By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The prophet Isaiah surely knew he was introducing a shocking concept when he communicated a message of the Lord beginning with the words “Thus says the Lord to His anointed [literally, to His messiah] Cyrus” (Isaiah 45:1). The shock is not that the prophet refers to a king as the messiah, but rather that this particular king is not even an Israelite. Cyrus the Great, as history knows him now, was a pagan Persian, leader of an empire-bully on the Ancient Near East block, and the only non-Israelite to receive the title messiah in the Bible. What would prompt the Lord to sing such unexpected praise about a foreigner?
The Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carted the Davidic king and many others off into exile around the year 587 B.C. Roughly 50 years later, Cyrus and his Persian forces conquered Babylon, and inherited its vast kingdom. The acclaim lavished on Cyrus by the biblical prophet foretells Cyrus’ edict permitting the exiled Israelites to return to their land and rebuild their Temple. As Isaiah presents the Lord’s words, speaking as it were to Cyrus himself, the force of the divine logic is quite jarring: “For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title [messiah, anointed one], though you knew me not. I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me” (Isaiah 45:4-6). By Isaiah’s own account, Cyrus did not worship or even know the Lord God of Israel, yet the language describing his role in salvation history is providential and wondrous. The most powerful ruler on earth at the time, Isaiah asserts, does the Lord’s bidding as a servant, an unwitting messiah tasked with ending the exile of God’s people and allowing them the thrill of a new exodus, a restoration of the covenant, a return to the promised land.
Despite exhortations from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the temptation to despair of ever returning home was constant and strong in the hearts of the exiles. Yet Isaiah provides his fellow sufferers with the long view of history, the divine education course that no one could possibly comprehend if their focus was solely on present misfortune.
This may seem like obscure ancient history, but it offers a perennial lesson that is especially valuable to us today. On a sociopolitical level, we do well to recall that supposed enemies may be employed by our provident and loving God for some good that remains totally off our radar in the here and now. This truth (which simply acknowledges that God can work through human sinfulness while not celebrating or condoning it) can only be perceived by those who do not think in Tweets, or for whom life is a perpetual knee jerk of emotional outrage.
No political situation, however dire or portentous it may seem, should provoke despair in believing hearts. If God is speaking truly through Isaiah, and did indeed grasp Cyrus’ right hand, subduing nations before him and opening doors for the sake of His beloved Israel, then the virtue of hope should never be lost in any affliction, whether personal, national, or international. We must remember, and find refuge in the fact, that God is utterly independent of how good or bad the state becomes, and how much power earthly forces may claim to clutch.
If Cyrus the pagan could be an unknowing evangelist for the Lord, the ultimate sovereign of history, then we must trust that Jesus can lead us, exiles in this valley of tears, to a beautiful end and ultimate triumph beyond anything we could imagine at present. Long ago, Isaiah displayed a firm trust that through Cyrus, God delivered an unexpected blessing to a desperate and downtrodden people; a far greater man than Cyrus, indeed the last and best Messiah, will animate us in our dejection and fear – if we would only persevere in allowing ourselves to be guided hopefully.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.