This is the fourth in a series of seven articles in consecutive issues of Awake! that discuss the seven world powers of Bible history. The objective is to show that the Bible is trustworthy and inspired of God and that its message is one of hope for an end to the suffering caused by man’s cruel domination of his fellow man.
THE ruins of palaces and royal tombs provide only a glimpse of the grandeur, power, and wealth of the ancient dual empire of Media and Persia. Before the two kingdoms united, Media was the dominant kingdom. But in 550 B.C.E., the Medes came under the control of Persian King Cyrus II, who thereafter ruled over the kingdom of Medo-Persia. Centered in the region north of the Persian Gulf, this vast realm eventually stretched from the Aegean Sea to Egypt to northwestern India and included Judea.
Medo-Persia ruled over the Jewish nation for more than 200 years—from the overthrow of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. until Medo-Persia itself was defeated by the Greeks in 331 B.C.E. Numerous Bible books comment on significant events that occurred during that time.
The Bible tells us that King Cyrus II freed the Jews held captive in Babylon, allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild God’s temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed in 607 B.C.E. (Ezra 1:1-7; 6:3-5) Corroborating this account is a clay document known as the Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879 in the ruins of ancient Babylon. The inscription identifies Cyrus by name and describes his policy of returning previously captured peoples and their religious objects to their native lands. The Bible writer Isaiah recorded Jehovah’s prophetic words concerning Cyrus: “‘All that I delight in he will completely carry out’; even in my saying of Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘You will have your foundation laid.’”—Isaiah 44:28.
In fact, Cyrus ordered that funds for temple reconstruction “be given from the king’s house,” says Ezra 6:3, 4. This amazing statement harmonizes with secular history. “It was a consistent policy of Persian kings to help restore sanctuaries in their empire,” says the book Persia and the Bible.
The Bible tells us that opposers of the Jews later wrote to Darius the Great (also called Darius I) challenging the Jews’ claim that Cyrus had authorized the reconstruction of the temple. Darius commanded that a search be made for the original written decree. The outcome? A scroll containing Cyrus’ decree was found at Ecbatana, the capital. In response, Darius wrote: “I, Darius, do put through an order. Let it [temple reconstruction] be done promptly.” Opposition to the work then ceased.*—Ezra 6:2, 7, 12, 13.
Secular history supports these details. For one thing, Ecbatana was the summer residence of Cyrus, and he may have issued his decree from there. Also, archaeological discoveries show that Medo-Persian kings took a keen interest in religious matters affecting their realm and wrote letters to resolve disputes.
In a divinely inspired dream, the prophet Daniel saw a series of four beasts rising out of the sea, each representing a successive world power. The first beast, a winged lion, represented Babylon. The second was “like a bear.” The account continues: “This is what they were saying to it, ‘Get up, eat much flesh.’” (Daniel 7:5) The fearsome bear pictured Medo-Persia.
True to Daniel’s prophecy, Medo-Persia displayed a voracious appetite for conquest. Not long after Daniel’s vision, Cyrus defeated the Medes and then waged war against neighboring Lydia and Babylon. His son Cambyses II conquered Egypt. Later Medo-Persian rulers expanded the empire even farther.
How can we be sure of this interpretation? In a separate but related vision, Daniel saw a ram “making thrusts to the west and to the north and to the south.” The prophecy was fulfilled when Medo-Persia made “thrusts” against other nations, including mighty Babylon. An angel of God interpreted this vision, saying to Daniel: “The ram that you saw possessing the two horns stands for the kings of Media and Persia.”—Daniel 8:3, 4, 20.
Furthermore, some two centuries before Babylon’s defeat, the prophet Isaiah foretold both the name of the conquering Persian king—who was not yet born—and his strategy for taking Babylon. Isaiah wrote: “This is what Jehovah has said to his anointed one, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken hold of, to subdue before him nations, . . . to open before him the two-leaved doors, so that even the gates will not be shut.” (Isaiah 45:1) Both Isaiah and Jeremiah foretold that Babylon’s “rivers,” or canals fed by the Euphrates River, which served as a protective moat, would be dried up. (Isaiah 44:27; Jeremiah 50:38) The Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon confirm the Bible’s prophetic accuracy, including the fact that the Babylonians were reveling on the very night that Cyrus took the city. (Isaiah 21:5, 9; Daniel 5:1-4, 30) Having diverted the Euphrates River, Cyrus’ armies entered the city through open gates along the river, encountering little resistance. In one night mighty Babylon fell!
This event, in turn, led to the amazing fulfillment of another prophecy. The prophet Jeremiah had earlier foretold that God’s people would be exiled in Babylon for 70 years. (Jeremiah 25:11, 12; 29:10) That prophecy was fulfilled right on time, and the exiles were allowed to return to their homeland.
A Hope You Can Trust
Shortly after Medo-Persia conquered Babylon, Daniel recorded a prophecy that sheds light on a most important event in the accomplishment of God’s purpose for mankind. The angel Gabriel informed Daniel precisely when the Messiah—the “seed” promised at Genesis 3:15—would appear! God’s angel said: “From the going forth of the word to restore and to rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Leader, there will be seven weeks, also sixty-two weeks,” a total of 69 weeks. (Daniel 9:25) When did this prophetic period begin?
Although Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their land soon after the fall of Babylon, many years later Jerusalem and its walls were still in disrepair. In 455 B.C.E., King Artaxerxes granted permission to his Jewish cupbearer Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and take the lead in the rebuilding work. (Nehemiah 2:1-6) This marked the start of the 69 weeks.
The 69 weeks, however, were not literal weeks of seven days but weeks of years. In fact, some Bible translations render the expression “weeks” as “weeks of years.”* (Daniel 9:24, 25) The Messiah would appear after a period of 69 “weeks” of 7 years each—a total of 483 years. The prophecy was fulfilled in 29 C.E. when Jesus was baptized, exactly 483 years from 455 B.C.E.*
The precise fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy adds to the abundant evidence confirming Jesus’ identity. This evidence also confirms our hope for the future. Jesus, as King of God’s heavenly Kingdom, will bring an end to harsh human rule. Thereafter, he will fulfill many more Bible prophecies, including those pointing forward to a resurrection of the dead to endless life in Paradise on earth.—Daniel 12:2; John 5:28, 29; Revelation 21:3-5.
The name Darius is applied to at least three kings.
Among the Bible translations that use the phrase “weeks of years” are the following: Tanakh—A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures, The Complete Bible—An American Translation, and The Bible—Containing the Old and New Testaments, by James Moffatt.
For a detailed discussion of the prophecy, including a diagram setting out the 69 weeks of years, see pages 197-199 of the book What Does the Bible Really Teach?