Recently, I received a question from a loyal reader about the meaning of Isaiah 45:7, which reads: “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.’” Of course, that is what I read when I read it in my usual translation, but the person asking me was reading it like this: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Immediately, we see that we have a textual question here. So, let us examine this verse and point out how God creates evil/calamity, and what this means in the context of the passage as well as the Bible as a whole. As we might imagine, the question of God creating evil is one that has a lot of implications, especially since the word used for evil, “rah” is the common word for evil or misfortune, meaning that it can be understood a variety of ways based on the interpretation of the reader. This textual ambiguity makes it a worthwhile mystery of the Bible .
Let us first, in looking at this verse, expand the context a little and see if that shines a bit of light on what the verse in question means. The immediate context is Isaiah 45:1-13, which reads: ““Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—To subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut: ‘I will go before you and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, Am the God of Israel. For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.’ “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together. I, the Lord, have created it. “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’? Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What are you begetting?’ Or to the woman, ‘What have you brought forth?’” Thus says the Lord, The Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: “Ask Me of things to come concerning My sons; and concerning the work of My hands, you command Me. I have made the earth, and created man on it. I—My hands—stretched out the heavens, and all their host I have commanded. I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways; he shall build My city and let My exiles go free, not for price nor reward,” says the Lord of hosts.”
When we look at this passage, which specifically deals with Cyrus, the Persian king whose conquest of the Chaldean Empire led to the freedom of the Jews from captivity, which some of them took advantage of over the next few generations to return to Judea to rebuild Jerusalem and its surrounding communities as a small remnant while many Jews remained in Babylonia, Media, and Persia and lived often prosperous lives in the diaspora, we see something deeply profound. For one, we must recognize that the immediate context of Isaiah 45:7, which is so easily taken out of context, is dealing with the power that God claims over the workings of divine providence in the world. This particular verse is not so much about the creation of evil as in moral evil, but rather it shows God taking responsibility for the workings of history according to His will. This is no less profound an issue than the responsibility for moral evil, which we will get to shortly.
It is, after all, the “problem of evil” that is used so often as an argument over whether God is or whether God is good. There are various ways that people try to defend God in theodicies, justifying God’s ways before mankind. In the contemporary era, much of this task involves limiting the power of God so as to absolve Him from responsibility for the evils that are so widely abhorred. Yet God will have none of this. God’s answer to those who would question why He allows what He allows, or to those who would shorten His hand–responsibility and power–in order to defend His reputation is a simple one: “Who are you to question me? I am the Creator.” This is an uncomfortable answer for many people. We look at the world around us, or we reflect on the evils that we have ourselves answered, and we want to know why these things have happened, and why God is perfect but the world which He created is so obviously fallen and wicked. Isaiah gives no answer why, which is consistent with the Bible’s general silence about this question. God says it is His purpose to create, and in a passage that is striking for its positive look at the salvation of God’s people from captivity, it is striking that the most negative verse in the passage is the one that gets so much attention as to its meaning.
Yet God regularly takes responsibility for what others do in scripture, something that is remarkably notable when the other being involved is Satan the devil. When we read the book of Job, for example, the book begins with a series of cosmic wagers between God and the devil about Job’s righteousness, in which Satan bets God that Job will curse Him if Satan is given freedom to make Job suffer. God wins the challenge handily, yet when God is speaking to Job at the end of the book, Satan is never brought up by God in response to the question as to why Job had to suffer as he did. God simply tells Job that He is in charge and it is not Job’s place to question Him or accuse Him of injustice, even though it was Satan’s idea to torment Job in the first place. God could have thrown Satan under the bus and blamed him for the calamities that Job suffered, but He did not, taking responsibility for what He allowed Satan to do. The reader is left with a knowledge of the wager between God and Satan, but Job is not told during the course of the story, and the fact that we as the reader know that Satan was the accuser of Job and that Job was undeserving of his suffering, at least as much as people are undeserving of suffering has not stopped many readers from taking a page out of Job’s friends’ scripts and accusing Job of self-righteousness or something else of that nature.
Nor is this an isolated example. We see the same phenomenon when it comes to David taking the census. 1 Chronicles 21:1-2 tells us: “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and to the leaders of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba to Dan, and bring the number of them to me that I may know it.”” On the other hand, 2 Samuel 24:1-2 tells us: “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Now go throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and count the people, that I may know the number of the people.”” So, what is going on here? 1 Chronicles 21 tells us that Satan stood up against Israel to accuse Israel, and apparently the accusation hit home because it led God to rise up in anger against Israel and punish them with a plague that killed some 75,000 people. We are not told about the nature of their sin that led Satan to accuse them, only that the accusation was one that God agreed with, and as we can read in 2 Samuel, ultimately took responsibility for. It may not have been God’s idea to punish Israel but he accepted the accusation of Satan and took responsibility for having stirred up David to commit a sin that would lead to His divine judgment against an ungodly people. And in taking responsibility for what He allows, God is consistent in owning up to all that happens in the universe because all that happens is something that God has allowed for His purposes, whether or not He wishes to explain the reasoning to us or not.
 See, for example: