Cyrus, a Man with a Prophetic Role
FEW men throughout the course of human history were foretold to fulfill a specific role in God’s purpose. Cyrus the son of Cambyses and the founder of the Persian Empire, however, was such a man. His conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. and the subsequent release of the Jews from exile were foretold long before his birth.
It was in the eighth century B.C.E. that Jehovah declared by means of his prophet Isaiah:
“‘I, Jehovah, am doing everything . . . the One making the word of his servant come true, and the One that carries out completely the counsel of his own messengers; the One saying of Jerusalem, “She will be inhabited,” and of the cities of Judah, “They will be rebuilt, and her desolated places I shall raise up”; the One saying to the watery deep, “Be evaporated; and all your rivers I shall dry up”; the One saying of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and 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.”’
“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, so that I may ungird even the hips of kings; to open before him the two-leaved doors, so that even the gates will not be shut.”—Isa. 44:24–45:1.
The accounts of ancient historians confirm the fulfillment of this amazing prophecy. While differing somewhat in their presentation, Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon both relate the same basic account. Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River, which flowed through Babylon and served as part of its system of defense. The conquering armies then marched through the riverbed, gaining access to the city through the gates along the quay. Having given themselves up to feasting and revelry, the Babylonians were caught completely by surprise, and the city fell that very night.
Also, as had been foretold, Cyrus issued a decree that enabled Jewish exiles to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. That decree read: “This is what Cyrus the king of Persia has said, ‘All the kingdoms of the earth Jehovah the God of the heavens has given me, and he himself has commissioned me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, Jehovah his God be with him. So let him go up.’”—2 Chron. 36:23.
That such a decree would have been in harmony with this ruler’s policies is confirmed by the inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder. Therein he is quoted as saying: “I returned to [certain previously named] sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations.”—Ancient Near Eastern Texts by James B. Pritchard, 1955, p. 316.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus credits Cyrus with issuing the decree because of having had the prophecy of Isaiah called to his attention. He writes:
“In the first year of Cyrus’s reign—this was the seventieth year from the time when our people were fated to migrate from their own land to Babylon—God took pity on the captive state and misfortune of those unhappy men and, as He had foretold to them through the prophet Jeremiah before the city was demolished, that, after they should have served Nebuchadnezzar and his descendants and endured this servitude for seventy years, He would again restore them to the land of their fathers and they should build the temple and enjoy their ancient prosperity, so did He grant it them. For he stirred up the spirit of Cyrus and caused him to write throughout all Asia, ‘Thus says King Cyrus. Since the Most High God has appointed me king of the habitable world, I am persuaded that He is the god whom the Israelite nation worships, for He foretold my name through the prophets and that I should build His temple in Jerusalem in the land of Judea.’
“These things Cyrus knew from reading the book of prophecy which Isaiah had left behind two hundred and ten years earlier. For this prophet had said that God told him in secret, ‘It is my will that Cyrus, whom I shall have appointed king of many great nations, shall send my people to their own land and build my temple.’ Isaiah prophesied these things one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished. And so, when Cyrus read them, he wondered at the divine power and was seized by a strong desire and ambition to do what had been written; and, summoning the most distinguished of the Jews in Babylon, he told them that he gave them leave to journey to their native land and to rebuild both the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God, for God, he said, would be their ally and he himself would write to his own governors and satraps who were in the neighbourhood of their country to give them contributions of gold and silver for the building of the temple and, in addition, animals for the sacrifices.”—Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chap. 1, pars. 1, 2, translated by Ralph Marcus.
Commenting on this statement of Josephus, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. One, p. 1055) says: “There is every reason to accept the testimony of Josephus at this point.” Many critics, however, disagree. They simply cannot accept that the prophecy about Cyrus could have been written before the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. They maintain that chapters 40 to 66 of Isaiah were written by someone who lived after these things happened. Their claim denies that Jehovah God can reveal matters to his servants long before they occur and that he can make his word come true.
ISAIAH’S PROPHECY AUTHENTIC
The view that these things could not have been written by Isaiah is contrary to all evidence in existence from the first, if not the second, century B.C.E. onward. The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, believed to date from the first century B.C.E. or the second century B.C.E., shows no division of the prophecy. What is today called the fortieth chapter 40 of Isaiah begins on the last line of the column on which Isa chapter 39 ends in that scroll. Inspired Bible writers in the first century C.E. ascribed to Isaiah material from the latter part, as well as the early part, of the book bearing his name. (Isa. 42:1-4; 53:1; Matt. 12:17-21; Rom. 10:16) They thus attributed the entire prophecy to the one writer, Isaiah.
Regardless of what date critics may try to assign to parts of Isaiah, they cannot deny that it contains prophecies that were fulfilled long after they had been committed to writing. There is, for example, the prophecy stating that Babylon would become as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah, a place never to be inhabited and where not even shepherds would graze their flocks. (Isa. 13:19, 20) At the time that the Dead Sea Scroll was being copied from an earlier manuscript, Babylon still existed, and apart from Bible prophecy, there was no indication that the city would become a desolate wilderness. But today the crumbling ruins of ancient Babylon testify to the accurate fulfillment of the prophecy.
The theories of men that would deny that Cyrus fulfilled a prophetic role are, therefore, shown up to be without foundation. God’s Word of prophecy can indeed be trusted. This should move us to want to investigate that Word, making sure that we both know what it says and are living in harmony with it.