I received two similar questions regarding my message on 1 Samuel 19 this past Sunday. They are about the prophesying that is done by Saul and his servants in verses 20-24:
Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied. Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.” And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 19:20-24)
Ramah was where Samuel lived. Naioth was where it is believed he had a school of prophets where he trained others in the prophetic ministry. But how can you train someone to be a prophet? Doesn’t God have to give you that gift?
To understand what might be happening in 1 Samuel 19, we need to understand that the word “prophet” (Hebrew: נָבִיא navi) has a very wide range of meaning (as does the associated verb “to prophecy” – Hebrew: נבא nava). First, we must dispense with the idea that prophecy is strictly foretelling the future. That is a very small part of the ministry of a prophet. God uses that part of prophecy as the litmus test for a true prophet (Jer 28:9) and to warn His people of judgment and promise future salvation, but the primary responsibility of the prophet is the forthtelling of God’s Word. The word has etymological roots that mean “interpreter” or “one who speaks on behalf of another.” The prophets were God’s mouthpiece. Even the Greek word προφητεύω (propheteuo) from where our English word comes (and which is used in the Septuagint in 1 Samuel 19) was used to speak of those who interpreted the will of the Greek gods.
Second, a prophet does not need to be given direct revelation from God. The three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible is contained in the name of their Scriptures: Tanakh. The name uses the first letters of the different parts: torah (law), navi’im (prophets – plural of navi), and khetuv’im (writings). In the prophetic portion are included not just Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., but the historical books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, etc. Those that simply wrote the historical books were, of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit and God superintended the writing, but they were not given direct revelation like Moses or Isaiah were. But they are considered prophets because they spoke (wrote) the words of God.
If we think of the prophets in the Bible (Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), we see that future-telling was only part of their ministries. In some cases, a very small part. Primarily, they communicated God’s truth to people. They gave revelation from God. Additionally, they acted as God’s prosecutors and pointed out what His people were doing wrong. They pointed out the sin of the people and called them to repentance. This is no different than the ministry of the superlative Prophet, Jesus Christ. This is also no different that what He calls His church to do in the present age (Luke 24:47). The Gospel we bring to the world is a prophetic message. We speak the words of God on His behalf. And even we, in part, foretell events when we warn of the coming judgment.
Now, back to 1 Samuel 19. The school of prophets would be for those who wanted to interpret and speak forth the revealed word of God. It is very possible that some, many, or all of them were gifted by God to give direct and new revelation, but that doesn’t have to be the case for them to be considered navi’im. And interpreters are split here on 1 Samuel 19, because they were all prophesying together, and yet none of their words are recorded. So were they merely “practicing” the preaching of their prophetic message? Were they given direct revelation that has been omitted from the Bible? We cannot know for sure.
Now, when we read that the Holy Spirit came upon Saul’s servants, we read that they “also” prophesied like the school of prophets (v. 20). Saul “too prophesied” in the same fashion (v. 24). So whatever the student-prophets were doing, Saul and his servants appear to be doing. But we don’t know what that is. That we aren’t told would appear to me to mean that this is not important to the point of the story. Would God give Saul new direct revelation? I would think not. Did Saul and his servants declare the already revealed word of God (like in preaching)? Perhaps. Did they declare the sins of God’s people? That would be cosmically ironic. But the truth is this is just speculation and we should not be dogmatic about it.
It is similar to wondering what exactly Jesus wrote on the ground in John 8:6. That we aren’t told tells me it is not important to the point of the account. Yet, there are commentators that emphatically state that Jesus must have been writing down the sins of the people he was about to address in verse 7. That’s possible, but to say we know for sure goes too far. The same applies here in 1 Samuel 19. The verb nava can mean a variety of things. The Bible tells us neither what it means here, nor the words actually spoken. What we do know is that God sovereignly made Saul and his servants prophesy (whatever that means in this case), and this gave David time to escape from Saul (1 Samuel 20:1).