God’s Prediction of a Conqueror
This chapter opens with God calling the nations back into God’s courtroom, in a scene similar to a courtroom setting today, on the last day of the trial. The jury has deliberated, the sentence sent in to the judge. It is time, now, to hear the verdict.
Listen to me in silence, O coastlands;Isaiah 41:1 (NRSV)
let the peoples renew their strength;
let them approach, then let them speak;
let us together draw near for judgment.
The Lord calls the nations to stand before God and make the final appeal for their case. “Coastlands” or “islands” most likely refer to all the Mediterranean countries, the world all around Judah. The judge puts before the nations an important question.
Who has roused a victor from the east,Isaiah 41:2 (NRSV)
summoned him to his service?
Whoever that power broker is, this is what is going to happen:
He delivers up nations to himIsaiah 41:2-3 (NRSV, emphases mine)
and tramples kings under foot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
like driven stubble with his bow.
He pursues them and passes on safely,
scarcely touching the path with his feet.
Who directs world events?
Who has that power?
Is it the nations themselves?
Is it politics, economics, and diplomacy?
Is it the power of each of the nations’ local deities?
Did anybody, in fact, see these world events even coming?
Do things “just happen,” or is God at work?
Are we part of a larger story, or is the meaning of our lives up to us alone?
God answers God’s own question, but to a deaf world.
Who has performed and done this,Isaiah 41:4 (NRSV)
calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the Lord, am first
and will be with the last.
God is not only the author of the story, but God is there to personally make sure it all happens as God said it would. The rest of the world, however, does not believe that.
The World’s Response
The way the nations react when that eastern ruler appears is their answer to God’s question:
- They tremble with fear.
- They try to reassure each other.
- They cooperate with each other in making even bigger, even better idols ever, really nailing them down so they will stay in place.
The nations’ answer was to trust in their own efforts even more.
This is the humanistic approach:
- A stronger global economy.
- Military cooperation.
- Political summits.
- Arms talks.
World governments mistakenly think that ultimate power lies with humankind. In Isaiah’s time, armies would bow down to their nation’s idols as they went off to battle, and the people at home would worship and pray to these same idols as their soldiers fought.
But, as Isaiah prophesied, they would not win those battles.
God was raising up a power to free God’s people, and nothing would thwart God’s plan. For the Lord, even non-believing world leaders will end up working for the good of God’s people and the progress of God’s purposes.
Pharaoh would have been Exhibit A in the people’s minds, as God pronounced reassurance that these things will happen. God informed Pharaoh,
Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may serve me.
For this time I will send all my plagues upon you yourself, your officials, and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.Indeed, by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth.
But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power and to make my name resound through all the earth.God to Pharaoh, Exodus 9:13-16 (NRSV, emphases mine)
When God announced that God had stirred up a victor from the east, the Lord was referring to someone who would not be born for another century or more. When we read Chapter 44 together in a few weeks, we will see that Isaiah revealed this instrument of God as Cyrus the Great. In fact, even the grandparents of King Cyrus, who would become the emperor of Persia, had probably not been born yet. God had chosen Cyrus before he even existed. Yet God talked about him as though it were all already history.
Timeline of Cyrus and the Prophecies
- 739 BCE is a verifiable date, that’s when King Uzziah died, and Isaiah introduced the vision God gave him, in chapter 5.
- 701 BCE, Forty years later, Assyria attacked Judah and came right up to Jerusalem’s gates, only to have the whole army mysteriously die overnight (described in Isaiah 37-39).
- During that same general timeframe, King Hezekiah entertained some envoys from the small and relatively inconsequential country of Babylon.
- Shortly thereafter, Isaiah made the astonishing prediction that one day Babylon would defeat Judah and lead God’s people into exile.
A little over a hundred years later, in 586 BCE, that’s exactly what happened.
Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and carried into exile, among others, Daniel and his companions, Shadrach, Meshach and Abedniggo.
It is after these events that come Isaiah’s oracle of God’s intention to raise up a great conqueror from the east who would one day vanquish Babylon and release Israel. Sure enough, a hundred and fifty years after Isaiah gave the prophecy, in 538 BCE, Cyrus made a decree that liberated the Jewish people to return to their home country.
Cyrus’s decree began the process of repatriating the Jews to Jerusalem, but it took a long time for those returning (a remnant compared to the many more who opted to remain in Persia’s empire) to pull it all together, as their story in Ezra and Nehemiah relates. The prophet Jeremiah had said it would take seventy years, and it did.
It was not until 515 BCE that they were actually able to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem.
Fulfilled Prophecy Points to the Power of God
Isaiah was predicting events one hundred and fifty years future to him, and those prophecies came to pass, to the detail, just as God said they would. Who can do that?
God and God’s word never fail
Cyrus the Great was not just a fluke, or a coincidence, and neither is what is happening in our lives today. What God says God will do, God will certainly do. Biblical prophecies already fulfilled, to each uncanny detail, underscore the truth that prophecies yet to be completely fulfilled will be. It is only a matter of time.
Isaiah’s original audience did not live to see the fulfillment of what the Lord warned would come, nor what the Lord promised would happen after that. By generations, they were at least three cycles behind the future events being described to them. Yet they carefully preserved these warnings and promises, knowing that their children, or their children’s children, or perhaps generations even further ahead, would need them when the time came.
The Cylinder was created following the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE. It cites Cyrus’s efforts as a benefactor who improved the lives of the people he conquered, repatriated displaced people, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries across his empire, confirming through archaeology the words Isaiah wrote and his audience faithfully kept.