Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Isaias, prophet

As the Church completes her observance of the Octave of Sts. Peter and Paul today, the traditional Roman Martyrology on this day also recalls to our minds the martyrdom of the Old Testament prophet who foresaw not only the marvelous saving works of the Lord Jesus Christ, but even Christ's establishment of the Petrine Office -- the holy prophet Isaias son of Amos:

This Day, the Sixth Day of July

The Octave of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

In Judea, the holy prophet Isaias. In the reign of king Manasses he was put to death by being sawed in two and was buried beneath the oak Rogel, near a running stream.

A 1315 painting of St. Isaias in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, Italy

St. Isaias, or Isaiah (Hebrew Yeshayahu, "the Lord is salvation"), lived in the 700s B.C., being a contemporary or near contemporary of his fellow prophets Jonas, Micheas, and Osee. He was the author and compiler of the 66-chapter Book of Isaias, which is the first of the three books of the Major Prophets (the other two being Jeremias and Ezechiel, their books being called "major" due to their length). Sent by God to aid the House of David in the Kingdom of Judah, ancient Jewish tradition holds that Isaias was himself a Davidic royal scion, his father Amos (Hebrew Amotz) being according to legend a brother of King Amasias (Amaziah, Hebrew Amatzyahu). St. Isaias delivered a notably large number of Messianic prophecies which are remarkably detailed and movingly beautiful.  Besides the historical and prophetic matter of his own book, Isaias also appears several times in the books of Kings and Paralipomenon (Chronicles). Following are excerpts from the old Catholic Encyclopedia's extended biographical sketch of what is known or is probably true of the life of this holy servant of God:

From the Prophet himself (i, 1; ii, 1) we learn that he was the son of Amos. Owing to the similarity between Latin and Greek forms of this name and that of the Shepherd-Prophet of Thecue, some Fathers mistook the Prophet Amos for the father of Isaias. St. Jerome in the preface to his "Commentary on Amos" (P.L., XXV, 989) points out this error.
Of Isaias's ancestry we know nothing; but several passages of his prophecies (iii, 1-17, 24; iv, 1; viii, 2; xxxi, 16) lead us to believe that he belonged to one of the best families of Jerusalem. A Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud (Tr. Megilla, 10b.) held him to be a nephew of King Amasias. As to the exact time of the Prophet's birth we lack definite data; yet he is believed to have been about twenty years of age when he began his public ministry. He was a citizen, perhaps a native, of Jerusalem. His writings give unmistakable signs of high culture. From his prophecies (vii and viii) we learn that he married a woman whom he styles "the prophetess" and that he had two sons, She'ar-Yashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Nothing whatever indicates that he was twice married as some fancy on the gratuitous and indefensible supposition that the 'almah of vii, 14, was his wife.
The prophetical ministry of Isaias lasted well nigh half a century, from the closing year of Ozias, King of Juda, possibly up to that of Manasses. This period was one of great prophetical activity. Israel and Juda indeed were in sore need of guidance. . . .
. . . since no prophecies appear to be later than 701 B.C., it is doubtful if Isaias saw the reign of Manasses at all; still a very old and widespread tradition, echoed by the Mishna (Tr. Yebamoth, 49b; cf. Sanhedr., 103b), has it that the Prophet survived Ezechias and was slain in the persecution of Manasses (IV Kings 21:16). This prince had him convicted of blasphemy, because he had dared say: "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne" (vi, 1), a pretension in conflict with God's own assertion in Exodus 33:20: "Man shall not see me and live". He was accused, moreover, of having predicted the ruin of Jerusalem and called the holy city and the people of Juda by the accursed names of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the "Ascension of Isaias", the Prophet's martyrdom consisted in being sawed asunder. Tradition shows this to have been unhesitatingly believed. The Targum on IV Kings 21:6, admits it; it is preserved in two treatises of the Talmud (Yebamoth, 49b; Sanhedr., 103b); St. Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 120), and many of the Fathers adopted it, taking as unmistakable allusions to Isaias those words of Hebrews 11:37, "they (the ancients) were cut asunder" (cf. Tertullian, "De patient.", xiv; P.L., I, 1270; Orig., "In Is., Hom." I, 5, P.G., XIII, 223; "In Matt.", x, 18, P.G., XIII, 882; "In Matt.", Ser. 28, P.G., XIII, 1637; "Epist. ad Jul. Afr.", ix, P.G., XI, 65; St. Jerome, "In Is.", lvii, 1, P.L., XXIV, 546-548; etc.). However, little trust should be put in the strange details mentioned in the "De Vit. Prophet." of Pseudo-Epiphanius (P.G., XLIII, 397, 419). The date of the Prophet's demise is not known. The Roman Martyrology commemorates Isaias on 6 July. His tomb is believed to have been in Paneas in Northern Palestine, whence his relics were taken to Constantinople in A.D. 442.
The literary activity of Isaias is attested by the canonical book which bears his name; moreover allusion is made in II Para. 26:22, to "Acts of Ozias first and last . . . written by Isaias, the son of Amos, the prophet". Another passage of the same book informs us that "the rest of the acts of Ezechias and his mercies, are written in the Vision of Isaias, son of Amos, the prophet", in the Book of the Kings of Juda and Israel. Such at least is the reading of the Massoretic Bible, but its text here, if we may judge from the variants of the Greek and St. Jerome, is somewhat corrupt. Most commentators who believe the passage to be authentic think that the writer refers to Isaiah 36-39. We must finally mention the "Ascension of Isaias", at one time attributed to the Prophet, but never admitted into the Canon.

