Cyrus the Great was a famous Persian king and the founder of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty that conquered Babylon and many other nations. He was born in 590 BC (or 580 BC) and died in 529 BC. He is looked back upon by some as an advocate of human rights, which has a lot to do with the discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder, though others have argued that this portrayal of him is overstated.
Discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder
In 1879, an amazing discovery was made in the ruins of ancient Babylon. It was a fragmented clay cylinder with inscriptions in Akkadian cuneiform that came to be known as the Cyrus Cylinder. It was named as such because it was probably written upon the order of Cyrus after his capture of Babylon in 539 BC., and contained historical content about his victories and reforms.
Cyrus Honors the God Marduk
What concerns us here as Christians is the claims found inscribed upon the Cyrus Cylinder that assert that the god Marduk chose Cyrus, which thus enabled him to conquer Babylon and other nations. The critical passage we are concerned with reads:
seeking for the upright king of [the god Marduk’s] choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.
The God Yahweh Speaks to Cyrus
That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure, even saying of Jerusalem, She shall be built; and of the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid. Thus saith [Yaheweh] to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and I will loose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut: I will go before thee, and make the rough places smooth; I will break in pieces the doors of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron; and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that it is I, [Yaheweh], who call thee by thy name, even the God of Israel. For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel my chosen, I have called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. I am [Yaheweh], and there is none else; besides me there is no God. I will gird thee, though thou hast not known me; that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none besides me: I am [Yaheweh], and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am [Yaheweh], that doeth all these things. (Isa 44:28-45:7 ASV)
The language and focus of both the passage from the Cyrus Cylinder and Isaiah 44:28-45:7 are so similar that it suggests a likely correlation between the two. However, the first problem here is in determining exactly when Isaiah 44:28-45:7 was written. While there is a general agreement that chapters 1-39 in Isaiah were written by Isaiah in the eight century BC, scholars generally believe the rest of Isaiah was written in the sixth century BC, long after Isaiah was dead. Significantly, the name of Isaiah is used 16 times in chapters 1-39 (Isa 1:1; 2:1; 7:3; 13:1; 20:2-3; 37:2, 5, 6, 21; 38:1, 4, 21; 39:3, 5, 8), but never again after chapter 39. In addition, the content after chapter 39 frequently suggests that at least parts of it were written in the sixth century BC.
The internal implications within Isaiah 44:28-45:7 indicate that this was written while Cyrus was alive and near the beginning of his massive expansion of the Achaemenid Empire. If this is so, at first glance if might seem that Cyrus used the prophecy of Isaiah 44:28-45:7 in writing the Cyrus Cylinder. However, the problem with this solution is that Isaiah 44:28-45:7 seems to be a response to the beliefs conveyed in the Cyrus Cylinder, refuting that it was the god Marduk who helped Cyrus and asserting that it was instead the God Yahweh. Since God is omniscient, perhaps our solution is that God knew what was going to be written in the Cyrus Cylinder beforehand. The dilemma in understanding the exact specifics of the correlation between Isaiah 44:28-45:7 and the Cyrus Cylinder should not prevent us from recognizing that Isaiah 44:28-45:7 is a divine correction of the misinformation that we find in the Cyrus Cylinder.
Comparing Isaiah 44:28-45:4 with the Cyrus Cylinder
I really want to highlight where the content of these two passages are similar so that my readers can ponder just how amazing this is. Lets take a look at the comparisons below:
the upright king (Cyrus Cylinder)
He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure (Isaiah; also see Isa 45:13)
[Yaheweh] to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden (Isaiah)
called him by his name (Cyrus Cylinder)
who call thee by thy name … I have called thee by thy name (Isaiah)
proclaiming him aloud (Cyrus Cylinder)
I will go before thee, and make the rough places smooth (Isaiah)
for the kingship over all of everything. (Cyrus Cylinder)
to subdue nations before him, and I will loose the loins of kings (Isaiah)
God Takes the Honor He is Due
Though Cyrus was incorrect in attributing his conquests to the god Marduk, he was in fact being used by the real God according to Isaiah 44:28-45:7. In fact, the basic premise of his claims in the Cyrus Cylinder are true except where he has erred in honoring the wrong god. God tells Cyrus a number of significant things in Isaiah 44:28-45:7. He first corrects him in his error in believing that it was the god Marduk who helped him. Instead, God takes the honor that is properly his by asserting that it is he, Yahweh, the God of Israel, who gave him his victories. He also clearly distances himself from being the same god as Marduk because he tells Cyrus, “thou hast not known me” twice. He also tells him that the reason he helped him in this way was for sake of Israel, his chosen nation. This was because God knew that Cyrus was going to put an end to the Babylonian captivity of the nation of Israel so that the captives would be free to return to their own country, rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple therein. It seems quite possible that this prophecy was shown to Cyrus sometime within the first year of conquest over Babylon, and that it may have been instrumental in his decision to issue a decree for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple (2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-11; 3:7; 4:3; 5:13-17; 6:3-5). The first century Jewish historian Josephus asserts that such was the case (Josephus, AJ 11:6-7).
I find the Cyrus Cylinder an amazing archeological discovery. Not only does it provide historical validation for much of what we find in Isaiah 44:28-45:7, but it shows how God used a foreign king to accomplish his purposes. Though Cyrus did not know the real God and instead honored Marduk, the god of the city of Babylon, the real God made himself known to him through his prophetic message, telling him that it was instead he, Yahweh, the God of Israel, who chose him and led him in his conquests to overpower Babylon and the other nations. God claimed the honor that was due him, for it was he and he alone who accomplished all this through Cyrus.
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