Watchmen in the Bible were guards responsible for protecting towns and military installations from surprise enemy attacks and other potential dangers. Ancient Israelite cities often stationed watchmen on high walls or in watchtowers. Their job was to keep watch and warn the townspeople of impending threats.
The Hebrew word translated “watchman” means “one who looks out,” “one who spies,” or “one who watches.” Sometimes watchmen were scouts who looked out for approaching friends as well as enemies.
There are many references to watchmen who kept an eye out for physical threats in the Bible: “Now the watchman was standing on the tower in Jezreel, and he saw the company of Jehu as he came and said, ‘I see a company.’ And Joram said, ‘Take a horseman and send to meet them, and let him say, “Is it peace?”’” (2 Kings 9:17, ESV).
Watchmen safeguarded fields and vineyards during harvest time (Isaiah 5:1–2; Matthew 21:33; Mark 12:1) and acted as sentinels who announced the start of a new day (Psalm 130:6; Isaiah 21:11–12).
The Bible also refers to watchmen in a spiritual sense. God appointed prophets as spiritual watchmen over the souls of His people: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me” (Ezekiel 33:7; also Hosea 9:8).
The prophets’ job as watchmen was to urge God’s people to live faithfully and warn them of the perils involved in falling away from the Lord and doing evil. As watchmen, the prophets were also called to warn wicked people of the judgment and destruction that would come their way unless they turned from their evil ways.
Israel’s spiritual watchmen bore a heavy responsibility before the Lord. If a prophet failed to warn others as God had appointed him to do, his own life was in danger, and he would be held accountable for the people’s sin: “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood’” (Ezekiel 33:2–6).
A watchman who was blind or disobedient to the Lord’s Word left the people he was called to protect open to danger and suffering (Isaiah 56:10). Obedience is the only course of action for a true watchman: “But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved” (Ezekiel 33:9).
The role of spiritual watchman continues in the New Testament in the form of church leaders: “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit” (Hebrews 13:17, NLT).
In another sense, God calls not just leaders, but all Christians to be watchmen. Jesus told His disciples to “watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). We should all be ready and waiting for the Lord’s return: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35–40).