In this passage we have the report of the direct prediction that the LORD called Cyrus to be His servant to deliver His people Israel, in order that all might know that the LORD is God. Critical to this section is the knowledge of the LORD, both from the predictive side that He can prophesy, and from the effective side, that He does this that people might know that He is the LORD. The section draws out all the implications of this truth on several levels.
At the heart of this oracle is the mention of Cyrus by name. He is first introduced in Isaiah 44:28; but then in 45 the point is stressed that the LORD called him by name. Those who hold to the traditional view of the book point to this passage as a remarkable example of God’s ability to predict the future. Those who take the critical view argue that since prophets do not predict in such a specific way in the Old Testament, we have here evidence of a later author in the Babylonian exile, who knew about Cyrus and “predicted” that he should be the deliverer.
Isaiah 45:1-7, the central core of this section, certainly stresses the sovereignty of God. Note the verbs as you read it through: I go before. I anoint. I hold the right hand. I level, break, cut. I give. I call by name. I call by name. I bestow honor. I strengthen. I create. I form. I make peace. I create evil (*). Over fourteen times in this passage the LORD declares His acts. And the sum of it is the oft-repeated “I AM YAHWEH.”
There is a strong parallel to this particular focus on the sovereignty of God portrayed in the Book of Exodus with Moses and Pharaoh—a point that our prophet has already alluded to by indicating that this deliverance would be a second exodus. Note these motifs in Exodus: Pharaoh said, “I know not the LORD” (5:2); God said that He would deal with Pharaoh by a mighty hand (6:1), declaring “I AM YAHWEH” (6:2 and 6:6), and that when He redeemed (=delivered) His people they would “know” that He was the LORD (6:7); God promised to bring them to their land to possess it (6:8); and declared to Pharaoh that by this he too would know that “I AM YAHWEH” (7:17). Exodus 9:16 also announced, “I raised you up for this purpose, that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” This, of course, provided that basis of Paul’s discussion of God’s sovereignty in Romans 9:17; Paul also cited Exodus 33:19 to say that God would have mercy on whom He would have mercy. Paul also reasoned that God is like a potter; and the clay cannot say to the potter, “Why have you made me thus?” The idea of the potter and the clay is drawn from Isaiah 45:9, the context right after our passage. So the connection to Exodus and to Romans 9 are an important part of the discussion of the theology of this chapter.
In fact, a close reading of Romans 9—11, the passage where Paul explains how God controls nations with a view to His plan for Israel, draws heavily on the Book of Isaiah:
9:20 = Isaiah 29:16; 45:9 the potter and the clay
9:28 = Isaiah 10:22,23 carry out judgment with speed
9:29 = Isaiah 1:9 spared judgment like Sodom
9:33 = Isaiah 8:14; 28:16 stumbling stone for unbelievers
10:11 = Isaiah 28:16 believers not shamed
10:15 = Isaiah 52:7 beautiful are feet—good news
10:16 = Isaiah 53:1 who has believed our report?
10:20 = Isaiah 65:1 I revealed to those not asking
10:21 = Isaiah 65:2 all day long I hold out my hand
11:8 = Isaiah 29:10 God blinded Israel
11:27 = Isaiah 59:20,21,27 “All Israel will be saved when I take away her sins.”
11:34 = Isaiah 40:3 Who has been His counselor?
Clearly, the themes of the prophecies were most significant for Paul’s argument that God sent His people into exile for sin, that a remnant of believers was preserved,115 that the nation received good news, that most of the people were hesitant to believe the good news, and that the restoration of the land was a sign of the ultimate salvation of Israel. It is difficult to sort out how many were true believers and what kind of redemption was intended. It would be safe to say that Isaiah has in mind deliverance from bondage in exile as the primary meaning; but that cannot be separated from spiritual deliverance—it was salvation because sins were forgiven, punishment completed, and God was delivering. But some rescued from exile were already believers; some came to faith at that time; and some came home without fully believing. But the fulfillment, the final restoration when all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11) will be both a physical deliverance and spiritual. Likewise, when the true Church is rescued from this world at the end of the age, only true believers will be included.
