Who Was Cyrus in the Bible, the Man Who Allowed Israel to Rebuild?
Cyrus in the Bible has, in recent years, been referenced frequently by prominent Christian leaders and by the media. It’s important to understand who Cyrus actually was and what role he played in the ancient world and in biblical history.
The Ancient Israelites referred to Cyrus as Cyrus the Great. What’s important to understand, however, is that the reason we know Cyrus’ name is so we would see how great our God is.
Who Is Cyrus in the Bible?
Cyrus was the King of Persia from 559-530 BC. He was also known as Cyrus the Great, Cyrus the Elder, and Cyrus II. We know from modern British royalty that it’s not uncommon for royals to be known by a variety of names and titles.
Cyrus was not a follower of the God of the Bible, but instead, he was a pagan king used by God to help His people. Just as God had used pagan kings from the Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Babylonians to chasten his people when they refused to repent of their idolatries, now He used a pagan king to help them return to their promised land and begin to rebuild.
Cyrus was the leader of the Achaemenid Empire that overtook the Babylonians. There were four powerful kings with rule over the Jews during their captivity including Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and finally, Cyrus the Great. The first three kings chose to assimilate the cultures they conquered into their customs, their culture, and their ways of life, but Cyrus, instead, as leader of the Medo-Persians, chose to allow various cultural and religious groups to return to and maintain their own identities.
The Jews of Old Testament times lauded Cyrus as “the Great” because it was under his rule that they were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem.
In Ezra 1:1-4 NKJV, we find “the Proclamation of Cyrus” which reads (emphasis mine),
“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, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.”
Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are the books of history that record the lives of the Jews during this time of restoration, rebuilding, and returning to the worship of the One, True God.
Why Did Cyrus Allow for the Israelites to Rebuild?
Of course, in our understanding as Christians, the Bible makes clear that Cyrus was moved by God to allow the Israelites to rebuild. That is how it’s recorded in the biblical record and followers of God have no conflict understanding that God can move the hearts of leaders according to His purposes.
Historically, there have always been different approaches by political or military leaders to managing conquered peoples. Some have found it beneficial and expedient to erase any trace of a conquered peoples’ unique history, traditions, and religious practices. This, of course, is usually done by violence, enforced proclamation, or under threat of death. Other leaders, however, have chosen to allow conquered peoples to retain their unique identities and practices as long as they promised allegiance to their conquering king. Cyrus, moved by God, falls under the philosophy of the latter group.
Why Did God Choose Cyrus?
One of the most remarkable truths of the story of Cyrus is that he is mentioned in biblical prophecy some 150 years before he even comes to power!
Isaiah prophesied that God would discipline Israel for her idolatries and that her people would be taken off into captivity. But Isaiah also promised that after a time, He would restore them to their land and that Jerusalem would be rebuilt.
What is most startling about Isaiah’s words is that he mentions Cyrus by name, again some 150 years before Cyrus would come to power.
Why would God do this? Why mention a pagan king by name over a century before the king would come to power?
Israel’s chief sin was to repeatedly enter into idolatry—they wandered from the true, living God of Israel and worshipped God’s of their own making. In Isaiah, God chided them for choosing gods who cannot see, speak, or hear over the living God who could do all that and more.
Finally, Israel has put God into a position of having to use these idolatrous nations to chasten His own people. What better way to remind His own people and to instruct these pagan nations that He has orchestrated all of this and that He can intervene in the affairs of men whenever He chooses than to choose a pagan leader and name the specific king who would allow the Jews to return before this king is even born?
Isaiah 44:24-28 NKJV is an amazing passage:
“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 frustrates the signs of the babblers, And drives diviners mad; Who turns wise men backward, And makes their knowledge foolishness; Who confirms the word of His servant, And performs the counsel of His messengers; 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 to the deep, ‘Be dry! And I will dry up your rivers’; 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.’”
God is completely secure in Himself and provides assurance to His people through this prophecy of Isaiah that He can be fully trusted to do whatever He promises.
Important Lessons to Learn from Cyrus in the Bible
God is Sovereign. He is omnipotent and He is above all earthly powers. The kings, presidents, leaders, and councils of this world have immense influence, but the living God of the Bible is greater still.
Our times are in His hands. In Acts 17, God tells us through the Apostle Paul that He has appointed the time we will live and the place of our dwelling. We are assigned and designed for these times.
He knows each one of us by name. Psalm 139 tells us that God knew us before we were born and in the Gospel of Matthew assures us that He has even counted every hair on our heads.
The God of the Bible is the Living God who created all the Earth. Idolatry is still a temptation, even in modern times. False religions entice people. Other people fall prey to trusting in themselves, idolizing independence over worshipping Him. But He is real, living, and worth following—just as much today as He was in Isaiah’s time.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Ozbalci
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits. She’s authored six encouraging, unsettling books, including Running from a Crazy Man, The Art of Hard Conversations, and Graceful Influence: Making a Lasting Impact through Lesson from Women of the Bible. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.