“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God but besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other” (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6)
A little history is necessary here. By the time God spoke the words in our text through the prophet Isaiah, the people of Judah had been living in exile in Babylon for several decades. They had been exiled from Jerusalem due to their grave sins and failure to repent even in the face of God’s repeated warnings and pleas. However, even as they were being marched from Jerusalem to Babylon, God also promised that He would relent and after their punishment would bring them home and they would rebuild both the city of Jerusalem and the temple within it. Certainly after seventy years in Babylon they must have been asking themselves, almost desperately: “If that is so, then ‘When?’ and ‘How?’”
The answers to those questions are in our passage: “The time is now and Cyrus is the one who I will use to accomplish it.” This must have come as a shock to the Jewish exiles. After all, Cyrus was the king of Persia. He was, himself, a pagan and an idolater who probably didn’t even know who the God of the Jews was. Nevertheless, Cyrus was exactly the one God intended to use.
And he did! Like a lightning bolt Cyrus struck impregnable Babylon and conquered it, taking over, in the process, all of Babylon’s lands and peoples, including the Jews. And Persian rule was much different than Babylonian. Whereas Babylon controlled its conquered peoples by removing them from their homes and trying to eradicate their cultures, Persia ruled by returning people to their homelands and helping them restore their cultures in the hope of gaining their loyalty.
And so, the book of Ezra tells us,
“In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia… the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia so that he made a proclamation: …..’Whoever 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 rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel….and let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold,…for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.’”
History bears this out: over the next several generations it was the Persian kings who provided the safe passage for the Jewish people to go home and it was the Persian treasury that actually financed the reconstruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple.
This is an amazing story and the perfect illustration of the truth confirmed in so many Bible stories, throughout history, and in our own time : “God can make a way where there seems to be no way!” He is the Lord and there is no other. He can use anything and anyone to accomplish his will for his people and he is not confined to influencing individual hearts alone, but can move nations and the forces of nature themselves. Not only can he, he does.
I can imagine the Jewish people sitting on the banks of the river Chebar in Babylon, remembering the promise that they would go home but near despair for they saw no way and could not even imagine one. Of course not; who would ever imagine Cyrus? Perhaps right now you are sitting by you own river Chebar , some great problem oppressing you. Perhaps it is the state of our society, or the church, or your own family, or your own health and you cannot even imagine a solution. Do not be afraid, God already has.
Although our passage today may be obscure to modern readers, its message is at the heart of the gospel and at the heart of our hope: Our God is able. Dr. King , addressing his own people by their own river Chebar, put it eloquently for all of us to hear and embrace:
“At the center of the Christian faith there is the conviction that in the universe there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and in history. The conviction is stressed over and over in the Old and New Testaments. Theologically this affirmation is expressed in the doctrine of the omnipotence of God. The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. He is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. The ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able….Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. …When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows” (Sermon: God is Able)
Don’t be afraid. God is able!
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.