Lots of things going on here in this passage of Isaiah, but one of the pivotal questions this chapter raises is about the way God works in the world.
As we’ve noted earlier going through Isaiah, God has responded to the need of those who had been taken into captivity in Babylon by raising up a surprising person; Cyrus, the ruler of Persia. In fact, Isaiah 45:1 names Cyrus “his anointed” – (the literal idea of anointing with oil was a way of demonstrating being consecrated to a task). Many figures (and objects) were anointed to be set apart for a special purpose or task. In Hebrew, this word used as a title is: “messiah” – and fascinatingly, it is only used of one person in the Hebrew Bible: the foreign king Cyrus – a man who does not (yet) know the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:4)
Both Isaiah and sources outside the Bible like Herodotus’ ‘ Persian Wars‘ and the Babylonian Chronicle describe Cyrus’ rise to power and rule in terms of circumstances that didn’t all have to do with sheer military power. John Watts (Word Biblical Commentary) describes Cyrus’ rise to power thusly:
Remarkably, this claim of divine sponsorship fits Cyrus’s career. He had profited from many circumstances other than his military strength. He had gained the following of all the Persian tribes with singular ease. He gained an ally in Babylon against Media. Two successive Median armies that were sent against him decided to join forces with him instead. His generosity toward the conquered worked in his favor. He marched without opposition into Armenia and won a surprise victory over the Lydians when their horses were frightened by the smell of Persian camels. And now Babylon, the world’s most heavily fortified city, opens its gates to him without a fight. Truly doors and gates had been opened for Cyrus, and YHWH claims credit for it.
The noted Greek historian Herotodus (born in Persia in the 5th century), described the city of Babylon as having a hundred gates of bronze. The reference in Isaiah 45:2 to God breaking open ‘doors of bronze’ seem in context to be a clear connection to the victory of Cyrus over Babylon, a key step in the return of exiles to Jerusalem.
All of this is neat, historically – but thinking devotionally about this chapter is also important. God uses an outsider who doesn’t know him to accomplish an important work of restoring the people of Israel, not for their own sake alone, but for the sake of God’s wider purposes for the world (Isaiah 45:22 “turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”). The “insiders” seem upset at God using someone like Cyrus, which is where we get the image of God’s response to Israel that they as the creation of God, (i.e. earthen vessels), aren’t really in a position to critique what God (i.e. the potter) is making and how God goes about it.
There’s a bit of “sit down and shut up” that we could take away from this, but is that really how God is responding to them? How does it compare with what we find in the story of Job, who also argued with God? In that case, we find that yes, when God enters the story to speak with Job, Job realizes that he doesn’t have the perspective or wisdom to stand over God. And yet… even after calling Job out, it is Job’s friends with all their “pat” theology that God is upset with in Job 42:7 “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (emphasis mine). While it is true that in our perspective, we do not stand over God in judging how God works, we still have a calling to discern a right understanding of God and God’s work in this world. If God is the ultimate cause of everything, meticulously willing all things to be; then how can we call anything bad or sinful or wrong?
Isaiah 45:7 is problematic from this perspective, however. “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.” In fact, I remember a childhood friend mentioning this verse to me in high school as he was letting go of his faith, insisting that this meant God works evil as well as good in the world. Some Christians would understand God’s sovereignty precisely in this way – that God has ordained and willed all things, including what we would call as evil. But is this what is meant by the verse and the broader context of what Isaiah has been talking about?
There certainly is a broad theme from Isaiah’s perspective about God being at work through kings and world events in both the punishment Israel experiences in the first part of the book of Isaiah, and in the deliverance now being described. Yet the very idea that Israel could rebel against God’s purpose to begin with points to the sense that God creates space for what God does not intend (i.e. sin/violence/evil), but which God permits.
In a dualistic belief system (like Zoroastrianism), the powers of good and evil are balanced. (think Yin/Yang, to draw from a different tradition). That doesn’t fit the God who is being revealed to Cyrus, to Israel and to us through history and described in scripture: the God who creates is able to redirect and redeem even the bad things people to to bring good out of them. It doesn’t mean that evil actions are good just because good came out of them, but that in the midst of it all, God’s ultimate purposes for blessing and restoring the world are not trumped by evil actions or people. And as we wrestle with these questions, in the light of Job, and the story of Jacob, we find scripture reminding us that the seeking is good; what I find in this passage is a call to trust God in the midst of this, because God’s purpose is that we come to know our creator (personally, experientally, not just intellectually).
This is true of Cyrus, who may have held to the Zoroastrian faith (with a strong dualism between light and dark). We read in the first half of chapter 45 that God is opening all these doors for Cyrus, not only for the sake of Israel, but that this powerful Persian ruler make know that the God Israel has come to know is the God who has done all these things.
Yet again in Isaiah 45, we find God calling not only Israel, not just Cyrus, but all the nations, to abandon trust in false images of God, in idols of our own creation, to know and trust in the one God who created us:
- The God who is God alone, there is no other (45:5,6,14,18,21,22) <- do you sense that this is a theme here?
- The God who is creator – calling righteousness and salvation to spring up from the heavens and the earth. (45:8)
- The Potter, the Holy One, the LORD of Hosts
- The God who did not purpose chaos for creation but for it to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18-19) <- this is critical; remember that God created the world and filled it and blessed it (Genesis 1)
- The LORD who speaks in truth, who declares what is right (Isaiah 45:19)
- A righteous God and Savior (Isaiah 45:21)
Ultimately, we hear not only a message that God has chosen a surprising way to save the people of Israel, but the call to trust in God’s work and in God’s way. God’s purpose goes beyond Israel to the world.
Where do we wrestle with how God is at work?
Where do we need to speak up against what is evil and destructive, and how do we look for and seek God’s redemptive work even in the midst of the brokenness of the world and of our lives? (Romans 8:28)
How does what we read here in Isaiah also remind us of God’s work in Jesus, also pointing beyond ourselves and the insiders to God’s concern for the world?