The Bible’s answer
A prophecy is a message inspired by God, a divine revelation. The Bible says that prophets “spoke from God as they were moved by holy spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20, 21) So a prophet is one who receives God’s message and transmits it to others.—Acts 3:18.
How did prophets receive information from God?
God used several methods to transmit his thoughts to his prophets:
Writing. God used this method in at least one case by directly supplying to Moses the Ten Commandments in written form.—Exodus 31:18.
Oral communication through angels. For example, God used an angel to instruct Moses about the message he was to deliver to Pharaoh of Egypt. (Exodus 3:2-4, 10) When precise wording was crucial, God directed angels to dictate his message, as he did when he told Moses: “Write down these words, because in accordance with these words, I am making a covenant with you and with Israel.”—Exodus 34:27. a
Visions. These were sometimes given while the prophet was awake and fully conscious. (Isaiah 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1) Some were so vivid that the recipient participated in them. (Luke 9:28-36; Revelation 1:10-17) At other times, visions were conveyed while the recipient was in a trance. (Acts 10:10, 11; 22:17-21) God also transmitted his message by dreams while the prophet slept.—Daniel 7:1; Acts 16:9, 10.
Mental guidance. God guided the thoughts of his prophets to convey his message. This is the sense of the Bible’s statement: “All Scripture is inspired of God.” The phrase “inspired of God” can also be rendered “God-breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16; The Emphasised Bible) God used his holy spirit, or active force, to “breathe” his ideas into the minds of his servants. The message was God’s, but the prophet selected the wording.—2 Samuel 23:1, 2.
Does prophecy always involve foretelling the future?
No, Bible prophecy is not limited to foretelling the future. However, most messages from God relate to the future, even if only indirectly. For example, God’s prophets repeatedly warned the ancient Israelites about their evil ways. Those warnings described the future blessings if the people would heed the warning, as well as the future calamity if they refused. (Jeremiah 25:4-6) The actual outcome depended on the course that the Israelites chose to follow.—Deuteronomy 30:19, 20.
Examples of Bible prophecies not involving predictions
On one occasion when the Israelites asked God for help, he sent a prophet to explain that because they had refused to obey God’s commands, He had not helped them.—Judges 6:6-10.
When Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman, he revealed things about her past that he could have known only by divine revelation. She recognized him as a prophet even though he had made no predictions about the future.—John 4:17-19.
At Jesus’ trial, his enemies covered his face, hit him, and then said: “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They were not calling for Jesus to foretell the future but for him to identify by divine power who had hit him.—Luke 22:63, 64.