This article looks at Cyrus the great in the book of Isaiah.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1991. 4 pages.

Isaiah 44:28-Isaiah 45:1 - Cyrus, my Shepherd and Messiah

This part of Isaiah was well-known especially because of the portrayal there of the Servant of the LORD, whom the New Testament con­clusively shows to be none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.

As a result of the detailed prophecy of his life and death, and their significance, it has often been justly called The Gospel according to Isaiah. In it there are many well-known and loved verses.

And yet, this part of the prophecy is also an un­known. It has an elusive character. We can easily become disoriented and feel ourselves to be in un­familiar territory when we try to grasp the totality of the message that is being presented. Focussing in on a verse or group of verses gives a clarity to our perception of Isaiah's message, which is often lost when we stand back and try to sum up the development and presentation of chapters 40-66 as a whole.

Isaiah - A Symphony🔗

Now, the symphonic nature of Isaiah's work has often been remarked on. In it first one theme is hinted at, and then another, only to be left aside in favour of others, and then brought back into prominence and to receive further development — perhaps a number of times. This repetition and enlargement of themes contributes to a structure of considerable complexity.

It is perhaps best known in what are called the Ser­vant Songs, where Isaiah comes back time and again to the same theme — in chapters 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13 to 53:12, and I think also 61:1-3, though the title, the Servant of the LORD, is not found there. Each time we are pre­sented with a fuller de­velopment of the same basic theme of the Servant's mission and its accomplishment.

This same approach of successive symphonic development is found also in the case of Cyrus. Though his name is explicitly men­tioned in 44:28 and 45:1, he is also referred to in other passages. These passages have been likened to a wave which begins in chapter 41, mounts higher and higher till it reaches 44:28/45:1 where the name Cyrus is found, and then recedes by 48:14 practically to its starting point. These pas­sages present one theme, a recurring motif which plays a significant role in the presentation of the message of these chapters.

Cyrus - "The Great"🔗

Cyrus was the son of a Persian king, Cambyses I, and his mother was a daughter of the king of the Medes. He was born probably about 590 B.C. At that time, Persia was part of the Median Empire. It could easily be dismissed as an obscure and unimportant territory lying at the northeast of the Persian Gulf. But Cyrus II did not become known as Cyrus the Great just to distinguish him from his grandfather of the same name. "Great" refers to the size of his em­pire, and the universal admiration that was accorded him and his practices. He was well known to the Greeks, and is referred to extensively by Herodotus and Xenophon — and always in terms of com­mendation and high praise rare for Greeks to use of a barbarian.

Cyrus - His Reign🔗

Cyrus began his thirty-five year reign over the Persians around 559 B.C. He became independent of the Medes, and then later on around 550 B.C. conquered them, a large part of the Median army coming over to his side. It was of course his grandfather, Astyages, whom he defeated, but in a move typical of Cyrus, Astyages was not killed, but made a pensioner in Cyrus' palace for the rest of his days.

Over the next ten years he engaged in a relentless push westwards through the mountainous zone north of the Babylonian Empire, eventually in 546 taking the kingdom of Lydia, which then controlled the western half of Asia Minor. This is the man whose career is de­scribed in Isaiah 41:2, 3 and 25.

These are graphic descriptions of the way in which Cyrus extended his empire. The note struck in 46:11 is not one which strikes our ears as alto­gether complimentary but the reference to a vulture or eagle does express the swift and comprehensive grasp Cyrus extended over this territory.

In coming to Lydia, he was coming to the kingdom of the fabled King Croesus, the one whom legend has turning everything he touched into gold, and who certainly had vast wealth. The reference in 45:3 is not to some Satanic treasure of darkness, but to wealth stashed deep in the ground, in caves, which fell to Cyrus. Again the Greeks made especial note of the fact that Croesus was not killed by Cyrus.

Cyrus and Babylon🔗

The wealth of the rapidly expanding Medo-Persian Empire would have been augmented even further when Cyrus turned back east. After consolidating his hold over his eastern territories, he attacked the much weakened Babylon­ian Empire. The last Neo-Babylonian emperor, Nabonidus, had neglected his empire for many years and had gone to stay at an oasis in the Arabian desert — some have speculated that it served him as a sort of health-farm, because he had been plagued by ill-health. At any rate, that is why the book of Daniel pre­sents his son Belshazzar as de facto king in Babylon. Though Nabonidus attempted some last minute counter-measures against Cyrus, it was too late.

It may well be that the fall of Babylon before Cyrus is what is referred to in 43:14 when the LORD says to Israel: "For your sake I will send to Babylon and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians". The Hebrew verb "send" is transitive, and many commentators feel that there needs to be supplied "him" after it, that is, Cyrus. He was certainly the agent by which the destruction in chapter 47 came upon Babylon. See too 48:14b-15.

Cyrus entered Babylon without any major conflict, and was hailed as a deliverer rather than a conqueror. Although Belshazzar was killed at this time, Nabonidus was spared, and sent into exile to Carmania in the east. Cyrus did not rest content with the capture of Baby­lon, and though nearly 70 years old, in 530 he was campaigning deep in Asia, near the Aral Sea, when he was killed in battle.

Cyrus and the Exiles🔗

However, for our pur­poses just now, it is what happened when Cyrus cap­tured Babylon that is important. That was when he came into contact with the exiles from Israel, towards whom he took quite a dif­ferent attitude from that of previous regimes in the East. This is described in 44:28 and 45:13.

His attitude was part of his total policy towards cap­tured peoples. He at­tempted to secure peace by reversing the Assyrian and Babylonian procedure of mass deportation. People were allowed to return to their homelands, but the Persians were not granting political independence. Rather they sponsored local institutions that had priests as their leaders, and a temple-municipality centred round a sacred site became a common form of organisation in their empire.

It is against this back­ground that we can begin to understand what happened with the Jews, for instance, the new role of the high priest in the Persian era. The willingness to provide state subsidies for the temple is also explicable. (Notice how the references in Ezra are not to the return of royal booty plundered, but of Temple treasures removed by Nebuchad­nezzar.)

Syria-Palestine was part of a large satrapy or pro­vince in the western portion of the Persian empire, sometimes referred to as Beyond the River (Ezra 4:10-11), or Trans-Euphrates (NIV). Although remote from the heart of the empire, it was of strategic importance in that it lay on the path to Egypt. For the Per­sians a temple in Jerusalem would assert their presence and influence in that part of the empire. Cyrus' attitude towards the Jews was thus part of his total attitude towards controlling his empire.

But the significant feature of all this, is that it had been predicted by Isaiah the prophet of the LORD over one hundred years before Cyrus' birth. This focuses our attention on the signi­ficance of the Cyrus pro­phecies.

Critical Significance🔗

Rationalistic critics, who deny the inspiration of Scripture, have for many years pointed to the vivid detail of these passages as evidence that they could not possibly have come from Isaiah of Jerusalem, as they call the real Isaiah of Heze­kiah's day. They dismiss the evident claim of the Old Testament book itself that it comes from Isaiah. They dismiss the New Testament evidence ascribing all 66 chapters to Isaiah on the testimony of Christ and his apostles. All else is counted worthless before their preconceived notion that such detailed predictive prophecy is impossible.

Some say it must have been written after the fall of Babylon; others will take it from the 540s, years when, as we have seen, Cyrus was coming to be a major force in the international arena of the day. There are yet again others of a more conserva­tive disposition who grant that we do not just have here a contemporary record of the politics of the day, but a record of one who was divinely raised up to realise a specific purpose. They will also grant that the LORD who did this could have foretold it to Isaiah years before, and in fact did so — and yet they stumble at the mention of the name Cyrus. It must be a later interpolation, they say.

But that will not do. Isaiah 44:24-28 is one of the longest sentences in the Old Testament. Even modern translations that are generally averse to long sentences on the grounds that they are unnatural in modern English idiom retain one sentence here. And it is a very carefully crafted sentence. There are three sections, each with three lines. The lines in the three parts get successively longer, mounting up to a climax. The first part deals with the past action of God, the second with his present control, and the third with his future intentions; and you just cannot miss Cyrus out of it. His name is integral, essential to the whole structure of the poem.

To say it is a later com­position is to do far greater justice to the integrity and skill of the composition than to say Cyrus is a later interpolation. But, of course, it is best of all to acknowledge it as coming from Isaiah, having been divinely revealed to him.

