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Moses:

29 And Moses saith to him, `Art thou zealous for me? O that all Jehovah's people were prophets! that Jehovah would put His Spirit upon them!' (Numbers 11:29 YLT)

Paul:

Pursue the love, and seek earnestly the spiritual things, and rather that ye may prophecy,. (1 Corinthians 14:1 YLT)

and I wish you all to speak with tongues, and more that ye may prophecy, for greater is he who is prophesying than he who is speaking with tongues, except one may interpret, that the assembly may receive edification. (1 Corinthians 14:5 YLT)

39 so that, brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and to speak with tongues do not forbid; 40 let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:39-40 YLT)

Were Moses and Paul wishing the same for God's people? Did they have the same concept of 'prophecy'?

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  • I think the real answer revolves around Joel 2:28-32
    – Dottard
    Jun 17, 2021 at 22:32
  • @Dottard - would you mind expanding on that a little bit? I'm open to change the accepted answer if you post a full answer to the question, btw. Jun 18, 2021 at 0:28

2 Answers 2

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The key to understanding Num 11:29 is actually V27 and the way the verb נָבָא (naba = to prophesy) is used.

  • Num 11:25-27 - people prophesied when the Holy Spirit came upon them
  • 1 Sam 10:5, 6, 10, 11, 13 - people prophesied when the Holy Spirit came upon them
  • 1 Sam 18:10, 19:20, 21, 23, 25 - Saul prophesied (against his will) to stop him killing David when the Holy Spirit came upon him
  • 1 Kings 18:29, 22:8, 10, 12 - false prophets (of Baal) prophesied in an ecstatic state
  • Joel 2:28 - a prophecy that most people will be able to prophesy

In all these cases, there is an associated comment that when a person prophesies under the complete control of the Holy Spirit, they become a prophet. This verb is always used of a verbal communication.

In the NT, the idea is subtlety different - prophets are those that still deliver verbal messages such as those from Agabus and the four daughters of Philip; but there is an added dimension - prophets are also those who wrote written messages, including that which ended up in the Bible. This is understandable as in the early days of the Bible, the concept of the Bible was nebulous and scarcely formed.

However, there is a definite continuity: Joel 2:28-32 is quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17-21 with the same meaning. There is no reason to suggest that this meaning changed between Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14:5.

In 1 Cor 14 - Paul hopes (vainly) that all people would prophesy but (presumably) realizes that is not his decision but that of the Holy Spirit. However, that does not prevent Joel 2 being fulfilled at some future time.

There is some debate about what the NT meaning of "prophesy" meant - one or more of three possibilities exist:

  • "prophesy" was a loose synonym for "preaching" (there is little evidence for this)
  • "prophecy" is a purely verbal message as per Agabus, Silas and the four daugters of Philip
  • "prophesy" in the sense of contributing to the canon of scripture as did Paul, John, Jude, James, etc.

Further, there is nothing to prevent more than one of these being true simultaneously (the most likely). In any case, most of the "prophesying" appears to have been verbal and did not contribute to the canon of Scripture in the NT, much as was the case in the OT.

However, as 2 Peter 1:19-21 makes clear, some of the prophets' written messages were canonized in Holy Scripture for all time. This means that (probably most) prophesying was verbal and never recorded and thus had a purely local application. This did not make it any less inspired, just inappropriate for inclusion in the Bible.

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In the old testament, the hebrew word for prophet "navi'" also means "spokesman", and it refers to the general category of speaking on behalf of God. In the common english parlance, prophesy has a connotation of making predictions, but in the scriptures it has a much larger semantic range, including revealing some mystery or truth.

For example, telling a stranger that they are cheating on their husband. That is not a prediction of the future, but it's a revelation of a hidden thing that the speaker could not know just from his natural mind. So when Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well her history of infidelity, she responded by saying "I see that you are a prophet" (John 4.19). He was not making any predictions to her when she said that (although he did make predictions after she said it).

These types of prophecies are immediately known to the hearer, whereas making a prediction requires waiting, and there is always some doubt as to whether the prophecy is not true yet. e.g. 1 Sam 19.23 "So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even on him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth." it is much more likely that Saul was speaking hidden things revealed more generally rather than making specific predictions about the future. And the bible also speaks of processions of people annointed with the spirit walking down the street prophesying. Imagine a group of people telling the whole town secrets about your life as they walked down the street in a procession! And not only secrets about you, but also revealing secrets about the world more generally, of which the unknown future is just an example.

So I believe it is in this sense that both Moses and Paul are wishing for everyone to prophecy, e.g. to be able to speak the hidden things of God that come from the Spirit and so bring more revelation to the Church (in the case of Paul) or to the tribe of Israel (in the case of Moses). I don't think there is a specific benefit to making predictions about the future, except perhaps in the counsels of kings, but tautologically, there is a real benefit even in ordinary families to speak truths that were previously hidden.

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