “against the Spirit.”


Not only is Joshua identified here as “a man in whom the Spirit is” (Num 27:18), but later as well (“full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him,” Deut 34:9).  Of four of the judges, the book of Judges is explicit that they were capable of great works only because “the Spirit of God came upon them” (Othniel, 3:10; Gideon, 6:34; Jephthah, 11:29; Samson, 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14).


It is in the days of the united monarchy that the record of the theocratic anointing is most apparent.  That ministry descended upon Saul (1 Sam 10:6, 10; 11:6) and transformed a cowardly young man unable to keep track of his father’s donkeys (1 Sam 9:3; 10:21,22) into an able leader and courageous warrior (1 Sam 14:47, 48; 11:1-15).  When that ministry departed Saul (1 Sam 16:14), he was rendered unfit for all of the duties of the throne.  On the other hand, that anointing came upon young David (1 Sam 16:13) and equipped him as warrior (1 Sam 17:1-58), enabled him as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1-2), and directed him as he drew up the intricate plans for the temple which God had not allowed him to actually construct (1 Chr 28:11-12).  Furthermore, David had experienced the sorry results of sinning away this enabling of the Spirit; after the Spirit had departed from Saul, that melancholy monarch had spent years pursuing David, hoping to eliminate the divinely appointed pretender to the throne of Israel.  Thus, in confessing his own horrible sin, David begs God not to punish him as he had Saul by depriving him of the enabling Spirit (Ps 51:11, 12; cf. Ps 139:7; 143:10).


There is no explicit record of such an enabling on any of the kings after David, but it is possible to find a reference to the concept in Solomon’s request for “an understanding heart to judge Your people” (1 Kgs 3:9; cf. 2 Chr 1:10).  God answered that request by promising Solomon, “I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you” (1 Kgs 3:12 NKJ); those qualities could certainly be interpreted as an extra measure of the theocratic anointing.  But after David, explicit mention of the ministry of the Spirit is reserved for prophets (2 Chr 15:1; Dan 4:8, 9, 18; 5:11, 14; Neh 9:30; Zech 7:12) and for priests and Levites (2 Chr 20:14; 24:20).

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There has been some reaction to a post concerning the purpose and significance of miracles in Jesus’ life.  Specifically, a friend from a former life asked, “Do you think his miracles demonstrated that he was the ultimate fulfillment of Deut 18:15 in light of Deut 34:10-12 and John 6:14?”  I was prompted to organize some thoughts with reference to the very seminal passage in Deut 18:15-22, and specifically to the issue of what God meant by the phrase “like [Moses]” in 18:15 & 18.  

I very much appreciate the terminology of the question; I would concur that Jesus was indeed the “ultimate  fulfillment” of Deut 18:15-20, but I don’t believe He was the sole fulfillment of that promise. Those verses are part of Moses’ reply to the very reasonable concern of the people after he prohibited them from employing the pagan soothsayers in the land to which they were going.  That generation of Israelites had never been without Moses as their leader and as God’s voice to them, but now he was to be taken; how were they to know God’s purposes?  The answer is that God would raise up a prophetic voice whenever they needed to hear from Him.  That is, the standard way in which God would reveal Himself to His people was through a prophet, and that prophet would be “like” Moses (:15 & :18).  Thus the promise is primarily generic.  That is, the term “a prophet” in Deut 18:15-20 does not refer in the first instance to any specific prophet; it is a promise that God would not leave them without a prophetic voice when He had a message they needed to hear, and thus they would have no excuse when they chose to go to the ear-tickling soothsayers (cf. 2 Kgs 1:1-3).  It is instructive in this regard that Israel seems to have understood that when “the heavens are as brass,” when God is not speaking through a prophetic voice, the people are to know that they are under judgment. It is foreboding to read that “the word of the Lord was rare” in the days of the Judges (1 Sam 3:1; cf. Prv 29:18). The issue to which that forces me, of course, is what is meant by the twice repeated assurance that the promised prophet would be “like” Moses (:15 & :18).  It is my persuasion that God’s point in that phrase (“like unto me/you” referring in both instances to Moses) is quite narrow but unspeakably important, to wit: God is promising that just as He vindicated Moses’ claim to be a prophet by means of miracles (Ex 4:1-9 – a passage which is absolutely seminal and definitional to this issue in Scripture), so He would vindicate those prophets whom He called in days to come.  Later prophets were not “like Moses” in dignity, in the seminal and strategic role they would play in the history of God’s covenant nation, in the magnitude and number of the miracles they wrought, in the world-wide notoriety which accrued to them, or in the measure of intimacy which they had personally enjoyed with Yahweh.  Thus the distinction between Moses and all other prophets appealed to by Yahweh in His rebuke of Moses’ siblings (Num 12:6-8 ) and acknowledged in the closing sentences of the Torah (Deut 34:10).  

But throughout Scripture the way in which God vindicates a man’s claim to be a divine spokesman is by means of miracle (Ex 4:1-9; Jos 3:7;1 Sam 12:16-18; Jn 3:2; Ac 2:22; 2 Cor 12:12; Heb 2:3,4). It is my persuasion that the prophets all performed miracles (of the first order!); indeed, it was by means of objective and undeniable miracle-signs that their authority was established. In this regard, I realize that miracles are not recorded in the narrative of the lives of many of the prophets.  But in the case of most of the biblical prophets, we have virtually no biographical narrative of their lives; thus the fact that miracles are not recorded is not compelling evidence that miracles were not performed. On the other hand, when the biblical record does include biographical data, miracles often play a very important role in the prophet’s life.  Furthermore, I know of no other explanation for the fact that the authority of the prophets was so immediately recognized by their contemporaries, even in those not infrequent cases when the prophet and his message were much despised.  

But if the descriptive phrase “like [Moses]” refers to the fact that God would use miracles to vindicate every prophet’s claim to be God’s voice, why the question which is articulated and answered in Deut 18:20-22?  The Scriptures are clear that miracle-signs are not the only test of a man’s claim to be a prophet.  I would argue that those miracle-signs are the only positive qualifier, but that there are several negative disqualifiers to be found in Scripture (e.g., a message inconsistent with that which God had earlier revealed, the use of oracular devices, speaking in the name of gods other than Yahweh).  Further, if one of those negative disqualifiers was discovered in the life of a man able to do sign-miracles, it negated the vindicating force of the miracles and demonstrated the man to be a false prophet, worthy of death (Deut 13:1-5).  This is the force of Deut 18:20-22, which speaks not of qualifying a prophetic claimant, but of disqualifying him.  Predictive prophecies would not suffice as the sole, or even primary, means of vindication, but they would function as one of those disqualifiers.  This plays out specifically in the contest between Jeremiah and Hannaniah in Jer 28.  (Note especially the abrupt finality of 28:17.)  I would summarize the force of Deut 18:15-22 as follows:   

In light of God’s interdict upon any consort with the pagan magicians of Canaan, be assured that God will raise up a prophet when He has a revelatory message to communicate, and that that prophet will in every case be like Moses in this particular – he will demonstrate his claim to be a prophet by means of sign-miracles.  You are to heed the voice of that prophet as you would heed the voice of God Himself, because that prophet is speaking words given him by God.  God will hold you accountable if you do not heed His word spoken through His prophets.  On the other hand, the prophet who foretells that which does not occur is to be rejected, no matter his ability to do miracles.  Thus will God provide Himself a means of speaking with authority and assurance to His people, and of disqualifying that prophet who by reason of carelessness or apostasy squanders the goodness of God and disqualifies himself for the office of prophet. 

Finally, it seems clear that the promise of Deut 18:15-20 was taken by the Jewish people to include the anticipation of a final and climactic fulfillment in a single great end-time “prophet.”  This hope is reflected in the question asked of John the Baptist in Jn 1:21 (“Are you the prophet?”) and in the response of many to Jesus feeding of 5000 in John 6:14 (“This is truly the prophet who is to come into the world.”)  Further, many would argue that when Peter cites Deut 18 in Ac 3:22-23, he is insisting that Jesus is the fulfillment of that OT passage.  (I would demur at this point.  It seems to me that the context, specifically the reference in 3:24, indicates that Peter’s point in citing Deut 18 is that God has provided prophetic voices just as He promised in the days of Moses, that all of those prophets have foretold and anticipated the coming of Messiah, and that Peter’s auditors are the people who most closely identify with that succession of prophets.) Given that anticipation reflected by the Jews of the 1st century, is it not reasonable for the Christian to take Deut 18:15-20 as a foretelling of Jesus the Christ?   

I would concur that Jesus was the apogee of the succession of prophets, that their ministries and messages ultimately focused on Messiah, and thus that Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God, was the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of Deut 18:15-18.  But as before, if He is the sole fulfillment, if Moses meant nothing more than that in 1400 years God was going to raise up another prophet “like unto Moses,” then the concern being addressed in the historical context of Deut 18 is left entirely unaddressed; the generation faced with the dilemma of losing Moses on the one hand and being denied access to pagan religious practitioners on the other are given no help whatever.  Further, the means by which the false prophet can be disqualified in 18:20-22 must also refer to Christ, which is certainly problematic.  And finally, there is disturbing dissonance between the argument of Hebrews that Jesus is “better than Moses” and the promise of Deuteronomy that God would raise up this prophet who was gloriously to be identified as “like unto Moses.” 

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