Isaiah: Foreshadowing of the Christian Martyrs

Isaiah: Foreshadowing of the Christian Martyrs

© 2001 by Paul Thigpen

Why should you fear to shed your blood for Him whom you know to have suffered so many times for you? In Isaiah He was sawn in two, in Abel He was slain, in Isaac He was offered up, in Joseph He was sold into slavery, in His Incarnation He was crucified.

St. Cyprian, On the Glory of Martyrdom, 29

"The beginning of the gospel," said the ancient theologian Origen, "is nothing but the whole Old Testament." The good news of Jesus Christ has its age-old foundation in the testimony of many who preceded him historically, but whose witness pointed forward to the truth that was to become fully manifest in him. Just as the lives of the Catholic martyrs represent the fruits of the gospel, the lives of the ancient Jewish prophets and other spiritual leaders represent its roots.

"Let us love the prophets, too," wrote St. Ignatius, a revered second-century martyr bishop of Antioch. "For they anticipated the gospel in their preaching and hoped for and awaited Jesus Christ, and were saved by believing on him, being united to him. Saints they were, worthy of our love and admiration, seeing that Jesus Christ bore witness to them and they are counted as part of the gospel of our common hope."

Among these forerunners of Christ lived a number whose witness cost them their lives — predictably so, since they were testifying to the same kinds of uncomfortable truths that provoked such a vicious reaction to our Lord. As the first-century deacon St. Stephen told the religious leaders who had arranged for Christ's execution — and who, moments later, would kill him as well — they were in fact the spiritual descendants of the murderers of the prophets who had "announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One" (Acts 7:52).

Jesus himself noted that the same hatred of the truth lay behind the long series of martyrdoms throughout history that preceded him and would succeed him. Recalling the violent deaths of God's unpopular messengers, and predicting that his adversaries would kill his followers in the same way, he pronounced the killers guilty of "the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world" (Lk 11:50; see also Mt 23:29-36).

The Prophet Isaiah

Foremost among these heroes was the eighth-century-B.C. prophet Isaiah. It may seem perplexing to tell, alongside the stories of Catholic martyrs, the story of a Jew who lived centuries before Christ. But when we discover how his life, death and writings pointed to our Lord, we begin to understand why he was in fact included in the ancient Roman martyrology with his own memorial day, and the relics claimed to be his have been venerated by Christians since early times. Though Isaiah may not have been a Catholic martyr, he is undisputedly a martyr of the Catholic Church.

The ancient Hebrew prophets were often a cantankerous, prickly bunch, angry at the world with a righteous anger, wrathful with God's own wrath. Yet Isaiah was no lone firebrand shouting in the wilderness. He was, rather, a cultured man — his writings reflect a polished diction and considerable literary refinement — who with his wife and at least two children probably resided in Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom of Judah. Apparently he belonged to the higher ranks of society there, for he moved with some freedom among the high officials of the court and even conversed with the king himself. One ancient Jewish tradition claims that he was the nephew of an earlier king.

We know little more about Isaiah's background, but even this much suggests how much he risked losing by stirring up trouble. Unlike his predecessor the herdsman prophet Amos — who was sent from his native Judea to prophesy to strangers in the neighboring nation of Israel (see Amos 1:1) — Isaiah was given the task of speaking to his own community. And the message he was given was sure to secure their enmity.

The Call to Prophesy

Isaiah's call as a prophet came to him as an overwhelming encounter with a mighty, holy God. One day he saw a dazzling vision of the Lord seated on a throne in the temple, ruling over the world. Above the throne stood terrifying seraphim — the highest creatures in the nine orders of angels, each arrayed with six wings — who cried out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" (v. 3).* Then the temple began to quake and fill with smoke.

A less courageous man might have run away; a less humble one might have found the scene merely puzzling. But Isaiah thought first of his own sinfulness in the presence of an utterly righteous God, and blurted out a confession: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (v. 5).

What sins of speech was the visionary confessing? Those who are acquainted with the kinds of sycophants who typically attach themselves to powerful officials would have little difficulty speculating. Whether in ancient Jerusalem or in modern Washington, "friends" of the mighty all too often end up preserving their fragile position and prestige by flattery, saying whatever people want to hear.

Judah in the eighth century B.C. desperately needed reform. Injustice afflicted society at every level. Idolatry was rampant, often accompanied by infanticide and sexual immorality. Rulers were tempted to enter unholy alliances with cruel pagan nations.

In such a troubled cultural and political setting — one that martyrs down through the ages would recognize — perhaps Isaiah and his colleagues at court had sometimes remained silent rather than speak the uncomfortable truths that the king and other leaders needed to hear. Perhaps they had even offered reassuring half-truths or "white lies" about their leaders' policies in order to remain in favor. Perhaps subtle, or not-so-subtle, deceit had become a way of life.

If that was indeed the case, Isaiah's complicity in the arrangement came to a sudden halt with his prophetic call. His confession must have expressed a sincere repentance, for one of the seraphim then took a burning coal from the altar of God and touched his mouth with it, declaring: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin forgiven" (Is 6:6-7).

