Cyrus

More years ago than you probably like to remember, you were born. You are not yet ruling an empire. If you want to you had better get a move on. Since that fateful day when you were born, your life has been shaped not only by large scale, international and national forces that are forming the backdrop of your life, but also by certain events that probably come to your mind even as I speak, and by the actions and decisions of individual people who have had a far reaching impact on the direction of your life, and the experiences that make it up thus far. Where is God in your life? 2597 years ago, in 599 BC, a boy called Koresh was born. His father was the prince of Persia. Forty years later Koresh, more usually known to us by the anglicised form of his name, Cyrus, became King of Persia. He was a great leader and empires fell before his conquering armies. In 538 BC, he invaded the mighty Babyonia from the north, even as there was a revolt in the south. He destroyed the Babylonian army. The gates of Babylon itself were opened to him without a fight, and he assumed control of their empire. The great old Kingdom of Assyria was also swallowed up by the invincible Cyrus. Where was God then? Cyrus began to implement his policy of repatriating peoples who had been conquered by the Babylonians and deported from their homelands into exile. He allowed them to carry home with them the images of their gods. Among these groups was an insignificant people called the Jews, whose city, Jerusalem, the Babylonians had brutally raised to the ground, leaving them in desolation and despair. They had no images because they believed their god forbad such things. They were permitted to take with them the old sacred vessels from their temple, which had been plundered by the Babylonian invaders 50 years before. Where was God in all that? 150 years before Cyrus was born, this prophecy was given to Isaiah. What conclusions are we to draw from it that that are relevant for our own lives and our own world? The implications of what is said in this chapter are immense. If you have not yet taken them to heart, then my prayer is that this evening will mark the beginning of a total revolution in your mind, and in your understanding of what God is about as history unfolds - whether the history of empires, or your own life and the events that are shaping it. I want to point up four implications of this prophecy. You will find them on the sermon outline at the back of the service sheet. And there you will see that the first implication is this: First, THE LORD ANNOUNCES HIS PLANS IN ADVANCE Take a look at this prophecy. And so that we can take in the whole thing, jump back to 44.24, and we will run on to 45.7 :

This is what the LORD says - your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the LORD, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, 25 who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense, 26 who carries out the words of his servants and fulfils the predictions of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem,`It shall be inhabited,' of the towns of Judah,`They shall be built,' and of their ruins,`I will restore them,' 27 who says to the watery deep,`Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,' 28 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." 45:1 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 armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me. 5 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, 6 so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

And then look down to 45.13 :

13 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.

What do you make of that? To my mind there are really only two options here. Either this really is the Lord who "made all things" speaking through Isaiah, announcing what will happen 150 years later, mainly in outline, but with one crucial detail: the name of the one who will be God's agent in making it all happen. Or this so-called prophecy is a merely human composition, written after the event to read as if it was written before. What is clear is that the name is not just an incidental detail which could have been added 150 years after an earlier prophecy, using Tippex or the ancient equivalent. It is crucial to what is being said not only that the actual name is being given, but that it is being predicted before it could possibly have been known by any natural means. Great emphasis is laid on the giving of the name. 45.3 : "I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name." What is more, it is fair to say that the integrity and truth of the whole prophecy of Isaiah is made to hang on the fact that the future is accurately predicted. One of the central claims of Isaiah is that there is only one true God. He is the one speaking through the prophet Isaiah. All the idols of the nations of the world are nothing - just useless lumps of wood and stone. Only the true and living God both knows and tells the future. That is what is being said in 45.21 :

Declare what is to be, present it - let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me.

A few chapters earlier on, the Lord challenges the idol worshippers to get their so-called gods to do what he has done. It is worth looking back to this: turn to 41.22:

Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, 23 tell us what the future holds, so that we may know you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. 24 But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; he who chooses you is detestable.

Then v26:

26 Who told of this from the beginning, so that we could know, or beforehand, so that we could say,`He was right'? No-one told of this, no-one foretold it, no-one heard any words from you. 27 I was the first to tell Zion,`Look, here they are!' I gave to Jerusalem a messenger of good tidings. 28 I look but there is no-one - no-one among them to give counsel, no-one to give answer when I ask them. 29 See, they are all false! Their deeds amount to nothing; their images are but wind and confusion.

It is an obvious but basic test of the truth of a prophet's words that what he predicts does happen. So Deuteronomy 18.21-22 asks us to apply this test:

21You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?" 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.

Prophetic ministry is indeed a wider thing than predicting the future. A prophet is God's spokesman, and the message may not necessarily be a prediction. But if anyone who claims to be a prophet - speaking God's words - makes a prediction, and it does not happen, and then do not listen to him. He is deceived or deceiving. Either way he is dangerous. When a prophet foretells the name of one who will send the Jewish exiles back home 150 years before it happens, then he speaks from God. Listen to him. Such is Isaiah. After all, this pattern of events being predicted and then happening is not an isolated instance in the Bible. In fact the whole Bible is really all about promise and fulfilment. Over and over, in many different contexts, God warns of judgement, and promises salvation for his people. And the judgement falls. And the salvation takes place. It is absolutely characteristic of the Living God that he announces his plans in advance. To give a name is exceptional, but even that is not unique: in I Kings 13:2 the name and the actions of the reforming King Josiah are announced 300 years before he comes on the scene. And the real significance of the whole of Isaiah's prophecy is not so much that there will be a pagan emperor called Cyrus, but that God's Redeemer-Servant-King is coming, who will set his people free from their sins and and take the punishment that will bring us peace before taking his throne and ruling for ever. Isaiah, and indeed the whole Bible, is full of predictive prophecy. Some of what he describes is still in the future. But not one word of it has fallen to the ground unfulfilled. For those with ears to hear, this is certain proof that the Lord is God and there is no other. But make no mistake. Plenty of people are deaf to it all. People have always scoffed. And they always will. Until one day they come face to face with the one whose existence they deny. The second implication of this chapter that I would like to draw out is this: Secondly, THE LORD CONTROLS HISTORY IN ORDER TO BRING ABOUT HIS PURPOSES Not only does the Lord announce what he is going to do. He then makes sure that what he has promised does happen. How does he do that? By controlling the whole of history behind the scenes. So 150 years after Cyrus is promised, what happens? He comes on the international political scene, sweeping all before him. And what does he do for the Jews, exiled in Babylonia? For moment, turn to the beginning of the book of Ezra, which is on p473 (just in case in your pew Bible doesn't fall open at the right place). Ezra 1.1-4 :

