Writing straight on crooked lines – Wednesday, 3rd week in Advent – Isaiah 45: 6b-8,18,21b-25
Placing a text in its context helps us understand what the sacred writer wants to communicate. This passage stands in the centre of the first half of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), which was composed in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. In its background lies Judah’s half-century of exile after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. It was written to encourage Judeans scattered by the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. to return and rebuild their city and temple.
There is a new world order as Nabonidus, the final Babylonian king has been defeated by Cyrus the King of Persia. Prominent in the first verse of this chapter is the name of the Persian conqueror credited with taking over Babylon in the 540’s. Isaiah wants the people to know that through Cyrus, God will fulfil his divine purpose, allowing the exiles to return home to rebuild Jerusalem (44:28).
The heirs of the Davidic dynasty, who had ruled for nearly four centuries, were snuffed out (2 Kings 25:7) or kept under close watch in the Babylonian court (2 Kings 25:27-30). To many people, the restoration of Judah meant a return to the ways things had been. Post exilic prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah promoted the restoration of Davidic rule. Imagine their shock when they hear is verse one, “ thus says the Lord to his ANOINTED, to Cyrus whose right hand I have grasped.” While the term messiah (māšîaḥ) is not abundant in the Old Testament, occurring about thirty five times, the remnant of Judah would have associated “messiah” almost exclusively with their own king from the house of David.
The Hebrew word for “anointed” is mashiach, “messiah” or “ Christos ( Christ) in Greek. While the title of ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is a bit hard for us to swallow when attached to a Persian King and that too announced by the prophet Isaiah, the reality was that various figures were ‘anointed’ in ancient Judah; not only kings but also high priests, and occasionally prophets. However, all of them had crucial religious roles. Anointing implicitly reflected a close relationship with God and special divine blessing. So for Isaiah to proclaim the ‘messiahship’ of Cyrus, a foreign conqueror, would have been a shock. How could that office be assumed by a foreign conqueror? So what are we to do with Cyrus, the only non-Israelite leader to be called a messiah? And is the proclamation and title good news or bad news?
It’s clear, I think, that for Second Isaiah, this announcement is meant as good news. We need to understand that the biblical passages in which Cyrus appears are not really about him but about Yahweh and his special plans for Israel’s redemption. This is the key to understanding texts such as this. At the heart of it all is God who uses any medium or messenger to bring about his plans as he did with Cyrus to deliver his people from captivity.
Was Cyrus anointed? Yes he was anointed, but only for the specific task of releasing the captive peoples. The same principle adheres today: rulers and revolutionaries, celebrities and commoners alike come and go on the stage of history while the director of the drama holds history in his hands.
It is for this reason that our text of today reiterates the words “ I am the Lord and there is no other” in verses 5,6b,21b, and 22b. The Lord who made the heavens and the earth asks his people to turn to him for he can turn the tide and make every knee bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
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