The God who Surprises

Breakfast with the Bible 14 August 2016, a sermon on Isaiah 45:1-19.


God is about to act

The cities of Judah were in ruins, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.

The leaders of Judah together with a major segment of the nation had been taken into exile in Babylon.

It was a time of religious crisis – many of the conquered Jews had given up on Yahweh, and had transferred their allegiance to the gods of their conquerors (Jer 44.15-19; Ezek 8.7-18). Yahweh’s sovereignty was in question. Even the faithful were beginning to lose hope.

This is the context in which God through an unknown prophet whom scholars call Second

Isaiah bursts on the scene and declares that God is about to do a new thing.

  • Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40.1-2)
  • The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it” (Isaiah 40.5)

God is going to do a new thing – he is going to restore the fortunes of his people Israel.

This is the theme of second half of the Book of Isaiah. So in Isaiah 44.26b we hear the Lord say “of Jerusalem, ‘it shall be inhabited’, and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt’, and I will raise up their ruins” (44.26b).

God is about to act through a pagan king

But to the utter amazement of his hearers, the prophet also declares that the Lord “says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose” (Isaiah 44.28).

In the ancient Middle East the term ‘shepherd’ was another word for a king. So we read in the GNB: the Lord says to Cyrus: “You are the one who will rule for me; you will do what I want you to do; you will order Jerusalem to be rebuilt and the Temple foundations to be laid” (Isaiah 44.26a)

Who was this Cyrus? Strictly speaking, he was Cyrus II of Persia.

Born around 590/589 BC he came to the throne of Persia in 559 BC, and died in battle in 530 BC. Over the years he was engaged in a series of wars in which he enlarged the Persian Empire. In the Bible Cyrus is best known for his conquest of Babylon in October 539 BC.

There is a famous barrel-shaped cylinder, 23 cm long and 10 cm wide, called the Cyrus cylinder, and which is now housed in the British Museum, which records the outcome of the this Iran/Iraq war. It has been called the ‘first declaration of human rights’. It tells how the god of Babylon had chosen Cyrus to improve the lives of the Babylonians, and talks about Cyrus’ efforts to repatriate displaced people and restore temples across Mesopotamia, letting them worship the god of their choice, and not the god of the conqueror.

It tells the story of letting people live their lives even after their country was conquered, something that was not heard of at the time. In the ancient world, conquering a new land meant ‘owning’ the land and its people. But unusually Cyrus respected the local cultures.

Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. In the words of the inscription, Marduk was so enraged at the misrule of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, that he decided to take action out of pity for the oppressed

He scoured all the lands for a friend, seeking for the upright prince whom it would have to take his hand. He called Cyrus… He nominated him to be ruler over all… He gave orders that he go against his city Babylon. He made him take the road to Babylon and he went at his side like a friend and comrade…”

In this inscription there is no reference to the Jews – but clearly their return to Palestine and their rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple was part of this policy.

This is the Cyrus to whom the prophet refers. Cyrus the Great – Cyrus ‘the Benevolent’ we might call him.

But also Cyrus the Pagan – Cyrus who did not know the Lord – who in fact attributed his victory to Marduk, and not to Yahweh.

And yet, in spite of this, he was the man whom God appointed to restore Israel’s fortunes. Isaiah 45 is the chapter in which the prophet elaborates on this amazing act of God. Indeed, the NRSV heads the Isaiah 45.1-19 with the title: ‘Cyrus, God’s instrument’.

God is using Cyrus for his purposes

Listen to the way in which the prophet begins this chapter:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him – and the gates shall not be closed. I will go before you and level the mountains…” (45.1f)

This is an amazing statement. At the end of chapter 44 hear the Lord saying that Cyrus “is my shepherd”. But now he is described as the Lord’s ‘anointed’. The Hebrew word ‘masiah’ is the word normally used for the ‘Messiah’.

In the OT it was a term used of Saul, Israel’s first king, and then of the kings of the line of David who followed him. It is a mind-boggling description for a pagan king. It indicates in the strongest way possible that God intends to use Cyrus to fulfil his purpose for Israel.

However, it is perhaps significant that although the prophet calls Cyrus the Lord’s anointed, he never calls him his servant. According to one commentator, this is “because ‘servant’ implies a mutual relationship in which there is permanence” (Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 160). God has given Cyrus a one-off task to do – and although Cyrus fulfilled his task, he did so unknowingly.

Let God be God!

Not surprisingly the prophet envisages some of his compatriots having difficulty with the thought that God should use a pagan king like Cyrus. This isn’t the way that God should act. But as the prophet later declares, God’s ways and God’s thoughts are different from our ways and thoughts – precisely because he is God (Isaiah 55.8)

This is the point which the prophet is making in 45.9-11. Let me quote to you from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message:

But doom to you who fight your Maker – you’re a pot at odds with the potter!
Does clay talk back to the potter: ‘What are you doing? What clumsy fingers!’
Would a sperm say to a father, ‘Who gave you permission to use me to make a baby?’
Or a fetus to a mother, ‘Why have you cooped me up in this belly?’

