Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Can a community of faith benefit from a champion who does not even know God?

Matthew 22:19

Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

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Can a community of faith benefit from a champion who does not even know God?

What happens when all the certainties that seemed to hold life together are shattered? When the divine promises that we thought were our birthright no longer hold true? Isaiah 45:1-7 wrestles with those questions in surprising ways.

In its background lies Judah’s half-century of exile after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Readers encounter the devastation of that period in texts like Lamentations, which describes burning, starvation, slaughter, and rape, and asks God, “Why have you forgotten us completely?” (Lamentations 5:20). The heirs of the Davidic dynasty, who had ruled for nearly four centuries, were snuffed out (2 Kings 25:7) or kept under close watch in the Babylonian court (2 Kings 25:27-30). The end of the third book of the Psalter reflects on the seeming failure of the dynastic promises: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49).

As Christian readers well know, hopes for the line of David did not cease with the Exile. To many people, the restoration of Judah meant a return to the ways things had been. Postexilic prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah promoted the restoration of Davidic rule.

The authors of Isaiah 40-66 had a number of countercultural ideas, however, and one of them concerned God’s chosen king. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed,” begins the present passage. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is mashiach—“messiah.” Various figures were anointed in ancient Judah, not only kings but also high priests, and occasionally prophets—but all of them had crucial religious roles. Anointing implicitly reflected a close relationship with God and special divine blessing. So for the author to proclaim the messiahship of Cyrus, a foreign conqueror, would have been a shock. The divine election is reinforced by the image of taking Cyrus by the right hand (45:1). It was an echo of the Akitu festival, in which the Babylonian king took Marduk by the hand to affirm that he had the gods’ blessing. Here, the Lord replaces Marduk, who “bows down” in 46:1 (there he is called “Bel”), and the gods of Babylon are overturned in these chapters in general.

Cyrus was extraordinarily good at public relations; he had figured out that it was easier to rule people when they embraced you. The Isaianic prophet was not the only foreigner who advocated for him. The Babylonian priests of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, are thought to have played a role in turning their own mighty city over to Cyrus without even a battle. The Cyrus Cylinder, written by those same priests, also says that Cyrus was divinely called—but by Marduk. They were infuriated by the Babylonian king Nabonidus. He is said to have favored the moon god Sin, and to have neglected Marduk’s historically important cult and temple. This seems to have played a role in motivating them to betray Nabonidus in favor of Cyrus. The Cylinder says that Marduk “surveyed and looked throughout all the lands, searching for a righteous king whom he would support. He called out his name: Cyrus, king of Anshan; he pronounced his name to be king over all (the world).”This is strikingly similar to the Lord’s calling Cyrus “by name” in Isaiah 45:3-4. In return for this support, Cyrus supported foreign temples (Ezra 1).

As miraculous as Cyrus’ help would have felt to the Judeans, it was carried out through traditional means—much as the Lord sent the Assyrian king on a destructive mission in Isaiah 10:5-6, now Cyrus is to subjugate nations and their kings, to batter down the barriers that stand in his way. He is given the “treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (verse 3). These phrases have been evocative for later authors; in context, they mean that he will receive the wealth of foreign nations. (Darkness and hiddenness are used to describe foreign religions in later chapters of Isaiah, so this might be a more specific reference to temple treasuries.) The image of the nations bringing spoil and tribute to the emperor was a common one; it was portrayed by the Persian kings in the Apadana reliefs from Persepolis, and even applied to Jerusalem in Isaiah 60:5.

There are three reasons given for the Lord’s extravagance towards Cyrus. First, it is “so that [he] may know” that the Lord is the agent of his success (45:3b). Second, in a parallel construction, it is also “for the sake of my servant Jacob” (45:4a). Third, it is “so that they (meaning, people everywhere) may know that there is none besides me” (verse 6). The merisms formed by the pairings east-west, light-darkness, and weal-woe (verses 6-7) emphasize the completeness of the Lord’s power.

Hopes always run high for a leader who is on one’s side. Cyrus’ victories are said to be just in the eyes of God. He is elsewhere called “a victor from the east” (41:2), but the word translated as “victor” (Hebrew: tsedeq) means something closer to “justice” or “righteous judgment.” And because the Lord has created everything, from the prophet’s standpoint, it is natural that it should produce righteousness, leading to salvation (verse 8).

But those lofty hopes do not always pan out in the long run. In a bit of ominous foreshadowing, however, the author immediately adds twice that Cyrus does not know the Lord (verses 4-5), despite the divine intention in honoring and arming him. The Lord’s relationship with his people and the nations similarly becomes more complicated as these later chapters of Isaiah wear on. Cyrus fulfills his mission by conquering Babylon and sending the exiles home, but he disappears from the text shortly after this passage. In the prophet’s view, sending the people home from Babylon and underwriting the Temple changed very little for most of its people. They had been oppressed in Babylonia; now they were oppressed in Judah. The postexilic situation condemned in Isaiah 58 (and see Nehemiah 5) looks almost identical to those that the eighth-century prophets inveighed against (Isaiah 3, 5:7-24; Micah 3; Amos 4-5). In biblical tradition, an anointed king was not supposed to aggrandize himself at the people’s expense (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), but rather to ensure justice for the powerless (Psalm 72). By those standards, Cyrus was a failed messiah.

As a Google search can confirm, Isaiah’s blessing of Cyrus has recently been adopted by (mostly white, mostly Christian) advocates of a president who does not share their religious values, but who claims to be on their side and is willing to destroy things. There are various problems with this appropriation of Isaiah’s Cyrus texts. Cyrus was a competent administrator who expanded Persian power greatly during his reign. But most of all, the Babylonian Jews who benefited from Cyrus’ conquest were a disempowered ethnic minority with no ability to control their own fate or that of the nation in which they resided. By contrast, white Christians in the U.S. are highly privileged by their identity—part of the founding demographic of the nation. They have had and continue to have myriad opportunities to govern well.

Trump’s Christian supporters have nothing in common with the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. Instead, they are like the priests of Marduk who betrayed Babylonia and opened the gates to Cyrus. They said a lot of the same things about him as the Isaianic prophets did, but they were a center of traditional Babylonian power. They may have lost something tangible through Nabonidus’ neglect, but they had not in any way suffered like the exiles. They were motivated by the fragility of privilege—by a selfish pique and a feeling of being disrespected.

Cyrus did a job, but so did the Assyrian kings before him (Isaiah 10:5-6). They did what they wanted to do anyway, seeking their own power (Isaiah 10:7; 45:4-5). It was the news of a suffering servant that “startled many nations” (Isaiah 52:15). Cyrus looked good by the imperial standards of his time, but the Jewish movement that became Christianity continued to redefine what a messiah was in important ways. That, and not the embrace of an authoritarian emperor, is the gospel worthy of the world’s attention.


Notes:

  1. Fragment A, l. 12; The Context of Scripture, eds. William H. Hallo and Younger (Brill, 2003). Vol. 2, 124.