Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This passage stands in the center of the first half of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), which was composed in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. to encourage Judeans scattered by the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. to return and rebuild their city and temple.

Probus sol
"Probus sol." Image by ChrisO via Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.

October 19, 2014

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

This passage stands in the center of the first half of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), which was composed in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. to encourage Judeans scattered by the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. to return and rebuild their city and temple.

After a double introduction in Isaiah 40:1-11 and 40:12-31, chapters 41 to 47 unfold through repetition of several themes concerning God’s uniqueness (see verses 5-6), God’s creative power (see verse 7), and God’s plans in history (see especially verses 1-3), as well as Israel’s standing as God’s chosen servant (see v. 4). All of these motifs have occurred already in previous chapters, but here they united to make utterly explicit what the prophet believes God is doing.

The themes of God’s uniqueness and creative power were especially prominent in 40:12-31, which began with the question, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span?” The issue of the existence and power of other gods continued in several passages regarding idols and idol makers (40:19-20; 41:6-7; 42:17; and especially the extended satirical piece in 44:9-20).

God’s unanswered challenge to other gods to speak up for themselves is voiced in 41:21-24, 28-29. Although God’s uniqueness is remembered again in Isaiah 42:8; 43:10-11; 44:6-8, it is especially prominent throughout chapter 45 (see verses 5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22; and 46:9). God’s creative power is reiterated in 40:20; 42:5; 43:1, 7, 21; 44:2, 21, 24. Israel’s standing as God’s chosen servant began to emerge with the questions in 40:27, but is announced fully in 41:8-10 (see also 41:14; 43:1-7; 44:1-2).

Especially prominent in the first verse of this chapter is the name of the Persian conqueror credited with taking over Babylon in the 540s and allowing exiles to return home. Foreshadowings of this announcement appear first in Isaiah 40, where verse 3 says, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and verse 10 announces, “See, the Lord God comes with might.” Chapter 41 builds on this expectation by referring to “a victor from the east” (verse 1), whom God has summoned, along with his sword and drawn bow.

This vision is reinforced in 41:25 with, “I stirred up one from the north, and he has come.” God’s own military might reappears in 42:14-15 and 43:14-17. In the last verse of chapter 44, just before this passage begins, the prophet names Cyrus for the first time, portraying the Persian conqueror as God’s obedient agent who “shall carry out all my purpose” (44:28).

All these themes converge explicitly in Isaiah 45:1-7, as the writer imagines Cyrus as God’s anointed (a term formerly reserved for Israelite rulers and priests), a victor subduing nations with God’s guiding. God calls Cyrus by name, even though this king does not know who God is. Thus an event dawning on Babylon’s and Israel’s political horizon, an event begging for interpretation, is credited to God who, as the prophet claims, is in charge of all things in creation and history, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes both weal and woe.

Creation themes from Genesis 1 are both recollected and disputed here, since Genesis 1:3 credited God with calling light into being, but not darkness, and the creation story reiterated seven times God’s characterization of the emerging world not as woeful but only good, even very good.

Continuing past the lectionary passage, Isaiah 45 goes on to argue against anyone who might critique the notion that God could use Cyrus in this way. Verses 12 and 13 specifically set Cyrus’s divine calling in parallel to God’s act of creating earth, heavens, and humankind (see also the reiteration in v. 18). He will once again be mentioned in 46:11 as “a bird of prey from the east, the man for my purpose from a far country.” After the elaborate announcements of God’s plans that reach their crescendo in chapter 45, the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo (46:1-7), and “virgin daughter Babylon” herself (47:1-15), are described as humiliated, defeated, and exiled.

The Persian conqueror Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, ultimately created the largest empire the ancient Near Eastern world had yet witnessed. He is also known from other historical sources. Not only is he mentioned approvingly in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and thirteen times in Ezra 1-6, as well as in the later book of Daniel, but he is remembered in monuments such as his magnificent tomb and the column that depicts and names him in his capital Pasargadae, now in Iran.

The cuneiform Nabonidus Chronicle, which relates Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and his reign, is a copy of a text thought to have been composed within a generation or two of Cyrus’s life. The Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. also wrote extensively about him, as did other Greek and later Roman historians.

But the most famous ancient text concerning Cyrus outside the Bible is the Cyrus cylinder. This writing, like Scripture, depicts the king as a liberator of conquered peoples and a supporter of diverse temples. Unlike the expectations expressed in Isaiah, his conquest of Babylon is described in the cylinder as peaceful, and welcomed by the people and priests of Babylon, who had been neglected by Nabonidus, the final Babylonian king. The cylinder does not mention the Jewish people in Babylon specifically, but its ideology stands consistent with depictions of Cyrus’s policies in the Bible. In 1971 the Cyrus cylinder was declared by the United Nations to be an early declaration of human rights.

The pro-Persian stance of this passage contrasts with biblical views of other empires, including Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. Thus it stands in some tension with Matthew 22:15-22, which depicts the debate between some Pharisees and Jesus over paying taxes to Caesar, in which Jesus suggests indifference to both pro- and anti-Roman sentiments, saying instead “give to God the things that are God’s” (verse 22). It also appears at least at first to stand in tension with Psalm 96, which depicts God alone as sovereign. But in its suggestion that even world emperors, however unknowingly, are subject to divine decree, this passage reconciles political rule with divine reign.