The sketch above refers to the extrabiblical traditions recorded in The Lives of the Prophets ("De Vit. Prophet.") formerly attributed mistakenly to St. Epiphanius but actually compiled in the first century A.D.  As for the "strange details" mentioned above, this work records the following legends of St. Isaias and King Ezechias (Hezekiah) of Judah:

[Isaias] was of Jerusalem. He met his death at the hands of Manasseh, sawn in two, and was buried below the fountain of Rogel, hard by the conduit of the waters which Hezekiah spoiled [for the enemy] by blocking their course.
For the prophet's sake God wrought the miracle of Siloah; for before his death, in fainting condition he prayed for water, and it was sent to him from this source. Hence it was called Siloah, which means "sent."
Also in the time of Hezekiah, before the king made the pools and the reservoirs, at the prayer of Isaiah a little water came forth here, lest the city, at that time besieged by the Gentiles, should be destroyed through lack of water. For the enemy were seeking a drinking place, and as they invested the city they encamped near Siloah. If then the Hebrews came to the pool, water flowed forth; if the Gentiles came, there was none. Hence even to the present day the water issues suddenly, to keep the miracle in mind.Because this was wrought through the prayer of Isaiah, the people in remembrance buried his body near the spot, with care and high honor, in order that through his prayers, even after his death, they might continue to have the benefit of the water. Indeed, a revelation had been given them concerning him. His tomb, however, is near the tomb of the kings, behind the tomb of the priests on the side toward the south.
Solomon constructed the tombs, which had been designed by David, on the east of Zion, where there is an entering road from Gibeon, the town twenty stadia distant from the city. He made a winding construction, its location unsuspected; even to the present day it is unknown to the most of the priests, and wholly unknown to the people.
There the king kept the gold and the spices from Ethiopia. When Hezekiah showed to the Gentiles the secret of David and Solomon, and defiled the bones of his ancestors, therefore God laid upon him the curse, that his descendants should be in servitude to their enemies; and God made him to be childless, from that day.

No doubt the old Catholic Encyclopedia was right to express skepticism toward the traditions of Siloah, the tombs, and the treasures (though they are not impossible or certainly unhistorical), but as explained above, the legend of the martyrdom of St. Isaias at the hands of wicked King Manasses, "who shed also very much innocent blood, till he filled Jerusalem up to the mouth" (IV Kings 21:16), is a very ancient tradition that was unvaryingly believed by both Christians and Jews. Again, as noted above, St. Paul in Heb. 11:37 alluded to the story of St. Isaias' death. It is no surprise, then that the Roman Martyrology's note on St. Isaias' death is obviously drawn directly from The Lives of the Prophets.  In light of the weight of this testimony, it cannot be doubted that Isaias did see the reign of Manasses -- and was killed by him.

The Book of Isaias has three sections.  The first 35 chapters present the visions, revelations, and deeds of Isaias from the start of his ministry at the end of the reign of King Ozias (Uzziah) until the latter years of the reign of Ezechias. These 35 chapters can themselves readily be grouped into three subsections. The book's second section consists of four historical chapters (36-39) relating Isaias' role in pivotal events of Ezechias' reign.  These historical chapters also appear in a slightly abbreviated form in IV Kings.  It was probably in his old age that St. Isaias  wrote the third section of the book, chapters 40-66.  Despite the popularity of the Modernist "Deutero-Isaiah" speculation that argues chapters 40-66 were actually written by an unknown author and then mistakenly or mendaciously attributed to St. Isaias, the historical record and all textual and manuscript evidence unanimously affirm that St. Isaias was the author of all 66 chapters. Consequently, the Pontifical Biblical Commission on 28 June 1908 authoritatively and correctly rejected the "Deutero-Isaiah" speculation as unfounded.

The prophecies and visions of Isaias are astounding in their beauty, power, and variety, and the Church and all men of all times owe an immense debt to St. Isaias that can never be repaid. Through St. Isaias, God expounded ever more fully the ancient Messianic promise of deliverance, salvation, restoration, justice, holiness, and peace.  It is through St. Isaias that God delivered the prophecy of the Virginal Conception and Birth of Our Lord, teaching that the Messiah would be Immanu El, God With Us, that is, God Incarnate.  Again, Isaias' later prophecies of the Suffering Servant revealed the life and mission of Jesus Christ over seven centuries in advance, even to point of presenting the drama of the Passion, Death, and Burial of Our Lord in Isa. 53.  Liturgically, the triple Sanctus of the Mass is drawn from the vision in Isa. 6 telling of how God appeared to St. Isaias and chose him to be a prophet.  Lastly, as noted at the outset of this reflection, the very Petrine Office that Jesus established in Matt. 16:18-19 was foreseen allegorically by St. Isaias in his pronouncements regarding the unfaithful royal steward Sobna (Shebna) and the faithful minister Eliacim (Eliakim) -- Isa. 22:15-25. Even as God replaced Sobna with Eliacim, whom God gave the key of the House of David, so too did God replace the Scribes and the Pharisees, who sat in the Seat of Moses, with St. Peter, whom Jesus gave the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us therefore at all times ask St. Isaias to pray that St. Peter's Successor will imitate Eliacim rather than Sobna.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!