1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah [not to mention Isaiah!], the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: 2 "This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: "`The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you - may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'"

No doubt from Cyrus' point view this was an enlightened and humane exercise in good community relations in a multi-faith and multi-cultural society. In this proclamation he seems to credit the God of the Jews with giving him his great empire. But another inscription has been found, in which he credits a different god entirely. And here, as he addresses the Jews, he speaks of the Lord as 'their' God, and as being 'in Jerusalem'. No doubt he sees the Lord as a local deity who it is politically expedient to appease. Each to the their own god, and their own city, and they will be all the more content to be under his thumb and his taxes. Little did he realise that it was the true Lord of heaven and earth who was calling the shots, not him. But the Lord's controlling of Cyrus, his power and his policies, is not a one-off exceptional event. It is a window through onto the back-stage of history - an example which shows how in fact the whole of history is under the Lord's control. Every now and again these windows occur in Scripture. For example there is Joseph, cruelly sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. But it was all part of the Lord's plan. So Joseph says when he is reunited with his remorse stricken brothers (Genesis 45.5 and 7):

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you ... God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

Even evil acts God uses to accomplish his purposes and his pre-ordained plans. That stretches our minds to snapping point and beyond, I know. But that must be so if God's sovereignty over sin-saturated mankind is to mean anything. And God's sovereignty even over evil deeds is quite unmistakeable in the Bible. We could pile up examples, but let me just mention two more. When the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the ruthless Assyrians in 722 BC, the Assyrians were acting out of supreme arrogance. And yet their action was in fulfilment of prophecy. The Lord had warned again and again that he would bring terrible judgement on Israel for their wickedness. In Isaiah 10, Assyria is described as the rod of God's anger, the club of his wrath, the axe that the Lord swings. Assyria is despatched by God to do his bidding, even as the Assyrians are engaged in wilful and culpable evil. What blows our minds and yet is so important is this: God is not responsible for their evil. As James 1.13 says:

When tempted, no-one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

We are responsible for our own sin. And yet God controls sin-soaked history. The supreme example of this, of course, is the death of Jesus, the Son of God. God announced it 700 years before the event. Isaiah 53.4 :

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions

Jesus knew what was happening to him, and that it was his Father's will, announced beforehand by the prophets. Luke 18.31-33:

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33 On the third day he will rise again."

And after the event, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed what God had been doing (Acts 2:23) :

This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead

The Lord announces his plans in advance, and he controls history to bring about his purposes. We can dispute that what the Bible says is true. We can try to dispute that what was announced has happened. But I do not see how it is possible to claim that the Bible does not teach this sovereignty of God over history, both in its grand sweep and in its intricate detail. So how are we to respond? Here are two further implications from Isaiah 45 (my third and fourth headings). So: Thirdly, THOSE WHO DO NOT ACKNOWLEDGE THE LORD'S RULE WILL BE SUBJUGATED Cyrus accomplished his conquests as a pagan King, with no knowledge of the living God. The Lord says through Isaiah (this is 45.4-5):

For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me. 5 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

And yet Cyrus is described as the Lord's 'shepherd' (44:28) and as 'his anointed' (45:1). God has chosen him, God has summoned him and strengthened him. He will accomplish all that God pleases (v25). Willing our unwillingly, he will be God's agent, overruled by the Lord. And not Cyrus alone. Look at 45.16:

All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace together.

And then verse 23 :

By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. 24 They will say of me,`In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.'" All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.

Cyrus was the Lord's anointed shepherd, his chosen king for a particular time and one task. It is Jesus, God's Son, who is the good shepherd - his chosen king for all eternity. No one in the end will be able to deny that, or to resist his rule. His Father has placed him on the throne of heaven, says Philippians 2.9-11:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The day will come when those who have failed to acknowledge the Lord will be subjugated, shamed and disgraced. But, fourthly and finally: Fourthly, THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO THE LORD'S RULE WILL BE SAVED The God who is portrayed in the pages of Isaiah is no harsh puppet-master. To be sure, he will not be thwarted, and he will in the end crush all that is evil. But why do you think he announces his plans in advance? Because he wants us to be a part of them. He wants to be to us a tender shepherd, gently leading his sheep to where they need to be. He wants to rain down blessing on us. Isaiah 45.8:

You heavens above, rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the LORD, have created it.

So he issues an open invitation for anyone and everyone who will hear it. 45.22:

Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.

God is sovereign. His just, holy and loving rule is inescapable, whether for Cyrus, or Lenin, or Gorbachev, or you, or me. Will we live our lives failing to acknowledge him, refusing to accept his right to rule over us, and ultimately be subjugated and shamed? Or will we respond to his loving invitation, and turn, and submit to his rule over our lives, and be saved, and find his blessings raining down upon us, and springing up within us?

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