Exercising the Prophetic Gift: The Forms of Prophecy

Let me now sing of my friend
my friend’s song concerning his vineyard.

Isaiah 5:1

[Agabus] came up to us and taking Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it. ‘Then he said, Thus says the Holy Spirit…’

Acts 21:10 

The prophets of both the Old and New Testaments did a great deal more to communicate the word of the Lord than just saying, “Thus says the Lord.” They composed songs (or sang songs inspired by the Holy Spirit). They performed dramatic actions. They even gave their children prophetic names: “In fact, they showed no hesitation in availing themselves of all manner of forms in which to clothe their message. None, secular and sacred alike, was safe from appropriation as a vessel for discharge of his task by one prophet or another.” 1  

ORACLES

The simplest and most direct form of prophecy is the prophetic oracle, in which the prophet addresses the people of God in plain speech as if it were the Lord himself speaking. A prophetic oracle may or may not contain such idioms as “The Lord says” or “The Holy Spirit says this.” But whether or not these familiar prophetic phrases are employed, it is clear from the speaker’s presentation that the speech proceeds from the Lord.

Oracles are blunt. They state the message of the Lord without elaborate presentation. Therein lies their greatest usefulness. There are occasions (frequent occasions) which call for the simple statement of the message God has for his people. Prophetic oracles present a direct word as a direct word, and state simply, “This word is from the Lord.”  

PROPHETIC EXHORTATION

Perhaps the most common form of prophetic speech is exhortation. The fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts mentions two prophets, Judas and Silas, who came to Antioch and “exhorted the brethren with many words, and strengthened them.” Exhortation (or encouragement, as it is often translated) is speech which revives, renews, or strengthens people. It builds up their hope and gives them new courage. Most of us are familiar with exhortation, although we probably have not called it that. The well-known halftime pep talk which the coach gives to his team, for instance, is exhortation.
 
Any Christian can exhort and encourage others. If a Christian woman were anxious and worried about her financial state, any good Christian could encourage her to have faith in God, who provides more abundantly for us than for the sparrows. But there is a true prophetic exhortation too, and prophetic exhortation is something more: it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is a word of encouragement that comes from the Lord himself.

Oftentimes we may know that the Lord wants to say something to his people, yet do not feel that we should prophesy. In such cases, we should perhaps yield to an inspired exhortation. In some ways, inspired exhortation allows us greater freedom for expression than direct, first-person prophecy. We can communicate the Lord’s word at greater length or in more detail is otherwise possible. We can express our own convictions about the Lord’s word or use personal examples to explain how the word can be applied. Just two weeks before writing this I attended a gathering of Christians from my hometown.  As we were praying together, I felt inspired to speak a word. But when I considered the message, I realized a story I had just read could express it better than a first person prophecy. So, rather than prophesying, I gave a prophetic exhortation including the story as an illustration.

If you ever feel that the Lord wishes to speak through you, direct prophecy does not appear to be the right way to his word, try expressing it through a prophetic exhortation. Some people fear that speaking an exhortation rather than a prophecy will weaken the force of God’s word — perhaps people will think we are only expressing some personal convictions.  If we believe our exhortation is God’s word, we can say that. If it is, our words will carry God’s authority.  

INSPIRED PRAYER

At times God will inspire a person to pray publicly in a way that touches and moves the hearts of those who hear. At times too the prayer will have in it the unmistakable element of prophetic revelation. When Zechariah and Simeon prayed in thanks to God (see Luke 1 and 2), their prayers were thoroughly prophetic. Through those prayers God revealed the plan he was unfolding in the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus. 

Prophetic prayer often has a place in worship of the Lord. Ezra 9:6-15 and Nehemiah 9:6-37 are examples of prophetic prayer. When Ezra prayed before the people, the people were deeply affected, His prayer had power because it was inspired. A truly inspired prayer will turn people’s hearts to the Lord, and will lead them to a deep praise and worship of God. When inspired prayer is present, worship of God is a powerful and transforming experience.

Prophetic prayer is as easy to yield to as direct prophecy. If you are praying and feel that the Lord has given you something to pray publicly, just speak out, and let the power of the Holy Spirit do the rest.

PROPHECY IN SONG

Some of the most beautiful and moving melodies and lyrics I have heard were prophetic. Prophetic sons most often occur in the context of worship, and serve as an encouragement to even greater praise of God. Many of these songs describe God’s goodness, his love, or his majesty, in a way which almost compels us to bless God and praise him.

Receiving a prophetic song is similar to receiving a simple prophetic message. Sometimes you will begin to hear in your mind a word from the Lord, and then a melody to go with it. Other times you may receive only the words of a prayer or message, but feel urged to sing the message rather than to speak it. When that happens, if you just choose an opening note and begin to sing, the melody will come. Or, you may receive only a melody, but as you begin to sing, the words will be given to you. Prophetic song does not come when you decide to set something to music, but when you are inspired to sing in the Holy Spirit. In other words, you don’t compose a prophetic song, you receive it.

The words of a prophetic song are not so much a focus as the words of a spoken prophecy.  Prophetic song usually communicates an experience, or stirs us up spiritually, in somewhat the same way prayer or exhortation does.

Normally prophetic song will be given to people who have a good singing voice. God uses the natural gills which he gives to us to support the spiritual gifts which he bestows. If you do have a good singing voice, you should be open to receiving from the Lord a prophecy in song. But keep in mind that there are surprises in the ways of the Lord. Maybe you don’t think that you can sing at all. Well, I have heard people who have been trained in voice try to sing prophecy with embarrassing results. It helps to know that God normally uses our natural gifts; but that shouldn’t keep us from receiving any gift which he wants to give.  

REVELATION

When Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4) that she had five husbands, and was now living with a man who was not her husband, she replied, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”  That reply would have come naturally to most people at the time of Jesus. They knew that a prophet could bring hidden to light and lay bare the secrets of the heart. Scripture abounds with accounts of prophets who revealed secrets they never have known except through the action of the Holy Spirit.  To cite one example, the prophet Elisha knew that his servant Gehazi had lied to get money from a man whom Elisha had cured (2 Kings 5).

From time to time God may reveal things to us which we not otherwise know, just as he revealed Gehazi’s theft to Elisha.  Four years ago I was counseling a young woman troubled by serious emotional difficulties.  I knew that the Lord wanted to help her, but I myself was at a loss about what to do. At the of one session, we sat down to pray together. As we prayed the Lord showed me an incident involving a small child and her mother.  I saw the incident in very great detail, almost as if a movie was being shown in my mind. A girl who appeared to be four years old was sitting in her living room playing with some toys.  Suddenly her mother came into the room and began to yell at her. She spanked the girl severely and sent her to her room.  As I saw all of this, I understood (how I am not sure) that the little girl had been wetting her bed at night. Her mother was angry because it had happened again. The little girl was frightened, and frustrated. I understood (again, I don’t know how) that she felt helpless; how could she control what had happened in her sleep?

I was a little nervous about mentioning this, but I finally worked up the courage. I told the woman that I thought something had happened between her and her mother when she was about four years old. As I described what I had seen, she became more and more excited. The revelation was an exact description of an incident she had almost forgotten.

Every detail matched. Talking about that spanking given many years before led us to some insights that eventually helped her overcome some of her emotional problems.

Revelations of facts which we could not know on our own can be a powerful and convincing work of the Holy Spirit.  The woman at the well came to believe in Jesus because he knew things about her that he could never have known but through God’s revelation. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).

However, we must be careful to use these revelations in a way that will help and encourage the people involved. This is especially true of revelations concerning people’s private lives. Such revelations can cause tremendous harm if they are rashly or unlovingly used. Several years ago I was praying with another person, and as I prayed, God showed me something that had happened to him many years before. This revelation touched on a very delicate matter, and I felt it unwise to bring the subject up. So I said nothing. One year later I talked with the same person, and he began to speak about the very incident that had been revealed to me a year earlier. I now thank God that I did not say anything about that revelation when I first received it. God had a time and a place for making use of the knowledge he had given me. 

There are two areas in which we need to exercise care with prophetic revelation. First, we may be wrong when we think that something has been revealed to us. Second, it is not always appropriate or helpful to say anything about the true revelations which we receive.

We could be wrong. Imagine what would happen if you walked up to a woman who had been faithfully married for fifteen years and said, “You have had five husbands and you are now living with a man who is not your husband.” When we receive true revelation, we may become the instruments of a dramatic conversion. But when we have received something false, we can only hurt, offend, or embarrass another individual. The more serious the matter which we think has been revealed, the more serious is our responsibility to discern and judge it. We must always be prudent about such matters.

Again, God may give us a true revelation, but not want us to act on it. He may be revealing something just so we can pray and wait for him to act. I do believe, however, that most of the time when God shows us something, he will also show us what he wants us to do. If we seek for his guidance about how to act (or not act) on the revelation we receive, we can avoid mistakes.

God wants to equip us to serve him, and revelations can be an important part of that equipment. But they have to be approached with caution and wisdom. If we exercise a reasonable amount of care and common sense, revelation can bear fruit for the Lord.

PERSONAL PROPHECY

The Lord can speak through prophecy to individuals just as he can to groups of people. Through Agabus (and many others) the Holy Spirit warned Paul of the troubles awaiting him in Jerusalem. From time to time we may also experience the Lord giving us a specific word for some other individual. The word may give direction to someone who is trying to make a decision; it may encourage or console; it may convict a person of sin, as Nathan’s prophecy convicted David of his sin in killing Bathsheba’s husband (2 Sm 12).

