An Instrument of God

We continue our walk through Isaiah with Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) as our guide. Today we focus on Isaiah 44:24-45:13, an oracle that names an historical figure, Cyrus, and calls him God’s anointed. The image to the right is of a monument to Cyrus. An abbreviated version of Isaiah 44-45 emphasizing Cyrus as an instrument of God is below:

“This is what the Lord says—
your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb:

who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd
and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,”
and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:

For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,

“This is what the Lord says—
the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker:

I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness:
I will make all his ways straight.
He will rebuild my city
and set my exiles free,
but not for a price or reward,
says the Lord Almighty.”

The prophet in Second Isaiah makes it clear that Cyrus is an instrument of God, anointed by God to serve the purpose that God has ordained. He is not, however, a servant of God. As Witherington emphasizes (quoting Westerman, Isaiah 40-66): “this is simply because ‘servant’ implies a mutual relationship in which there is permanence. This does not apply in the case of Cyrus; for what God gives him is a non-recurrent task in one particular set of circumstances.” The repetition of “though you do not know me” is deliberate. This is not an oracle about the conversion of the Persian king to belief in Yahweh. (p. 212)

Cyrus does not know or acknowledge God, yet he is used by God. To be anointed by God or used by God need not necessarily reflect positively on the instrument. Nor does it mean the instrument has any specific relationship with God. Cyrus is given a positive spin in this passage, but he is not a man after God’s own heart. This oracle makes it clear that Yahweh is creator of the entire world, that he and he alone is God. In fact, the emphasis throughout the entire oracle is on God.

Yahweh is not just a local deity, or the deity of a particular tribe or ethnic group or empire. He is the God of all creation, and as Isaiah insists, the only real God. As such he rules over the nations just as much as he rules over Israel, and he has every right to use the nations and their rulers for the benefit of Israel. Yahweh will aid Cyrus in the dismantling of Babylon. He is literally given his marching orders here. (p. 215)

There are several important points we can take from the oracles of Second Isaiah, and this oracle in particular. First, there is only one God. He created the world and everything in it and remains active and in control. Second, the context of the text is clear, “Second Isaiah is surely in the exile and is written to exilic Jews.“(p. 216) Third, we can gain important insights into the nature of prophecy in the OT. Prophecy can have a near horizon or be eschatological with a far horizon. Eschatological prophecy does not name specifics. Near horizon prophecy can, and Cyrus is a case in point here. Witherington does not view this oracle as an “after the fact” writing, but one just before the return from exile providing comfort and hope to the Jewish people.

These near horizon prophecies are predictive just as the far more vague distant horizon ones are. … It is precisely because the prophecies of Isaiah ben Amoz did come true, that Israel in exile can know that God has a track record of keeping his prophetic word, and so there is good reason indeed for rejoicing and taking comfort, even from an oracle about a Persian conqueror named Cyrus. (p. 217)

God is in control as judge and redeemer. As the Septuagint has it, thus says the Lord, who redeems you.

Does the view that reference to Cyrus is a “near horizon prophecy” challenge your notion of prophecy in the OT?

What is the primary purpose of this oracle?


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This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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