We are in the section of the book that portrays the sovereignty of the LORD as the basis for faith that the LORD will fulfill His promises. Isaiah 44:24-28 forms the first part of the study, but could serve as a prologue. The LORD is presented there as the Creator and Redeemer who makes liars and diviners frustrated by restoring Israel to her land. For this purpose God raised up Cyrus who would perform all the LORD’s pleasure in restoring Jerusalem and its temple. So with those claims the LORD reveals what He is about to do with Cyrus.
Isaiah 45:1-7 is the heart of this revelation of God’s sovereign power over the nations for His own purposes. I would think that the primary focus of the theology here would be as the passages points to, namely, know the LORD . We shall come back and develop this later; for now it is helpful to keep it in mind. “Knowing the LORD” involves both the realization and apprehension of facts about who He is and what He has and can do. It may also involve an act of the will by faith, an acknowledgment that Yahweh is God. I say “may” because we have samples where it does not. In Egypt God brought the plagues on Pharaoh that he might know that the LORD is God. Well, in his heart he would have had to admit that—but he never became a believer. Whereas the Israelites were told by Moses that when they were delivered they would know that He was God. For them the deliverance confirmed their faith. Likewise, at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, “every knee shall bow and tongue confess” that He is LORD—some as believes in joy, others in forced recognition at judgment.
In the rest of the chapter the prophet will describe the sovereign work of the LORD in bringing nations into submission to His plan. After an initial key summary statement of His plan for righteousness and salvation to fill the earth (45:8), the prophet announces woes on the critics who reject the Creator and His choice of Cyrus (9-13). This LORD will bring the Gentile powers to bow down to Israel in humiliation and to worship with them in Jerusalem (14-19). Consequently, the nations should pay attention to these oracles and be saved (20-25).
I see three developments of ideas in this passage that unfold the message. First, there are the claims of the LORD, namely, that He controls history through His control of Cyrus; secondly, the purpose of this is that all might know Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be the sovereign Lord God; and third, the explanation of all this is that He alone is sovereign over all creation, and if He can control all creation He can surely control Cyrus for His purpose for Israel.
There are several words that you would want to study in this passage. Certainly the verb “to know” (yada`) would be a primary choice, not to find a new and improved translation, but to uncover its many refinements and ramifications. The term essentially describes personal, intimate, experiential knowledge. But since it is normally just translated “know,” you will want to focus on its various categories of use. It can be used for simply knowing about things, for integrating facts by experience in life (common use in Proverbs), for acknowledging something such as the sovereignty of God or personal sin or confessing faith, for God’s evaluative knowledge (Ps. 139), almost on a par with salvation (“The LORD knows the way of the righteous”), and it can even be used for sexual intercourse. So the information available certainly stress an experiential knowledge.
I should also think that verse 7 will demand some precise thinking since it uses some critical theological terms in a strong way. The terms translation “good and evil” (here shalom and ra`), which are parallel to the poetic “light and darkness,” will need definition. We have already discussed shalom earlier. Ra` is normally translated “evil”; but it is wider than acts of sin. Ra` describes the opposite of “good” (normally tob): the term depicts that which brings pain, that is, whatever harms, hinders, interrupts, afflicts of destroys life is “evil.”116 So you will have to determine from usage (which gives the range of meanings) and from the context (which restricts the choice) if these terms in Isaiah mean “well-being and disaster,” or ethical “good and evil,” or if they refer to Persian dualism (or a combination of these possibilities).
In this short section the prophet declares the claim of the LORD to sovereignty, and the demonstration of that sovereignty by frustrating liars and diviners who said there would be no regathering of the people. Instead, God raised up a pagan king, Cyrus, who would be God’s “shepherd” to perform all God’s pleasure. This pagan king did not even know that his rise to power was God’s work with God’s intention in mind.
In these first few verses the prophet will stress that God ordains and empowers individuals to change history in order that they might acknowledge His sovereignty.
The first verse of the chapter introduces the call of Cyrus, using the Word of the LORD as the introduction. If the direct speech begins in verse 2, the phrases in verse 1 still record the LORD’s Word about this king. The striking point, though, is that Cyrus is called “His anointed” (meshikho from mashakh), a term usually reserved for the believing and/or Israelite kings. Here it carries its widest meaning of being set apart for a task.