That follows from the next point:

Their Apologetic Significance🔗

They were given to Isaiah in his later years, when Manasseh's persecution was rife, when the cause of the LORD seemed to have been lost and idolatry was in the ascendant, when the curse of the broken covenant had already taken the Northern Kingdom of Israel off into exile, and Judah showed no sign of having learned any­thing at all from the cata­strophe that had overtaken their northern kinsfolk. There was Isaiah, the prophet who had always foretold of the remnant that could be saved, with a ministry to a few, wondering what would happen after the inevitable judgment came on the people. Would all be lost? And the message that comes from the LORD is not just of general blessing to come, but specific blessing, detailed predic­tion.

The mention of Cyrus is not just a gratuitous piece of information, but an ex­ample of divine specificity to meet the needs of those who were much discourag­ed by the situation of the Lord's people. It is also set in the context of confound­ing the prevalent beliefs of the day that seemed to have the world behind them. It is there not just in 44:25, 26 but earlier also in 41:25-29.

Their Messianic Significance🔗

The message to be given to the distressed and per­plexed people of God is not just that the LORD has a detailed knowledge of what will happen to them in the future, but that he is in control of that future.

The vision Isaiah is given of the LORD's future salva­tion of his people presents Cyrus as a specially chosen deliverer. He is called "my shepherd" (44:28), a title used in Numbers to describe Moses (Numbers 12:7) and Joshua (Numbers 27: 18-23) as those who provided direction and guidance for the LORD's people. He is called the Anointed, the Messiah, one divinely chosen, set apart, designated to take rule. There are things said of him that seem to point to great dig­nity being given to Cyrus. "Whose right hand I take hold of" (45:1); "I sum­mon you by name and be­stow on you a title of honour" (45:4).

In Isaiah 41:25 he is designated the one "who calls on my name" and Ezra 1:2 records: "This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah'." It is also the case that in 45: 3 we find "so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name". But from other remains of Cyrus we know he said similar things about other gods when he showed favour to the peoples of other lands.

Servant ... and Messiah🔗

In the Cyrus cylinder we find: "I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king; ... whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts," and: "May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me." Cyrus was not a true believer in the LORD. He remained a polytheist, but one who because of the apostasy of the line of David was divinely used to provide for the LORD's people. God will summon and call him personally so that two specific objectives may be accomplished.

  1. For the sake of Jacob my servant (45:4), to free them from bondage and to enable them to fulfill their divinely intended purpose.

  2. For the sake of mankind to know that Yahweh alone is God (45:5-6) and that there is no other God (45:7).

It would seem as if 45:9-11 represent a dialogue in which a response is given to those who are bemused by the way the LORD is oper­ating, who are quarreling with their Maker, and asking "what are you doing?" specifically in the context of the use made of Cyrus. To which the answer given in verse 13 is: "I will stir him up in righteous­ness". This brings in a matter from 41:2 "Who in righteousness called him to his feet?" The references are not to personal qualities of Cyrus, but to the righteousness of the LORD, the God who is committed to his covenant people, and in accordance with that commitment acts to provide them with salvation. He is the ruler of all who acts according to his own stand­ards which none can impugn.

And yet there is the sad refrain: "though you do not acknowledge me" (45:4), "though you have not acknowledged me" (45:5). All that Cyrus does as the instrument of the LORD's deliverance will be "not for a price or a reward" (45:13). Though if rewards are reckoned in worldly terms, Cyrus benefited to a great extent: but this reward is in terms of final glory. He is one who was much used by God, who at a human level had many qualities that attracted even his enemies, but who was still a stranger to grace.

In this Cyrus serves as a foil to bring out the signi­ficance of the Servant of the LORD. Elsewhere in Scrip­ture there is no hesitation to use the term "servant" of pagan rulers whom the LORD uses to further his purposes. It is done by Jere­miah of Nebuchadnezzar. But Isaiah deliberately avoids the use of the term "servant" for Cyrus. There must be no confusion: that term is reserved for those who are within the ambit of God's covenant purpose, and supremely for the one whose kingdom is estab­lished not by sword and warfare, but by suffering. The one in whose hand the will of the LORD will prosper, who after the suf­fering of his soul, will see the light of life and be satisfied.

Cyrus' victorious career would have significant and lasting importance for the covenant people, but it pales into insignificance be­fore the career of the Ser­vant. And so, Isaiah plays the one theme to its climax and through to its end be­fore he deftly develops the real crescendo in his work round the one whose career will bring light to the Gentiles and the salvation of the LORD to the ends of the earth.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.