CYRUS THE GREAT was one of the major figures in all of history. He was a brilliant soldier and statesman, he built the biggest empire the world had yet seen, and because of his humane attitude towards his subjects he’s earned the reputation as the founder of human rights. He was also remarkable because his life was foretold in advance in the Bible.
Isaiah’s Amazing Prophecy
The prophet Isaiah lived around 100 years before Cyrus was born. His prophecy is wide ranging in its content. There’s an eye-witness account of the invasion of Israel by the Assyrian army, in the time of the Jewish King Hezekiah around 700bc (chapters 36–39); there is encouragement for the Jewish nation to trust in God, and warnings of the consequences should they be faithless (for example chapter 1); there are remarkable prophecies of the Messiah, which were fulfilled 700 years later by Jesus Christ (for example chapter 53), and beautiful visions of the Kingdom of God which are still to be fulfilled (for example chapter 35). There are prophecies of the destruction of the Jewish nation and the scattering of the Jewish people, which happened in 586bc and again in 70ad (for example chapter 24), and prophecies of their return from exile, which happened in 538bc and again in 1948ad.
One of these prophecies of the return from exile is in chapter 44:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and He who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, Who makes all things, Who stretches out the heavens all alone, Who spreads abroad the earth by Myself… Who says to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be inhabited,’ to the cities of Judah, ‘You shall be built,’ and I will raise up her waste places… Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, “You shall be built,” and to the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid”’ (vs. 24–28).
Chapter 45 continues to describe what Cyrus was to achieve in the outworking of God’s purpose. “For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me” (v. 4).
Isaiah prophesied around 700bc. In
586bc Jerusalem was destroyed and its people taken captive by the army of Babylon. Less than 50 years later in
538bc Babylon itself fell to a Medo-Persian invasion led by Cyrus. A year later Cyrus issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland. This is recorded in the Bible in Ezra 1:1–4.
Josephus, the First Century Jewish historian, says that Cyrus was motivated to make this decree when he read Isaiah’s extraordinary prophecy about himself (Antiquities of the Jews Book 11 1:2).
God At Work
There is a view of religion that it is a purely spiritual thing, all about personal enlightenment or personal salvation and not about the real world. The teaching of the Bible is about personal salvation, of course—but it is also about the real world. God’s dealings are with nations and empires, as well as individuals.
There was another Jewish prophet, Daniel, who held high office in Babylon in the period between the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem and Cyrus’s capture of Babylon. He had a message for the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar: “The Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (Daniel 4:25).
Nebuchadnezzar was a tool in God’s hands, bringing about God’s judgement on His people Israel. But when he had done his job, Babylon itself would be judged for its wickedness. This is explained in detail by another Bible prophet, Jeremiah (25:8–14).
This is a key Bible principle: God has a purpose with the world and He is operating in the world, bringing about that purpose. The life of Cyrus was an extreme example of this principle, where God stepped in directly and explicitly. But all history is the story of God at work, generally unbeknown to monarchs and politicians and generals, overseeing and overriding and manipulating the things they do in order to bring about His purpose.
The great prophets of the Bible—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and others—described this process as they spoke about the rise and fall of nations in their own time, and as they looked far into the future. From our vantage point in the 21st Century we can look back at their prophecies and see the hand of God at work in history, and know that it is still at work now.
And what is the world’s destiny, which God is working towards? In the words of another prophet:
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).
The culmination of God’s purpose is the Kingdom of God. The prophets show us that it will be a real kingdom, here on earth, and it will come soon.