God’s Word changes things. The Israelites did not survive their exile through their own strength or cleverness. They survived because God delivered them.
Few experiences can be more painful for human beings than the experience of exile. To leave your native land and go off to a strange place is to lose all that is familiar and beloved: home and belongings, family and friends, language and culture, all the sights and sounds and experiences that have made your life what it is.
If the pain of leaving home is sharp, how much sharper when your exile is involuntary, when the setting out is not in hopes of finding a better life in a new world, but as a captive being brought in slavery to the land of your conqueror. Such was Israel’s plight during the time for which the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah were written. Jerusalem had been sacked and burned by Babylonian storm troopers. Its few sorry survivors found themselves huddled on the outskirts of Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty capital. Home was not just left behind; it had been destroyed. Family and friends were not merely far away, they were dead. Everything was gone, including hope for the future.
Until God spoke.
“I am the Lord”
God’s word is what changes things. The people of Israel did not survive the disaster of the exile by means of their own strength or cleverness. The Jewish people have not endured to our own time because of their own resources and abilities. They have survived with their scripture and their identity intact because God has preserved them. The Jewish people escaped from Babylonian captivity because God delivered them. It wasn’t due to the success of their own plans and schemes. They were helpless, just as they had been in Egypt long before. But then came the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself . . . .
who confirms the word of his servant
and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
who says to the deep, ‘Be dry;
I will dry up your rivers’;
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.'”
From beginning to end, the Bible tells of a God who takes the initiative—”the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were,” as the apostle Paul describes him (Romans 4:17). He is the Lord who came, in Jesus’ words, “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). In fact, the whole story of the Bible is the story of this active, initiative-taking, sinner-loving, rebel-pursuing, slave-freeing God.
When Adam and Eve fell into sin and ran off to hide in the Garden, God followed them and found them. When the children of Israel were languishing in bondage in Egypt, God sent Moses to deliver them. When Jerusalem lay in ruins and the people had been carried off to Babylon, God spoke through Isaiah and promised a new beginning. When we were dead in our trespasses and sins, the God who is rich in mercy made us alive in Christ by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:4-9). God takes the initiative to save those who are helpless to save themselves. If he didn’t, the Bible would be a very short book!
The Lord’s Anointed
A few moments ago I read the ending verses of the 44th chapter of Isaiah, a marvelous promise of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Chapter 45 opens with the good news of God’s announcement of the specific plan by which he’s going to save his people from exile and restore them to their homeland. As it so often does, this plan involves the ministry of a specially chosen servant—a man whom the Lord calls “his anointed.” (Remember, in Hebrew the word for “anointed” or “anointed one” is messiah.)
But this particular “Messiah,” however, whom God will use to set his people free and bring them back to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, is a very unusual and unexpected one. He isn’t a prophet, he isn’t a priest, he isn’t a king — at least, not a Jewish king. In fact, this Messiah isn’t Jewish at all. He is none other than Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia (v. 1). When the Persian empire conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the Jewish exiles living there probably thought they were merely trading one set of masters for another, an equally bad lot. What difference did it make to them, after all, who was in the palace? They were still captives.
But they did not realize that the sovereign providence of their God had brought this political change about for his own purposes. He was planning to release his people and return them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. And the instrument, the human instrument, that the Lord had decided to use to bring about this whole plan was Cyrus of Persia. Thus he is the Lord’s anointed.
The things Isaiah says about this particular Persian emperor are remarkable, to say the least. Cyrus, though an unbeliever, is nevertheless identified as the Lord’s chosen one. God calls him “my shepherd” (44:28). God says to Cyrus, “I call you by your name . . . though you do not know me” (v. 4). God promises Cyrus strength and a world-wide reputation.
I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that . . . I am the Lord, and there is no other. (vv. 5-6)
Thus the Lord chooses Cyrus, this unbelieving Persian emperor, calls him, honors him and anoints him to perform a work that will cause God to be glorified throughout the whole earth.
Now this creates a problem. It doesn’t seem right that God should so honor and use a man who does not honor him in return, in fact, a man who doesn’t even know him! It’s the same sort of problem the prophet Habakkuk experienced when he learned that God had chosen the Babylonians to be his instruments of judgment. The Babylonians! Why, they were far worse than the people of Judah! Was that fair? Is it just to punish sin by using people who are even more evil than those you’re punishing? Is it right to save through the efforts of a godless king? When so many people are crying out to God, “Use me,” and praying that they might be his instruments, how can God go and choose someone who doesn’t even know him?
There’s no such objection explicitly stated in Isaiah 45, the chapter that talks about Cyrus, but it’s clear that the Lord is responding to this sort of criticism here (see verses 9-13). “Do you question me about my children,” he asks, “or give me orders about the work of my hands?” (v. 11; cf. Romans 9:20-21). God will do whatever he chooses to do, and we may be sure that whatever he chooses to do will be right. “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness,” he says: “I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free” (v.13).
Lessons from Cyrus the Messiah
As I reflect upon these verses from Isaiah 45, a couple of things strike me about God’s choice and use of this surprising — and unwitting! — servant, Cyrus of Persia. The first is a truth we learn a little later in Isaiah, in the marvelous words of chapter 55. God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are far above our thoughts. He may very well choose to work through people we find objectionable for various reasons: morally objectionable, politically objectionable, theologically objectionable, socially objectionable. And sometimes our objections may be valid, but that still doesn’t stop God. He can accomplish his purpose by working through those who don’t deserve to be used, even through those who don’t realize they are being used.
We tend to think that our flaws and imperfections make us unworthy of being God’s anointed servants. Well, we’re right; they do! But God is a God who uses unworthy instruments. Indeed, he doesn’t have any other kind!
You’ll often hear a point being made in Christian circles is that the Lord can’t and won’t work through people who are not completely committed to him or walking in perfect fellowship with him. That’s simply not true. God works all the time through people who are less than thoroughly committed to him.
Now this does not excuse our moral failures as his servants. It doesn’t justify our incompetence or our half-hearted devotion. We must always strive to be and to do our best for Christ and his kingdom. But it’s a comfort to know that our flaws do not render us useless, and that even our worst failures can never frustrate his purposes or prevent them from being fulfilled. Come to think of it, this could actually be good news for us. The God who could use a pagan king like Cyrus might even be able to use someone of weak faith and spotty obedience; in other words, somebody like me, for example!
The other thing that strikes me here is what a great God we do have! “Our God is an awesome God,” the kids sing, and how right they are! Listen again to all that we are told about God just in these few verses from Isaiah 44 and 45. He is our Maker and Redeemer, the prophet says. He is the Creator who made the whole universe all by himself, but who also formed each one of us in our mother’s womb (44:24). He is the God who confounds all false religion and philosophy, but who confirms the words of his own servants (44:25-26). He is the sovereign Lord of history who determines the outcome of battles and decides the fortunes of people and nations (45:1, 7). Most important of all, he is the only real God. “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God” (45:5).
Give thanks for the tremendous privilege of knowing and serving such a God! Offer yourself to him to be used by him, not unwitting like Cyrus, but with all your heart.