Who Were the Major Prophets in the Bible?

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The Bible is made of a collection of different types of text from various authors and time periods. Because of this, it contains a broad spectrum of literary genres, including the books of the law, wisdom literature, historical narratives, the writings of the prophets, the gospels, epistles (letters), and apocalyptic prophecy. It's a great mix of prose, poetry, and powerful stories. 

When scholars refer to the "prophetic writings" or "prophetic books" in the Bible, they are talking about books in the Old Testament that were written by prophets -- men and women chosen by God to deliver His messages to specific people and cultures in specific situations.

Fun fact, Judges 4:4 identifies Deborah as a prophet, so it wasn't an all-boys club. Studying the words of the prophets is an important part of Judeo-Christian studies. 

Minor and Major Prophets

There were hundreds of prophets who lived and ministered in Israel and other parts of the ancient world throughout the centuries between Joshua conquering the promised land (around 1400 B.C.) and the life of Jesus. We don't know all of their names, and we don't know everything they did but a few key passages of Scripture help us understand that God used a large force of messengers to help people know and understand His will. Like this one:

Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.)
1 Kings 18:2-4

While there were hundreds of prophets who ministered throughout the Old Testament period, there are only 16 prophets who wrote books that were eventually included in the Bible. Each of the books they wrote is titled after their name; so, Isaiah wrote the Book of Isaiah. The only exception is Jeremiah, who wrote the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations.

The prophetic books are divided into two sections: the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets. This does not mean that one set of prophets was better or more important than the other. Rather, each book in the Major Prophets is long, while the books in the Minor Prophets are relatively short. The terms "major" and "minor" are indicators of length, not importance.

The Minor Prophets are made up of the following 11 books: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. [Click here for a brief overview of each of those books.]

The Major Prophets

There are five books in the Major Prophets.

The Book of Isaiah: As a prophet, Isaiah ministered from 740 to 681 B.C. in the southern kingdom of Israel, which was called Judah after the nation of Israel was divided under the rule of Rehoboahm. In Isaiah's day, Judah was stuck between two powerful and aggressive nations -- Assyria and Egypt. Thus, the national leaders spent much of their efforts trying to appease and curry favor with both neighbors. Isaiah spent much of his book criticizing those leaders for relying on human help rather than repenting of their sin and turning back to God.

It's interesting that in the midst of Judah's political and spiritual decline, Isaiah also wrote prophetically about the future coming of the Messiah -- the One who would save God's people from their sins.

The Book of Jeremiah: Like Isaiah, Jeremiah served as a prophet for the southern kingdom of Judah. He ministered from 626 to 585 B.C., which means he was present during the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 585 B.C. Therefore, much of Jeremiah's writings were urgent calls for the Israelites to repent of their sins and avoid the coming judgment. Sadly, he was largely ignored. Judah continued its spiritual decline and was taken captive into Babylon.

The Book of Lamentations: Also written by Jeremiah, the Book of Lamentations is a series of five poems recorded after the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus, the major themes of the book involve expressions of grief and sorrow because of Judah's spiritual decline and physical judgment. But the book also contains a strong thread of hope -- specifically, the prophet's trust in God's promises of future goodness and mercy despite present troubles.

The Book of Ezekiel: As a respected priest in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was taken captive by the Babylonians in 597 B.C. (This was the first wave of Babylonians conquests; they eventually destroyed Jerusalem 11 years later in 586.) So, Ezekiel ministered as a prophet to the Jews exiled in Babylon. His writings cover three major themes: 1) the coming destruction of Jerusalem, 2) future judgment for the people of Judah because of their continued rebellion against God, and 3) the future restoration of Jerusalem after the Jews' time of captivity came to an end.

The Book of Daniel: Like Ezekiel, Daniel was also taken captive in Babylon. In addition to serving as a prophet of God, Daniel was also an accomplished administrator. In fact, he was so good he served in the court of four different kings in Babylon. Daniel's writings are a combination of history and apocalyptic visions. Taken together, they reveal a God who is totally in control of history, including people, nations, and even time itself.