The Difference Between a Seer and a Prophet
29 SEP 2017
The words "prophet" and "seer" are often used interchangeably, and indeed, both describe a person who is able to divine the future. But the word "seer" also has a very specific connotation, and that is that of seeing visions or dreams that impart information to the seer. It is this seeing, or "second sight," that is the specific talent of the seer, a designation that is primarily visual and future-oriented. A prophet may not only see the future but divine all sorts of things by many possible means. This distinction between the two words can be seen in examples from both ancient Greece and the biblical tradition.
1 Prophets in Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece, both royalty and the common citizen regularly consulted prophets in order to find answers to questions. Much of this happened at oracles like the famous one at Delphi, where entire temple compounds and priestly orders (mostly female) were devoted to the art of prophecy. The priestesses would enter dream or trance states in which the information would come to them through hallucinations and voices, which were often interpreted as the voices of gods like Zeus or Apollo, and then repeated to the pilgrim as the answer to their question.
2 The Role of Seers in Ancient Greece
Besides the female run oracles of ancient Greek, there also existed independent prophets known as "seers," who were usually male. Seers were also consulted on major issues and often played pivotal roles in politics and history, as is the case of Tisamenus of Elis, who helped the Spartans defeat the Persians in 479 BC. This act of specific predictions about future events seems to be at least part of what characterizes a "seer" within the Greek prophetic tradition.
3 The Prophetic Tradition in the Bible
Major biblical prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah, often operated as direct mouthpieces for God, especially in terms of reminding people about important issues like social justice and righteousness. They were not necessarily involved with the prediction of the future outside of the overall vision for God's kingdom on earth, to which the social issues were of primary importance. Often, the prophets delivered their messages without being consulted, as, in the biblical tradition, they were sent by God to speak his word of their own accord.
4 Seers in the Bible
Seers are also mentioned in the Bible, and when they are their ability to see into the future is often emphasized. In 1 Samuel 9, for example, Samuel is described as a "seer," and in fact he receives a message from God about the coming of Saul and the revelation that Saul will be the future king of Israel. This specific act of prophecy about the future seems to be what classifies Samuel as a "seer" as well as a prophet.