Bible Prophets - A Job Description
Michelangelo's Moses - one of the best known Bible prophets
Before we can begin examining Joseph Smith's claims to being a prophet and a seer of the true God, we must first define what being a prophet, or a seer, really is. In fact, the Bible is quite clear when it comes to our need to "test" the prophets, as there are false prophets out there:
"Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good." 1 Thess. 5:19-21. "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." Matt. 7:15. (emphasis above ours).
In modern terms, we can only assess somebody's professional performance by measuring it against their job description. So what is the job description of a biblical prophet?
Meaning of "Prophet"
The Hebrew term for prophet is nabi, from a root meaning to bubble forth, as from a mountain. Two other terms used in this context are ro'eh and hozeh, both of which mean seer:
The meanings of these terms overlaps for the most part. Generally speaking, though, the term seer was used in older times and was given to those who "beheld the vision of God" (see Num. 12:6,8), while the term for prophet became established later and designated someone who was the spokesman for God, the mouthpiece or instrument through which God communicated his plans and revealed future events to other people (see Deut. 18:18,19; Jer. 1:9; Isa. 51:16).
While in our modern times being a prophet is often made equal to being able to foretell future events, in Biblical times this was not at all the central part of the prophet's job. The main reason God raised up prophets during history was to redirect people's attention to God and his commandments when they were drifting away into idolatry, or to reveal God's plans for them as a nation. Another important part Old Testament prophets' job was to reveal the circumstances of Messiah's arrival and his mission. Finally, as in the case of Daniel and John, prophets were entrusted with revelations regarding major events in the course of future human history, culminating with details regarding Jesus' second coming. Only secondarily, and usually as a means of enhancing the prophet's credibility, was foretelling or predicting short-term future events a part of prophetic messages (see, for example, Elijah's prediction about no rain for three years. The prediction was just a secondary aspect of his more important message that was dealing with a need for moral reform among his people). Having said that, though, the ability to accurately predict future events on the short-term can be used, according to the Bible, to determine whether somebody is a true prophet or not, as only God knows the future.
But this brings us to the next chapter in our search for the identity of the true prophet: how can one tell if a prophet is false or true?