Ultimately, how God acts is his business. As later the Apostle Paul reflects on God’s dealings with Israel, he too asks the question: “Who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? …. Has the potter no right over the clay?” (Rom 9.20-21). He ends his argument with the words: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11.33).

We must not and cannot lock God up in a box – yes God is at work amongst his people, but he is also at work in the wider world. Questioning whether God can use people who have no faith is a sign of puny faith.

Is God at work in his world today?

The question then arises: are there ‘Cyruses’ today whom God still uses? Is God still at work in his world? Is God still in the business of ‘geo-politics’? Let me at this point quote the distinguished American OT scholar Walter Brueggemann who in 1997 wrote

If the theological dimension drops out of international purview, and with it any credible, critical moral dimension, then the world becomes in in which might makes right…No interpreter can fail to notice the extraordinary demise of the Soviet Union, the remarkable, relatively non-violent end of apartheid in South Africa, and the apparent opening of ideological intransigence in Northern Ireland and in contemporary Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The issues are enormously complex… One may, nonetheless….entertain the thought that the resilient intention of Yahweh for justice in the world is at work…” (Theology of the OT, 526)

God’s purpose in using Cyrus was to point to himself

Here, however, in Isaiah 45, the issue is not justice per se, but rather salvation – and in particular the salvation of Israel: “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you (REB “I have given you a title”), though you do not know me” (45.4).

But in fact there is a deeper purpose to God’s use of Cyrus to free his people. According to Isaiah 45.5-6 God uses Cyrus to point people to himself:

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other

Chris Wright comments: “The irony lies in the fact that although Cyrus is named (Is 44.28, 45.1), his name will not be known to the end of the earth. That honour will go to Yahweh, whom Cyrus does not even acknowledge…. The proof of his words is confirmed by the fact that today not many people other than ancient historians know the name of 6th century BC Cyrus, whereas there are millions who worship the Lord God Of Israel through his Son Jesus Christ” (The Mission of God 89).

From start to finish the focus of the prophet is on God, and on people knowing God.

So the prophet looks forward to the day when the nations of the world “shall come in chains and go down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, ‘God is with you alone, and there is no other; there is no god besides him” (Is 45.14). Frankly I don’t like the reference to “chains” and to people bowing down to Israel – this is where the prophet’s vision is limited. But his emphasis expressed in 45.25 of a universal turning to God and bowing down before him is something we still need to hold on to.

God wants us to know him – not for his sake, but for our sake. As the British NT scholar, Richard Bauckham (Bible and Mission 37), put it:

We may have difficulty with this picture of God desiring and achieving fame for himself, something we would regard as self-seeking vanity and ambition if it were said of a human being. But this is surely one of those human analogies which is actually appropriate uniquely to God. The good of God’s human creatures requires that he be known to them as God. There is no vanity, only revelation of truth, in God’s demonstrating of his deity to the nations”

Ultimately the focus is on God. Indeed, this is the focus of Isaiah 45.

Four times God declares: “I am the Lord, there is no other” (vv5,6,14,18)

God is above all a God who saves

Who is this incomparable God? Let me draw your attention to two further statements.

First, the Lord declares in 44.7: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (NRSV). Or in the words of GNB: “I create both light and darkness; I bring both blessing and disaster. I, the Lord, do all these things”.

There has been much discussion of this verse; and in particular of the phrase “I make weal and create woe”. Some see here God as being the author of both good and evil. So for instance John Sawyer writes: “Faced with disease, drought, earthquake or any other ‘woe’ or ‘evil’ not of human origin, we must either say it is created and controlled by God, or else postulate some other power apart from God; a devil, a capricious god of the Sea or the like. This chapter admits no other power apart from God, so that evil must be part of God’s plan somehow or other, to educate us, to punish us, or as the author of the Book of Job argues, for some other purpose too difficult for our finite human minds to conceive of [Job 28.20-24]” (The Daily Study Bible 92f).

But in fact the issue here is not where is God, when there is a tsunami or some other so-called ‘natural’ disaster. The author has in mind not the issue of ‘theodicy’, but the darkness and disaster that befell first Judah and then Babylon. God is, indeed, a God who judges. But ultimately he is a God who saves – and who in saving brings light and peace (shalom). His salvation is the chief focus

Secondly, in 44.15 the prophet writes: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour”. Again, this verse has been taken out of context and all kinds of theories have been built upon the idea of God as the God who hides. But the emphasis should surely be upon God as the one who makes himself known.

Precisely because God is God, there is much that we cannot know or understand – but there is one place where the so-called hidden God does make himself known – and that is the place where he becomes his people’s saviour.

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