old testament saints?
Yes! God created saints, holy men and women, long before the coming of Christ, and “martyrs before the Martyrs” as our hymn says. We Orthodox commemorate them. Probably you know the Prophet Elias/Elijah from July 20, since many Orthodox men are named after him.
But there are many more, whose wonderful stories and teachings once were well known among us. Now, not so much – and that’s sad.
Let’s start, from time to time, getting acquainted with them again – beginning with those coming up in August.
August 1 – The Seven Maccabean Brothers, their Mother Solomonia and their Teacher Eleazar
The story in detail is in the first chapters of 1 Maccabees. This is canonical Scripture for Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Protestants consider this an “Apocryphal” book, omitted from many of their Bibles. Try online.
In the Second century BC, Alexander the Great died and his massive empire soon shattered. (It had been largely his “personality cult”.) His legacy was twofold: 1 He named a whole bunch of cities after himself. 2 Greek language and Hellenistic culture dominated most Eastern Mediterranean peoples for long afterwards. Except for the Jews.
The Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes who ruled Palestine tried to impose Hellenism on the Jews and integrate them with the predominant culture. Since “all gods were really the same”, he insisted that the Jews worship their God under the name of Zeus. When they wouldn’t cooperate he had copies of the Law burnt. Circumcision and Sabbath observance were forbidden, and recalcitrant Jews were forced to eat pork.
Many Jews went along with this cultural compromise, but others refused and fled from the towns and cities to the wilderness. From there they made raids on the Syrian Hellenists who occupied the cities. Among these exiles were Judas Maccabeus and his six brothers, their mother Solomonia and their aged teacher Eleazar. The Hellenists labeled them terrorists. (Who is a “terrorist” depends on which side you’re on.) They were finally captured, taken to Antioch and tortured, but refused to apostacize. First their teacher Eleazar was executed, then Solomonia was forced to watch her seven sons burnt to death one by one, the eldest down to the youngest. At the end she threw herself into the fire and died. This was about the year 167 BC.
The heroism of the Maccabees inspired a revolt among other Jews who, greatly outnumbered, defeated the army of Antiochus and drove out the Hellenists. Jews celebrate this victory on Hannukah.
Why do we Christians honor the Maccabean martyrs? Because they preserved Judaism and the worship of the one true God. As a result when Christ our God appeared on earth less than two centuries later, there were those who could recognize him for who he is – not just another god, but God. Without this Christianity could never have come into being.
Kontakion of the Seven Maccabean Youths Tone 2
The Wisdom of God’s own seven pillars are you, a seven-branched lamp that shines with the Light Divine, you Great Martyrs who came before the Martyrs. O all-wise Maccabees, pray with them to the God of all, that we who now sing your praises may be saved.
August 14 – the Holy Prophet Micah
Micah, born in the town of Moreshef, was one of the Twelve Minor Prophets. We know little about his life. His prophecies began about the year 778 BC and continued for fifty years under kings of Judah, including the dreadful King Ahaz (married to Jezebel) and the righteous Hezekiah. He condemned the injustice of the leaders and the “prattling” of false prophets.
He foresaw the Babylonian captivity – God’s judgment on the corrupt leaders: “Therefore because of you, Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest.” 3:12
Micah’s writing inspired a Holy Friday hymn sung by both Orthodox and Roman Catholics: “O my people, what have I done to you? And how have I wearied you? Testify against me. For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage.” 6:3-4
When the Wise Men came seeking the newborn King, Herod’s wise men quoted this passage from Micah. “But you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting… He shall be great to the ends of the earth.” 5:2
And the coming Kingdom of Peace: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all people walk each in the name of his god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.” 3:1-5
Troparion (Apolytikion) of the Prophet Micah Tone 2
We celebrate the memory of your Prophet Michah, O Lord. Through his intercessions, we beseech you to save our souls.
August 20 – The Holy Prophet Samuel
This is from the First Book of Samuel, wherein are many good stories. Read it! since I’ll omit much and paraphrase a lot below.
