What can we know about the sons of the prophets?
There are two time periods in the books of the former prophets, those books being Joshua to 2 Kings, where groups or sons of the prophets are mentioned. The first was under the prophet Samuel and the second was during the time of Elijah and Elisha.
Considering the time of Samuel, he was the son of Elkanah and Hannah and was conceived miraculously. In fact, the name Samuel means “God has heard,” since he was an answer to Hannah’s prayer. 1 Samuel 1:1 informs us that Elkanah was a resident of the mountains of Ephraim. 1 Chronicles 6, verses 27-28 and 33-34 mention Elkanah and Samuel, listing them as descendants of Kohath, a Levite, but not of the priestly line that descended from Aaron. From this we see that Samuel was a Levite living in the area of Ephraim. The phrase in 1 Samuel 1:1 that Elkanah was “an Ephraimite” is understood as saying that he lived there or that he was born there and belonged, according to his “civil standing” to the tribe of Ephraim; not, that he was by origin a descendant of Ephraim. He was also a prophet and a judge.
Samuel was brought up under the instruction of Eli, the high priest at the time. However, 1 Samuel 2:12 informs us that Eli’s sons, one of whom was next in line to be the high priest, “did not know the LORD.” In fact, 1 Samuel 2:24 records that their father told them that they made the people transgress.
As Samuel grew, he ministered to “the LORD” before Eli. This was a time when “the word of the LORD was rare,” and “there was no widespread revelation” (1 Samuel 3:1). Samuel matured and the “Word of the LORD” was with him, and all Israel knew that he was a “prophet of the LORD” (compare 1 Samuel 3:19-20). Under Samuel, there was a great increase in the knowledge of the Word of God. In fact, as we read in 2 Chronicles 35:18, Josiah and the people kept the Passover in a manner that it had not been kept in since the days of Samuel the prophet. So, Samuel began a religious revival in the land of Israel.
1 Samuel 7:15-17 informs us that, “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. He went from year to year on a circuit to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpah, and judged Israel in all those places. (According to Josephus, he visited these towns twice a year.) But he always returned to Ramah, for his home was there. There he judged Israel, and there he built an altar to the LORD.”
In 1 Samuel 8:1, we find, “Now it came to pass when Samuel was old that he made his sons judges over Israel.” 1 Samuel 8:3 continues, “But his sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice.” Following this, the people told Samuel that he was old and his sons did not walk in his ways, and so they wanted a king to judge them like all the other nations.
God reminded Samuel that the people were not rejecting Samuel but rejecting Him. So, God selected Saul to be their first king. Samuel subsequently anointed Saul king and gave him a number of signs that he would immediately see.
One of those signs is mentioned in 1 Samuel 10:5: “After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying.”
According to Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, “The name of Gibeah, or Hill of God, was given to it on account of a well-known high place or sacrificial height in or hard by the town. We know that this sacred place was chosen by Samuel as the site of one of his ‘schools of the prophets.’
“A company (or group) of prophets.—These evidently belonged to one of those seminaries termed ‘schools of the prophets,’ founded by Samuel for the training of young men. The foundation of these schools in different parts of the country was one of the greatest of the works of this noble and patriotic man. These schools seem to have flourished during the whole period of the monarchy, and in no small measure contributed to the moral and mental development of the people. Some of the youth of Israel who received in these schools their training became public preachers of the Word; for after all, this, rather than foretelling future events, was the grand duty of the prophet’s calling.
“We note that this group of prophets was accompanied by musical instruments. Dr. Erdmann, in Lange’s Commentary, accounts for this especial mention of the music which we know, from this and other passages, was carefully cultivated in these seminaries (schools) of the sons of the prophets, by suggesting that in these societies religious feeling was nourished and heightened by sacred music.
“The object of the musical teaching of the schools of the prophets was, no doubt, to enable those who had studied in the seminaries (schools) to guide and direct the religious gatherings of the people, into which—as we know from the subsequent Temple service, the model of all popular sacred gatherings for worship—music and psalmody entered so largely.”
Even though Ellicott’s comments have some merit, we would add that the Bible nowhere says expressly that Samuel had founded the “schools of prophets,” even though some commentaries conclude that he had “probably” done so (compare the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary). In 1 Samuel 19:20, as will be mentioned below, Samuel is later referred to as the “leader” over the group of prophets.
The Benson Commentary adds. “By prophets here, he understands persons that wholly devoted themselves to religious studies and exercises. For the term of prophesying is not only given to the most eminent act of it, foretelling things to come, but also to preaching, and to the making or singing of psalms, or songs of praise to God. And they that wholly attended upon these things are called sons of the prophets, who were commonly combined into companies or colleges, that they might more conveniently assist one another in God’s work.”
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible mentions that “Musical instruments were the accompaniments of the prophetic song. 1 Chronicles 13:8; 1 Chronicles 25:3.”
There is another mention of the sons of the prophets in 1 Samuel 19 at a time when David was fleeing from king Saul. 1 Samuel 19:20 reads: “Then Saul sent messengers to take David. And when they saw the group of prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as leader over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.” 1 Samuel 19:24 continues regarding king Saul: “And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’”
According to Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, the term “lay down naked was not necessarily without any clothes, for under the tunic there was worn by men of the upper ranks certainly a fine-woven shirt of linen or cotton. Lyranus explains the words ‘stripped off his clothes’ as simply denoting that he threw off his upper garment, ‘his royal robe.’” In another context, the term naked can also refer to a soldier without any weapons, rather than without any clothes.”