When at last God himself spoke from the throne, he asked, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Isaiah promptly answered: "Here am I! Send me" (v. 8). His life would never be the same again.

Hard Hearts

What was the message God gave the visionary? His first words might have turned away a less determined man, filling him with despair: "Go, and say to this people: 'Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed" (vv. 9-10).

From the very beginning, Isaiah was told, his message would be rejected. When his listeners saw and heard the truth about themselves, their response would not be repentance, but a hardening of their hearts, a cementing of their sin. Hoping that this was only a temporary situation, the prophet asked, "How long, O Lord?" And God answered: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the LORD removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land" (vv. 11-12).

The Lord's reply must have been staggering. If Jerusalem and the entire nation of Judah were destined for devastation, then nearly everything in which Isaiah had invested himself in this world would be lost: wife, children, friends, home, career. Worse yet, if he announced this terrible destiny to an unreceptive audience, he was likely to lose all that and more before the prophecy even had a chance to come true.

Hard Words

What exactly were the uncomfortable truths God commanded Isaiah to tell his rulers and neighbors about themselves? The rebuke was so sharp that many in our contemporary society — so anxious to avoid offense — would label it "hate speech." But it was the truth all the same, and God demanded that Isaiah be nothing less than a witness to the truth.

The charges against the guilty were withering: "Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged" (Is 1:4).

We must keep in mind that at this time the temple still stood and the rites of ancient Jewish worship continued. Religious leaders and their supporters especially must have been scandalized by the accusation of infidelity to God. But Isaiah left no doubt in their minds that he was pronouncing judgment on their hypocrisy in the clearest possible terms: "Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!" (1:10). To convey an equivalent degree of moral outrage — and provoke an equivalent reaction — a prophet in our day would probably have to address his listeners as "Nazis."

But that was just the beginning. Speaking through his messenger, the Lord went on to condemn explicitly the very behaviors on which the hypocrites had pinned their hopes for divine favor. "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?" he challenged. "Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. … I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your … appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, and I am weary of bearing them" (vv. 13-14).

Why was the Lord so furious? The rituals themselves weren't the objects of his wrath. Instead, he detested the spiritual and moral fraud they represented when performed by people who talked about God and lived like the Devil.

"Your hands are full of blood!" he thundered (v. 15). "The spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?" (3:14-15). Jerusalem, he cried, was a harlot, full of murderers, ruled by rebels and thieves who took bribes and cared nothing about justice (1:21-23). With damning accuracy he detailed the extravagant attire of haughty women reveling in their wealth and status — and promised them they would end up bald, stinking and wrapped in rope and sackcloth (vv. 18-24).

Other grave sins abounded. Alongside the traditional worship of God associated with the temple had sprung up idolatrous practices: sorcery, necromancy, mediumship, soothsaying, augury, worship of the stars and the Canaanite gods, and the forms of wickedness usually associated with them — especially child sacrifice, cult prostitution and self-mutilation (see Is 17:7-8; 1 Ki 18: 25-29; 2 Ki 21:1-6; 2 Ki 23:4-14). These, too, God condemned and declared he would punish severely (2 Ki 21:1-16).

Isaiah delivered divine warnings as well against the tendency of the Judean rulers to place their hope for protection, not in God, but in fragile alliances with unbelieving peoples. In a stunning act of prophetic drama, the visionary publicly shook off his sandals and stripped off the sackcloth he had previously donned as an act of repentance on behalf of his people. Then, at God's command, he went around barefoot and naked for three years to symbolize the coming humiliation of Judah's ill-gotten allies (Is 20:1-6). No doubt his adversaries' rage boiled over at the sight.

A Foreshadowing of the Gospel

The Lord's message through Isaiah should sound familiar to those acquainted with the teaching and prophecies of Christ. Jesus, too, chastised the wealthy and powerful, calling on them to assist and defend the weak and the poor (see Lk 6:20, 12:33; Mt 6:24; 25:31-48). He condemned violence and sexual immorality, and he warned against trusting in merely human defenses (see Mt 5:21-22, 38-41; 26:52; 5:27-30).

As Isaiah did, he sharply denounced hypocritical religious leaders. "Child[ren] of hell," he called them publicly; "blind fools," "whitewashed tombs … full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Mt 23:15-29). He accused them of "extortion and rapacity" and of neglecting justice, mercy and faith (vv. 23, 25). Jesus even cited Isaiah in his denunciations, affirming that the prophet's condemnations of the wicked had been just (see Mt 15:6-9).

Isaiah's warnings of chastisement also prefigure the prophecies of Christ. Jesus lamented the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which would become "forsaken and desolate" (Mt 23:37-38). He predicted that the temple would be desecrated and not a stone of it would be left standing (24:1-2, 15); that the people would have to flee their enemies (vv. 16-18); that wars and natural disasters would multiply (6-8).

