Coffee Mugs and Context – Part 1

As I was trolling Twitter I came across a Tweet from a pastor that I have long respected (and I still do).  The post was fairly simple, he posted the text of Isaiah 45:3, which reads:

I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the LORD,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (ESV)

Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with posting a passage of Scripture on Twitter, even this passage.  I’ve done it, and so do many, many people that I respect.  Yet, trying to post something like this when we are limited to a defined number of characters does have its problems, and can feed one of the key problems when it comes to the use of Scripture.  We really like to find the passages of the Bible that have affirming and uplifting messages so we can post them, put them on coffee cups, or throw them on a t-shirt.  But way too often, these “coffee cup verses” are ripped out of their context, and when made to stand alone can end up communicating a message that is completely opposite from the intended meaning of the author as inspired by God to the people for whom he was writing.

Let’s take this passage as an example.  If all you read is this verse it looks like an incredible promise of God’s amazing blessing.  He is going to give us treasures of darkness, what a deal.  We will get blessings beyond our most amazing dreams. Furthermore, they are going to come from the secret places of darkness, or in other words, the evil world or maybe Satanic kingdom are going to be the source as God forces them them to hand over their goods to faithful Christians.  This is what it means, right?  As I read the comments under the Tweet that posted this passage it was obvious that this is how it was being interpreted.  Response after response saying things like, “This is just what I needed to hear, #blessed.”  Or, “Yes, God is going to answer our prayers and bless us with treasures.”  Man, I would love it if Biblical interpretation was this easy, and we could just pull a verse, claim it, and throw it on a mug so our lives could be changed.

The problem here is that the context of the passage and the larger book of Isaiah just will not allow for this interpretation.  And not only do we misuse Scripture, this passage specifically is one of the most amazing passages in all of the Bible, which if rightly interpreted and understood can give so much hope and build faith in an unbelievable way.  But to begin, we need to be clear, this verse was not in any way intended to be a promise for you, or me, or anyone living at this time.  In fact, it wasn’t even a promise for the Hebrews, God’s Old Testament people.  No, this is a prophetic promise made to one man, identified in the passage as Cyrus.  The passage actually begins in Isaiah 44:24, but identifies a new subject in v. 28, God is speaking.  It is a “Thus saith the Lord” passage from a prophet.  And in the text Isaiah speaks specifically to Cyrus, who is a world leader, conqueror and leader.  In the text Isaiah describes the work of Cyrus, saying that he will “fulfill all My purpose,” which includes the rebuilding of Jerusalem and laying the foundations of the Temple.  In the first few verses of chapter 55, God says that as Cyrus moves forward in his conquest God will go before him, leveling exalted places, and grasping Cyrus by the hand as he subdues nations and loosens the belt of kings.  It is in this context, to Cyrus, that God gives Isaiah 45:3, the promise of treasures in darkness, which is a reference to the royal treasures of the Babylonian Empire (more on that below), and not some metaphorical idea of treasure.  Then God says a couple other things through Isaiah.  First, he tells Cyrus that He has called him by name so that he will know that Yahweh, the One True God worshiped by Israel has called him by name.  And furthermore, this is to strengthen the faith of God’s chosen people, because when they realize that God has named Him they will know that their God is the only God, there is no one else like Him.

So who is this Cyrus guy and what is the meaning.  The answer is simple and beautiful.  Isaiah gives a vivid description of the rise of one of the great world leaders and kings, Cyrus the Persian or Cyrus the Great.  Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire.  In the Old Testament story, Babylon became the strongest world empire, which included the conquest of Israel.  Eventually, their King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls of Jerusalem and wrecked the Temple, then deported all Jews to Babylon for a period known as the Babylonian Exile of the Jews, a period that began in 605 BC.  About 70 years later, Cyrus overthrew a later Babylonian king, ending the Babylonian Empire and ushering the Persian Empire as the great ruler of the world.  The passage from which our verse is pulled comes from Isaiah’s prophetic description of this conquest.  As Cyrus took on his rule, he shifted away from the policy of pulling people from their countries to serve in Babylon.  Rather, Cyrus gave them the freedom to return back to their homelands with both the funds and authority to rebuild their cities and houses of worship.  This included the Jews, who were allowed to go back to Jerusalem so they could rebuild the city and the Temple in the holy city (Ezra 1:1-11).  The result was that a large number of Jews left Babylon and returned back to Jerusalem, a story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  These events began in 535 BC.  The story found in the Bible has also been confirmed in history, with the discovery of the famous Cyrus Cylinder by archaeologists which is now in the British Museum.

But here is the amazing, awesome, absolutely jaw dropping thing about the passage.  Isaiah is an eighth century Jewish prophet, meaning that His preaching and writing to the Jewish community took place in the 700’s BC, or around 200 years before the events described and even the birth of Cyrus.  GET THIS!  Under the prophetic inspiration of God, Isaiah named one of the most important rules of the ancient world by name around 200 years before he was born and then described in vivid detail his conquest, including the rebuilding of Jerusalem (although the city in Isaiah’s day was just fine) an the laying of the foundations of a Temple that was still standing.  And God said this through Isaiah so that Cyrus would know there is a God in Israel, but more importantly, so that His own people would read this at a later time and realize that only their God could pull this off.

So, what is the point of this blog post?  I want to encourage our church and any other readers to be faithful in their use of Scripture, and make sure we are using passages according to their intended meaning and context.  The passage in Isaiah 45:3 is not in any way a promise made for you.  To Tweet it, put it on a coffee mug, or a t-shirt, and then quote it as if it was some life verse is a misuse of the text.  It is a promise made by God through Isaiah to Cyrus of Persia.  But more important, it robs us of the rich experience of knowing God deeply in His word, and the opportunity to have our faith deeply encouraged when we roll up our sleeves just a bit to understand the verse in its context.  And when we do that, God can use the passage in our life to build faith, and help us realize that the only way a prophet can do what Isaiah did is if there is a God who is orchestrating the events of history to accomplish His purpose, and whose word bears the absolute imprint of divine revelation.  The right interpretation of this passage can give us a much greater faith in God Himself, and in the Scriptures He has revealed.  And both of these are so much better than any treasure that we might find in a dark room.

2 Responses to “Coffee Mugs and Context – Part 1”

  1. Vonita and Michael Hill says:

    Pastor Hubbard …

    Thank you for this blog post. I just recently found your website and read your blog for the first time. The last paragraph you’ve written here “says it all”.

    My husband, daughters and I look forward to visiting your church soon. Until then, press on in Truth with the Gospel of Christ!

  2. Jodi says:

    Appreciate the reminder that staying faithful to His Word and it’s context only leads to greater faith in God himself.