Who Are the Major Prophets in the Bible?

The Old Testament has 17 books attributed to prophets. Of these prophets, scholars recognize four as the major prophets and twelve as the minor prophets.

Jun 28, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality

major prophets the bible

 

The Old Testament lists 16 books that carry the name of a prophet whose prophecies these books detail. This section of the Bible, known as “the prophets,” contains 17 books, including Lamentations. The section known as the “major prophets” in the Bible contains just Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Lamentations, a book traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, expresses the laments of the prophet, who cries over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Israelites. As such, some scholars consider Lamentations a response to the lack of action by the Israelites to his prophetic message.

 

What Makes a Prophet Major?

Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, by il Baciccio, Pendentive of the dome of the Gesù, Rome, Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The designation of certain prophets in the Bible as “major prophets” stems from several factors that collectively highlight the significance and scope of their messages within the biblical narrative. Before considering these factors, it is imperative to note that the messages of the minor prophets are not considered less important or less truthful than those of the major prophets.

 

It is also not a case of volume. The books Hosea and Zachariah have 14 chapters, while the Book of Daniel has 12 chapters in the Protestant canon (other versions have two additional chapters that protestants consider apocryphal). The length of the books is not a primary consideration, though it may play a secondary role.

 

It is the depth of the prophetic writings that plays a crucial role. To reach theological depth a prophet inevitably must go into detail and address many topics, which is why length is a secondary factor. The greater the volume of a prophetic work, the more depth it is likely to provide.

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Isaiah, for example, is the longest of the prophetic texts, spanning 66 chapters. This extensive coverage allows for a comprehensive exploration of various themes, from prophecy and judgment to comfort and redemption, offering profound insights into the plans of God and his purposes for his people.

 

The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones, by Gustave Doré, 1866, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Secondly, the historical and geopolitical context in which the prophets operated adds weight to their significance. Jeremiah, for instance, ministered during a tumultuous period in the history of Judah. He witnessed the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of its inhabitants. His prophecies foretold these events and provided guidance and hope when they came to fruition.

 

Furthermore, universal relevance and timeless nature distinguish the major prophets from their counterparts. Ezekiel, for instance, addressed not only the immediate concerns of the exiled community but he also delved into profound theological themes, such as the nature of sin, the role of the prophet, and the promise of restoration. His visions and symbolic actions continue to resonate with readers across cultures and generations, offering insights into the human condition and the divine plan of redemption.

 

Lastly, the impact and influence of their prophecies on subsequent biblical literature and religious thought solidify their status as major prophets. The visions of empires and apocalyptic events Daniel details lay the groundwork for eschatological teachings encountered in later biblical and extra-biblical texts. He portrays the rise and fall of nations that span millennia. Some scholars argue that some of his prophecies may be relevant today.

 

A combination of these factors determines whether the prophets in the Bible are major prophets. All these factors are present in the works of all the major prophets to a greater or lesser extent.

 

Isaiah

Prophet Isaiah, by Antonio Balestra, 18th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Isaiah prophesied to Israel and Judah during the 8th century BCE. At that time, the two nations were at war with one another. He addressed issues of idolatry and disobedience in both nations, though his primary focus was the Southern Kingdom of Judah. His messages to the Southern Kingdom were just as applicable to the Northern kingdom. During his lifetime, the Assyrian Empire became a powerhouse and took the northern ten tribes of Israel into exile.

 

The Book of Isaiah has two parts. The first, spanning chapters 1-39, addresses the moral state of Judah and Israel and contains oracles against foreign nations. The author wrote part of it before the exile of the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah provides some historical narratives and relays messages of restoration and hope.

 

The second part, which some scholars believe was authored by another prophet or prophets much later, emphasizes restoration, comfort, and the sovereignty of God. The author(s) wrote this part during or after the Babylonian exile. It provides the motivation and context for the change in tone. It contains visions of a glorious future for Jerusalem and a restored Jewish community.

 

Jeremiah and Lamentations

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt, 1630, Source: The Rijksmuseum

 

Jeremiah is the second longest prophetic book in the Bible, spanning 52 chapters. This volume allows for in-depth reflection on various topics such as judgment, repentance, exile, and restoration. The book provides a comprehensive portrayal of how God deals with his people.

 

Jeremiah ministered in a pivotal period of decline for Judah, and the book includes the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. The ministry of Jeremiah, which lasted four decades, started before the exile as he warned against idolatry and disobedience to God, stating that the result would be exile. He also proclaimed hope for the future if the nation would repent and turn back to God.

 

The message of Jeremiah to the people of God transcends his time. Warnings against rebellion and idolatry have timeless value for the people of God in all periods. Similarly, the hope that comes with repentance and forgiveness also has an enduring quality.

 

The impact of Jeremiah on later biblical and extra-biblical literature is undeniable. His comprehensive contribution at a crucial time in the history of Judah, during which he proclaimed judgment, forgiveness, and hope for the future, impacted his contemporaries and later believers. These attributes solidify his position as a major prophet.

 

Ezekiel

Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, by Michelangelo, between 1508-1512, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Book of Ezekiel contains 48 chapters and reflects some unique visions and insights into the glory of God and his redemptive plan for the nation of Judah. These visions include the iconic valley of dry bones and the chariot-like throne of God. Ezekiel addresses themes like the sovereignty of God, the nature of sin and judgment, and the restoration of Israel. As such, it shows how God engages with his people.

 

Much like Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, Ezekiel ministered among the nation of Judah before and after the exile to Babylon. He witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and provided messages of hope and restoration to the exiled people of God. He called on them to repent and remain faithful amid suffering with the promise of eventual restoration.

 

The teachings by Ezekiel on personal responsibility are timeless in their application, as is the theme of repentance and restoration. It has resonated with believers across cultures and times.

 

Daniel

The Prophet Daniel, Sistine Chapel, by Michaelangelo, 1508-1512, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The first verses of the Book of Daniel explain the situation Daniel and his associates faced. The context is the nation of Judah in exile in Babylon. The book contains historical narrative, visions, and dreams spanning from the time of Daniel to the Second Coming and beyond. As such, the Book of Daniel features a time of profound struggles for the people of God in his day and throughout history.

 

The prophetic visions and messages of Daniel are extensive and profound. They cover contemporary and future events, covering the rise and fall of many nations, such as Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Because of the extended period it covers, the influence of the Book of Daniel extends far beyond the time it was written. Bible scholars and believers have studied the prophecies of Daniel throughout history, and many consider them relevant today. Some even draw strength from these prophecies, seeing the hand of God at work in every age of history, which gives them confidence that he is in control of their lives.

 

The Book of Daniel also had a significant impact on later theology. For example, Jesus referenced the book by name and applied it to his day. It is also used as a key for interpreting the Book of Revelation and it forms the basis for identifying the antichrist, and contributes to the identity of the angel, Michael.

 

Though the Book of Daniel has fewer chapters than Hosea and Zachariah, it is one of the longer prophetic books. The content, transcendence, and impact of the Book of Daniel qualify it for recognition among the major prophets.

 

Conclusion

A Fresco of the Four Major Prophets, Source: Credo Magazine

 

The major prophets of the Bible are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The minor prophets are no less trustworthy, effective, or important than the major prophets. Rather transcendence, impact, and influence on later theology, the depth of their prophetic work, and the scope of the themes they address during a significant time in the history of Israel qualify them as major prophets. Only the four prophets in the Bible identified above fit the requirements for recognition as major prophets.

Author Image

By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.