Who is God’s anointed? The obvious answer for us is, ‘Jesus.’ But the passage from Isaiah gave an answer which would have shocked his listeners or readers to the core. ‘Cyrus’ was God’s anointed – Cyrus, the king of Persia, a man with no Jewish blood in him whatsoever, who was probably Zoroastrian in religion. (Most scholars reckon that this passage must have been written after Cyrus came to power; he conquered Babylon in 539 BC, whereas Isaiah’s call to be a prophet took place around 742 BC, two centuries earlier. Some scholars believe the name Cyrus must have been added later; others that Isaiah, being a prophet, foretold the future. Whenever it was first given, it would have been shocking.)
The people of Israel had been exiled to Babylon, and Jerusalem and its temple destroyed. However, when Cyrus conquered Babylon he introduced a new policy: to restore to their own lands the people whom the Babylonians had exiled, and to restore their religions which the Babylonians had attempted to repress. One of the peoples to benefit from this policy was the group of Jewish exiles, who were allowed to return to Jerusalem and resettle the area. (The story is told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.) Isaiah’s message is that this policy was not just an accident of history. Cyrus had been chosen by God to do all this, and above all it was for the sake of his people Israel, and was the fulfilment of various prophecies – if not those of Isaiah himself, then certainly those of Jeremiah (see e.g. chapters 25, 50, 51).
Isaiah makes no bones about Cyrus’ lack of faith – he did not acknowledge the God of Israel. Nevertheless it was that God who had called him, strengthened him and given him riches and honour. The God of Israel is in fact the only true God – apart from him there is no other. And it is the God of Israel who created both light and darkness. And, from our point of view, Isaiah goes on to make another shocking claim: that God is the one who brings prosperity and creates disaster. Everything in history, good and bad alike, happens because of God’s involvement. Can that possibly be true?
God is not the author of evil. He is good, and all he does is good. Yet he gives his creatures freedom of choice, including the freedom to choose good or evil. ‘Sin’ is ‘missing the mark’; God sets a mark to aim at – standards of behaviour which are good – and he knows we may miss that mark. When God created the world he knew the risks, and foresaw the evil that would come; yet he went ahead and created it anyway – with a plan to put things right through his Son, and to make out of this mess a world that will be better than anything we can imagine, a world far better than one with no freedom of choice. So God is involved with all that happens, and is working his good purposes out even through the bad things that happen.
Isaiah may not have thought of all that. He knew that Cyrus would be a good thing for the Jews – and that he would be a disaster for his enemies. Prosperity for one is usually disaster for another. Isaiah knew that God’s sovereignty over history did not suspend the laws of cause and effect, and that all choices had consequences, sometimes evil ones, and that good people often suffer. But above all, he knew that God is good.
1) What should our attitude be to those in authority over us?
2) Do ‘all things work together for good?’ (Romans 8:28)