This major passage stands at the midpoint of Second Isaiah. We see its significance in the way it is set off by similar beginning and ending hymns calling on the heavens themselves to praise God for this marvelous work (44:23: 45:8). This is the heart of Second Isaiah's message of deliverance from bondage: God chooses Cyrus, a foreign ruler, to set God's people free.
The surprise of God's choice is emphasized by the strong terms used by God to identify Cyrus: "shepherd" (44:28) and "anointed" (45:1). "Shepherd" was frequently used as a metaphor for "king" in the ancient world (Jeremiah 23:1-6); from the beginning, Israel's kings were meant to serve as "shepherds" of the people (2 Samuel 5:2)--leading, guiding, and protecting. Most important, however, God was Israel's shepherd (Genesis 48:15; Psalm 23:1, etc.). Now, God gives the foreigner Cyrus God's own title, God's own work to do--a striking sign of God's work in all peoples everywhere.
Even more surprising, Cyrus is named God's "anointed"--that is, God's "messiah" in Hebrew. Israel's priests (Leviticus 4:3) and prophets (Psalm 105:15) could be called God's "anointed," but, first and foremost, the "anointed one" is the king (1 Samuel 16:6; Psalm 2:2; etc.). The king was "anointed" with oil in a kind of ordination rite to mark him as the one who served Israel as the one ruling in God's stead (1 Samuel 9:16). Eventually, the term took on stronger significance to designate the coming king, the son of David, who would usher in God's eternal kingdom (1 Samuel 2:10; Matthew 1:1). How then could Cyrus be God's anointed? Because he was called by God to do God's primary work: to free captives and open doors--just like God's servant Israel (Isaiah 42:6-7; 61:1). God will choose whomever God pleases to do God's work. Liberation and salvation are God's concern, and God will go beyond all human limits to get that work done. Some in Israel found this unacceptable, calling God's choice into question, but God insists on the freedom to do whatever it takes to set people free (45:9-14).
The first part of this passage (44:24-28) is simply a long introduction to the Cyrus oracle itself. God is the "one who" does all things: from creating the cosmos to the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and God will choose Cyrus for this task. How will Israel know? Not by omens and fortune-tellers--or even by superior human knowledge--but because God sends the prophets as messengers of the divine word (44:25-26).
Now, in the second part of the text, God addresses Cyrus directly (45:1-7), commissioning the Persian ruler to destroy the bars of Babylon's prison and set Israel free (along with the captives from other nations--see Introductory Issues). Cyrus, however, will not merely be a pawn on God's world chess board: God calls Cyrus by name, desiring that even Cyrus will come to know that God is the Lord. Later, when Cyrus issues the edict to free the Judean captives, he does in fact call upon the name of the Lord as his authority for this action (Ezra 1:1-4).
23 Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
and will be glorified in Israel.
24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who by myself spread out the earth;
25 who frustrates the omens of liars,
and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
and makes their knowledge foolish;
26 who confirms the word of his servant,
and fulfils the prediction of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, It shall be inhabited,
and of the cities of Judah, They shall be rebuilt,
and I will raise up their ruins;
27 who says to the deep, Be dry
I will dry up your rivers;
28 who says of Cyrus, He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose;
and who says of Jerusalem, It shall be rebuilt,
and of the temple, Your foundation shall be laid.
45Thus 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:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
6 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.
7 I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.
8 Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,*
and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
I the Lord have created it.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011