Our passage for today comes from the second part of the book of Isaiah, and therefore dates from the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. Towards the end of their imprisonment God sent a prophet, known only to us as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, to proclaim their coming release and repatriation. Today’s passage forms the epicentre of his message, and it contains some deeply counter-cultural messages if we can unpack the background and understand them.
We must begin with the prevailing view of God, or rather ‘gods’. It worked a bit like the Anglican parish system – depending on where you lived, there was a particular god who ruled over your patch. So it was a common feeling among the exiles who, in spite of the fact that they should have known better, became infected with this worldview, and therefore thought they had moved out of Yahweh’s patch and so now were beholden to the gods of Babylon. There was also a sense of conflict among the different gods, a kind of ‘my-god-can-beat-up-your-god’ mentality, which suggested that Yahweh was just one among many, and might well be liable to lose when playing an away match. This passage, like much of Deutero-Isaiah, sets out to subvert these worldviews.
So the previous chapter contains a vicious attack on idols and those who manufacture them, as satirical as any stand-up comic today. The message is that Yahweh alone is God, there simply is no-one else with whom to fight, and certainly no-one to whom he might lose the fight. The chapter comes to a climax in v 24-26 with the declaration that God is the Redeemer, the Creator and the Lord, who promises that Jerusalem will be restored and reinhabited.
But then ‘Cyrus’ walks onto the stage. Whohe? In fact he would have been something of a celeb to the Israelites, but the way he is described would have shocked their socks off. He was the king of Persia, the latest up-and-coming nation, who in fact was to go on and rule over one of the largest empires ever in the area. Yet he is described by the prophet as God’s ‘shepherd’, at whose command Jerusalem is to be rebuilt. But an even greater shock comes in 45:1 where Cyrus is announced as God’s ‘anointed’ – the word is literally ‘Messiah’. What came to pass was that Persia conquered Babylon (you can read that story in the book of Daniel) and decided to let the Israelite slaves return home. All this, the prophet claims, is what God is doing, moving the nations and leaders around like pieces on a chessboard for his purposes and for the good of his people. Not only is he the only God: he is also more than able to use pagan rulers to further his purposes.
So how would we react if a preacher told us that the one true God has called ISIS to fulfil his purposes, or to have referred to Usama bin Laden the ‘Messiah’? I think we have a similar degree of shock here among the exiles at the prophet’s words. Yet we are still tempted to believe that we have a powerless God, who has been defeated by the combined forces of secularism, the multi-faith society and Richard Dawkins. We are still tempted to divide the world into two – the bits God rules over (ie church) and the rest where he has little power. We need Isaiah’s radical message as much as ever, although we need to remember that the exiles had been living as slaves, and believing their delusions for a long time before it was heard.