This begins sensibly enough, as a warning that the neat slogan which explains that the biblical prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers is simplistic. Of course, in this Motyer is quite correct. The prophets often do look to the future. They consistently warn of danger threatening people who consistently transgress God’s standards. They also often point to glorious future hope. My beef with Motyer is that he calls this future focus “prediction“. The term is useful to Motyer (I think) because it links his point with traditional language about prophecy. This is a comfortable point for a conservative scholar to make – his article will be less threatening to its likely readers, sounding more like the many sermons and TV religious gurus they have heard speak about biblical prophecy.
But is he right? Do the prophets predict? Or do they rather warn and encourage? Prediction, insofar as it is different from mere warning, implies saying in advance that a certain event will happen. Is this what the prophets in the Bible do? It often seems so, the messages God gave them often involve future events. Thus when God commissions Jonah the second time he instructs: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) This Jonah does. (Jonah 3:3) The message he proclaims is: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) But, if this message is intended by God as a prediction, then God is mistaken, for Nineveh is not overthrown in forty days. It is turned upside down, almost immediately, by Jonah’s message, in repentance. But ironically, this repentance leads to God sparing Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).
This is quite clear. Either God’s message is a prediction – in which case it is false, or it is a warning – in which case it succeeds. [emphasis added]
Motyer does not cite Jonah, rather he focuses on Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) and Amos (3:7). The first (like my example) is a narrative, Elisha, in the verse Motyer cites, states that God has hidden and not revealed to him [the child’s death]. Do Elisha’s words suggest that he understands his role as predicting such events? Or could it be rather that having given the miraculous child as a reward Elisha feels God “ought” to have warned him of the coming disaster? In Amos 3:7 the prophet declares: “Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Verse seven however is not the point of the passage, that comes in verse eight: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Amos’ point is not that Prophets are predictors, but that prophets must declare the message God gives them, even when the warning is of destruction. As we saw in the example from Jonah, what God “plans” is not always what God does!
In many cases what preachers and teachers claim in general to be the case about prophets and prophetic activity seems to be, well, wrong. A perspective I've found helpful in anchoring prophetic activity to a judicial role has been Frank Crusemann's, and Crusemann noted two simple things. First he noted that while divination was forbidden to the priests it was not explicitly forbidden to prophets (and we can see some prophets, such a Elisha, did make use of techniques that could be associated with divination such as trances induced by music and symbolic rituals). Second, the prophet had no predictive role designated by Deuteronomy 18 but a judicial role. Priests were not to resort to divination but if a judge or priest didn't have an answer a prophet could be consulted.
A way this could be formulated so that Americans can appreciate the doctrinal and political significance of this is that there was at least a precept of separation of powers. If it seemed that King Saul wasn't nearly as bad a man as David was overall that would be true based on what we see in the Old Testament narratives. But to try to express an idea within the biblical narratives in a way that is clear for contemporary American thought, Saul could be considered the worse of the two kings because of his attitude toward royal power. He was more apt to be swayed by "the will of the people" but so long as whatever they willed coincided with what he already wanted.
Nathan's confrontation with David may be instructive in expanding upon Bulkeley's observations about ways we can misunderstand prophets. Nathan doesn't make much of a prediction. It would be pretty easy to establish from the way David began a war for personal glory rather than the benefit of the people that things were not going to end well for him. The warning from Nathan "could" be read as some mechanistic prediction but taking up Bulkeley's ideas I think another way to interpret what Nathan was telling David is to say Nathan was saying this, "Look, David, you've sown the seeds of death and discord that will bring your reign to an inglorious end and now those seeds have not just taken root, the plants are blooming."
Something I have pointed out to some friends over the years is that, if you think about it, a majority of the prophets to Israel failed in their lifetimes. This has been met with "No, because they predicted Jesus." That's a post hoc Christian interpretation of the prophets. Let's consider that Jesus rhetorically asked "Which of the prophets did your ancestors not kill?" Jesus' warning/encouragement was that if you end up getting pilloried by those who think they're doing God a favor know that that was how the real prophets were treated, too. That's not some epistlemologically airtight formula, of course, but it leads nicely into my next observation, if the Israelite prophets whose writings were preserved had been effective in warning the people away from injustice and unrighteousness there wouldn't have been an exile in Babylon and abroad, would there?
Yes, I know perfectly well that in light of recent popular theories that a majority of the Bible was not only assembled but written from the Persian exilic period on somebody could say "yeah, the exile was where all the Bible got written". You can still get the rhetorical case, that the prophets and the literature bequeathed to us in the Judeo-Christian canon can be considered the unheeded warnings of dissident literature from prophetic communities. One of Jesus' warnings of woe is that if everybody speaks well of you and praises you, watch out, because that's how it went for the false prophets.
There might be a triple irony in the Amos 3 passage. Consider Amos 7:10-17
10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent word to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel; the land is unable to endure all his words. 11“For thus Amos says, ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword and Israel will certainly go from its land into exile.’” 12Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Go, you seer, flee away to the land of Judah and there eat bread and there do your prophesying! 13“But no longer prophesy at Bethel, for it is a sanctuary of the king and a royal residence.”
14Then Amos replied to Amaziah, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs. 15“But the LORD took me from following the flock and the LORD said to me, ‘Go prophesy to My people Israel.’ 16“Now hear the word of the LORD: you are saying, ‘You shall not prophesy against Israel nor shall you speak against the house of Isaac.’ 17“Therefore, thus says the LORD, ‘Your wife will become a harlot in the city, your sons and your daughters will fall by the sword, your land will be parceled up by a measuring line and you yourself will die upon unclean soil. Moreover, Israel will certainly go from its land into exile.’”
When ordered to go the seer business elsewhere Amos' reply is something like, "Look, man, I have a day job. I herd animals and tend trees." Amos did not identify himself as a "vocational" prophet but, if you will, an occasional one. What Amos 3 "could" introduce is a sarcastic element (and it's not as if there's ever been a precedent for sarcasm in Jewish literature, is there?)
If you tell a real prophet of the Lord "stop doing what you're doing" you may find your house collapses; your family gets broken up; and you're miles and miles away from the property you once called home because in your folly and defiance of the Lord's warnings you can end up ruined. So even within Amos there seems to be a sarcastic recognition that even should God announce in advance what will happen through a prophet God's people are so stubborn and hard-hearted they ignore the warning.