In the last essay we studied Isaiah 44, which dealt with the promised Spirit and the folly of idolatry. In this essay we are studying chapter 45. Verses 1-8 are an oracle to Cyrus whom God had chosen to deliver Israel from the Babylonian Exile. If Isaiah’s readers were shocked to hear Cyrus called God’s “shepherd” in 44:28, they undoubtedly were more shocked to hear him called God’s “anointed” here in 45:1. Only priests, prophets and kings of Israel were anointed. And of course the coming Messiah would be the anointed One. To say that a pagan emperor was anointed of God would have seemed preposterous, perhaps even blasphemous, to the people of Israel.
However Isaiah had a broader vision than the people in general. He understood that the Lord had created and maintained Israel, not just for its own sake, but also for the benefit of the world. Thus Isaiah’s point was that God is God of the whole world, and he can use anyone in the world to accomplish his purposes. It is in that sense that Cyrus was God’s anointed. He was chosen and empowered to carry out the purposes of God. And in that way he became a type of the coming Messiah. The taking of Cyrus’ right hand is symbolic of God’s choosing and of intimate fellowship. Notice that God declares that he opened the way for Cyrus’ conquests, a theme that is continued in verses 2-3.
Notice in verse three that the Lord wanted Cyrus to know he had called him to service. That does not mean Cyrus was a believer any more than Pharaoh was during the Exodus. Rather as Pharaoh knew that he was dealing with the Lord without believing in him, so did Cyrus.
Verse four declares that God’s use of Cyrus was for Israel’s sake [same word as “so that” in verses three and six]. Verse five makes it clear that Cyrus’ success was due to the Lord. And verse six tells us that the Lord wanted the entire world, “from the rising of the sun and from the west,” to know that the Lord is the only God.
Verse seven has sparked much debate. In it the Lord is saying that he is responsible for everything in nature (from light to darkness) and everything in history (from good fortune to misfortune). The word translated “weal” by the NRSV and “prosperity” by the NIV means “heath” or “well being.” But it is the contrasting element in that sentence that creates most of the controversy.
As John Oswalt explains, the Hebrew word ra’ translated “woe” by the NRSV and “disaster” by the NIV has several meanings in the Hebrew, depending on the context. Its usage is similar to the word “bad” in English. It can mean “bad” in the sense of moral evil, which is why the KJV translates it “evil.” However the KJV really missed this one, because the meaning “evil” was not intended here. God does not cause people to make evil moral decisions. The word also can mean “misfortune” in the sense of “I’m having a bad day.” The NIV seems to be treating it more strongly than “misfortune” when they use “disaster.” Still another usage of the Hebrew word is to mean that something is not conforming to some potential, as when we say, “This is a bad road.”
Calvinists love this verse, because it seems to support their extreme view of the sovereignty of God. The message of the verse is quite true. God, because of his sovereignty, is responsible for everything. But the rest of Scripture must be allowed to qualify that overarching truth. For example, we know from other Scriptures that God has given us freedom of choice, or free will. We are responsible for our evil choices. God is responsible only in the sense that in his sovereignty he permits us to make those choices. And that brings up the important distinction between God’s intentional will and his permissive will. In the area of salvation, it is the Lord’s intentional will that we all be saved. But we have a choice, and what we decide is his permissive will.
Verse eight is interesting in that God metaphorically calls on nature to help save Israel from exile. He calls for righteousness to rain down from the heavens and salvation to spring up from the earth. Oswalt says that the “righteousness” mentioned, which is paralleled with “salvation,” refers to the rightness of God’s actions.
The oracle to Cyrus that we just studied had to seem strange to the people of Israel. When they fantasized about being delivered from exile, they undoubtedly thought of it in terms of another Exodus led by another Moses, not in terms of a pagan emperor who didn’t even know the Lord. Verses 9-13 address that problem.
Notice that the Lord asserts that as the creator he has the right to deal with his creation in any way he chooses. In verse nine he offers a warning to those who challenge him and his ways. They are like a pot telling the potter what to do. According to Oswalt, the NIV has a much better translation than the NRSV. “Woe to him who quarrels with his maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands’”? The implied answer of course is, “No.” Then why would they challenge God, their maker?
Verses 10-13 continue the argument. Verse 13 provides a concluding statement. Cyrus did not rise by accident. Whether he knew it or not, Cyrus was accomplishing God’s will. The word “righteousness” once again refers to the rightness of God’s actions.
All right, moving on to verses 14-19, we run into some difficult issues. The first disputed question is that of who is addressed in verses 14. Some believe Cyrus is still being addressed, because back in 43:3 these very countries were named as being given to him in exchange for Israel. But Oswalt says that isn’t possible, because other nations cannot worship Cyrus’ god as the only God. Furthermore the pronouns relating to the addressee are all feminine. But when Oswalt tries to explain how the nations who come to worship are doing it voluntarily rather than because they are conquered and how their coming in chains isn’t due to conquest, and how Jerusalem is the one being addressed, it seems to me that there are even more problems with the position he takes than with the position that it is Cyrus who is addressed. You can decide which way you want to go on that issue.
Verse 15 also is a problem. Oswalt believes that it is the nations who spoke the last sentence of verse 14 that are continuing to speak in verse 15. That probably is the case, but if so, the question arises as to what the statement means. Oswalt suggests that it means three things. First it “is a mistaken statement by those who have rejected revelation” the mistake being that God did not hide himself. Second, it also is “an observation about the surprising fact that the Savior should come from little, insignificant Israel.” And third, it is “in some sense an expression of theological truth.”
In verses 16-17 Isaiah says that the nations all will be put to shame, because they worship idols instead of the true God. But Israel, the only nation that worships the true God, will not be put to shame, but will be saved “to all eternity.”
Verses 18-19 begin with a word meaning “for,” or “because.” Thus these verses substantiate what has gone before. They explain “the failure of the idols and the eternal trustworthiness of God.” The idols fail and Israel is saved because God longs to reveal himself to his people. He speaks through nature and with words. He created the world for the purpose of human habitation, and then he communicated to his created people how he wants us to relate to him.
The last paragraph of the chapter, verses 20-25, is quite important. Most commentators agree that this passage is about the salvation of the world. Notice verse 22: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.” Oswalt captures the thrust of the paragraph well when he says: the Lord “is not the savior of Israel because he is Israel’s God. He is the savior of Israel because he is the Savior of the world.” That is an important insight.
You will notice in verses 20-21 that the Lord once again calls the nations into assembly, as we have seen him do a couple of times earlier in the book (41:1,21; 43:8-9). Again he condemns the idols of the nations and declares his own superiority. Also once again the reader is reminded that God foretold all of this many years before when Isaiah made the prediction.
In verses 22-23 the Lord calls on the nations to experience the same salvation that Israel experienced. And the idea seen in the New Testament that one day “every knee shall bow and very tongue confess” is seen here in Isaiah.
Finally, in verses 24-25 Isaiah makes it clear that righteousness and strength as well as the triumph of salvation take place only “in the Lord.” Indeed the only hope of either Israel or the world is “in the Lord.”