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Barack Obama, The Prophet Isaiah, King Cyrus, and Paul Tillich

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Now that would be a panel discussion, wouldn’t it?  Actually, a day or so after Obama’s inauguration, I encountered a passage from the Biblical prophet Isaiah, and also a commentary on the passage from Paul Tillich.  Isaiah’s language of restoration for Israel is connected to Cyrus, the Persian king who made it possible for the Babylonian exiles to return and to rebuild Jerusalem.  Isaiah saw Cyrus as divinely appointed by God to do the work of liberation and renewal, even though Cyrus was a pagan (Always good to remember that people like Cyrus and their religions were more the mainstream, and people like the Jews with their religion were a minority subset of the Mediterranean world).

So what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with Barack Obama’s inauguration?  Fear not, I am not suggesting that his presidential inaugural was some sort of divine appointment.  But to see over 2 million people gathered in the Washington Mall as witnesses, then to learn that so many of them had traveled from different parts of the world, suggested that there was perhaps a significant cultural shift underway, under-girded by a tremendous sense of hope.  Then I read Isaiah, which spoke of a significant cultural change also under-girded by great hope and focused on the actions of the recently annointed Persian king, Cyrus.  Then I read Paul Tillich’s take on Isaiah and was pretty much blown away.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to set all these things down where each could converse in some way with the others.  Let’s start with this photo that says so much about January 20th, 2009:

Now let’s hear from the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 44:24 through 45:7

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who by myself spread out the earth;
25who frustrates the omens of liars,
and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
and makes their knowledge foolish;
26who confirms the word of his servant,
and fulfils the prediction of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited’,
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
27who says to the deep, ‘Be dry—
I will dry up your rivers’;
28who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose’;
and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt’,
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.

Okay, still with us?  Now, let’s hear from Paul Tillich, one of the most significant Christian theologians of the 20th century, as he writes about this passage in Christianity and Crisis, circa 1944:

There are two great figures in the teachings of this prophet (Isaiah).  The first is Cyrus, the Founder of the Persian Empire, the greatest historical personage of his time, whom our prophet speaks of as the “shepherd” of God, as “the anointed” and as the man of God’s counsel; the other is the “servant  of Jahweh” (whoever he may be in flesh and blood), who symbolizes the saving power of innocent suffering and death.  According to hte prophetic teaching the glorious founder of an empire is ultimately the servant of the servant of Jahweh.  He liberates the remnant of Israel from which the suffering servant arises.

Is not this conception the solution of the question of the meaning of history today?  It is the only solution which I can see.  There are two forces in our shattered world today. The one is the force of those who are similar to the suffering servant of God. We do not know where they are, as we do not know who prompted the servant-vision of the prophet.  But we know that they exist, invisibly, in all countries.  We do not know what they will make of the future.  But we know that their suffering will not be in vain.  They are the hidden tools of the God of history; the aged and the infants, the women and the young men, the persecuted and imprisoned, all those who are innocently sacrificed for the future, to be one small stone in the building of the divine Kingdom, of which the Perfect Servant of God is the corner stone.  And there is another force in our world, the force of those who are like unto Cyrus, the rulers of empires with all the greatness and shame of every empire (the rulers of America, Great Britain and Russia). They are the men of God’s counsel, because they carry through his purposes in the service of the suffering servants of God.  But they are as ignorant of God’s counsel as Cyrus was. They do not know the future consequences of their policies.  If we look to them in our attempt to know the future we will also remain ignorant.  But if we look at the true servants and the true God whom they serve, the God of history, we will know!  Cyrus is in the service of the servant of Jahweh. This is the solution of the riddle of history, including the history of our epoch.

The emhases in Tillich’s commentary are mine, since they are the passages that jumped off the page at me.

Well, if you’ve made it this far along, I invite you to let these things percolate a bit with you and see what you think.

One response »

  1. Cyrus’s birthright was challenged for him to rule.

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