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The Jewish people experienced two major exiles. The first exile was the Assyrian Exile (beginning in 722 B.C.), where Assyria forced the ten northern tribes into exile in Assyria. These ten tribes are sometimes called the lost tribes, because they became assimilated and never returned to their homeland in any organized way.
The background for this scripture is the Babylonian exile, which began in 587 B.C. (some say 586 B.C.) when Babylonia destroyed Jerusalem and forced the Jewish people into exile in Babylon. Many years later, after Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, Cyrus issued an edict (538 B.C.) that made it possible for the exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.
The prophets said that the exile lasted seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10; Daniel 9:2; Zechariah 1:12; 7:5). This would count the end of the exile as 516 B.C., when the rebuilt temple was dedicated in Jerusalem.
These were painful years for the Israelites, because their city had been destroyed and they were captives in a foreign land.
THE ASSYRIAN EXILE: After Solomon’s death in 922 B.C., his son Rehoboam rebuffed the people’s request to lighten the heavy yoke that Solomon had placed on them (1 Kings 12:1-15). In response, the ten northern tribes seceded, forming a nation that would thereafter be known as Israel. The remaining two tribes, Benjamin and Judah, became known as Judah.
Both Israel and Judah, lying as they did along major trade routes, lived in the shadow of larger and more powerful nations—Egypt in the south and Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia in the north. Assyria began to dominate Israel in 732 B.C. In 722 B.C., Assyria put down a revolt in Israel and deported large numbers of its people to Assyria, after which it repopulated the area with other peoples (2 Kings 17). The people of Israel became so assimilated after that time that Israel ceased to exist as a nation or a people.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE: In time, Assyria’s power waned and Babylonia’s power waxed so that Babylonia became the dominant nation in the north. In 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia defeated Egypt at Carchemish, thereby establishing Babylonia as a superpower.
In 598 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion in Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carrying off “all the treasures of the house of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:13).
In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion by Zedekiah of Judah by again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26 Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon.
The prophets made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Israel and Judah for their sins, but they also held out hope for the future. Beginning with chapter 40, Isaiah has particularly hopeful words. Chapter 40 offers the comfort that Jerusalem “has served her term” and paid her penalty” (40:1-2), so that Yahweh “will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom. He will gently lead those who have their young” (40:11). Chapter 41 assures the exiles of Yahweh’s help. Chapter 42 speaks of the Servant, who “will bring justice to the nations” (42:1)—invites the people to “Sing to Yahweh a new song” (42:10)—and tells of the disobedience that prompted the exile (42:21-25). Chapter 43 promises restoration and protection, and chapter 44 promises Yahweh’s blessing on Israel (vv. 1-8) and promises that Yahweh has not forgotten the exiles (vv. 21-28).
In 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, whose policies would prove to be quite different from those of the Babylonians. Cyrus encouraged subject people to retain their culture and traditions, including their religions. In 538 B.C., Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. He even returned the temple vessels to the exiles for use in the new temple and provided financial backing for their return (Ezra 6:2-5). In 520 B.C., a large group of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua. In 516 B.C., they were able, finally, to dedicate the new temple.
So the Babylonian Exile can be construed to have lasted nearly fifty years (587-538 B.C.) or nearly seventy years (587-520 B.C.), depending on the date that one chooses to mark its ending.
ISAIAH 45:1-3. THUS SAYS YAHWEH TO HIS ANOINTED, TO CYRUS
1Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held, to subdue nations before him, and strip kings of their armor; to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut:
2“I will go before you,
and make the rough places smooth.
I will break the doors of brass in pieces,
and cut apart the bars of iron.
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness,
and hidden riches of secret places,
that you may know that it is I, Yahweh, who call you by your name, even the God of Israel.”
“Thus says Yahweh (yhwh—Yahweh) to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held, to subdue nations before him, and strip kings of their armor; to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut” (v. 1). Cyrus is the king of Persia (modern Iran). He will defeat Babylon in October, 539 B.C., establishing Persia as the new superpower. His policies (not just toward Jews, but to all subject nations) are much more enlightened than those of the Babylonians. He encourages subject peoples to return to their homelands and to worship their own gods. In keeping with this policy, in 538 B.C. he will encourage the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their city and temple—and will even provide financial support for this endeavor. In a written declaration, he will say:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Yahweh, the God of Israel (he is God), which is in Jerusalem. Whoever is left, in any place where he lives, let the men of his place help him with silver, with gold, with goods, and with animals, besides the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.'” (Ezra 1:2-4; see also 2 Chronicles 36:23).
“Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus” (v. 1a). Earlier, Yahweh said of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure” (44:28). Now Yahweh addresses Cyrus, revealing that he has chosen to anoint him.
The Old Testament tells of the anointing of priests (Exodus 40:13-15)—and kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:12-13; 1 Kings 1:39, etc.)—and prophets (1 Kings 19:16). The anointing ceremony, typically involving the pouring of oil on the anointed person’s head, sets the person apart for the role or task to which Yahweh has called that person. This implies that Yahweh has not only set the person apart for the job at hand, but will also provide the means to carry it out. This is the only occasion in the Old Testament where Yahweh anoints someone other than a Jew. This anointing of Cyrus announces that Yahweh is free to choose Gentiles to accomplish his purposes—that Yahweh’s tent is large enough to accommodate those outside the chosen people.
Several scholars equate “anointed” in this verse with “Messiah” (Brueggemann, 75; Holladay, 78; Goldingay, 262). Brueggemann is the most explicit, saying, “The… translation ‘anointed’ is a rendering of the noun ‘anointed one,’ that is, ‘Messiah,’ which translated into Greek is ‘Christ.’ That is, in Old Testament parlance, this Gentile is ‘the Christ,’ the royal designee to enact the salvific intention of Yahweh.” I am not qualified to debate the fine points of the Hebrew language with those scholars, but I am quite uncomfortable with that interpretation. Given that anointing is practiced not only for kings but also for priests and prophets, I take Cyrus’ anointing as nothing more than Yahweh’s setting Cyrus apart for a special mission.
“For forty-seven years the exiles had been looking west, toward home, toward Jerusalem…. Now, suddenly, they hear that God’s new designated one, the king to win their battles for them, will not be of the line of David at all, but rather someone from far to the east who does not speak a word of Hebrew” (Holladay, 77-78).
“whose right hand I have held” (v. 1b). For most men, the right hand is the dominant hand—the strong hand—the hand that wields a sword—the fighting hand. As a result, the right hand is a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; etc.). To use your right hand to grasp another person’s hand renders you temporarily vulnerable, so grasping right hands becomes a gesture of trust and intimacy. Yahweh grasps Cyrus’ right hand, bestowing power and authority to accomplish the task for which Yahweh has chosen Cyrus.
“to subdue nations before him, and strip kings of their armor” (v. 1c). To strip kings of their robes is both to remove their symbol of power and to humiliate them. Yahweh has chosen Cyrus to subdue nations and their kings.
Cyrus will conquer many lands, including the Medes, Croesus of Lydia (noted for his great wealth), a number of Greek city-states, Parthia, and India. However, the specific purpose for which Yahweh has anointed him is to defeat Babylon and to set the Jewish exiles free. The Babylonians have been Yahweh’s instrument to punish the exiles. Cyrus will be Yahweh’s instrument to set them free.
“to open the doors before him—and the gates shall not be shut” (v. 1d). The kings that Cyrus will subdue cannot hide behind closed doors, because Yahweh will force the doors open.
“I will go before you, and make the rough places smooth” (v. 2a). Mountains constitute a serious obstacle for any military enterprise. Crossing mountains with military equipment is a slow and arduous task that can quickly turn deadly if the weather turns bad or the enemy uses mountainous defensive positions wisely. But Yahweh will level the mountains that might otherwise prevent Cyrus from carrying out his appointed task. Cyrus can move forward boldly, knowing that Yahweh is preparing his way.
“I will break the doors of brass in pieces, and cut apart the bars of iron” (v. 2b). Herodotus said of Babylon: “There are a hundred gates in the circuit of the wall, all of bronze with bronze uprights and lintels” (Young, 196). Babylon was also guarded with iron bars.
Doors of bronze and bars of iron are a formidable barrier. In those early times, Cyrus would not have access to explosives or acetylene cutting torches that would make short work of bronze and iron defenses. Swords would be of no use against such defenses. A military commander faced with doors of bronze and bars of iron would either have to find another way to enter or would have to gain entrance by deception. There would be little hope of going through locked doors of bronze or bars of iron.
But Yahweh promises Cyrus that he needs not concern himself with breaching these seemingly impregnable defenses. Yahweh will break the doors in pieces and cut the bars of iron. The people inside the defenses will be totally at Cyrus’ mercy.
