Cyrus the Great, the ruler of the Persian Empire during the latter part of the sixth century BC, is highly revered in Scripture. Even though he was not a believer in Yahweh, the one, true God, Cyrus is still given the title “messiah,” or anointed one, because he conquered the Babylonian Empire, delivering the exiled nation of Israel out of bondage and allowing the people to return to their homeland in 538 BC. Second Chronicles 36:22–23 records Cyrus’ famous decree sending the Israelites back to the Holy Land, a decree to which archaeological discoveries also bear witness.
As a Persian king, Cyrus was an adherent of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism and a follower of the false god Ahura Mazda. Ironically, however, the prophet Isaiah regarded him as the servant of the Lord God Almighty, as we see in today’s passage. This is actually a profound theological insight that expands upon the first commandment to have no other gods before the covenant Lord of Israel (Ex. 20:3). At first glance, God’s order to Israel not to have other gods but Him seems to implicitly acknowledge that other gods really do exist and really can be followed, albeit only in other nations. Yet this is not what God is saying in the first commandment. The Lord calls Israel to exalt Him alone because no other gods actually exist. Cyrus thought he was following Ahura Mazda, but in the end he was actually accomplishing the plans of Yahweh, the only God who exists. Though he did not know Yahweh in a redemptive way, Cyrus still carried out the will of the Lord (Isa. 45:1–7). Our Lord is sovereign over all, so even those who have put other “gods” before Him are, in a sense, serving His purposes, even though they do not know His redemption.
The reason, then, that the people of God are to serve none other than the covenant Lord of Israel is not only because He has saved us but also because He is the only God who truly is. To exalt another as god is to exalt that which is empty, and it results in being led astray from the God who saves and His free gift of redemption. In the end, we are all going to serve the Creator. If we do not serve Him willingly, exalting the one, true God and enjoying His benefits, then we will serve Him unwillingly like Cyrus did, furthering the Lord’s secret purposes even as we elevate false gods and miss the grace given only to worshipers of the true God.