Exploring Isaiah’s Prophesy About Cyrus the Great

Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, and this post is about a mind-blowing prophesy he has that — strangely — many people, Christians included, don’t even know about. First I’m going to explain the prophesy and why it’s amazing. Then, I explain why we shouldn’t buy into the “modern” historical take on this prophesy.

Isaiah, His Prophesy, and History

At the beginning of his book of the Bible, we’re given a chronology of when he writes:

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.

The Prophet Isaiah

So we know he’s in Judah, and we know the kings that are his contemporaries. Unfortunately, they didn’t have “A.D.” and “B.C.” back then, so it’s hard to put this on a timeline. We are given nothing about his date of death in the Bible.

But here’s what we can do: Since Uzziah reigned from 791-739 B.C., and since Hezekiah reigned until about 686 BC, we place Isaiah in that time-span. As for historical markers in the book, we have the character of Sennecherib (Isaiah 36-37) who besieges Jerusalem, but fails to take it. We know this happened around 701 B.C. But the last “big event” in the book was when Merodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon (Isaiah 39:1) shows up in Jerusalem. From History, we know this king died in 686 B.C. Hezekiah is foolish enough to show him everything in his kingdom. After this, Isaiah prophesies that Judah will be captured, and the book ends with comforts for God’s people, as well as prophesies about what is to come. 

The Prophesy

After Isaiah tells king Hezekiah that Jerusalem will be captured by the Babylonians, we then we read this:  

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who spread out the earth by myself,
who frustrates the signs of liars
    and makes fools of diviners,
who turns wise men back
    and makes their knowledge foolish,
who confirms the word of his servant
    and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
    and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
    and I will raise up their ruins’;
who says to the deep, ‘Be dry;
    I will dry up your rivers’;
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.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.
(Isaiah 44:24 – 45:7)

Now, for most people, that sounds like crazy Old-Testament Bible talk. It’s poetry. It’s got too many words.  But if you get caught up in that, you’ll forget something rather important.

The dates between Isaiah and Cyrus DO NOT match up.

Chronology

Let’s think about when this passage above was written, since it was written by Isaiah. Let’s pretend that Isaiah was prophesying for ten years before Uzziah’s death, long enough to write down “the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last” (2 Chronicles 26:22). Let’s pretend Isaiah started prophesying the same age that Uzziah started reigning (16 years old). This means that in 739 B.C., Isaiah was 26 years old. Therefore, in 701 when Sennacherib comes to Jerusalem, Isaiah is 64 years old. And if Isaiah lives to the ripe old age of 90, then that means Isaiah died in the year 675 B.C.

But Cyrus the Great, of whom Isaiah prophesied about and who sent the Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem, was born sometime between 590 B.C. and 580 B.C. That’s at least 85 years AFTER God calls out Cyrus by name in Isaiah’s prophesy.

This strange fact is shared by Josephus, who documents the strange quality of this prophesy in his work, The Antiquities of the Jews:

1. In the first year of the reign of Cyrus which was the seventieth from the day that our people were removed out of their own land into Babylon, God commiserated the captivity and calamity of these poor people, according as he had foretold to them by Jeremiah the prophet, before the destruction of the city, that after they had served Nebuchadnezzar and his posterity, and after they had undergone that servitude seventy years, he would restore them again to the land of their fathers, and they should build their temple, and enjoy their ancient prosperity. And these things God did afford them; for he stirred up the mind of Cyrus, and made him write this throughout all Asia: “Thus saith Cyrus the king: Since God Almighty hath 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.

2. 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 thus 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; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighborhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices. (Josephus, Antiquities, 11.1.1-2)

Let’s take a moment to drink the significance of that in. Because Cyrus was so impressed that the God of the Jews prophesied about Cyrus BY NAME, he decided that he would like to give due honor to this God and provide the money and authority to rebuild their Temple. Wow.

Reading History When You Don’t Accept Miracles

But! No modern Historian can accept such a thing. That breaks ALL the rules of History. Isaiah wrote something in 675 BC about someone who was born 120 years later and 500 miles away? No! It can’t be! Can it? What are the chances?

This is why most modern scholars obviously know that Isaiah’s gospel was “supplemented” at a later time by “unknown prophets.” After all, if he NAMES Cyrus, he can’t have prophesied BEFORE Cyrus, now can he? (Well… a key characteristic of prophesy is that… sigh… Never-mind.)

That’s why the Encyclopedia Britannica and others divide the book of Isaiah into three parts, with the “First” Isaiah is the “real” Isaiah. The “Second” Isaiah is written after Jerusalem already fell (which is strange, because the text says the opposite). Then, the last bit of Isaiah is:

A collection of oracles by unknown prophets in the years immediately after the return from Babylon. (Wikipedia, “Book of Isaiah”)

Hm…. yeah. The normal secular take on Isaiah is pretty bad. Read it here.

Here are the problems:

If the “Second” Isaiah is after the fall of Jerusalem, why doesn’t it mention Jerusalem’s fall?

Why isn’t the “Second” Isaiah written about the state of affairs after Sennecherib almost took — but did not take — Jerusalem? Don’t other prophets already talk about the fall of Jerusalem? Don’t that say wildly different things than this part of Isaiah? For example, compare:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. / Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, / and cry to her / that her warfare is ended, / that her iniquity is pardoned, / that she has received from the Lord‘s hand / double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

How lonely sits the city / that was full of people! / How like a widow has she become, / she who was great among the nations! / She who was a princess among the provinces / has become a slave. / She weeps bitterly in the night, / with tears on her cheeks; / among all her lovers / she has none to comfort her; / all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; / they have become her enemies. (Lamentations 1:1-2) 

That seems… different.

Also, if it’s not true that Isaiah wrote what is in Isaiah 44 and 45 before the exile, why would Cyrus send the Jews back? Maybe he was a nice guy, I know, but why would he also decide not only to send them back, but literally pay for the rebuilding of the Jewish God’s Temple, too? Remember, Cyrus was not a Jew. He made the Magians the official priests of his empire (See Herodotus, Histories, 1.132). Why would he all of a sudden decide to send the Jews back to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple?

Are we supposed to explain this by a “trick” of the Jewish exiles? That doesn’t seem to make much sense. Was Cyrus so stupid that he couldn’t see that he was being swindled? Do we really think Cyrus the Great was that fickle with his religion or stupid with his money?

I smell something fishy about this multiple-author-theory about Isaiah.

Pushing Back Against Multiple Authors of Isaiah

So yes, I think it’s fishy. But it is on me to propose something better. Therefore, I’ll do just that.

This explanation gives a plausible reason as to why the Jewish prophet Isaiah would use the name “Cyrus” in Isaiah 44 and 45. Is it still a miracle? Oh yeah. But does it give some help as to how it makes it believable that the name “Cyrus” could appear in Isaiah’s work and be written by Isaiah? I think so. 

Will the Real Anointed Cyrus Please Stand Up?

You see, it is a little known fact that “Cyrus the Great” is actually “Cyrus II.” As you can see from this Wikepedia page on the Achaemenid Empire, there was a “Cyrus” that lived before “Cyrus the Great.” He was the third king of the Persian Empire, before the Persian Empire was anything more than a bunch of Middle-Eastern hicks from the back-country of Iran.

But when did he live? To answer this question, we have to move from the Encyclopedia Britannica to the Encyclopedia Iranica (which I didn’t know existed before today). After a great deal of debate about when this rather obscure king reigned or lived, it finally concludes the following:

His dates may thus be fixed between 650 and 610 b.c.e. (Encyclopedia Iranica, Cyrus I)

Those would be the dates of his REIGN, not the date of his life. We see that in 639 B.C., we have an ancient record of that says Cyrus I “sent his son Arukku to Nineveh with tribute.” So that means he was old enough to have a grown son fulfilling royal duties in 639 B.C. This means an early estimate of Cyrus I’s birth is around 679, as this assumes Arukku was 20 years old after being born to a 20 year old father (40 years total).

But a more generous estimate of his birth is that Cyrus I lived to be 70 or 80 (as we have no record of him dying prematurely). If his reign ends in 610 B.C., then that means he was born between 680 B.C. (70 years at death) and 690 B.C. (80 years at death).

Why Isaiah (Not an “Unknown Author”) Would Have Written “Cyrus”

So why did I bore you with all of that detail? Because it means this: If Isaiah died in the year 675 B.C., this means an infant royal baby in Elam named “Cyrus” existed during the last years of Isaiah’s life. As Isaiah prophesied about Elam many times, he probably had the leaders of Elam in his mind. This new baby named “Cyrus” was born to the king of Anshan, which is a city in Elam.

But what does this mean for the prophesy? Does this mean that Isaiah got the wrong Cyrus? Not at all. Because remember:

[N]o prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

The baby Cyrus I put the name in Isaiah’s mind, but God as the author was talking about Cyrus the Great all along. Note that Isaiah writes “Cyrus,” which is ambiguous and not “Cyrus, the prince of Anshan” or “Cyrus, son of Teispes,” which would make it the wrong Cyrus.

Conclusion

The point of this trip to the edges of history is NOT to show that this was some “natural” event. No. Not at all.

Isaiah 44-45 is a divine prophesy which is amazing to think about: God named a leader, over a century before his birth, described his success, and gave him a task. God did it this way so that when everyone — Cyrus the Great included — saw it happen, they would know the following about the Lord God of Israel:

I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:4-7

I just write all this to let you know that this is not just some silly story we Christians tell each other. It actually happened. It fits into history better than we will ever know.

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