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God’s plan for His people is not subject to the vagaries of man’s choices. In fact, often the opposite is true: God leads people to obedience to Him and works through people to accomplish His purposes. During the years that ancient Israel was approaching its demise due to its apostasy, there was a great need for God to encourage and direct His people. The remnant of faithful had diminished in number and influence and would ultimately survive the destruction of their nation. However, this would only take place through the action of two pagan kings: Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Cyrus of Persia.
As we investigate this passage it would be instructive to first note who Cyrus is. Recall that Isaiah’s prophesy was written about 100-150 years before the southern nation of Judah was destroyed by the nation of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus was a Persian king who led the combined armies of the Medes and Persians against Babylon shortly after Babylon destroyed Judah. Consequently it is about 200 years between the writing of Isaiah and the reign of Cyrus, leading many to conclude that the writings of Isaiah were actually written after the Babylonian exile. However, historical and contextual evidence clearly places the ministry of Isaiah at the earlier date.
Isaiah 45:1-2. Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; 2I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:
The Persian king, Cyrus was extremely successful in his military conquests. Note, written two centuries before, Isaiah notes that Cyrus’ success came at the hand of God. The “right” hand symbolized an individual’s power, and God states that it is He who holds Cyrus’ power so that the nations would fall before him. The LORD did, indeed, grant Cyrus a wide kingdom, reaching from central Egypt through southern Greece. Some of the kingdoms conquered by Cyrus included the Asiatics, Arabians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Bactrians, Cappodocians, Carians, Cilicians, Cyprians, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, Lydians, Maryandines, Paphloagonians, Phoenicians, Phrygians, Saciens, Syrians, and others.
The two leaved gates refer to the bronze gates of Babylon. The defeat of Babylon by Cyrus is recorded in Daniel, chapter 5. Cyrus lead the Meads and Persians against the city in 539 B.C. only to find its king Belshazzar distracted by a feast. The Persians diverted the flow of the Euphrates into a swamp, lowering the water level enough to march their army under the river gates to the city gates, only to find them open.
Isaiah 45:3-4. And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel. 4For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.
First, God is making it clear to Cyrus, through the two-centuries old prophecy, that God provided the city and its treasures to Cyrus. The previous kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, and Belshazzar had held the remnant of Judah captive. Having completely conquered the region, there was no political advantage to keeping the Judeans in Babylon, so it would be Cyrus who would have the opportunity to free the remnant from bondage. Consequently, it was for the remnant that God would choose and “anoint” this pagan Persian king.
God also makes it clear to Cyrus that he is known by God by name, having been called by name through Isaiah’s writing, even though Cyrus does not know God. So, God communicates to Cyrus a little about the One who has given him such a great nation.
Isaiah 45:5-7. I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: 6That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. 7I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
Like so many of the pagan nations, Persia was polytheistic. The Persians believed in two opposite gods, one a god of good (Ahura-mazda who created light) and a god of evil (Angra-mainya who created darkness). God is the creator and LORD of all, both good and evil, for evil is simply a perversion of that which is good.
Where the Persians had a god for every physical event, God communicates directly to Cyrus, through Isaiah, that He is the only one and true God, and it is He who has strengthened Cyrus. The pagans believed that their gods were responsive to them through their actions, God states that his blessing of Cyrus is one-sided: Cyrus did not perform any rite of worship or any other action to warrant God’s good favor.
Why did God do this? First, God stated that he is using Cyrus for the sake of Jacob, a reference to the remnant of Israel that is still being held captive. Second, God is revealing himself to Cyrus so that He might use this Persian king for His own purpose. By granting Cyrus a wide area of conquest, the Persian reign would bring a period of peace to the entire region, providing an opportunity for the remnant to safely return to Jerusalem. Also by revealing Himself and His purpose to this Persian King, Cyrus will have the opportunity to share this truth with his nation that now encompasses the nations that had previously vexed Judah and Israel. For the first time, the pagan nations would hear from their own King a testimony of the reality of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Isaiah 45:8. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it.
Where the Persians would worship a god of rain in an effort to obtain it, God simply speaks and the rains fall. The Persians place great effort in their worship of their fertility Gods in an effort to realize a fruitful harvest of man, beast, and field. However, God simply speaks, and all the earth brings forth life. Furthermore, the gift of life that comes simply from God’s will includes both physical and spiritual blessing as God is the creator of life, and the author of righteousness. All of Cyrus’ gods are simply mythical creations of man’s creative mind, whereas the LORD God is the true God, and the One who created all things.
