Bible Commentary: Isaiah 44:24-45:13

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Isaiah 44:24-45:13

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Prophecy of Cyrus—Past and Future Fulfillment

Here we see one of the main reasons that skeptics want to divide the book of Isaiah, claiming that this part could not have been written by Isaiah the prophet—the amazingly accurate prophecy of Cyrus. As with the future Jewish king Josiah (1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:15-20), here is an instance of someone whose name and deeds are recorded by God long before his birth. Cyrus was the first ruler of the Persian Empire. He was destined to bring down Babylon in 539 B.C. and would issue the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem (Daniel 1:21; Ezra 1:1-4). The temple and Jerusalem had not yet been destroyed, so this prophecy must have seemed strange indeed (compare Isaiah 44:28).

Herodotus, the fifth-century-B.C. Greek historian, recounts a story of Cyrus' birth and youth—which is here summarized. Asytages, son of Cyaxeres, the king of the Medes, had a daughter named Mandane, whom he gave in marriage to a Persian noble. Astyages had a dream that this daughter would have a child who would rule in his place, taking over not only his kingdom but all of Asia as well. Astyages feared the prospect of being replaced. So when Mandane had her first child, a son, Astyages ordered one of his servants, Harpagus, to have the child killed. Yet Harpagus didn't want to commit such a vile act himself and therefore entrusted it to a herdsman named Mitradates. But Mitradates, on discovering that his own child had just been stillborn, decided to rear Mandane's son as his own.

Later, when the boy was around 10, his true identity became known. The boy's grandfather, Astyages the Median king, was infuriated. He had Harpagus punished by having the man's own son killed and then revoltingly served to him at a royal dinner—after which Harpagus secretly vowed revenge. But the king made no move against the boy, who was now recognized as a Persian noble. Later, in 558 B.C., this boy, Cyrus, became a king among the Persians, yet still subject to Astyages' Median rule. Harpagus encouraged Cyrus to overthrow Astyages. Eventually persuaded, Cyrus launched a coup and led his growing forces to victory. By about 548 B.C. he ruled all of Persia and Media. And in 539 he conquered Babylon, so that the Medo-Persian Empire succeeded the Babylonian Empire. And Cyrus then issued his proclamation freeing the Jews to rebuild the temple, just as God foretold. Perhaps the above story of Cyrus' close brush with death soon after his birth, if true, represents an attempt by Satan to thwart God's specific prophecy from being fulfilled. Yet Almighty God will not be thwarted.

Indeed, Cyrus himself worshiped pagan gods. Yet God was still able to use him to fulfill His will. This demonstrates God's power. Proverbs 21:1 states it well: "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes."

In Isaiah 45:1, God explains how Cyrus would be able to conquer by way of the "double doors" (the "two leaved gates" of the King James Version). This is a reference to the surprising way that Cyrus was able to invade the seemingly impregnable city of Babylon. Indeed, when the armies of Cyrus encamped around the gargantuan city, the Babylonians, looking down from towering walls, merely laughed. They were certain they could hold out against any siege for many years. But Cyrus' men carried out a remarkable action. The Euphrates River flowed into Babylon through massive gates. So Cyrus had his men divert most of the river by removing ancient dykes that kept it in its course (referred to in 44:27). He also managed to get a spy into the city, who had the inner gates along the river unlocked. Then, in the predawn hours, under cover of darkness, Persian forces waded into the city though the mostly drained riverbed. Before sunrise, the great city of Babylon was conquered—and all according to prophecy.

It is interesting to consider that in the end-time, the Euphrates River will be dried up "so that the way of the kings from the east might be prepared" (Revelation 16:12). As mentioned in the highlights for Isaiah 21, it is likely that the Medes and Persians of the end time (along with other eastern forces) will be instrumental in inflicting a measure of terrible defeat on end-time Babylon prior to the return of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Christ will smite the Euphrates in leading the exiles of Israel back to the Promised Land (Isaiah 11:15)—to utterly supplant end-time Babylon's leaders, who will previously have been headquartered in Jerusalem.

