Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Messiah Cyrus and the sovereign will of God:

October 19, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

Messiah Cyrus and the sovereign will of God:

The name Cyrus won’t ring a bell for many worshipers, unless perhaps it’s Miley Cyrus of “Hannah Montana” fame. Preachers are likely to strike a chord, however, if they announce that this Cyrus is the Lord’s Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one” = “Christ” in Greek), which is precisely what Isaiah 45:1 calls the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon in 539 BCE.  Cyrus’s messianic status should give us pause, if not surprise and offense. Two thousand years of Christian history have solidified the connection of the name Jesus with title Christ, and rightly so, for that is what Jesus is: God’s anointed one.

It is also likely that the first recipients of the royal oracle in Isaiah 45:1-7 — exiled Jews living in Babylon — would have been stunned to hear the prophet say such a thing. While the term messiah (māšîaḥ) is not abundant in the Old Testament, occurring about thirty five times, the remnant of Judah would have associated “messiah” almost exclusively with their own king from the house of David.1  How could that office be assumed by a foreign conqueror? So what are we to do with Cyrus, the only non-Israelite leader to be called a messiah?

The role of Cyrus in God’s plan for Israel opens a door to theological and pastoral insights in this Sunday’s Old Testament lection. It is theological, first and foremost, because the biblical passages in which Cyrus appears are not really about him but about Yahweh and his special plans for Israel’s redemption.  The larger literary unit of which our passage is a part (Isa 44:24-45:13) is a virtual litany of God’s attributes and actions. As evidence of this preoccupation with God, one scholar points to “the repeated first person pronoun in Yahweh’s speech (nine times) and the verbs in the first person,” which total over thirty instances.2  In contrast, Cyrus is mentioned by name only twice in the Hebrew (44:28; 45:1) and all of his actions are prompted by God’s prior influence in his life. Cyrus succeeds only at the behest of the One whom he does not know.

To anyone outside the small exilic community, however, Cyrus would have been the greatest figure in the world. He was the true power on the planet, and he apparently thought so himself, if his famous edict is any indication. Not long after conquering Babylon, Cyrus allowed all exiled peoples to return to their homelands.  The version of this edict on the famous Cyrus cylinder states, “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon.”3  But in spite of his relative importance in the human community of the sixth century BCE, he was only an instrument in God’s hand. He was anointed, yes, but only for the specific task of releasing the captive peoples. The same principle adheres today: rulers and revolutionaries, celebrities and commoners alike come and go on the stage of history while the director of the drama holds history in his hands.

Another theological insight pertains to the concept of the knowledge of God. Cyrus’s own religious commitments are unknown to us. The language of his edict — whether giving credit to Yahweh (Ezra 1:2-4) or to the Babylonian deity Marduk (the cylinder) — may indeed be that of a sincere, well-intentioned ruler, but it is political propaganda nonetheless. Whatever the implications of the prophet’s hope for Cyrus — “so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by name” (v. 3) — the reality is explicitly stated twice in verses 4-5: “you do not know me.” The image of the mighty foreign king, who can release God’s people but does not seem to know the Lord, should remind us a similar purpose for knowledge of God with the Pharaoh of Egypt (Exod. 7:5, 17). 

Implicit in this discussion of knowing God is, of course, whether the people of Israel themselves truly know the God who called and formed them. So much of Isaiah 40-55 is preoccupied with persuading the exiles to trust God.  A few chapters earlier the issue of their knowledge of God was put to them: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28). The rhetorical nature of those questions called on the deep, national remembrance of their covenant with the creator God.  Thus, as the prophet emphasizes Cyrus’s usefulness in spite of his lack of knowledge of Yahweh, the exiles must recognize that they have none of the Persian monarch’s excuses. Their knowledge of God must usher forth into a trust in God for the new thing he is doing.

Their faltering faith is met not with judgment but with pastoral encouragement to believe that God’s sovereignty is yet capable of using all things for his people’s benefit. Yahweh alone is the one who can “form light and create darkness . . . make weal and create woe” (v. 7).4  This sweeping affirmation remains challenging even when we focus on its special purpose in this context. It might seem easier to attribute “darkness” and “woe” to forces and beings other than God; and on the finite, human plane one finds plenty of causes of disaster. But the prophet challenges God’s people to know that Yahweh speaks the final word in and for human history.

1A few passages call the priest an “anointed one” (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15).
2John Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 157.
3See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 316.
4The NRSV’s “woe” is a good translation of the Hebrew ra’ here. While ra’ has a range of meanings, including “evil,” the King James Version’s use of the latter word is inappropriate in the context. In v. 7 ra’ is juxtaposed with “weal” (šālôm) — not “good” — making “woe” (or something like it) the appropriate contrast.