Samuel was born about the year 1055 BC in Ramah, just north of Jerusalem, the only son of Elkanah and Hannah below in their old age, after many years of prayer. In gratitude Hannah took the boy to the temple in Shiloh (this was before the Jerusalem temple was built) to serve the priest Eli the guardian of the Ark of the Covenant. Hannah prayed, “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. I rejoice in Your salvation. The bows of the mighty are broken and those who fell are girded with strength. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and lifts up…” Sound familiar? Yes. This was what inspired the Virgin Mary to sing her song: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary knew the Scriptures.
“Now the boy Samuel ministered to the Lord before Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no revelation, and it came to pass while Eli was lying down in his place, his eyes now grown so dim, and before the lamp of God went out in the tabernacle of the Lord where the Ark of God was, while Samuel was lying down there, that the Lord called Samuel. He answered, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, ‘Here I am for you called me’. He said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ And he went and lay down. Then the Lord called again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am for you called me.’ He answered, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the yet revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel a third time. He arose and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am, for you did call me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord had called the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go lie down and if He calls you again must say, ‘Speak Lord for your servant hears.’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord called as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and Samuel answered, ‘Speak, for your servant hears.’”
So Samuel became a prophet and God gave him this first word to speak: Go to Eli and prophesy doom, for his sons have sinned against the Lord. And so it was. The Philistines attacked, killed his sons, and took the Ark of the Covenant. When Eli heard it he dropped dead.
For several hundred years Israel had been led by what we call Judges – not an adequate word. They were charismatic men and one woman Deborah who were directly inspired by the Spirit. There was no formal system of government. These Judges just arose out of the people, and the people followed them. They judged cases between people, but were leaders in various other ways as well.
Samuel was the last and greatest Judge. He traveled the land for many years, judging, offering sacrifices, proclaiming the word of God, uniting the people and rallying them against the Philistines.
But the people began to demand a king like the other nations. Samuel opposed it. He argued: God is our King. Why do you need a human king? A king will lay heavy taxes on you, will take your sons to fight in his wars, your daughters to his palace as concubines. Do you really want a king? Yes, yes, the people cried. We want a king.
Samuel prayed and God sent him to anoint Saul as king. Saul was a good warrior but had many failings, nor did he lead people towards God as a great leader should. Saul appears to have had mental problems which tended towards paranoia. When a bad spell came on him, he hired a shepherd boy named David to come and play the harp and soothe him. But Saul every so often would throw a spear at him. David learned to duck fast!
David was already famous for killing the huge Philistine warrior Goliath with his slingshot. Now at God’s direction Samuel secretly anointed young David right as Saul’s successor. David became immensely popular. (He would later become the greatest and most beloved of Jewish kings – but that’s another story. ) When David came to town, people would cry “Saul has killed thousands, but David his tens of thousands!” When Saul heard, he felt betrayed (as he was), and it didn’t help his paranoia any. Samuel hurried home to Ramah and lived in hiding for the rest of his life. He died sometime about the year 1000 BC and was buried there.
Was that the last we hear of Samuel? No!
Saul was still officially king. The Philistines were about to attack, a great army, and Saul was terrified. He had banned witches and mediums from the land, but he felt he just had to know the future. So he disguised himself and by night went to the “Witch of Endor”, a medium. He said, “Please conduct a séance for me and bring up the one I shall name.” The woman said to him, “Look, you know Saul has cut off mediums and witches from the land. Do you want me to die?” Saul swore to her saying, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come on you for this.” The woman asked, “Who shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Samuel.”
When the woman saw Samuel she shrieked, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” The king said, “Don’t be afraid. What did you see?” The woman said, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.” He asked, “What is his form?” She said, “An old man is coming up. He is covered with a cloak.” Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground. Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” He answered, “I am deeply distressed, for the Philistines make war against me and God has left me and no longer answers me, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, so you may reveal to me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why do you ask me, seeing the Lord has departed from you and has become your enemy? The Lord has done as he spoke by me. Because you did not obey me, he has torn the kingdom from your hand and given it to David. Now the Lord will deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”
And so it was. The next day Saul and his sons were killed in battle, and David was acclaimed by all as king. And that is the last we hear of Samuel.
Kontakion of the Prophet Samuel Tone 8
You were a precious gift given to God before your conception. You served him like an angel from your infancy, O blessed one. You were granted the grace to announce future things beforehand. Therefore, we cry to you: “Rejoice, Samuel, Prophet of God and great high priest.”