The Book of Isaiah was written over a period of about 150 years by a series of different authors who wrote in the tradition of the first Isaiah. The book, as we now know it, was ‘stitched together’ by a group of editors who resequenced the book. (Recall that books were written on scrolls, with some scrolls being a chapter or more, so they were not organized serially, like our books are.) Scholars argue about details but generally….
- First Isaiah, dates from the 742-70 BCE and includes chapters 1-23, 28-31, 36-39.
- Second Isaiah, from which we read today, includes a distinct body of work written during the time of exile and includes chapters 34-35 and 40-55. Second Isaiah dates from about 540 BCE while the Israelites were still in captivity in Babylon. He prophesied about the Persian kin Cyrus’s victory over the Babylonians. The passage we read on Sunday Oct. 22nd deals with this time.
- Third Isaiah includes chapters 56-66 and dates from Jerusalem after the return of the Babylonian exiles in 537 BCE
- The author sometimes called Fourth Isaiah contains chapters 24-27, the “little apocalypse” from which we read last week, and represents the final theological development… the end of death and a final judgment…in Isaiah.
This background helps inform today’s reading which it includes some ideas about how God works in the world. These ideas would have shocked the Israelites of Isaiah’s time. They also point to ideas embedded in both the readings from 1 Thess1:1-10 and Matt 22:15-22
The reading begins,
This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
“I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me”
The Jewish captives would have heard the rumours of the war between their Babylonian captors and the Persians. Cyrus had led a series of battles against other nations for more than a decade and he had been moving against Babylon for some time. So his name would have been known.
But the idea that Cyrus would be the anointed instrument of God was probably shocking. The Israelites were used to thinking of King David and to a lesser extent other Jewish kings as acting on God’s behalf. Someone who did not even acknowledge me being identified as his anointed was astonishing. (Even though the Israelites had come to see their captivity in Babylon as punishment for falling away from worshiping God, they had not concluded that God had blessed their captors.)
The passage continues,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
From the rising of the sun to the place of its setting is Isaiah’s way of saying that there is nothing on earth that is outside of God’s control. Moreover, he is the God of light AND darkness, of prosperity AND disaster.
While the Israelites had interpreted their captivity in Babylon as the consequence of abandoning their worship of God, they likely understood it as God’s withdrawing his protection. In this passage, Isaiah told them that God was near and directing all the events of their lives. He had not abandoned them. He was always close.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:6 Paul talks about the severe suffering the Thessalonians have endured, and that God had used their faithfulness as a way of communicating to others about both them and himself: your faith in God has become known everywhere. Paul assures them that God had always been with them even in their trails. Like Isaiah, Paul sees God’s presence in everything, prosperity and disaster.
The gospel story from Matt 22, in which Jesus concludes, give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” has many elements. This phrase sticks out, however, because it is the hinge point of the story and seems to suggest that Caesar is somehow separate from God’s rhelm, in apparent contradiction of Isaiah’s assurance. (It also begs the question: how does one determine what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.)
The 3rd century theologian Tertullian said ‘give Caesar his image on the coin, but give God all else.’
Another way theologians have resolved this apparent conflict is by saying that God does rule all and uses human instruments, such as governments, to fulfill his will for shared values at a practical level… such as water, healthcare, fire protection, education, care for the poor… however messed up the governments’ interpretations are sometimes.
- Have you experienced God working through ‘evil’ people? What implications do you draw from the experience?
- When have you felt that God acted directly in the events of your life? Does that mean that God is sometimes present but often absent? Does it mean that God is always present, just not active? Or is God always active but you are not aware?
- How would you explain Jesus’ answer to someone who read the parable for the first time, and who asked you “What does it mean to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”?