“I will give you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places” (v. 3a). Even defeating a king does not insure that the conqueror will find the king’s hidden treasure. Palaces can have false walls so that the spaces behind those walls serve as hiding places. The earth provides a nearly infinite number of places where a person might dig a hole to hide treasure. A person might even submerge gold or jewels under the water in a river or lake—who would find them there? But just as Yahweh will level mountains and open doors, he will also locate hidden treasures and give them to Cyrus.
Cyrus will win great treasure when he conquers Babylon, and he will win more great treasure when he conquers Sardis—”24,000 pounds weight of gold, in addition to vessels and other articles of wrought gold” (Muilenburg, 523).
“that you may know that it is I, Yahweh(yhwh—Yahweh), who call you by your name, even the God of Israel” (v. 3b). By these three things (leveled mountains, opened doors, gifts of treasure), Yahweh will make it abundantly clear to Cyrus that Yahweh is God—not just any god, but the God of power and might—the God of Israel.
Cyrus surely has a strong self-image, and will understand that he is a capable military man. However, now he will see that, by God’s grace, opposition melts before him. In the battles that he has fought so far, he has had to use all his cunning and strength to achieve victory. In the future, Yahweh will make it easy.
In fact, Yahweh will do the things that he has promised. In October 539 B.C. Cyrus will win a bloodless victory over once-mighty Babylon. The Cyrus Cylinder says, “Without
battle and conflict he permitted (Cyrus) to enter Babylon” (Muilenburg, 522).
Yahweh has set the evidence before him so that it will be possible for him to become a believer, and the book of Ezra opens with a proclamation by Cyrus that begins: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (Ezra 1:2). However, as noted below, the Cyrus Cylinder also includes a number of favorable remarks about Marduk, the Babylonian god.
ISAIAH 45:4-7. I HAVE CALLED YOU BY NAME
4“For Jacob my servant’s sake,
and Israel my chosen,
I have called you by your name.
I have surnamed you,
though you have not known me.
5 I am Yahweh, and there is none else.
Besides me, there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not known me;
6that they may know from the rising of the sun,
and from the west,
that there is none besides me.
I am Yahweh, and there is no one else.
7 I form the light,
and create darkness.
I make peace (Hebrew: sal·om),
and create calamity.
I am Yahweh,
who does all these things.”
“For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel my chosen, I have called you by your name. I surnamed you, though you have not known me” (v. 4). It is a great honor for Yahweh to call Cyrus by name—to anoint him—to grasp his right hand—to make his way easy. But Yahweh doesn’t do these things primarily for the purpose of rewarding Cyrus. Yahweh does these things for Israel’s sake. Yahweh has chosen Israel—has covenanted with Israel—has made Israel promises that need to be kept. It is to keep his covenant promises to Israel that Yahweh has elected to honor Cyrus. Cyrus is a good man, but Yahweh’s purpose has to do with Israel. Cyrus is the means to that end.
“I am Yahweh” (yhwh, Yahweh) (v. 5a). “I am the Lord” is a common statement, being found more than 130 times in the Old Testament.
“and there is none else. Besides me, there is no God” (v. 5b). This is the part that Cyrus might have had difficulty understanding. A clay cylinder known today as the Cyrus Cylinder, which now resides in The British Museum, includes a number of positive references to Marduk, a Babylonian god. The cylinder says that Marduk chose Cyrus to rule the world. But Yahweh here clarifies that there is no other god than Yahweh. To what extent Cyrus accepted that message, we do not know. It seems quite possible that Cyrus would do so after Yahweh does, in fact, level the obstacles and break through the bronze doors—does bring about easy victories for Cyrus—as indeed Yahweh does.
“I will strengthen you, though you have not known me” (v. 5c). Yahweh gives Cyrus great power, even though Cyrus has not been a faithful Yahweh-worshiper. Yahweh doesn’t do this for the purpose of honoring Cyrus, but because Cyrus will be his instrument to free the Jewish exiles and to make possible the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
“that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is no one besides me. I am Yahweh, and there is no one else” (v. 6). Yahweh also makes Cyrus powerful so that people far and wide will know that Yahweh is the one God.
The purpose of this kind of witness is not to satisfy some sort of petty ego-need on Yahweh’s part. Yahweh’s concern is, first, Israel’s salvation—and secondly, the world’s salvation. The world cannot be saved by a God whom it does not know. Yahweh will exercise power through Cyrus as a way of revealing himself to people everywhere.
“I form light, and create darkness. I make peace, (sal·om—peace) and create calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things” (v. 7). Yahweh has said that he is the Lord and that there is no other. Now he explains what that means. He is the one who created light and darkness. He brings peace and he brings troubled times.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: isaiah still speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan