The Revelation of Law in Scripture by Patrick Fairbairn: 13. Appendix A, Page 5: The Original Import Of The Word נָבִיא (Prophet) And Its Later Usage

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The Revelation of Law in Scripture by Patrick Fairbairn: 13. Appendix A, Page 5: The Original Import Of The Word נָבִיא (Prophet) And Its Later Usage


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Appendix A, Page 5: The Original Import Of The Word נָבִיא (Prophet) And Its Later Usage

IN what has been advanced respecting the true idea of a prophet, and the essential nature of a prophecy, no stress has been laid upon the original meaning or derivation of nabi (נָבִיא) as nothing material depends upon the precise view that may be taken of it. The difference of opinion which prevails respecting its fundamental import, turns on the point, whether it is originally of active, or of passive signification— whether it designates the prophet as the recipient, or as the conveyer, of divine communications. The former is the more common, and also, in our judgment, the more natural opinion—both because the form (קטיל) is one, that, according to the rule, is derived only from intransitive verbs, and because, understood in that sense, the word points to what is certainly the more fundamental characteristic of the prophet’s calling— his relation to a revealing God. Ewald, however, still holds to the other view, and understands the word as strictly importing a speaker, who announces the mind, and utters the words of another, who does not himself speak (“Die Propheten des Alten Bundes,” p. 6). Practically, the two opinions coalesce; since the true prophet was always one who in the first instance received communications from above, but only that he might impart them to others; so that it was equally his obligation to speak, and to speak simply according to the tenor of what he had received. He, who might speak without having received a message to deliver, and he who might refrain from communicating the message with which he had been charged, would alike prove unfaithful to the calling of a prophet—although, when distinguishing the true from the false in prophecy, it is naturally the former deviation from the proper line that is most prominently exhibited. (See Jer_14:14, and Eze_13:2, with the remarks in my commentary on the latter passage).

Turning, however, from the etymology and original import of the word to its later and more general usage, there can be no doubt that the deliverance of the message entered as the preponderating element into the idea of a prophet. Hence the change of phraseology that took place in ancient Israel, when prophetic agency began to assume a more regular and recognised place: the term seer, which had more immediate respect to the inward reception of the divine communication, fell into general disuse, and that of prophet, which had then at least acquired a more active meaning, came in its place (1Sa_9:9). The language of the prophets themselves bears respect to this distinction. Thus Isaiah, when reproving the people of his day as to their obstinate resistance to the word of God, speaks of them as those “who say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (Isa_30:10). And Jeremiah, when describing his own prophetic calling, represents himself as one sent in the name of the Lord to speak, and even designates himself “the Lord’s mouth” (Jer_1:7, Jer_15:19). On this account, also, the person who simply delivered a divine message, though he had that message at secondhand—not directly from the Lord—one, therefore, who could not be called properly a seer, still bore the name of a prophet. Of such we have examples in the person whom Elisha sent to anoint Jehu (2Ki_9:1-4), and, we may say, in the prophets generally as regards that portion of their work which consisted in the exercises of devotion and the re-enforcement of the law of Moses. It may be added, that the Greek term, from which our word prophet is derived, προφήτης, while in its original import equally comprehensive with the Hebrew, נָבִיא, having respect to any divine communication, not merely to the prediction of future events, gives distinct expression to this active side of the matter: it denotes one who discloses the mind of another, who speaks for a divine person. Thus poets were called “the prophets of the Muses,” and Apollo, “the prophet of Jupiter,” and the Pythoness was “the prophetess of Apollo,” each being viewed as the oracles of the parties they severally represented. So long as μάντις was used somewhat in the sense of the Hebrew seer, for one who possessed the spirit of divination, the προφήτης was the interpreter of the oracle pronounced. But in later times the term came to acquire the meaning of our word prophet, denoting one who had obtained a supernatural insight into the mind of Deity, and more especially one who came forth with a revelation, real or pretended, of things to come.