My own first experience with prophecy for another individual is worth relating, because it demonstrates the powerful effects that such prophecy can have. As I was praying one morning six years ago, I looked up and saw another man sitting across the room I knew this man rather well, and there was nothing unusual about seeing him in the room, for he often prayed there.  But as I looked at him that morning, I sensed that the Lord had something to speak to him. I went over to him and told him that I thought I should prophesy to him. He looked a bit surprised. The prophecy which I spoke was very simple. God knew him and loved him Later that day this man came to me to thank me for the prophecy. The knowledge that God loved him – loved him enough to speak to him personally – had a profound effect. Two years later he again thanked me for what I had done that day. That simple word had been for him a support and encouragement through many difficult times Often, he told me, it would come back to his mind in the midst of trials and bring with it an inner strength and refreshment.

At times prophecy for individuals can be misused. I have heard of instances where people have made use of personal prophecy as a means for getting their own way.  For instance, one person prophesied to another person that God wanted the two of them to get married.  Apparently he wanted his proposal to have some authority behind it! Prophecy for an individual is subject to the same need for testing and discernment as any other form of prophecy. If a prophecy requires some definite response, then it should be examined and judged, whether it is intended for a group or for an individual.  There should be no such thing as private prophecy if by that is meant that the prophecy is not open to discernment by those authority   in the community, or by others who can take an objective position in helping the recipient to evaluate what has been prophesied.

Public personal prophecy should normally not be allowed.  That is, prophecy directed to an individual in a public setting.  Receiving personal prophecy in such a setting is intimidating, and can have (and often does have) the effect of giving the prophecy more authority than it deserves.

VISIONS

For many of us the archetypical prophet may be John on the Island of Patmos: “And after this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up hither and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit, and, lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne there was a rainbow that looked like an emerald…” (Revelation 4:1-3).

Or it may be Ezekiel: “In the thirtieth year in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God…” (Ezra 1:1).

Probably nothing else makes us feel so different from the prophets, so alienated from their experiences, as the visions they received. Visions seem to have about them an air of unreality and mystery and spectacle. And yet visions are no more mysterious than normal prophecy. Actually, they ought to be expected.

Through visions God opens up to us his actions and his plan in a new and powerful way; they have impact. I was startled, to say the least, the first time I received a vision. After all, I considered myself a reasonable and down-to-earth sort of a guy. And I didn’t think any reasonable and down-to-earth person should be having visions!

But in the summer of 1969, while I was on retreat with a group of men in Canada, I had a vision. We were all praying together one night, and I felt that the Lord wished to speak to us through prophecy. I began seeking the Lord to hear his word. Suddenly, I seemed to be standing on a large level plain. A huge crowd of people was walking toward me. I could not see any leader, but all the people were moving along together as if following someone. The question I had read many times in the books of the prophets immediately came to my lips, “Lord, what is this?” I think, in fact, that I actually asked the question half out loud because at that moment I was not particularly aware of the other people in the room. Then I heard the Lord speaking, just as he normally does in prophetic revelation: “These are my people. They follow me where I lead….”

In a minute or two the vision ended. What was I to do next? Tell people that I had had a vision? So much for my reputation as a reasonable and down-to-earth guy! But I plucked up my courage and said, “Ah, brothers, I think I’ve… uh… had a vision!” As I went on to explain what I had seen and heard, the other men responded just as they would respond to the word of the Lord in a spoken prophecy.

If we receive prophetic visions, we should share them with others properly. There is no reason to act as if something very strange or mysterious has happened. We can simply give a matter-of-fact description of what we have seen and heard. The vision can then be tested and judged as any other prophecy is tested and judged. If it is from God, it will bear the testing.

We should also talk about visions with dignity and restraint. I was tempted to half joke about my first vision, because I felt slightly embarrassed by it. But if a vision is from the Lord, embarrassment or joking will take away from what he wishes to do through it.

I have a relatively active imagination, and when I first experienced visions I thought I might be imagining them. That is a reasonable consideration: many people do mistake their own active and colorful imaginings for prophetic visions. But though such mistakes do occur, they mean only that we must apply the same tests to visions that we apply to every other form of prophecy. People who are emotionally unstable or prone to imagining things should not be relied upon in prophecy at all. We should know that a person is reliable before we accept his or her visions.  

PROPHETIC ACTIONS

Thus the Lord said to me: “Make yourself thongs and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab…”

Jeremiah 27:2-3

While we were staying for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us he took Paul’s girdle and bound his own hands and feet and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the one who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”

Acts 21:10-11

The prophets of both the Old and the New Testaments brought drama and impact to their prophecies by performing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, actions that vividly portrayed the message they proclaimed. Hosea and Isaiah gave their children prophetic names (Hosea 1:4, 6,9; Is 8:3). Jeremiah, the champion prophetic actor, buried a waistcloth (Jeremiah 13:1), smashed an earthen flask as a sign of destruction (Jeremiah 10), walked around wearing an oxen-yoke (Jeremiah 27), and bought a field as a sign of future restoration (Jeremiah 32).

