Iran’s Real Hero – Cyrus the Great!

By Neil Earle

Iran looms large on our political scene today. As National Geographic reported in August, 2008, today’s Iranians are fiercely proud of their connections to the ancient Persian Empire and to its glorious founder, Cyrus the Great (559-529). An Iranian engineer reported to National Geographic on a spontaneous celebration he had witnessed at Cyrus’ tomb in Pasargadae. Text messaging and cell phones led to an impromptu event “just to honor Cyrus and show solidarity.” In few areas of the world does history loom as large.

Our interest is natural. For one thing, the Persian Empire is vital background in such Biblical books as Daniel, Isaiah, Esther, and Zechariah. For another, Cyrus is singled out by the prophet Isaiah as almost a test case in the historical veracity of the Bible itself. History, archaeology and theology revolve around this often-forgotten figure who taught the world how to run a peaceful and stable empire for 80 million diverse peoples across an area as wide as the continental United States.

How did all this happen?

“The Gentile Messiah”

Cyrus is worth more than a passing glance. Two key texts show that. First, from historian Geoffrey Dix: “The sudden rise to empire around 550 BC of Cyrus, the prince of a petty Persian tribe…Herodotus saw (as) the turning point of all Greek history.” Dix continues: “The life’s work of this one man molded the destiny of three great civilizations (Babylon, Greece and Rome) and set the main line upon which universal history would run for more than fifteen hundred years, with consequences that are still potent today” (Jews and Greeks, page 14).

Ancient Near East in 540 BC. Click map to enlarge.

The Bible, in the late chapters of Isaiah, is also emphatic. In it Yahweh, God of the Israelites, is speaking: “This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains, I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron…so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name” (Isaiah 45:1-3).

These are powerful texts. In the eyes of secular historians the more humane Cyrus brought a whole new order of thinking into the world. R Ghirshman states in his authoritative Ancient Iran: “A whole new wind blew across the world, carrying away the cries of murdered victims, extinguishing the fires of sacked cities and liberating nations from slavery” (page 133). The careful Yale historian Marc Van De Mieroop acknowledges Cyrus’ uniqueness: “The Persian empire…was the first empire that acknowledged the fact that its inhabitants had a variety of cultures, spoke different languages, and were politically organized in various ways…the Persians were aware of and respected the different political traditions of the people they had conquered, and adapted them to facilitate their overall control” (A History of the Ancient Near East, pages 274-276).

All this was highly significant for the flow of Bible history. Before Cyrus’ time, the centralizing tyrannical Babylonians had taken the Jewish nation as captives into Babylon. Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar believed in totalizing control and fear tactics (Habakkuk 1:6-11). Cyrus and the Persians believed in reasonable decentralization. They knew with such a vast empire that people treated more fairly might be easier to work with. This understanding makes Cyrus almost the first of a kind and why Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann labels him as “the Gentile Messiah” (Isaiah 40-66, page 72).

The words “my anointed” from the God of Israel in Isaiah 45:1 can be interpreted to mean just that. Isaiah 40-66 seems to have been written in the Persian period and it kept reemphasizing how under the Persians, God will bring startling new things about (Isaiah 43:19).

The historian F. F. Bruce hit the nail on the head: “Cyrus’ conception of empire was widely different from Assyria’s. The Assyrians imposed the worship of their chief gods on their subjects (see Isaiah 36:18-20). Cyrus had no intention of offending his subjects by such a policy…As a wise administrator he knew that an empire was more satisfactorily managed with contented subjects than with discontented ones” (Israel and the Nations, page 100).

Cyrus’ influence on history was vast, as was his later impact on archaeology.

The Cyrus Cylinder on display.

The Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus’ career was marked by military prowess and clemency. He had to be clever just to survive. His own jealous father, king of the Medes, wanted him killed but Cyrus escaped. He allied with Babylon and became ruler of the Medes and Persians in the same day. Cyrus’s base in the old Iranian heartland northeast of the Persian Gulf supplied him with tough mounted cavalry. Yet he wisely gave the conquered Medes choice administrative posts as he launched successful attacks on such rich Mediterranean seaports as Tyre and Ephesus. When the Afghans to the east submitted he had a 3000 mile kingdom to guard.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great

October 12, 539 BC was his date with destiny. That day he conquered Babylon by shrewd strategy. He then released the captured exiles in the city, including the Jews, just as Isaiah records. He died fighting on his eastern borders about 530 BC, a man who asked for only a handful of earth to be buried in, but whose tomb is with us still.

Isaiah saw Cyrus as God’s instrument in bringing the Jewish captives back to their homeland from Babylon: “This is what the Lord says, your Redeemer who formed you in the womb…who says of Jerusalem, It shall be inhabited, of the towns of Judah, They shall be built…who says of Cyrus, He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please, he will say of Jerusalem, let it be rebuilt, and of the temple, Let its foundations be laid” (Isaiah 44:24-28).

This decree of Cyrus to rebuild Jerusalem still endures as one of the most striking verifications of Bible history. It was found in the ruins of Babylon in 1879 by an Assyro-Babylonian archaeologist named Hormudz Rassam working for the British Museum, who still owns it. It is a barrel-shaped object of clay about 9 inches long. Cyrus had this decree written around the time he captured Babylon when his fresh breeze of religious tolerance took wing: “Furthermore I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Naboniad had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods…May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask Bel and Nabu for a long life for me and may they recommend me to him, to Marduk, my lord” (Pritchard, Near Eastern Texts, page 230.).

The first chapter of Ezra summarizes this decree in terms so similar that some think he has a copy of the decree in front of him, with one exception – the pagan gods are edited out and Yahweh gets the credit: “In the first year of Cyrus…the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make proclamation throughout his realm and to put it into writing, 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” (Ezra 1:1-2).

Cyrus may have sensed that somehow a Higher Power had been giving him favor in bringing about so great an empire so swiftly. And yet Isaiah is clear that he did not need to know the God of Israel to do all this. The prophet wrote: “For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me” (Isaiah 45:4).

These passages cause us to reflect on the theological significance.

“The God Who Hides”

Not only does Biblical history and archaeology harmonize so well in the career of Cyrus the Great, the theological richness is embedded in the Cyrus scriptures. “The breathtaking affirmation is that Israel will be saved by non-Jews,” says Brueggemann, “That is those who enact God's purposes in the world oftentimes do not knowingly respond to Yahweh’s initiative but may act for other reasons.”

Christians sense that same principle in action in the life of their Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, a non-credentialed stranger from a no-place such as Nazareth in Galilee was the Expected One the people were looking for. God has this tendency to hide himself in the midst of his mighty acts (Isaiah 45:15). In the 550s BC, says Breuggemann, “Yahweh is hidden in the coming of Cyrus, a way of Yahweh's coming not evident to the world… (similarly) God’s power is hidden in the weakness and vulnerability of the cross. God works and impinges on the world in ways not discernible except to the faithful” (pages 81-82).

Thus Isaiah’s “God who hides” is the unseen Ruler of history after all and the God of the Iranians as many of them acknowledge. This makes Isaiah’s commentary on Cyrus a strong message of reassurance. Read it for yourselves and reap the rewards!