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: “And there stood a watchman on the tower in Jezreel, and he spied the company of Jehu as he came, and said, I see a company. And Joram said, Take an horseman, and send to meet them, and let him say, Is it peace?” 2 Kings 9:17
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: “So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.” Ezekiel 33:7
“The watchman of Ephraim was with my God: but the prophet is a snare of a fowler in all his ways, and hatred in the house of his God.” 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 the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman: If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people; Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul. But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.” 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: “Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.”Ezekiel 33:9
The role of spiritual watchman continues in the New Testament in the form of church leaders: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:17
God calls not just leaders, but all Christians to be watchmen. Jesus told His disciples to “Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 14:38.
“Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.” Luke 12:35–40