A prophet, in the primary sense of the word, is a person who is divinely inspired to deliver a message, e.g., a warning to his or her addressees that unless they mend their ways they will suffer a terrible fate. However, nowadays the word prophet is more commonly used, without any suggestion of divine inspiration, to mean a person who predicts the future, especially a person who, typically on the basis of little evidence, predicts some highly significant event such as the outbreak of a war or the overthrow of a regime. A person who regularly predicts the occurrence of terrible events may be said to be a prophet of doom. A female prophet may be referred to as a prophetess.
A prophet’s message is a prophecy. (IPA: /‘prɒ fɪ sɪ/), while the related verb is ‘to prophesy’ (IPA: /‘prɒ fɪ saɪ/). Note the difference in the pronunciation of the final syllable of these two words.
The related adjective is prophetic, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, IPA: /prɒ 'fɛ tɪk/. Prophetic may mean either ‘related to a prophet or prophecy’ (as in ‘Prophetic messages are often ambiguous’) or ‘true’ (as in ‘What he said has turned out to be prophetic’).
- Etymological note:: the word prophet comes from the Greek προφήτης (prophētēs), ‘a prophet, someone who speaks on behalf of (a god)’, a noun formed from πρό (pro, ‘on behalf of’) and φάναι (phanai, ‘to say, to speak’).
A false prophet is a person who claims to be a prophet but does not have prophetic powers, i.e. his prophecies are not fulfilled. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns his listeners to be on their guard against false prophets: ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (Matthew 7.15).
Prophets are not always believed, even though they may be speaking the truth. Perhaps the best known example of a prophet whose predictions were never believed is the mythological figure of Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan king Priam: she received the gift of prophecy from the god Apollo, but when she rejected his sexual advances, was fated never to have her prophecies believed. A person whose prophecies are never believed may be called a Cassandra.
Two other, less common words sometimes used in the context of prophesy are: