October 19th, 2014
In room 52 of the British Museum there is a barrel-shaped clay cylinder, dated around 538BC, about 9” long and 3” in diameter at it’s widest point – looking at pictures of it I’m reminded of a corn on the cob…. This is the Cyrus Cylinder, and there is a copy of it in the UN building in New York, and a statue commemorating it in a public park in San Diego. It’s regarded as a national symbol by the Iranian government. Some academics and political philosophers regard it as one of the first recorded statements of rights within society. Which is all very interesting, but why am I mentioning it tonight?
Well, the cylinder contains the following text:
From Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided in Babylon, to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.
There’s more as well – in full the cylinder is basically a list of the bad aspects of King Nabonidus, deposed when the Persian conqueror Cyrus took control of Babylon, and the good stuff that Cyrus did or was going to do.
Scholars have linked the text above to the following from the Book of Ezra, Chapter 1, Verse 3:
“Anyone of His people amongst you – may his God be with him – and let him go to Jerusalem in Judah and build the Temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem”
Gathering inhabitants, returning them to their dwellings, and restoring the long deserted sanctuaries – deserted from when the Jews were taken in to exile in Babylon.
Cyrus was quite a canny fellow; this wasn’t something he just did for the Jews, but he did it to many different captive peoples of Babylon – I guess he felt that it was a safer proposition to free slaves than have them ally themselves with the conquered Babylonians – but what makes this proclamation about the people of Judah different is that at the very start of his proclamation recorded in Ezra, he says:
“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah”
Which brings us to tonight’s reading from Isaiah, who prophesied that the sinful behaviour of the Jewish people would eventually precipitate them being taken in to exile in Babylon, and he foresaw the rise of Cyrus, who would be instrumental in the return of the people to Jerusalem – a new Exodus from slavery to freedom, but a very different one from the one undertaken by Moses.
You can imagine the impact of the opening part of tonight’s reading to those who read or heard Isaiah’s words.
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of…”
The important thing here is in the use of the word ‘anointed’ – the word ‘Messiah’ comes from the Hebrew for this word. Cyrus, a foreign, conquering emperor, is being called by God. Earlier in Isaiah he is referred to as a shepherd; God clearly has a role in mind for Cyrus with respect to the future of the people of Israel. Now, the Jews might be expecting their prophets to tell of a leader who would get them out of Babylon and take them home. They might expect a leader like Moses, or a warrior king like David. But Cyrus? The king who has conquered their Babylonian captors? This must have come as quite a shock.
And for us – when we hear the words shepherd, anointed and Messiah we automatically think of Jesus. Of course, Jesus is all these things and in addition is the son of God with a special job – set the relationship between man and God right – but having said that, the thought of a non-Jewish, non-believer in God being given this sort of role made me stop short.
By saying that Cyrus is anointed, God is taking a non-believer – more than that, someone who quite possibly worships other gods – and using that non-believer to further His purpose. But just look at what God will do for Cyrus. Verse 1 continues, with God saying that He will
“..subdue nations before him, strip kings of their armour, open doors before him, ensure that no gates are shut to him”
God isn’t just going to protect Cyrus from harm; God is going to actively help him in his activities against the kings and countries in the area.
Verse 2 continues in the same way:
“I will go before you and will level the mountains, I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron”
That phrase about levelling mountains has been translated and understood in a number of ways; some read it as ‘leveling walls’, another as ‘bringing the high places of the world down’ – which in itself could mean that the God will bring down the seats of power in the region. The reference to gates of bronze refers to the cities of the area, which frequently had metal gates built in to their walls, and bars of iron probably referred to the iron bars that would strengthen such doors, as well as barring windows.
Basically, God is going to remove all obstructions from Cyrus’s path, and he’s also going to enrich him in a physical sense as well as increasing his power in the world. In Verse 3 we see:
“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”
By promising Cyrus access to the treasures of darkness, and riches stored in secret places, God is saying that none of the secret hoards of wealth of the conquered peoples will be hidden from him; that Cyrus will be able to find the wealth of the conquered nations. As we’ve seen in recent years, it’s not always the case that on conquering a country you get the wealth; whether it’s Nazi gold in Swiss bank Accounts, or the contents of bank accounts mysteriously electronically moved half a world away when the President’s Palace falls, we’ve seen many examples of the country falling but the wealth departing. And Cyrus would no doubt be aware of the possibilities of it back then – God is here saying
‘You’ll have access to all the wealth as an indicator and reminder to you that you are currently blessed by me, to work for me.”
And God delivered; according to the ancient historian Herodotus, Cyrus captured all the wealth of King Croesus, richest ruler of the day, and the historian Pithy related that Cyrus’s conquests in Asia gained him over 30,000 pounds in weight of gold, along with ornaments.
In Verse 4 God is re-iterating that Cyrus is doing his will for the benefit of Israel, even though Cyrus doesn’t even acknowledge God. We don’t know much about Cyrus’s spiritual life. He probably worshipped Marduk, though some have suggested he may have been a Zoroastrian. He might even have believed in a few gods – but it’s certain he didn’t regard Yahweh as anything more than the local god of those folks from Judah.
In Verses 5 and 6, this is re-iterated – God reminds Cyrus and the readers that there is no other God, and that God is all powerful, but that He will strengthen Cyrus. And He also states that this act – strengthening Cyrus in such a public way – will make it clear to all that:
“from the rising of the sun to the place of it’s setting, men may know that there is non besides me.”
God here isn’t using the passage of the sun to indicate time, but as markers of the extremes of the world – from the east, to the west – the whole region.
