Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

October 16, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

Strong words! But are they good news or bad news? It’s clear, I think, that for Second Isaiah, this announcement is meant as good news — but it will take some work for us and our hearers to determine how and why this is true.

This is an important text for Second Isaiah. It actually runs from 44:24 through 45:8, and it seems to mark the center of this section of the book (chapters 40-55). Note how its significance is emphasized by a hymnic inclusio (“Sing, O heavens,” in 44:23; “Shower, O heavens,” in 45:8).

The hymns surround two parallel “Thus says the Lord” passages (44:24-28 and 45:1-7), of which the second is our text. This structural context is important, not only because it marks the grandeur of the text, but also because it points quite clearly to what God is up to in Cyrus. The first half of the “Thus says the Lord” parallelism (44:24-28) is nothing more than a lengthy and powerful self-introduction of Yahweh, needed perhaps to set up the incredible claims of 45:1-7. Because “I am the Lord who…” (44:24-28), I can do this remarkable Cyrus thing (45:1-7) — even if you Israelites might think it’s not the way for a proper God to act (deliverance through a “heathen”?!), which seems to be the implied objection to which God responds with the “woe” warnings that immediately follow our text (45:9-13).

The elaborate structure of this lengthy unit (44:23-45:8) centers in the announcement that, through Cyrus, God will fulfill the divine “purpose” to rebuild Jerusalem (44:28). That rebuilding project functions, I think, both literally and metaphorically for our prophet. God means actually to rebuild the city, but God means also to rebuild everything that has been broken, to bring salvation beyond the holy hill to “all the ends of the earth” (45:22).

“Purpose” is a big word for Second Isaiah (do a word search on khafats). In the well-known 55:10-11, God promises to accomplish God’s “purpose” through God’s effective “word; and, surprisingly, God “wills” (same Hebrew term as “purpose”) to do this through the suffering of God’s servant (53:10). This will make us rethink everything about how God works and who God is. In our text, God’s work of liberation sounds like a move of raw power (a power that captive peoples — including people captive to sin — still long for), but in the broader context of Second Isaiah, God’s purpose can and will be brought about only through the suffering of God’s servant (representing God’s people) and God’s own self, on behalf of others.

Our text permits no question about who can do such incredible things: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (45:6). Second Isaiah’s monotheism (not so much a doctrine here as a homiletical claim and promise) flies in the face of the perspective of the world in which he lives, where the various (poly)theistic claims can run to tolerance (“You have your god[s], we have ours”) or to holy war (“My god can beat up your god”). Not much has changed! Isaiah’s claim means to be good news because it insists that the God is the God of liberation (the one who brought you out of Egypt), the God of love (Isaiah 43:4).

Such love will eventually move us (and God?) toward Bonhoeffer’s realization that “only the suffering God can help,”1 without giving up on the notion that God continues to work in unexpected ways to liberate real people from real tyrants in the real world of the present. If it’s divine work, it’s God’s work, says our prophet — even when it needs to have a hard edge (“I make weal and create woe”).

Isaiah’s good news might be paraphrased thus: “Whom would you rather have in charge of even the dark realities of the real world: gods created by human hands and human culture (including those we create today), or the God who loves you and who will give himself to you and for you in whatever way it takes to set you free?” Isaiah (and the Old Testament world) will not resort to atheism to explain the hard realities (“S– Happens!”), but neither will he yield to a simplistic formula of “If it happened, God did it.”

There is only one God, but that God works through the forces of creation and through the agency of human beings (like Cyrus). Because they are real, both God’s natural world and God’s human world might revert to the chaos God seeks to overcome though God’s continual work of liberation, but liberation and redemption remain always God’s “purpose.” Sometimes getting to God’s goal will entail “woe” and “darkness” (not least, the woe and darkness of Good Friday) but “weal” and “light” remain the goal (not least, the light of Easter’s dawn).

On a Sunday when the Gospel reading includes the “render unto Caesar” line (Matthew 22:21), our text reminds us that God has worked and will work through “Caesar” (or Cyrus). Whether or however we talk about God’s “two kingdoms,” that can never mean there is one “kingdom” where God rules (church) and one that God leaves to Caesar (politics).

Cyrus is a remarkably active divine agent in our text. He is called to be the means of God’s deliverance. But Second Isaiah (and God) refuses to allow him to be merely a pawn. Cyrus, too–though he did not know God (45:4)–was meant to come to know that he was called by God (45:3).

And, as Paul will come to say, how would Cyrus or any politician come to know without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? Second Isaiah was such a preacher, providing a model that present preachers will want to follow: proclaiming God’s word and work in such a way that it becomes known to all, that all might understand themselves to be called to the work of liberation and light–as a “vocation,” whatever their “job” might be.

1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 361.