Isaiah stands as the preeminent prophet of the Season of Advent. Many of the most recognizable Scripture readings associated with the season are found in the pages of what is sometimes referred to as “the fifth Gospel.” These include:
“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD .’” (40:3 NRSV)
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4 NRSV)
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (11:6 NRSV)
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.” (Isaiah 61:1 NRSV)
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6 NRSV)
While these verses are familiar to many people, the details of the life and times of the prophet himself are not as widely known. A peculiar detail in a lesser known passage from the book of Isaiah recently caught my attention. The event is described in Isaiah 20:
“In the year that the commander-in-chief, who was sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and took it—at that time the Lord had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, ‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,’ and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot” (20:1-2 NRSV).
Here we see the prophet Isaiah commissioned to enact a prophetic sign-action which consisted of walking around Jerusalem naked and barefoot to represent the defeat and leading into exile of the Egyptians and Ethiopians by the Assyrians. While our modern sensibilities might balk at the idea of a prophet walking around naked (and scholars do debate whether he was fully naked or only minimally clothed), the prophets of Israel were always up to this type of thing. Think of Jeremiah, for example, standing at the Potsherd Gate in Jerusalem and smashing a clay jar to represent the impending fall of Jerusalem (Jer 19), or Ezekiel packing up his belongings and walking out of the city in the sight of everyone as a representation of the coming exile (Ezek 12:1-16), or even Jesus in the midst of the Passover picking up bread and saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt 26:26).
The kicker for me occurs in the LORD’s explanation of Isaiah’s prophetic sign-action, where it is revealed that “Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia” (20:3). This wasn’t a one time thing. Every day for three years Isaiah walked through town “naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered” (20:4)! It ain’t easy being a prophet.
According to tradition, Isaiah was sawed in half during the reign of King Manasseh. Perhaps there is something to be gained from the recognition that the prophet, who so clearly foresaw the coming glorious day of the LORD, would himself have to wait amidst the gathering darkness for the light to dawn.