Zopyrus the Persian: A Study in Commitment

By Wayne Jackson

The story depicts one of the most heroic and dedicated acts of ancient history. But before you are prepared to hear it, some background information must be given.

Babylon was the glory of the civilized world in the early sixth century B.C. But she was grossly wicked (cf. Isaiah 13-14; Jeremiah 50-51), and Jehovah determined that the “golden city” (Isaiah 14:4) would be destroyed.

In 539 B.C., the combined forces of the Medo-Persian regime came against Babylon. In a brilliant move, Cyrus (of whom Isaiah had prophesied—44:28-45:1-7) diverted the Euphrates river (which flowed under Babylon’s walls), and slipped his soldiers into the city by night via the river bed. He took the banqueting Babylonians utterly by surprise (cf. Daniel 5). Apparently the city suffered little damage at this time. The Chaldeans became subjects of the Persians, and for two decades things went rather smoothly. In 520 B.C., however, the Babylonian citizens revolted, and another Persian ruler, Darius, was forced to deal with the rebellion. This account is recorded in the history written by Herodotus (ca. 484-425 B.C.) (The Histories III.150-160).

The Babylonians had stealthily fortified the city and were prepared for any siege the Persians might make. Darius marched against them, but the Chaldeans were secure behind their three-hundred-foot high walls. From their perch they taunted the Persian ruler: “Till mules foal you will not take our city.” For a year and seven months the army of Darius attempted to breach the walls, but every effort failed. It was at this point that Zopyrus, a Persian soldier, struck upon a brilliant, though drastic, plan as to how the fortress might be taken. He knew that Darius would never agree to the scheme he had devised, so he went about making preparation on his own.

Zopyrus mutilated himself. He cut off his nose and ears. He butchered his hair and flogged himself till he was a bloody spectacle. He then came to Darius with his daring plan. He would feign defection to the Babylonians, telling them that he had been abused by his former comrades. He thus would work his way into the confidence of the Chaldean leaders. This was “phase one” of his plan, and it worked beautifully. Zopyrus went over to the enemy and expressed his rage at having been so mistreated by Darius, vowing revenge. Since he was so disfigured, his story was very convincing. He was honored by the Babylonians and given a military command.

Now, “phase two” of the intrigue was to be implemented. Zopyrus had convinced Darius that if the plan was to work, Persian soldiers would have to be sacrificed. The ruler had agreed. This is how it would work. On the tenth day after his reception by the Chaldeans, he led a band of soldiers against a Persian force of one thousand men, who had been placed deliberately in a vulnerable position so that they could be sacrificed. The Persians were all killed. The Babylonians were elated. Shortly thereafter, the same scenario was repeated; this time, two thousand Persian men were slaughtered. Zopyrus was quickly becoming a military phenomenon. Everyone was praising him. But he was not finished. A bit later, at an agreed-upon appointment, Zopyrus again went forth and destroyed a force of four thousand Persian victims. By this time, he was truly a hero. Herodotus describes it in this way:

This last victory gave the finishing stroke to his power, and made him all in all with the Babylonians; accordingly they committed to him the command of their whole army, and put the keys of their city into his hands (The Histories III.157).

And now for the coup de grace. At a pre-arranged time, Darius attacked the city with full fury. The Babylonian soldiers mounted the walls to defend their fortress. While thus preoccupied, Zopyrus unlocked two of the city gates and admitted the Persian forces. The fray was soon over. Darius took the city; Babylon was now conquered—for a second time. The walls were torn down and the gates of the historic community were carted off. Once-proud Babylon was on her way to becoming a desolate place, fit only for wild creatures (cf. Isaiah 14:20-22; Jeremiah 51:37-43). Darius chose three thouand leading Babylonian citizens and crucified them as a public example. He allowed the remainder of the populous to remain in the city.

As for Zopyrus, he became a legend in his own time. He was considered to be one of the greatest Persians ever—second only to the illustrious Cyrus. He was showered with gifts and given a life-time appointment as governor over Babylon.

There are a couple of important truths to be gleaned from this exciting adventure in Persian history. First, this matter relates to the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Isaiah foretold the unexpected capture of the city. Evil (i.e., destruction) would come upon the Babylonians and they would “not know the dawning thereof” (47:11). The devastation would come quickly—like the appearing of morning’s first rays. Jeremiah also had declared that the city would be taken by surprise. Jehovah would “set a snare” for the Babylonians, and they would not be “aware” of what was happening until it was too late (50:24). The city would “suddenly” fall (Isaiah 47:11; Jeremiah 51:8). This was precisely what happened. Herodotus relates that at the first fall “the Persians came upon [the Babylonians] unexpectedly and so took the city” (The Histories I.191). The second destruction, as outlined above, was similarly accomplished by a surprise maneuver. The details that are incorporated into Bible prophecy are utterly amazing.

Second, there is also a practical lesson to be learned from this episode regarding Zopyrus. When one is passionately devoted to a cause, he is willing to go to great lengths to implement the success thereof. The dedication of this Persian zealot is really mind-boggling. If one, such as he, would go to such an extreme to ensure the success of a mere military venture, what does that say for the lack of commitment, beyond the most superficial level, that is characteristic of some professing Christians? Many today think they are making a great sacrifice if they assemble for an hour on the Lord’s day. How far-removed many of us are from true commitment.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.