Encyclopedia of The Bible – Cyrus
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CYRUS sī’ rəs (כֹּ֣ורֶשׁ). More precisely, Cyrus II, the Great (559-530 b.c.), founder of the Achaemenid Pers. empire, which continued for two centuries to the time of Alexander the Great (331 b.c.).

1. Background and early conquests. His father, Cambyses I (600-559 b.c.), was king of Anshan, a region in eastern Elam, and his mother was Mandane, a daughter of Astyages king of Media (585-550 b.c.). When Cambyses I died in 559 b.c., Cyrus inherited the throne of Anshan and, after unifying the Pers. people, attacked the weak and corrupt Astyages. The Median general Harpagus, whom Astyages had previously wronged, deserted the king and brought his army to the side of the young Cyrus. Astyages was soon captured and the Persians took the capital city of Ecbatana in 550 b.c. without a battle.

Cyrus succeeded in welding the Medes and Persians into a unified nation. Moving swiftly to the W, he absorbed all of the Median territories as far as the River Halys in Asia Minor. When Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, refused to recognize the sovereignty of Medo-Persia, Cyrus defeated him in battle and took over his empire (546 b.c.). Seven years later, he was ready to launch the great assault against Babylon itself.

2. Conquest of Babylon. The Neo-Babylonian empire was in no condition to resist a Medo-Pers. invasion in the year 539 b.c. During the preceding fourteen years Nabonidus the king had not so much as visited the capital city, leaving the administration of that metropolis to his profligate son Belshazzar, to whom he also “entrusted the kingship” (cf. “Verse Account of Nabonidus,” ANET, 313). Nabonidus further weakened the empire by concentrating his favors upon the cult of the god Sin at Haran at the expense of Babylonian deities, thus incurring the displeasure of the priesthood in Babylon.

Realizing that danger was near, Nabonidus came to Babylon in the spring of 539 b.c., and brought the images of Babylonian divinities into the city from surrounding areas, but it was all to no avail. Toward the end of September, the armies of Cyrus under the command of Ugbaru, governor of Gutium, attacked Opis on the Tigris, and defeated the Babylonians. On October 10 Sippar was taken without a battle and Nabonidus fled. Two days later Ugbaru’s troops were able to enter Babylon while Belshazzar, completely oblivious of the doom that awaited him, was engaged in a riotous banquet within the “impregnable” walls of the city (Dan 5). The fateful day was 12 October 539 b.c. In that same night Belshazzar was slain.

3. Cyrus and the Jews. Cyrus entered Babylon on October 29, and presented himself to the priests and people as a gracious liberator and benefactor. He reversed the cruel policies of the Assyrians and Babylonians by permitting transplanted populations to return to their homelands. The Jews were not only permitted but were actually encouraged by Cyrus to return to Pal. and to rebuild their Temple (2 Chron 36:22, 23; Ezra 1:1-4). Furthermore he gave them the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from Solomon’s Temple (Ezra 1:7-11; 6:5), and contributed financially to the construction of their second temple (6:4). About 50,000 Jews responded to this royal proclamation and returned to Pal. under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua (2:64, 65).

4. Isaiah’s prophecies of Cyrus. In his decree to the Jews (Ezra 1), Cyrus referred to “Jehovah, the God of heaven” as the one who had given him “All the kingdoms of the earth,” and who had charged him “to build him a house in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2 ASV). How did Cyrus know this? Probably not through dreams or visions, but rather through confrontation with the prophecies of Isaiah written 150 years before. It seems highly probable that Daniel who lived at least until the third year of Cyrus (Dan 10:1), and who was greatly concerned about the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the return of Israel to her land after seventy years (Dan 9:2; cf. Jer 25:11, 12), was the one who presented a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies (see below) to the Pers. monarch. Josephus, who had access to many historical records long since lost, states that “when Cyrus read this, and admired the Divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written” (Antiq. XI, i, 2). There is every reason to accept the testimony of Josephus at this point, in spite of modern critical views on “the Second Isaiah” and the supposed impossibility of predictive prophecy.

Isaiah’s prophecies concerning Cyrus begin with 41:2, 25, and end with 46:11; 48:15. The critical view that these prophecies were written after the time of Cyrus is untenable, for they set forth as final proof of Jehovah’s unique ability to predict future events! (See 41:4, 21-26; 44:25, 26; 45:11, 21; 48:14.) The climax comes in 44:28-45:7, where Cyrus is actually named—“who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and shall fulfil all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’ Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus...” (44:28, 45:1; cf. 1 Kings 13:2 for a similar case of advanced naming).

Isaiah foresaw that Cyrus would not only command the rebuilding of the Temple but also the city (Isa 45:13; cf. 44:28). In the unfolding of history, it was not Cyrus personally, but a successor, Artaxerxes I (465-423 b.c.), who issued the specific decree concerning the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 2:1-8; cf. Dan 9:25). However, it is also true that the pro-Jewish policy enunciated by Cyrus following the fall of Babylon provided the necessary framework within which the subsequent favorable decrees of Darius I in 518 b.c. (Ezra 6:1-12), and Artaxerxes I in 458 b.c. (Ezra 7:11-26) concerning the Temple, and even the decree of 445 b.c. concerning the walls of the city, could be issued. Also it may be safely assumed that the decree issued by Cyrus in 538 b.c. involved, of a necessity, some rebuilding of the city as well as of the Temple. Thus, the prophecy of Isaiah 45:13 is not contradicted by the unfolding of historical events.

It seems certain that Cyrus, in spite of his interest in the Jews, was not a genuine believer in Jehovah. This seems to be the basic import of God’s statement to Cyrus through the prophet: “I surname you, though you do not know me....I gird you, though you do not know me” (Isa 45:4, 5). One may be sure, however, that Cyrus recognized the God of Israel as one of the most important deities, esp. if he read Isaiah’s prophecies. It is possible that the strong references to the sovereignty of Jehovah in the decree of Ezra 1:2-4 reflects the wording of Daniel, who was chief president under Darius the Mede and minister of Jewish affairs (cf. Dan 6:3, 28), rather than of Cyrus personally. The strong OT flavor of Nebuchadnezzar’s proclamation (Dan 4:1-3) may be similarly explained. A comparison of the decree in Ezra 1 with the copy which Darius I discovered seventeen years later in Ecbatana (Ezra 6:2) suggests that whereas the former was a public proclamation, the latter was a more detailed official counterpart to be kept in the archives.

5. The Cyrus Cylinder. The famous Cyrus Cylinder, discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in the 19th cent., not only depicts the Pers. monarch as a polytheistic politician, but also parallels the Biblical account of his benevolence toward captive peoples. In it, Cyrus tells how the Babylonian god Marduk had “scanned and looked through all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler willing to lead him (i.e. Marduk) in the annual procession. Then he pronounced the name of Cyrus, king of Anshan, declared him to become the ruler of all the world....Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity....I returned to 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” (ANET, 315).

6. The last years of Cyrus. The day Cyrus entered Babylon, Gubaru, the newly appointed governor of Babylon and the region beyond the river (prob. Darius the Mede), began to appoint sub-governors to rule with him over the vast territories of the Fertile Crescent. On 6 November 539 b.c., Ugbaru, the general who conquered Babylon, died. Turning the administration of all Babylonia over to Gubaru, Cyrus left for Ecbatana early in 538 b.c. A year later the return of Jewish exiles under Joshua and Zerubbabel got under way, and the foundations of the second Temple were laid by the spring of 536 b.c. (Ezra 3:8), just seventy years (inclusive reckoning) after the captivity began in 605 b.c.

In the meantime, Cambyses, son of Cyrus, lived in Sippar and represented his father at the New Year’s festivals in Babylon as “the king’s son.” He also was given the task of preparing for an expedition against Egypt (which he conquered in 525 b.c. after his father’s death). In 530 b.c., Cyrus finally appointed his son to be his co-regent and successor just before setting out upon a campaign to the far NE in the Oxus and Jaxartes region. At the New Year’s festival of 26 March 530 b.c., Cambyses assumed the title “King of Babylon” for the first time, while Cyrus retained the broader title “King of the Lands.” In the autumn of the same year news reached Babylon that Cyrus had died on the field of battle, leaving his vast empire to Cambyses. Cyrus was buried at Pasargadae, where his small tomb still may be seen near the meager ruins of his capital city.

Bibliography W. H. Dubberstein, “The Chronology of Cyrus and Cambyses,” AJSL (1938), 417-419; A. T. Olmstead, The History of the Persian Empire (1948); E. J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel (1949); R. Ghirshman, Iran (1954); J. C. Whitcomb, Jr., Darius the Mede (1963); D. J. Wiseman, et al., Notes On Some Problems in the Book of Daniel (1965), 9-16.