St. Paul and the Prophet Isaiah

My previous blog, The Prophet Isaiah and the Righteous Simeon, shows how in the Orthodox Tradition Scriptures are interpreted.  A hymn from the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple shows the integration of Old and New Testament events and how through the Gospel Christ is seen, made visible, in the Old Testament.  The prophecy of Isaiah is shown to be a prophecy of Christ, even if Isaiah could not understand completely what he was seeing or describing.   The prophet’s words in Isaiah 6 make sense, he describes what he was permitted to see and experience.  However, as the festal hymn weaves the events together, the tapestry is made clear.  The pieces of the mosaic are finally arranged so that the portrait hidden in them is revealed.  Isaiah sees a burning coal taken from God’s heavenly altar by a pair of tongs carried by an angel and he is saved from death when his sins are forgiven as the burning coal touches his lips.  We can see already an image of the Eucharist – receiving the incarnate God in the Body and Blood of Christ.  The divine fire saves us and takes away our sins.

The festal hymn of the Meeting of the Lord shows us that the tongs and burning coal were foreshadowing the Virgin carrying Christ into the temple.  As Isaiah is saved from death though he sees God, so too Simeon the Righteous sees the salvation of God and is released from all fear of death –  seeing God is salvation, not death.

That the writings of Isaiah permeated the thinking of the New Testament authors is well known and can be seen in how frequently he is quoted or referenced in the New Testament.   The extent of Isaiah’s words permeating the Orthodox vision of salvation is obvious in the festal hymns of the Church.   It is not simply that the theologians and hymnographers quote the Prophet Isaiah, his imagery is found embedded in the liturgy, icons, sacraments and theology of the Church.  We saw that in the previous blog, and it is noted even in the writings of Protestant biblical scholars.

“Paul seems to have had a special interest in Isaiah. In the seven letters generally acknowledged as authentic, Paul quotes Isaiah 31 times (out of approximately 89 OT quotations overall).[…] That Paul attributed particular significance to the prophecies of Isaiah, and that he found some portions of this prophetic book to be particularly useful in his interpretation and defense of the gospel. The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. Isaiah, more clearly than any other OT book, links the promise of the redemption and restoration of Israel to the hope that Israel’s God will also reveal his mercy to the Gentiles and establish sovereignty over the whole earth.[…] Paul had read and pondered the scroll of Isaiah as a whole, over the years of his apostolic ministry, and developed a sustained reading of it as God’s revelation of ‘the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:25-26).”   (Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination, pp 25-27)