Finally, we should consider the picture of Cyrus as a type of Israel's ultimate Redeemer—the Messiah. Indeed, Cyrus is called Mashiach (Messiah or "Anointed") in 45:1. The Hebrew for Cyrus here is Koresh. The meaning of the name is debated. In Hebrew this would appear to mean something like "Possess the Furnace." We can certainly see a tie in to the coming of the Lord as a "consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29; compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8). In Persian the name is Koorush or Korrush. (Cyrus is the Greek form.) The name in Persian is said to mean "sun" or "throne"—although this is disputed. Interestingly, Jesus is called the "Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2), in the same context where it is mentioned that "the day is coming, burning like an oven"—that is, like a furnace (verse 1). And of course, Jesus is to inherit the throne of the earth.

As Cyrus conquered and succeeded ancient Babylon, so will Jesus Christ conquer and succeed end-time Babylon—yet in a much greater way. Some might see Koresh in Isaiah 44 and 45 as exclusively applying to Christ. Others might view it as exclusively applying to Cyrus. Yet clearly, both deliverances—anciently through Cyrus and in the future through Jesus—are pictured in this section. It is a miraculous witness to Cyrus himself that God calls him by name (45:3), and this is despite the fact that he has not known God (verse 4). Clearly, this does not refer to Christ. (Interestingly, Josephus relates in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, chapter 1, how Cyrus read and was motivated by Isaiah's prophecies about him.) On the other hand, the statements about righteousness being rained from the skies and salvation being brought forth from the earth (verse 8)—that is, the spiritual conversion of Israel and then the world through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as well as apparently the resurrection of the righteous dead from their graves—is certainly not a reference to the deliverance of Cyrus. Rather, it describes the return of the ultimate Savior.

Some use verse 7 as it is rendered in the King James Version—"I make peace, and create evil"—to argue that God is the author of evil. However, the New King James better renders this last word as "calamity." God certainly brings calamity on the disobedient. Evil, on the other hand, is any violation of His will. He therefore did not create evil (see "Why Does Evil Exist?," The Good News, Jan.-Feb. 2002, pp. 22-24). Again, "calamity" makes much more sense here. So should we then think that every single calamity is from God? Not at all. Frankly, Satan is responsible for much of the evil and calamity that exists in the world. And, tragically, people bring evil or calamity on themselves as a result of unwise personal choices and sin. Further, many people suffer as a result of decisions and actions that others make—such as children who suffer abuse from adults. (For more information on this subject, request or download our free booklet Why Does God Allow Suffering?)

So what's the point of the verse in question? One of the fundamental rules of Bible study is to read a difficult-to-understand verse in its context. As explained above, in this section of Isaiah, God is confronting Israel about its corruption with idolatry, pointing out repeatedly how hollow its idolatry is in contrast with who and what He is. That's what He's essentially saying in Isaiah 45:7.

Pick up the context in verse 6: "That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other." Now, continue on into verse 7: "I form the light and create darkness." The same thought continues in the following phrase: "I make peace and create calamity." Notice the contrast in both cases. God is basically saying: "I can make it light or dark. I can give peace and prosperity or I can bring calamity." In other words, "I can do everything in contrast to your idols, which are incapable of anything." Again, remember the context. God repeatedly says, "I am God; there's nobody like Me."

Finally, God shows His dominion over the creation in general and mankind in particular by picturing Himself as a potter working with clay. Unlike worthless idols, He controls the universe and directs the destiny of man. Yet, it should be noted, He still gives us all free will (to learn more on this subject, see the article "Twist of Fate").

Verse 13 was fulfilled in part when Cyrus freed the Jewish captives, allowing them the choice to return to their homeland, and even issued a proclamation that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). This decree allowed for the city of Jerusalem to be rebuilt as well—but a major effort to rebuild the city was not made until Nehemiah's later initiative, allowed and aided by King Artaxerxes (who was the son of Xerxes and stepson of Esther, Nehemiah 1-2). Of course, a much greater fulfillment of this prophecy will be when Jesus Christ—of whom Cyrus was only a type—frees the exiles of the last days and rebuilds Jerusalem as the wondrous capital of the world.