As a clarification, earlier in 1 Samuel 15:35 we read that “Samuel went no more to see Saul until the day of his death…” However, in this event, Saul came to not see Samuel, but to capture David, so there is no contradiction. And with Saul laying down all that day and all that night, David had plenty of time to escape capture.
The other period when the “sons of the prophets” are mentioned is at the time of Elijah and Elisha—Elijah meaning “My God, Yahweh [better: YHWH] is He,” and Elisha meaning “God is Salvation.”
All we know of the origin of Elijah is that he was a Tishbite of the inhabitants of Gilead, a land on the east side of the Jordan river (1 Kings 17:1).
There were still a number of God’s prophets in the land but Jezebel wanted to rid the land of any competition to Baal and his false prophets. 1 Kings 18:4 informs us, “For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and fed them with bread and water.”
When Obadiah unexpectedly met up with Elijah, he repeated this: “Was it not reported to my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid one hundred men of the LORD’s prophets, fifty to a cave, and fed them with bread and water?” (1 Kings 18:13).
The Benson Commentary informs us: “There were schools of these prophets, it is likely, still remaining in Israel; but Jezebel endeavoured both to destroy the schools, and those that were brought up in them, in order that none might be left to instruct the people in the true religion. Obadiah — hid them by fifty in a cave — At the hazard of his own life, and against the king’s command; wisely considering that no command of an earthly prince could overrule the command of the King of kings. And fed them with bread and water — Sent them meat and drink privately every day.”
After Elijah had demonstrated by a miracle from God, that “The LORD, He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39), Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah, as we read in 1 Kings 19:2. He fled as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. In 1 Kings 19:9, God asked him why he was there and he explained why in 1 Kings 19:10, “So he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.’”
Commentaries tell us that this statement may have two possible meanings, either no prophet except Elijah, including those that Obadiah had hidden in two caves were still alive, or the ones still alive are in hiding in fear of their lives and not doing God’s work.
The Benson Commentary explains it as “I only am left — Of all thy prophets, who boldly and publicly plead thy cause: for the rest of thy prophets, who are not slain, hide themselves, and dare not appear to do thee service.”
However, as the Church of the Eternal God has pointed out on several occasions, Elijah’s statement should be understood as a complaint that he was the only one left in Israel who worshipped God. He was in deep emotional turmoil which clouded his eyes for reality. The Nelson Study Bible states: “In his depression, he thought he alone was faithful to God. When he was killed, there would be no one left to serve God.”
Similar the Life Application Bible: “Elijah thought he was the only person left who was still true to God… Lonely and discouraged, he forgot that others had remained faithful during the nation’s wickedness.“
1 Kings 20:35 and 1 Kings 20:41 combined give us an understanding what the sons of the prophets were. This was still during the reign of king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. While the context is not being considered here, verse 35 mentions a certain man of the sons of the prophets, and verse 41 mentions king Ahab recognizing him as a prophet. This informs us of two things; firstly, that not all of the prophets were killed by Jezebel, and secondly, at least this son of the prophets was also considered to be a prophet by the king.
When the time approached for Elijah to be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, the sons of the prophets were aware that Elijah would be removed that day. So, they had some predictive understanding. 2 Kings 2:3 tells us, “Now the sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know thou that the LORD will take away your master from over you today?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent!’”
2 Kings 2:5-7 continues this theme: “Now the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came to Elisha and said to him, ‘Do you know that the LORD will take away your master from over you today?’ So he answered, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent!’ Then Elijah said to him [Elisha], ‘Stay here, please, for the LORD has sent me on to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the LORD lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!’ So the two of them went on. And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went and stood facing them at a distance, while the two of them stood by the Jordan.”
After Elijah had been removed and Elisha had walked across the Jordan after God had divided it, the sons of the prophets acknowledged that Elisha was their new leader. 2 Kings 2:15 reads: “Now when the sons of the prophets who were from Jericho saw him, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ And they came to meet him, and bowed to the ground before him.”
2 Kings 4:1 gives us some more information of the sons of the prophets. Just as Samuel was married, (he had two sons), at least some or even most of the sons of the prophets were also married: “A certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, ‘Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD. And the creditor is coming to take away my two sons to be his slaves.’”
2 Kings 4:38 informs us that there was a group of the sons of the prophets at Gilgal. And 2 Kings 6:1-2 tells us that there were so many sons of the prophets at this location that their accommodation was too small, so they built a larger accommodation by the Jordan.
The last mention of the sons of the prophets occurs in 2 Kings 9:1-3 where one of these sons of the prophets was sent by Elisha to go and anoint Jehu king of Israel. 2 Kings 9:7 informs us that God told Jehu: “You shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD, at the hand of Jezebel.”
In conclusion, we see that the Word of God was not well known in the land of Israel before the time of Samuel. He worked in many parts of the land as a prophet, a judge and a Levite. As in the time of Moses, one man could not properly fulfill these roles, especially that of a prophet, alone. As stated above, it appears that he may have established schools for training prophets to assist him in this work to teach and edify the people. These students were called the sons of the prophets.
It is apparent that these schools also existed during the times of Elijah and Elisha in the land of Israel, the northern kingdom. As we read, one group of them is stated having fifty members. However, whether they existed in the intervening time is not revealed. But they were certainly a source of teachers for revealing the Word of God to the people of their time.
Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)