Verse 7 adds a little warning:
“I form the light, and I create darkness, I bring prosperity, and create disaster.”
God reminds us that whilst he can do His will through Cyrus by rewarding him, he can also work through punishment.
This reminds me of Pharaoh and the original enslavement of the people in Egypt. God inflicted a number of plagues on the people of Egypt, as we know from Exodus – including a plague of darkness.
Two similar situations – the exile in Babylon and the enslavement in Egypt – with God appearing to work in two different ways to get his will done. With Cyrus – rewards of wealth, land and power. With Pharaoh – death, plagues, destruction of his army.
But the approach taken by God is, in fact, similar in each case. He uses the nature of the rulers to His advantage.
Cyrus is a conqueror, and adventurer, hungry for wealth and power – a ruler typical of his day. God knows the buttons to press with this man – He knows that by giving Cyrus rewards, God’s will for the release of the people of Israel will be effected. The people of Israel need to do nothing to get their release; their work comes later in re-building the Temple and restoring Jerusalem.
Pharaoh, on the other hand, was the ruler of a great kingdom; he really had nothing to prove. As far as he was concerned, everything was good. So God ‘hardened his heart’ – he took advantage of that trait in Pharaoh’s character to make him act and behave in ways that would eventually lead to the release of the people of Israel, and used Moses to challenge Pharaoh and prepare the people for the journey ahead.
God works with the character of the two unbelieving rulers; his will is done, but with massively different consequences for those rulers.
And we can look elsewhere in the Bible for examples of how God works in this way with people who do not believe, or believers who are not acting to bring God’s will to pass.
A famous example is Saul – struck blind on the road to Damascus, already famous for carrying out persecutions of Christians, and carrying papers giving him permission to arrest any Christians he finds in the Damascus synagogues and take them back to Jerusalem for punishment. In Acts 9:15, God tells Ananias, who will be given power to cure Saul’s blindness, that:
“This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name”
God is about to turn Saul to his will; to make him Paul, the man who will bring Christianity from the land of Israel to the ancient world. God knows this man is strong willed, courageous, able to follow orders. Just the man for the job – so God works with him.
And then there’s Pilate.
I’ve occasionally wondered what would have happened had Pilate turned to Jesus and said ‘Look, you seem a good man, let me give your persecutors a good flogging and I’ll send you back to my estates where you can write your philosophy down for us all.’
But for God’s will to be done, for the new covenant to be established, for the new relationship between man and God to actually exist at all, Jesus had to die and be resurrected.
It’s not stated that God hardened Pilate’s heart to Jesus, but there are suggestions in the Gospels – and historically – that Pilate was not sympathetic to the Jews, raised unfair taxes, and killed Jewish protesters, and even killed Jews on their way to give sacrifice in Jerusalem. God simply used Pilate’s nature to ensure Christ was crucified.
We live in a world that Nietzsche described as ‘broken, bungled and botched’; as Christians we often refer to it as ‘fallen’. We who strive to be ‘salt and light’ attempt to let God work through us in our actions and words. It’s relatively easy for us to see the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in the world when we see good deeds being carried out, when we see love being shown, forgiveness being expressed.
It’s not easy for us – and I think tests our faith – when we see the atrocities of the world taking place. When we see abuse of children, slaughter of people based on religion or belief, starvation amidst plenty, the exploitation of our planet, good people suffering.
God tells us in the reading tonight that He both brings riches and prosperity, but also darkness and disaster, and that can sometimes be tough for us to handle. It would be way easier for us to let God take the credit for the good stuff, whilst blaming something else for the bad stuff. Unfortunately, that isn’t what God is saying in Isaiah; he accepts responsibility for everything. As Christians, how are we to come to terms with this?
This is when it is desperately hard for us to see the will of God being enacted, and when we are tempted towards platitudes.
In a discussion with a dear friend of mine recently, he said ‘Joe, at least you’ve not taken the easy way out of the current situation by saying ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’
Whilst we can’t claim to know the mind of God, based on tonight’s scripture I don’t believe that God always does move in mysterious ways when he works to bring about his will. It’s just that we might have to open our eyes to what’s around us and do rather more thinking than we’re used to.
What God does make clear in tonight’s scripture – if we just open our hearts and eyes to it – is that He wants us, like Cyrus, to know that He is in control and that we should rely on Him and not on our own strength, knowledge or insights. We’re here to be acted on by God’s grace, just as we then act on the world around us. We’re here – along with those of different faiths or of no religious beliefs at all – to be used by God to enact His will. Cyrus wasn’t given a choice in the matter – neither was Pharaoh, or Pilate – but we are given a choice to allow God’s grace to fill us and work through us to bring about a little piece of the Kingdom of Heaven around us.
Recently we have seen how people from all over the world – Christians and non-believers – have cooperated to try and bring humanitarian aid to the Middle East and medical aid to Western Africa at great risk to their personal safety. Our answer to ‘why do these bad things happen’ is for us, as Christians, to be there when they do, bringing food to the hungry, shelter and safety to refugees, medical help to those in pain. God works through doctors with their healing abilities, through scientists with their knowledge and creativity, through engineers and builders with their hands and skills. Some will be Christian, others will never have thought of God being in such places, but, like Cyrus, they will be working to further His will.
For us, we’re invited to go out in to the world at the end of this service and be a living sacrifice. We need to remember, that as we do what we can in the world to bring the Kingdom of Heaven that little bit closer, there will be those around us who share our aims and objectives who don’t necessarily share our faith and belief in God.
But God will still be working through them, in ways that we might not realise at first glance, until we take a closer look with open hearts and eyes.