The word martyr in English has come down to us from the Greek—μάρτυς— which simply means “witness.” In our Christian context, the word is most usually associated with those who have lost their lives by martyrdom—by witnessing to their faith in the face of deadly persecution. Although martyrdom is often most closely associated with the witness and lives of early Christians, this witnessing aspect of Christian life also has analogies and connections to the way in which the people of Israel worked out their faith in the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
In our reading appointed for today in the book of Isaiah, we see how the notion of witness has been at the heart of God’s dealings with his people from Genesis to Revelation, and as such gives us an insight into the ways in which he continues to interact with his people today. Chapters 31-33 recount a familiar tale. In the opening lines of Chapter 31, Isaiah writes:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord! (Isaiah 31:1, ESV)
It seems that once again the people of Israel have been tempted—and some have fallen prey—to walk contrary to the ways that the Lord has set before them. “Turn to him from whom people have deeply revolted, O children of Israel,” writes Isaiah, “For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.” (Isaiah 31:6-7, ESV)
That day, writes Isaiah, is the day where:
[A] king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule in justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in a dry place,
like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
and the ears of those who hear will give attention.
The heart of the hasty will understand and know,
and the tongue of the stammerers will hasten to speak distinctly. (Isaiah 32:1-4, ESV)
What has Isaiah said? He has pointed out, once again, that despite the faithlessness and wayward wanderings of the people of Israel, despite the fact that they have once again turned away from their Lord and looked for refuge, support, and solace in the hands of other gods and idols, nevertheless the Lord has not forsaken them. This is a pattern of preaching that we see established all over the Old and New Testaments, a pattern that puts the confidence of God’s eventual triumph not on the faithfulness of his people, but on his own.
This is a pattern that was foreshadowed in the calling of Abraham out of Ur, a calling where God said to Abraham, “’Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6, ESV)
In this calling, God was not establishing a faithful people who would display his holiness by their piety, but one who would declare his mercies by the kindness shown to them in the midst of their faithless wandering, fearful posturing, and shameful hiding. Into this world, the one that has been so scarred by human sinfulness, God sent a people who would witness to his redemption, mercies, and love. These were the champions of the Faith about whom we read in Hebrews 11, those who would hold on to the promise until the Messiah would come—the promised one who announced his ministry in Luke Chapter 4 by quoting Isaiah Chapter 61,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, ESV)
This is where we can begin to understand the role and power of the biblical understanding of martyr, of witness, because we can see how a witness to God has always been a witness to his mercies, his compassion, his forgiveness, and his love. This has been played out through his daily interaction with wayward, fearful, and faithless people whom he has nevertheless decided to seek and to save.
The first commandment—thou shalt have no other Gods before me (Exodus 20:3, KJV)—to this way of thinking, becomes a sweet and comforting word of promise; a word of promise based upon the trustworthiness, faithfulness, and strength of the God who has revealed himself in Jesus as one who seeks and saves the lost. He is the king of righteousness whose faithfulness was foretold, whose life was laid down, and to whom all those who have been given eyes to see, ears to hear, and tongues to confess will continue to martyr themselves—to bear witness to his amazing grace until he comes again in glory. Thanks be to God!