Moreover, the king is said to be strengthened by the LORD: “whose right hand I made strong” (hekhezaqti from khazaq), the “right hand” being the idiom for “power” (a metonymy of cause). Cyrus was strengthened by God because he had a task that God wanted him to perform.
The purpose of God’s calling Cyrus was to “subdue all nations”—as an empire builder Cyrus would put down all rebellious states and unify the Fertile Crescent. The language here says that the LORD will subdue the nations, strip the kings, and open the doors—all these then being metonymies of cause, for the LORD would enable Cyrus to do it. In addition, each of these activities as metonymies represents more than what they merely express. “Stripping kings of armor” would be the effect of defeating them. “Opening doors” would be the effect of surrendering army.117
Thus, according to the message of the prophet, the LORD—Yahweh—of Israel did all this. Archaeology turned up the cylinder seal of Cyrus which gives a parallel account (see the additional page in this section). In that Cyrus claims Marduk called him by name and took him by the hand to subdue nations. Some critics claim that (Deutero-)Isaiah used this text and simply corrected the theology, that it was Yahweh who did it. Other scholars argue that Cyrus or members of his court changed the Hebrew oracle to read about Marduk. Marduk was the god of Babylon, not Cyrus’ god. But to use Marduk would have appealed to the conquered people, namely, that their god brought Cyrus. Josephus records that it was the reading of Isaiah that prompted Cyrus to favor the Jews. He had the policy of restoring people to their lands; this might have hastened it, and added the financial support for the rebuilding.
The point can be stressed all along the way that God raises up pagan kings and powers to serve His purpose. The hymn of Daniel (in Daniel 2) declares that God sets up kings and removes kings—they are at His beckon call. Deuteronomy 32 said that God arranged the boundaries of all the nations with the number of the tribes of Israel in mind. To Pharaoh the word was, “For this cause I raised you up.” So throughout the Bible God uses pagan nations for divine purposes. Believers need not fear when they hear the international news, for God is sovereign over them all.
Cyrus was empowered by Yahweh to do what was to be done. The language of verses 2 and 3a is figurative and needs explanation. I would take “mountains” to be an implied comparison (hypocatastasis) with obstacles or opposition. It will be military (I doubt that God was going to flatten the earth in his pathway; in fact, it was already pretty flat). “Breaking down the gates” and “cutting bars” would be metonymical, the cause being put for the effect (given in verse 1) or the adjunct being put for the thing. God would bring down any opposition that Cyrus might meet. The iron gates would be actual gates of iron—there were 100 such gates leading into Babylon; the LORD opened the way for Cyrus to parade into the city without even a fight.
The LORD would also give Cyrus the treasures. I think that this is fairly literal in that the treasures would be the wealth that Babylon stored up in the vaults and archives. “Darkness” and “secret places” would be metonymies of adjunct, though, for the vaults would be in dark and secret places.
The purpose statement here focuses our attention on the verb “to know.” There are three levels of meaning of this verb in theological contexts: (1) to know in the sense of intellectual assent, that is, to know or realize facts; (2) to know in the sense of belief, that is, saving knowledge, personal experiential saving knowledge; and (3) to know publicly, to acknowledge or admit, and even to praise. At least the first is meant in this verse (compare Pharaoh in Exodus, and compare Daniel 4). Beyond that we do not know what happened to Cyrus. Josephus record of the tradition that he was moved by Isaiah’s writing is interesting, but even if true (and Josephus has proved to be more reliable than many thought) would say nothing to help us here. God would at least make His point with this king, maybe more.
The next few verses clarify that God summons and enables such individuals for the good of His people Israel, to fulfill His plan for them, that all may know the LORD.
This passage explains that God chose Cyrus for the sake of Israel, even though Cyrus did not know the LORD. One is reminded of Pharaoh again—”Who is Yahweh? I know not Yahweh!” But if Cyrus did not know of the LORD before this, he came to know about Him, and did cooperate with the divine plan (as if he had a choice).
Here, though, we find the main purpose of this whole section (so I would focus attention here). God was doing all this for the sake of Israel. He had a plan for Israel, and that plan involved all nations, whether as the means of discipline or the means of restoration. Pharaoh had been raised for one purpose, that God might destroy him as the evil oppressor. God also had a plan for Cyrus.
So God could work through a pagan king who had not known the LORD nor acknowledged Him. Cyrus may well have remained a pagan after this was over, because he gave the credit to Marduk—unless that was merely to patronize the Babylonian people.
Israel here is called “my chosen” (behiri from bahar) and “my servant.”118 The focus of the divine plan is on Israel, not on Cyrus, although I am sure that he thought of himself more important than they. But God had chosen Israel as His people; the verb “choose” is the main Old Testament word for election, signifying a choice out of a number. They did not choose God, as He maintained regularly, but God chose them to be His servant nation in the world. And because of the covenant promises to Israel, God would arrange the history of the nations around Israel’s situation. That Israel was to be a servant reminds the reader that they were originally to be a kingdom of priests for the LORD, to be the channel of blessing for the families of the world.
Still focusing on the choice and the preparation of Cyrus, the prophet reiterates the sovereignty of the LORD in spite of the fact that Cyrus was ignorant of Him (verse 5). The Word of the LORD is, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other God besides Me.” This point will continue to be made throughout this section of the book. Yahweh claims absolute and exclusive authority. Marduk is nothing. Bel is a phantasy. Nebo is worthless. Only Yahweh is God.
So it is only Yahweh who could strengthen Cyrus—not even his own deities could do this.119 Salvation can only come to people when they realize that what they have believed in was not what has helped or benefitted them—it was the LORD and His common grace, moving towards efficacious grace.
Verse 6 is subordinated to the preceding verse as the purpose clause. It forms a parallel with verse 3, which also stresses this same purpose for Cyrus. That is why I have made the break here in my outline—to have each of the first two sections end with the purpose that people might know the LORD—even though one could do it differently as long as the context is not altered. I took verse 7 to be a moire universal proclamation, not limited to the Cyrus event, but certainly bringing it all to a culmination.
“From the rising of the sun” is a metonymy for either the east or the morning (adjunct); likewise, “setting” could be for either the west or the evening. I suspect a double meaning here is involved, for both ideas are true—all day and everywhere. So the two form a megrims.
They will all acknowledge that there is no God beside Yahweh. “There is no other.” God demands absolute allegiance; He claims exclusive rights to this by virtue of creation and redemption.
This verse “tops off” the discussion: Yahweh is the sovereign creator and powerful controller of all aspects of life. The key issue in this verse is the relationship between the pairs: light and darkness, peace and disaster. In the context of the book, having been exiled into Babylon was a disaster, but being restored to the land was peace. Here Yahweh is saying that He controls these kinds of prospects. But He may be saying a good deal more as well, for He uses the words for creation as well. So He might be saying that He is sovereign over all the forces of good and evil in this creation—and the Bible certainly teaches that. One need not, however, say that this passage teaches that God created the chaos of Genesis, let alone sin. This would all contrast with clear affirmations in the Bible.
With this statement the text may also be a polemic against Persian Zoroastrianism with its dualism. They may be polarized items (light and dark, for example) but they are all under the power and authority of Yahweh.
It may be that there is sufficient material here for a separate message entirely. In that case the sub-points of the previous section would simply become Roman numerals, as would the sub-points in this section. But this material follows so closely on the preceding that it should be connected.
The prophet uses very poetic imagery to make this broad principle. It is as if the heavens were to open and pour out righteousness. This image shows the source of the salvation and the effect of it—it will produce salvation. Just as rain produces crops, so righteousness (i.e., divine intervention) will bring salvation.
In this section the prophet pronounces woes on the critics who oppose or do not believe God’s plan to deliver Israel. The challenge is whether the clay can ask the potter why the program is as it is. The LORD, after all, is the sovereign Creator. He has made everything; He can predict what will happen. And here he predicts that Cyrus will build His city and set the exiles free.
In verse 14-17 the oracle announces that the Gentile powers will have to submit to God and His plan, to acknowledge that Israel’s God is the sovereign God. All of this will work to the salvation of Israel.
