King Cyrus of Persia

Ancient Human Rights

A news story on a 2500 year old clay artefact caught my attention. Apparently it is widely regarded as the world’s first recorded bill of human rights. Known as the Cyrus Cylinder, it was found in Iraq in 1879 and has been with the British Museum since – that is until it was loaned to the National Museum of Iran in September 2010. It is a record of the exploits of King Cyrus of Persia when he captured Babylon in 539BC. The British Museum says of the cylinder,

“It records that aided by the god Marduk Cyrus captured Babylon without a struggle, restored shrines dedicated to different gods, and repatriated deported peoples who had been brought to Babylon. It was this decree that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild The Temple. Because of these enlightened acts, which were rare in antiquity, the Cylinder has acquired a special resonance, and is valued by people all around the world as a symbol of tolerance and respect for different peoples and different faiths.”

As a Bible reader, I am aware of the historical significance of Cyrus in relation to the Jews and was interested to see this news. I was also fascinated to hear snippets from an interview with a visitor to the exhibition who said ‘Iran was the centre of the world’ and reflecting on the current position that is so different. Please allow me to share with you some remarkable information from the Bible.

Cyrus and the Jews

The Bible recounts how the ancient Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians. The Jews were transported to Babylon and remained under their command for 70 years.

He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.

2 Chronicles 36:20-21

Next we are told what Cyrus did when he took control of Babylon.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.'”

2 Chronicles 36:22-23

History in Advance

So although the Bible gives additional information about Cyrus and his dealings with the Jews, the account is consistent with the details contained in the Cyrus Cylinder. If you explore the Bible to see if Cyrus is mentioned elsewhere, we find the name crops up in two prophetic books, Isaiah and Daniel. Daniel was one who lived through the period of the Jewish exile under Babylon, but Isaiah lived long before the exile occurred. We are given explicit information about the time when Isaiah brought God’s message to the people:

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Isaiah 1:1

With this information and other historical data, we can conclude that Isaiah’s full message was delivered at least 150 years before Cyrus captured Babylon. So what did Isaiah have to say about Cyrus so far in advance? Was it the same Cyrus?

The context is a list of attributes of the God of Israel,

…who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill 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, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

Isaiah 44:28-45:3

Was this the same Cyrus? Yes – he clearly subdued nations as the might of the Persian empire grew under his command; secondly, there is only one Cyrus who had any dealings with the Jews and their temple. God knew in advance, told his people what was going to happen and gives us evidence of the truth of His word.

Centre of the World?

The history of the Middle East is divided into periods by the ancient empires, notably Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Each became, one might say, the centre of the world. What is remarkable is that the rise of fall of each can be found predicted in the pages of the Bible. Daniel chapters 2 and 8 in particular give much detail relating to the succession of these future (to that time) empires. God’s message to us is that we can trust His word. God is ultimately in control, He knows the end from the beginning – yet He still gives us the freedom to do what we want, to listen or to ignore what He has to tell us.

Empires have come and gone through history, but we are told that this will come to an end. There will be a kingdom to end all kingdoms – the kingdom of God on Earth.

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever…

Daniel 2:44

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