The Cyrus Decree
It was one of the most extraordinary acts in international history.
When the Persians overthrew the Babylonian empire (539 B.C.), Cyrus, the conqueror, issued a proclamation releasing the Jews from their seventy-year period of captivity.
The biblical record of that edict reads as follows:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth has Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all his people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Jehovah, the God of Israel he is God, which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourns, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2-4; cf. also 6:2-5).
The decree of Cyrus, as set forth by Ezra, contains the following elements:
- Jehovah is the God of heaven.
- By the providential operation of God, Cyrus had been given his international dominion.
- The God of the Hebrews had charged the Persian ruler to “build him a house” [temple] in Jerusalem of Judah.
- The Israelite people would be free to return to their homeland to engage this enterprise.
- Finances to assist with the endeavor were to be provided by the Persians among whom the Jews resided.
- It is noted further that the “timing” of this decree was in accordance with a prophecy uttered by Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1).
The fulfillment of these events is so stunningly remarkable, that it is no surprise that critics of the Bible have made this narrative a special object of their irritation.
In this brief study, let us discuss how the testimony of history has confirmed the minute accuracy of the biblical record.
In 1879, an explorer by the name of Hormuzd Rassam discovered the famous Cyrus Cylinder (now in the British Museum) at the site of ancient Babylon. The small (9 inch long), barrel-shaped, clay chronicle describes the benevolent policy of Cyrus in restoring captives to their homelands, along with their religious treasures.
In part, the inscription has the ruler saying:
“I returned to these 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” (Pritchard, 208).
This text confirms that the disposition of Cyrus demonstrated toward the Hebrews was a reflection of his generally benevolent attitude regarding those he subjugated.
The testimony of certain ancient historians also confirms that the deportment of Cyrus towards the subjects of his conquests was most unusual. He was not characterized by the cruelty so common among heathen commanders. One must remember that the prevailing view is that execution by crucifixion was inaugurated initially among the Persians.
Xenophon, a Greek writer who was contemporary with Cyrus and fought in his army, described the Persian ruler as
psuchen philanthropotaton, i.e., as a humane, benevolent, loving soul (8.7.3; cf. 1.2.1).
George Rawlinson, Camden Professor of ancient history at Oxford University, wrote concerning Cyrus:
“Of all the Persian monarchs, he was the one most distinguished for mildness and clemency; the one to whom the sufferings of a captive nation, torn violently from its home and subjected to seventy years of grievous oppression, would most forcibly have appealed” (1873, 194).
It is curious that Cyrus refers to the deity of the Hebrews as “Jehovah, the God of heaven” (1:2), since he himself was a pagan who worshiped several gods (e.g., Marduk, Bel, and Nebo), as revealed by his inscriptions.
The expression “God of heaven” seems to have been a common title for the Supreme Being among the Persians, while the use of “Jehovah” may have been an accommodation to the Hebrew transcript of the edict (Rawlinson, 1950, 2). Likely, Cyrus attributed a role to “Jehovah” as one of the gods who brought him to power.
Benevolence to the Jews
In his famous decree, Cyrus claimed that Jehovah “has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem.” Clearly the king saw himself, in some sense, as a tool in the hand of God. What he did not realize at the time was this: Jehovah foretold, two centuries before the ruler’s birth, of Heaven’s providential use of this man in the divine scheme of things.
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord spoke:
“Thus says Jehovah to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, 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 you, 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 you the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that it is I, Jehovah, who call you by thy name, even the God of Israel. For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel my chosen, I have called you by your name: I have surnamed you, though you have not known me. I am Jehovah, and there is none else; besides me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have 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 Jehovah, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:1-6; see also 44:26-28).
This is an absolutely fascinating prophecy regarding the Persian ruler. Though this is not the place to discuss the matter in detail, the record of the Cyrus Cylinder reveals that the Persian commander took the city of Babylon “without any battle”; the soldiers “strolled along, their weapons stowed away” (Pritchard, 207).
The Testimony of Josephus
We would, however, call attention to the following circumstance, as recorded by Josephus. The Jewish historian declared that in the reign of Cyrus the Persian, God terminated the captivity of his people, as he had promised he would through the testimony of Jeremiah the prophet. The historian describes the manner of this undertaking in the following fashion. He says that God:
“stirred up the mind of Cyrus, and made him write throughout all Asia: ‘Thus says Cyrus the king: Since God Almighty has appointed me to be king of the habitable earth, I believe that he is that God which the nation of the Israelites worship; for indeed he foretold my name by the prophets, and that I should build him a house at Jerusalem, in the country of Judea.’ …. This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies; for this prophet said that God had spoken to him in a secret vision: ‘My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.’ This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the Divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written” (Antiquities 11.1.1-2).
A consideration of the facts relative to the amazing Edict of Cyrus the Great is a thrilling endeavor indeed. Studies of this nature enhance one’s confidence of the integrity of the sacred Scriptures and the precious hope they contain. Investigate such matters and be encouraged thereby.
Scripture references: Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 1:1; Isaiah 45:1-6
- Josephus, Flavius. 1957 Ed. The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus. William Whitson, Translator. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co..
- Pritchard, James B. 1973. The Ancient Near East — An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Vol I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Rawlinson, George. 1873. Historical Illustrations of the Old Testament. Boston: Henry A. Young & Co..
- Rawlinson, George. 1950 Ed. “Ezra.” The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. III. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Xenophon. 1893 Ed. Cyropaedia. J. S. Watson and Henry Dale, Translators. London: George Bell & Sons.