Pagan Kings, God and His Purposes

The whole section of Isaiah running from chapters 40 to 55 is one of my favorites in all the prophets, and it happens that I’m reading them now in my own private study. Specifically, I was very encouraged by chapter 45 this week. Here’s a few things that really stuck out:

1. God uses pagans. I’ve had numerous conversations with people in the past month who are worried or offended or both that Obama isn’t calling his tree a Christmas tree. Ok, so what. We begin to act as if God’s plans depend on having a Christian leader in the Whitehouse. Read verses 1-6:

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Who is Cyrus? A righteous Israelite king? No. A prophet? No. A pagan king in a pagan land. If Cyrus had a tree it would have been a holiday tree, not a Christmas tree. And, it would have been sitting next to a statue of a dozen or so other gods. Cyrus displayed, what for his time is stunning, tolerance for the cultures and religions of conquered peoples. He was a more humane and just ruler than those the region had known prior – better than the Assyrians and the Babylonians. But, there is no indication that he had become a follower of the one true God of Israel. In fact, God says,

“I call you by your name, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me” (Isaiah 45:4-5).

My point: Rulers are all appointed by God. You could even argue they have all been anointed by God (remember David’s refusal to kill Saul, who, evil though he was, was still the Lord’s anointed). Moreover, it is not necessary for rulers to embrace Christ (and certainly not Christmas trees) to rule justly. PLEASE, don’t read this as an endorsement of President Obama or his policies. On the other hand, if we’re going to be critical of President Obama, lets be critical on issues that matter. So he doesn’t like calling his pine tree (or is it a spruce) a Christmas tree. Does that make him unChristain? No. But even if it did, can’t a non-Christian still, by the light of God in nature, conscience and reason still rule effectively? Cyrus found a way!

2. Less politically, I’m in awe of how God hangs his unique status as the one true God on his ability to foretell what will happen. Take again the reign of Cyrus. Isaiah prophesied around a century before Cyrus’ reign began. Yet, through the inspiration of the Spirit, he could tell the people of God that a) there was a king coming who would be called Cyrus (his parents didn’t even know what he’d be called yet!), and b) Cyrus would “subdue nations before him” (Isaiah 45:1). God establishes his foreknowledge by showing himself to know the future events of Cyrus and declares it to be a unique characteristic of him, the living God.

“Ask me things to come” says the Lord in Isaiah 45:11. Through the next ten or so verses God tells the people what is going to happen: how they will set the exiles free (fulfilled in the next century when Cyrus issues his decree allowing the Jews to return to their land), how the nations will be drawn to Israel (fulfilled in Christ). After this, he calls out the idols of the foreign nations:

20 “Assemble yourselves and come;
draw near together,
you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
that cannot save.
21 Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD?
And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none besides me.

The Lord’s reasoning is pretty clear – I am the one who foretold all these things. I know them (because I’m sovereign and have ordained them). Thus, I’m the real God, besides me all the other gods are dumb pieces of wood. The surrounding chapters make this even more explicit. For example, look at Isaiah 46:8-13,

“Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.

3. Don’t miss the link between God’s knowledge of the future and his sovereignty over it. He can tell his people what will happen because he has purposed it and his counsel will stand. How detailed are his purposes? Well, they include Cyrus’s parents naming him Cyrus and not Freddie! They include his rise to power, his conquering of nations, his more just and tolerant policies, etc. They include Cyrus decision to set the exiles free. In summary, they include every detail, whether ‘fortuitous’ or not:

“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity. I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

Furthermore, God declares a woe to those who try (unsuccessfully) to kick against his sovereign purposes:

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earth pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles?’. Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?'” (Isaiah 45:9-10)

The main thrust of this chapter is that God has sovereignly ordained to good to his people. They should not fear, not abandon hope, not fret like worshipers of little wooden gods. God has every means at his disposal to ensure his will is accomplished – even pagan rulers.