Isaiah's Death

In many ways, then, the prophecies in the book of Isaiah are a harbinger of the gospel, and Isaiah is a precursor of Christ. Accordingly, Isaiah's contemporaries reacted to the truth he proclaimed in much the same way as the contemporaries of Christ. The book of Isaiah and the biblical chronicles of the period (2 Kings and 2 Chronicles) don't tell about the prophet's fate. But an ancient and widespread Jewish tradition — recorded in the revered Jewish biblical commentary called the Talmud, cited in the biblical book of Hebrews (11:36), and affirmed by a number of early Christian writers — tells us that Isaiah was finally put to death during the reign of Manasseh.

This extraordinarily evil king of Judah easily rivals King Herod of Jesus' time in the enormity of his public and private deeds. He "shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another"; most horribly, he burned his own son alive as a sacrifice to the demonic pagan god Moloch. He rebuilt and multiplied the idolatrous shrines, along with their cult prostitutes, that his godly predecessors had destroyed, daring to erect pagan images and altars even within the very walls of God's temple. He practiced divination and soothsaying; he consorted with mediums and sorcerers. And he seduced the nation as a whole to follow his lead in evildoing (see 2 Ki 21:1-16).

Citing the ancient Jewish tradition, the second-century Christian scholar and martyr St. Justin reported that Isaiah was executed by being sawn in two (Heb 11:35-38 apparently alludes to this event). A wooden rather than an iron saw was used, so that his torment would be prolonged. Presumably, Manasseh commanded the execution, or perhaps encouraged the murder at the hands of the mob.

Even in the charges brought against him, Isaiah parallels our Lord. According to the fifth-century biblical scholar St. Jerome, the people accused him of irreverence when he rebuked them with the accursed names of Sodom and Gomorrah — a comparison Jesus also implicitly made (see Mt 10:15, 11:23-24). With the implication of treason, Isaiah was charged for predicting Jerusalem's ruin, recalling the charges against Jesus that he spoke of tearing down the temple and was inspiring sedition (see Mt 26:61, Jn 19:12). Perhaps most strikingly, both Isaiah and Jesus were accused of the capital crime of blasphemy: Isaiah, because he had dared to claim that he, a mere man, had seen the Lord (Is 6:1); and Jesus, because he had dared to claim that he, a mere man, was himself the Lord (Mt 26:63-65).

In his death for the sake of God's truth, this prophet was thus "a mysterious type of Christ," St. Justin said; that is, a mysterious foreshadowing, a figure who in a profound way pointed to Jesus. In fact, Isaiah pointed to him not only by his death, but also in a number of prophetic passages — portraits so strikingly accurate that we must conclude their author was able to gaze into the future and see the Christ yet to come more clearly than many of us can see him by peering into the past. From these texts we draw some of our most cherished names for our Lord: "Immanuel" — "God with us" (Is 7:14); "a Light to the Nations" (49:6); the "Man of Sorrows" (53:3); "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (8:6).

St. Cyril, the fourth-century biblical scholar and bishop of Jerusalem, went even further in his insistence that Isaiah saw Christ. The Scripture declares that no one has ever seen God the Father (see Ex 33:20; Jn 1:18; 1 Ti 6:16), and St. Peter preached that Christ was enthroned in heaven (see Acts 2:33-36). So St. Cyril concluded that when Isaiah "saw the Lord sitting upon the throne" (Is 6:1), though he indeed saw the Lord God, it was not God the Father, but rather Christ — God the Son.

To summarize, then, we can agree with St. Augustine's judgment about the significance of Isaiah: "With his rebukes of wickedness, precepts of righteousness and predictions of evil, Isaiah prophesied more than all the other prophets about Christ and the Church. … For that reason, some say he should be called a gospel writer rather than a prophet."

Portrait of a Martyr

The four poetic passages in Isaiah known as the "Servant Songs" have been interpreted by Christians since New Testament times as prophecies of Christ. Two of these especially — in chapters 50, 52 and 53 — suggest an intimate knowledge of the depths of a martyr's anguish.

"I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting" (Is 50:6). Scholars have debated: Is the prophet truly speaking here of Jesus, or of himself, or of all the righteous who suffer unjustly for the truth?

Perhaps the best reply is simply yes — he is speaking of them all. As St. Ignatius concluded, Isaiah and the other prophet martyrs were united to Christ in their witness to the truth and in their sufferings. Thus to speak of their affliction is to speak of his; to ponder his passion is to ponder theirs; their "righteous blood," as Jesus called it (Mt 23:35), flows together down through history from many streams into one.

The best eulogy for Isaiah might well be the bittersweet lines from the last of the Servant Songs. These words provide us unparalleled insights into the nature of the martyr's sacrificial suffering — perfected in Christ, but reflected in every life freely laid down for God.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed. …
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. …
And they made his grave with the wicked …
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth (Is 53:3-5, 7-9).

It was a haunting picture of the martyr — and yet it ended in hope. "He shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied," the prophet concluded. "By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous" (v. 11). And so the seed must fall to the earth and die, the planting for a harvest yet to come.

* Isaiah's report of this vision actually forms part of his contribution to the Catholic Mass. These angelic words are the origin of the Sanctus.