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God’s Word for You

Hebrews 11:37a

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, January 1, 2015

All Old Testament believers died without seeing the fulfillment of Christ. That is very nearly the definition of an Old Testament believer, since Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, Joseph and Mary and others at the beginning of the New Testament saw the child Jesus and rejoiced. But some Old Testament believers were subjected to horrible tortures, as we have seen. Now we turn to a list with no names: a list of prophets and other believers who were murdered for their faith.

37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword.

The son of Queen Athaliah was Joash, the boy who was rescued by the chief priest Jehoiada, who was also his uncle by marriage. Joash remained faithful to God until Jehoiada’s death. After that, he listened to the people and allowed idolatry to run wild throughout Judah. That was when Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, stood up to prophesy and condemned the idolatry of the people. They stoned him to death—a prophet who was the son of a High Priest and related to the king (2 Chronicles 24:20,21). In this way Zechariah foreshadowed the crucifixion of Jesus: the prophet, priest and king who was rejected by the people.

There were many prophets killed by the sword (1 Kings 18:4, 19:10). The statement that there was someone who was “sawed in two” has lifted many eyebrows over the centuries. It would be tempting to turn away from this sad statement and know that unbelief wants to attack those with faith. In his Large Catechism, Luther says this about the devil: “The devil is not only a liar, but also a murderer. He constantly seeks our life, and wreaks his anger whenever he can afflict our bodies with misfortune and harm. Hence it comes that he often breaks men’s necks or drives them to insanity, drowns some, and… many other terrible calamities. Therefore there is nothing for us to do upon earth but to pray against this arch enemy without ceasing. For unless God preserved us, we would not be safe from him even for an hour.” (Sermon on the Seventh Petition)

However, there is a tradition that “sawed in two” was the terrible fate of the Prophet Isaiah. This is mentioned two or three times in the Jewish Talmud or oral traditions. In one place, it is said that fearing King Manasseh, Isaiah spoke God’s name, and “a cedar-tree opened, and Isaiah disappeared within it. Then Manasseh ordered the cedar to be sawn asunder…” (Yeb. 49b). In another place, it is said that when Manasseh’s men were looking for him, Isaiah hid in a cedar-tree, but “his presence was betrayed by the fringes of his garment, and Manasseh caused the tree to be sawn in half” (Sanhedrin x). There is also a legend about Isaiah that more or less agrees with these traditions, from an apocryphal book written after the New Testament was completed called “The Ascension of Isaiah.” There an executioner named Belchira is in the act of killing Isaiah with a saw, but the prophet doesn’t feel it and continues to prophecy judgment on Belchira and those who approve of his murder until he is no longer able to speak and dies (“Ascension of Isaiah” 5:6-12). Isaiah’s final words are “You cannot take anything from me except my flesh” (verse 10).

Let’s return to Zechariah’s father the high priest. Jehoiada’s name does not appear on Jewish lists of High Priests, even though he is called the chief priest in 2 Chronicles 24:6. Is that because it seemed shameful that the king and the people of Judah rejected him and murdered his son? So that rather than let it be said that they did these things, they simply omitted his name from their lists? If we attempt to rewrite history to cover up our sins, we are still sinning. God knows what we have done. God hears terrible oaths like “Let his blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25). This is why we need a Savior from our sins. We look to Jesus Christ, whose blood covers over all of our guilt, and we trust in his atonement that made us one with God. In Jesus we are forgiven, cleansed, free, and without shame or guilt. In Jesus we have peace, so we trust in him, and know that his mercy endures forever.

From the “Ascension of Isaiah”

Belchira the executioner tried to force Isaiah to recant his teaching and proclaim that King Manasseh was good and that everything the king did was right.

6 “He said this just before he began to be saw [Isaiah] in two. 7 But Isaiah was (absorbed) in a vision of the Lord, and though his eyes were open, he did not see them. 8 Belchira said this to Isaiah: “Say what I say to you and I will change their minds. I will compel Manasseh and the princes of Judah and the people and all Jerusalem to revere you. 9 But Isaiah answered: “As long as I can still speak I will say: You are damned and accursed, you and all your authority and all your family. 10 You cannot take anything from me except my flesh.” 11 So they seized him, Isaiah, the son of Amoz, and they sawed him in half with a wooden saw. 12 Manasseh and Belchira and the false prophets and the princes and the people all stood there watching. (“The Ascension of Isaiah” 5:6-12)

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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