Summary: For the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor: in times of turmoil, God is still present, using war to wake up His people. Our temptation is to turn to idolatrous weapons, but He is giving us a chance to use compassion to win hearts and minds.
You will need some background and interpretation in order for you to appreciate the Scripture I’m working from today. Let me first set the stage of history, and then, as we read through, I’ll try to show you the shape of what is being said.
The time in which this reading from the 41st chapter of Isaiah is set is around 541 B.C. On the world scene, only a half-century before, a world power known as Babylon had conquered the little nation of Judah and had decimated Jerusalem, taking most of its people into exile.
Judah went through at that time a spiritual crisis as well as a political and military crisis. Not only had the nation lost its leaders, not only had the people lost their independence and their identity; but Judah wondered if God also was lost. Had not God promised an everlasting covenant? Had not God promised that Jerusalem would never be destroyed? Had not God promised a bushel basket full of things that now seemed to be lost?
You see, in times of personal crisis and of national crisis, faith often falters. People facing the worst think there is no God, and that even if there is, He is useless.
And so Judah, in the middle of the sixth century before Christ, was a demoralized nation.
But two things happened to change the picture. Two personalities came on the scene to make a difference. One of them was a warrior king, and the other a prophet.
One of these men is Cyrus, king first of a little place called Anshan, then lord of Media, a little later conqueror of Lydia, and at last victor over Babylon. Cyrus, the creator of the Persian Empire, marched with enormous speed across the Middle East, creating fear wherever he turned. He even put the strangle hold on mighty Babylon.
The other personality to be reckoned within this changing world of 25 centuries ago is one whose name we do not actually know. The Bible scholars call him Deutero-Isaiah. Deutero-Isaiah is a fancy way of saying the second Isaiah. He is the prophet whose writings are contained in chapters 40 through 55 of what we call the book of Isaiah. But we do know that this prophet, whatever his name was, is not Isaiah himself; he prophesied later than the original Isaiah. And so, for want of anything better to call him, we name him Deutero-Isaiah.
Deutero-Isaiah is important because he becomes an interpreter of Judah’s problems. He speaks to the exiles and interprets for them what is going on. In fact, Deutero-Isaiah, more than any other prophet, seems to see into the heart of God and God’ s desire to redeem His people. And so as we come to this chapter of his book, Deutero-Isaiah is interpreting for frightened hearts the meaning of this conquering hero called Cyrus. Here in this passage and several others like it these two dominant personalities come together, Deutero-Isaiah the prophet interpreting Cyrus the warrior king.
Let’s look at the text:
First, the prophet Deutero-Isaiah asks you to imagine all the nations of the world gathered in front of the judgment seat of God. In the light of the victories of Cyrus of Persia, whom he calls a victor from the east, just who do they think is responsible? Who has caused this sudden tremendous interruption in the balance of power? That’s the key question.
Isaiah 41: 1-4a
Who has done this? Who has brought about the victories of Cyrus? The question is answered promptly, but in an astonishing way:
Isaiah 41: 4b It’s an astounding claim. The Lord says that he is behind the success of Cyrus! Somehow we are to believe that the holy God of Israel has empowered this pagan princeling in his success! That’s pretty hard to swallow!
"I, the Lord, am first, and will be with the last.” The first and the last; the Alpha and the Omega. God seems to be involved with evil.
Now the prophet asks you to eavesdrop on all these nations. What are they going to do’? They’ve got a problem on their hands. This Cyrus fellow is out for blood, and he is succeeding. What are we going to do? Deutero-Isaiah imagines the nations trying to encourage one another and to work harder than ever before on building their idols … notice, their idols.
In other words, folks, we have a problem and his name is Cyrus of Persia. What are we going to do? We will fall back on the things we’ve made with our hands. We will improve our idol-making and see if that won’t work! Let’s make more gods and make them better. Whistling in the dark.
So now Deutero-Isaiah speaks to God’s people. Now he turns to those who are the chosen of God but are in exile, waiting and hoping against hope that they will be free. These are words which drive us past conflict, past war; they drive us past all the military strategies and point us to the God who is lord of history: