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Isaiah 45:1-7

October 13, 2014

The philosopher Hegel once said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”  Do we learn anything from history?  Does the human story have lessons, guidance, revelations of deeper truths?  Is the human story meaningless, directionless, endless repeated cycles; or is the human story about something, and is it going somewhere?

Herodotus, the ancient Greek who collected stories of events past, is often called the Father of History.  But the ancient Jews might also have a claim to being the world’s first historians.  They collected the stories of their past and stitched them together to make sense.  They told tales, mostly unflattering, of their kings and generals as well as the common people.  And behind this grand story stood the conviction that God was guiding it all and taking it somewhere–to greater fulfillment, peace and healing for the world.

In Isaiah 45:1-7 we see this bold sense of God’s purpose in history.  Israel was never one of the great empires.  It was always a bit player on the geopolitical stage, a pawn shoved around, exploited, or captured by opposing empires.  One of those empires was Babylonia, which destroyed the Jerusalem temple and deported the leading Jews.  But then, decades later, another empire arose that toppled the Babylonian empire–the Persian empire.  At its head was Cyrus, one of the greatest conquerors of all time who created an empire larger than the world had ever seen before.

It would certainly seem that these great movements of the great empires would be overwhelming evidence that the God of little Israel was a weak and insignificant deity.  But Isaiah makes the opposite claim.  On the contrary, Cyrus is, unwittingly, the saving king sent by and anointed by the God of Israel!  Isaiah calls Cyrus the Lord’s “anointed.”  “Anointed” is the same word as “messiah.”  Quite literally, Isaiah is saying that Cyrus is God’s messiah at this moment in history.  The God of Israel has chosen a pagan conqueror of a foreign empire to fill in the role once occupied by David!

In this important passage we see the faith of Israel taking a great leap forward.  It is common to think that the ancient Israelites were monotheists, believing that only one God exists.  But that is not accurate.  For most of Israel’s history the Israelites believed that every nation had its own god (or gods), but that the God of Israel was above the other gods.  This is called henotheism:  commitment to one god among many gods.  But here we see a bold new belief:  the God of Israel is the only God.  The God of Israel controls (or influences) world events, and even the great conqueror Cyrus is unwittingly acting on God’s behalf.  Isaiah is making the incredible claim that the God of subjugated Israel is the one and only God, responsible for all things!  This is true monotheism.  And its a monotheism not of triumphalism, not of military might, not of political power and empire, but a monotheism that is, in a hidden and subversive way, working on behalf of a small, defeated nation to bring rescue to all nations.

Monotheism has its problems, though.  If there is only one God, and that God is ultimately responsible for all, then that means that God is responsible for the tragedies and evil that happen in the world, as well as the joys and goodness.  Isaiah is willing to make that claim.  “I am Yahweh, there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe.  I, Yahweh, do all these things.”  The Persian religion was dualistic, with a good god and an evil god eternally fighting it out.  But the faith of Israel rejects dualism.  God is one.  And though reality is filled with suffering and tragedy and human evil, Israel still affirmed God is good and just.  History may look pointless and amoral, but the Israelite faith was that behind all the apparent chaos is a slowly unfolding order–an order that allows for human freedom and choice while at the same time moving the human story in the direction of a great shalom.

The study of history neither proves nor disproves this faith.  it is a matter of intuition, of insight, of trust in that which is meaningful and good and ultimate.

American history is an amazing story–both horrible and wonderful.  At this particular time in our political history I am tempted to despair at the inability to reason together and be fair and honest and work toward the common good.  But who knows how God might use these dysfunctional times for a better purpose.  And are we, like Cyrus and the Persians, another blundering empire unwittingly used by God for a different purpose entirely than what we have in mind?

One Comment
  1. Harold Bergey permalink

    Pastor Ryan
    Thanks for your blog on Isaiah 45. You raise some tough questions, with hopeful hints of answers.

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