Who has stirred up this king from the east, rightly calling him to God’s service? Who gives this man victory over many nations and permits him to trample their kings underfoot? With his sword, he reduces armies to dust. With his bow, he scatters them like chaff before the wind. He chases them away and goes on safely, though he is walking over unfamiliar ground. [Isaiah 41:2-3 (NLT)]
In 538 BC, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Persia’s King Cyrus issued a proclamation allowing the first group of Judean exiles to return home with the purpose of rebuilding the Temple and inhabiting Jerusalem. In fulfillment of another prophecy, he then did what to any other conqueror would be unthinkable by returning the “plunder of tyrants”: 2,499 gold and silver sacred utensils taken by King Nebuchadnezzar when he ransacked the Temple. Cyrus permitted those who returned to take any wealth they’d accumulated during exile and encouraged those choosing to remain in Babylon to support their returning brethren with gifts, supplies, and food offerings. As a result, a total of 5,400 articles of gold and silver were taken back to Judah with the exiles.
In Cyrus’ proclamation releasing the Jews (found in Ezra 1), he claimed that it was “the Lord, the God of heaven” who gave him his kingdoms and appointed him to build a house for the “God of Israel who lives in Jerusalem.” Although Cyrus acknowledged the existence of Israel’s Yahweh, he limited Yahweh’s domain of power to Judah, just as the lesser gods of other nations (such as Babylon’s Marduk) were limited in power to their territory. Like other lesser gods, Israel’s god was governed by another higher god, “the God of heaven.” It’s likely that Cyrus believed Ahura Mazda, the deity of Persian Zoroastrianism, was the supreme god who ruled the others and gave him his kingdoms.
While Cyrus was right about getting divine direction and assistance from God, he was dead wrong about its source! Rather than a God who ruled over the lesser gods of other nations, there was only one God and, unlike those other gods, He wasn’t an idol, didn’t live in a house, and wasn’t limited to Israel or any other border. This one and only God was all-powerful, omnipresent, and omniscient. While He was the God Israel worshipped, He was the God of the universe!
When we think of the parting of the Red Sea, the flood, Egypt’s plagues, hailstones destroying the Amorite army, or the 3½-year drought followed by rain in Elijah’s time, we see that God sometimes uses nature to accomplish His will. For the most part, however, human beings are the agents through which God does most of His work. Some, like Moses, Isaiah, Samuel, and Elijah knew they’d been called to achieve God’s purposes while others, like Rahab and Joseph’s brothers didn’t. God even used heathen kings and pagan nations to achieve his purposes. It was God who moved the Israelites’ Egyptian neighbors to willingly give them their wealth at the time of the exodus. It was their Egyptian gold, silver, and ornaments that were used to make the sacred objects used in the Tabernacle and Temple! God used Assyria to punish Samaria for their apostasy and later used Babylonia to punish Assyria. Calling King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon “my servant,” God used him to punish Judah for their disobedience and then used both Persia and the armies of Alexander the Great to punish and demolish Babylon! Calling Persia’s Cyrus “God’s anointed one” and “my shepherd,” God used him to free the Jews and rebuild Jerusalem and then used Alexander the Great’s army to punish Persia for their evil!
To achieve His purposes, God will use both the righteous and wicked, those who believe and those who don’t. People don’t have to believe in God to be used by Him because it is not one’s belief in God that gives him power. God is Lord of all nations and all people and His supremacy and magnificence are so great that regardless of who we are or what kind of person we happen to be, we can be used by Him. It is God, and God alone, who controls history!