The LORD once again reiterates His sovereignty. He is the LORD God. He has revealed His plan openly. He speaks righteousness. He again challenges the pagan idol worshiper to come and declare the future. No one else has from antiquity declared the future.
In view of this, the advice is given to the nations to Look to me and be saved. The word is given that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear to the LORD. Those who were incensed against the LORD will be put to shame; those who believe will join the remnant, the seed of Israel, that shall be justified.
The point of the passage would bring great comfort to the believers as they saw how God could work all things together for the good. It would also be instructive for them, and for all worldlings, to learn that God expects acknowledgment that comes from faith.
There is another aspect of this whole section that needs to be probed somewhere. In the Old Testament (as well as the New) Babylon was the epitome of the “anti-kingdom.” In Genesis 11 the people settled in Babylon after the flood in rebellion against God; they came together to unite and to become famous. God judged them by confusing their language and then eventually scattered them across the face of the earth. Thus with the antagonism that would grow, God chose to use war as a means of holding nations in check—war and conflict was better than collective apostasy. So Cyrus’ coming would be seen as a part of God’s plan to overthrow the evil empire (see also the Book of Revelation).
God’s plan of redemption seeks to overthrow this work by various parts to the plan. One part was the confusing of their language.120 Zephaniah 3 prophesies that God will regather His people by giving them one pure language. And Acts 2, recording a partial fulfillment, serves as a harbinger of that coming day when the Spirit of the LORD will be poured out on all flesh. Babylon teaches us that unity of people is a disaster unless it is a unity with God. If unity, or community, is going to work at all, God has to do the uniting and the changing of people; for even in Christianity unless the participants are humble servants of the LORD, there will be difficulties.
We could thus summarize this passage’s point by saying: Those who truly know the LORD (=believers) will acknowledge His sovereignty in word and deed, so that He can re-unite and restore and renew His people to their calling. God was raising a pagan king to destroy the pagan empire of Babylon so that Israel could be set free and start again; all of this was done that the world might know that Yahweh is the true God, and that by recognizing that they might turn to Him and be saved.
In a secondary point we could say, Those unbelievers who for one reason or another share part of God’s work must of necessity admit that Yahweh is the true God. Every one must admit this, either now in faith for salvation, or later in humiliation when they realize He is the LORD of creation, the LORD of history, and the LORD of all nations.
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115 It is important to understand that according to the biblical writers' theology, true believers believe the Word of the LORD, not only the Law of Moses, but new revelation from the prophets. If the prophets truly were sent by God, their messages were to be believed; and a true believer would do that. Thus, the prophetic oracles became Scripture in par with the Law. In the days of Jeremiah, "pious priests" rejected the prophet and claimed to hold to the Law--selectively interpreted. Likewise, when Jesus came into the world as the full revelation of God, the true remnant would gradually turn to Him by faith, because they were inclined to believe the Word of the LORD. It took a little time to convince them that He was from God, because it was so radically different from what the leaders were teaching. But the "remnant" will take that next step into the further revelation of God. Nowadays it is different, because no new Scripture is being written; the new programs of God that are yet to come have all been fully revealed to the prophets and the apostles.
116 For a discussion of the words "good" and "evil" as they work together in the Bible, seen my treatment in the introductory materials in Creation and Blessing.
117 It is interesting how literally this happened with Babylon. The general of Cyrus, one Ugbaru (whom Daniel calls by the title Darius) managed to take the city of Babylon in the same way that Babylon earlier had taken Nineveh, by diverting the river and breaking in. But when Cyrus came to Babylon a few weeks later the gates were opened to him and he was hailed as the great king.
118 The use of "servant" throughout these sections makes an interesting study. Cyrus is the LORD's servant; Israel is the LORD's servant; but ultimately the Messiah is the Servant of the LORD.
119 Recall Jesus' words to Pilate: "You could have no power against Me except it were given to you from above" (John 19:11).
120 Babylon was always known as a cosmopolitan center because of the number of people and variety of languages. So a judgment of God is eventually turned into a claim to fame by Babylon.