Isaiah 44:23-45:8 – Cyrus: God’s Anointed Shepherd
SummaryGod chooses Cyrus, the Persian ruler, to be God's instrument to deliver Israel from Babylonian captivity.
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).