It is notable that Isaiah makes use of the covenant name for God, as God refers to Himself as LORD, YAHWEH, God who was the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus Christ.
Isaiah 45:9-10. Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? 10Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth?
God then reveals to Cyrus the foolishness with which one denies God. He repeats the metaphor of the potter and the clay as He notes the foolishness that is demonstrated by the discarded pieces of pottery who denies the existence of a potter. The potter’s vision and his fingerprints are all over the pottery, so to deny Him is ridiculous. Furthermore, just as the potter made the completed pot, has the ability to destroy it and scatter it among the potsherds. One is treading in dangerous territory when one denies his creator.
God uses a second metaphor to repeat the same concept, but in a more personal way. One would be completely foolish to deny that they were brought into this world through a mother and father. To do so is to turn to one’s one father or mother and declare, “you did not beget me.” This is what man is doing when he rejects God, denying His true status as the Creator, and by so doing denying His rightful position as LORD.
Israel denied God in this way when they turned from Him to the pagan gods of the world culture in which they were immersed. Society still does the same thing today in many different ways. One way is to dedicate one’s self to any god other than YAHWEH, the LORD. Most of the world religions and cults lead people into this subtle, but deadly, error. Others deny God as they place authority in idols such as a career, the possessions of this world, power and influence, or submit to any other authority other than God.
Isaiah has twice used the phrase, “woe to them,” to illustrate the dramatically dangerous state of those who reject God in favor of the pagan gods of this world. The woe is true and dramatic as it refers to the judgment that comes upon all who reject the Lordship of God in this life: a final and eternal rejection by the Lord when this life experience ends. God has promised an eternal relationship with those who turn to Him in faith, and has promised eternal separation for those who have chosen that separation.
Isaiah 45:11. Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me.
The LORD gives to those who are hearing Isaiah’s prophesy a rhetorical question. First He describes the nature of His own character, as the true God, the true LORD it is He who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Holy One of Israel. Furthermore it is He who created Israel. Having created mankind, and having created Israel it is God’s opportunity and right to lead and direct Israel in the manner of His wisdom and choosing. If God chooses to free Israel from their exile through the edicts of a pagan king, what person can stand with God and challenge His methods or reasons? Who has any right to make any command or demand upon God? Without such rights, God still meets us at our point of need and invites such a question concerning His son, Israel.
Isaiah 45:12-13. I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded. 13I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts.
This prophesy from God is pointed at the apostate Israel, and reminds the nation that it is He who created all that is, and it is He who has the sole ability to command the heavens and all their hosts. God is the creator and commander of all of the universe and all of eternity. He has the wisdom to command heaven and earth, and has the wisdom to choose how He will redeem Israel. Referring again to Cyrus, God declares His future purpose as, though the nations of Israel and Judah will fall, He will preserve a remnant in Babylon, a remnant that will be given into the hands of Cyrus the king of Persia, who will (1) rebuild the destroyed Jerusalem, and (2) release the captive remnant. Furthermore, Cyrus will do this without any potential of reward, but rather simply because God will lead him to do this.
The proof of prophesy is in its historical fulfillment. Even the name, “Cyrus” is amazing since this prophecy was written 200 years before Cyrus did, indeed conquer the nations, set the remnant of Israel free, and commission and support the rebuilding of Jerusalem. We find much of the history of the rebuilding in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
This passage illustrates for us an amazing and true narrative of how God intervenes and works among His people in order to accomplish His purposes. We might ask ourselves, if God can accomplish so much through a pagan named Cyrus, how much can He accomplish when He works through the hearts and the hands of today’s faithful believers. It is God’s purpose that Israel be saved and be brought back into the fold of the Good Shepherd, the Messiah, Jesus Christ who, as YAHWEH, gave this very message to Isaiah. Christians today carry that message of love and grace and have the opportunity to share it with those who need to hear it, including the prodigal nation of Israel, the blood descendents of Abraham. However, God also opened up His purpose of grace to the Gentiles, who now make up the bulk of the fellowship of faithful believers. God also works through faithful Christians to bring his message of grace to the Gentiles, those who are not blood descendents of Abraham.
Let us be reminded that as God could work through Cyrus, He can also work through the life of every Christian who will fully submit to His Lordship, and by so doing bring under His influence and control all of the gifts, talents, and interests that He has given us. It is then that God can fully use us, and it is then that we will see Him accomplish His purpose through us.