All of these actions were inspired dramatizations of the prophetic message. The prophets did not perform them because they wanted to be dramatic; they performed them as the word of the Lord. Today we can see many people performing what they claim are prophetic actions –  holding demonstrations against abortion, or trying to save the lives of several beached whales, etc. In a broad sense of the term, we might justly call these actions “prophetic symbols.” But acting at the immediate command of the Lord in support of an inspired prophetic message is a different matter. The power of truly prophetic actions comes from the Holy Spirit who inspires them.

TONGUES AND INTERPRETATION

Therefore he who speaks in tongues should pray for the power to interpret…. If any speak in a tongue, let there be two or at most three, and each in rum; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in the assembly and speak to himself and to God.

1 Corinthians 14:13, 27-28.

Paul spoke very strongly to the church at Corinth about speaking in tongues in meetings of the church. Speaking out in tongues was to be done only if the message spoken could be interpreted. The reason Paul gives is common sense: unless the message is interpreted, no one will understand it, and therefore, no one will profit from the message. It is clear that at times the Holy Spirit does inspire individuals to speak out in tongues in Christian meetings. When the message spoken is interpreted, all are “built up.”

I have been asked on many occasions, “Why should God inspire tongues and interpretation? Wouldn’t it be simpler for someone to just speak the message in an intelligible language in the first place?” I do not have an answer for a question like that. It seems clear that God does inspire tongues and interpretation.  It would be better for us simply to exercise and receive the gift with thanksgiving rather than to ask why God works in this way.

One prominent Pentecostal writer maintains that when tongues are spoken and interpreted, the interpretation should be an inspired prayer. Tongues, he explains, is a gift for prayer, and so the interpreted message ought logically to be an inspired prayer. There is a real merit to this argument, but my experience and the experience of many other Christians seems to indicate that at least sometimes a message in tongues will be interpreted not as a prayer, but as a prophecy.

Tongues with interpretation operates in much the same way as the gift of prophecy. One individual will feel “anointed” to speak out. But rather than receiving a message to speak, he or she will feel urged to speak out in an unknown message. The individual who then receives the interpretation will also feel “anointed” to speak, and will receive from God either a message or the beginnings of a message. Most often he or she will also feel a conviction that the message received interprets the message spoken in tongues.2

I firmly believe that tongues and interpretation ought to operate in the church. Many of us seem to find this gift less “rational” and therefore more embarrassing than simple prophecy.  But I have seen tongues and interpretations bring life and power to God’s people. It is part of the prophetic gift given to the church, and we should look for it, expect to experience it, and receive it with thanks.

PROPHECY IN PRIVATE PRAYER

Five years ago I had a brief conversation with a man who told me that while he was praying by himself; he had felt “anointed” to prophesy. He had felt a little uneasy about this, since there was no one around to hear his prophecy, but he finally prophesied anyway. The word that God spoke inspired him greatly.

I went away scratching my head and feeling a bit suspicious. “Prophecy,” I thought to myself, “is a gift given for the body of Christ. It is meant for others, not for yourself; right? Then how can someone prophesy while he is all alone?” But a few months later, as I was praying alone, I felt that I should prophesy. I did, and I, too, found myself greatly inspired and encouraged by God’s message.

Since that time I have often prophesied while praying by myself and have come to believe that it is quite normal. True, prophecy is a gift given to the body of Christ, but there is no reason why the Lord cannot use that gift to speak directly to individuals, to encourage them, to lead them in worship.

If you ever feel that you should prophesy while praying alone, yield to it and speak out the prophecy. When I first experienced prophecy in this way I thought, “I already know what the Lord is saying to me, so why should I prophesy?” The reason is simple: prophecy is a spoken word. When we speak the message God gives, the power of the prophetic gift becomes active.

One word of caution. It is very hard to test a prophecy given when no one else is present to judge it. Accordingly, we should not rely on these prophecies for guidance or direction.

All the manifestations of the prophetic gift can bring life to God’s people. Each kind of prophetic speech adds its own depth and scope and texture and beauty to the manifestation of God’s word. Few people will have occasion to use all these types of prophecy, but anyone who is called to speak God’s word will very likely find that his word can take at least several different forms.


Notes:

  1. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 38.
  2. See George Montague’s explanation of this gift in The Spirit and His Gifts (New York: Paulist, 1974), 33-35

 

This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 7, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

See previous articles on Prophecy by Bruce Yocum:


Top image from Bigstock.com, © by paul shuang, stock photo ID: 324004429. Scripture quote added by editorial staff.

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