The Decree of Cyrus – Part 2

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In the preceding article we saw how that archaeological discoveries have gone a long way to corroborate the versions of Cyrus’ decree recorded in the book of Ezra. We noted in particular that the decree was consistent with Cyrus’ general policy towards exiles within his kingdom. In that sense it had been dictated by political expediency. We now turn to a second influence which may well have played a part in the making of the decree concerning Jerusalem.

The evidence suggests that the form (if not the very existence) of the decree owed much to a Jewish influence. As well as employing the personal name of Israel’s God (“the Lord”), the decree indicates an intelligent use of divine titles; it is “the God of heaven” who gave to Cyrus his kingdom, Ezra 1. 2 with Dan. 2. 37, but “the God of Israel” whose house was to be built, Ezra 1. 3 with 6. 14. Also the form of construction of the second temple was to follow closely that of Solomon’s, namely three rows of stones with one of timber, 6. 4 (5. 8) with 1 Kings 6. 36; 7. 12. Such details imply more than a nodding acquaintance with Jewish matters. They suggest that the drafting of the decree was undertaken by a Jewish hand. Nor would this be surprising. We know that, of the later Persian kings, Artaxerxes at least appointed a special adviser on Jewish affairs. We read of Pethahiah who “was at the king’s hand (i.e., in attendance on him) in all matters concerning the people”, Neh. 11. 23-24.

It is not possible for us to identify the “Jewish influence” with any certainty. Nevertheless, there are some grounds for believing that it stemmed from the prophet Daniel. Several known facts point in this direction.

  1. Certainly Daniel was available at the time of the passing of the decree. We read that “Daniel continued even unto the first year of king Cyrus”, Dan. 1. 21. This statement interrupts the narrative (Dan. 2. 1 follows on chronologically from Dan. 1. 20) to show that Daniel was present at Babylon for the whole period of the exile, cf. 1. 1-6. The Hebrew word translated “unto” does not exclude the possibility of continuation afterwards; see its use in Gen. 28. 15; Psa. 112. 8; Hos. 10. 12; Jer. 1. 3 with 42. 4-13; and that of the equivalent Greek word in 1 Tim. 4. 13. In fact we know that Daniel continued at least until Cyrus’ third year, Dan. 10. 1.
  2. Daniel was also in a position to help. “Daniel prospered … in the reign of Cyrus the Persian”, Dan. 6. 28. The word translated “prospered” means “to be promoted, to be advanced, to succeed”; see the word in Ezra 5. 8; 6. 14; Dan. 3. 30. Leaving aside the question of the identity of Darius the Mede, we learn from Daniel 6. 1-3 that the prophet was the chief “president” over the 120 princes in the kingdom. Far from having retired (for he would have been about 80 years of age), Daniel appears to have held as high a position then as he ever had, cf. 2. 48. We know from other sources that Cyrus was content to appoint non-Persians as his chief administrators; for instance, he placed a Lydian in charge of the treasury at Sardis — although in that case he had a revolt to cope with in consequence.
  3. Again, Daniel knew all about the need at Jerusalem. He had had firsthand experience of the exile, 1. 1-6. His researches revealed that it was about time for the Lord to honour His promise to “visit” His people and cause them to return to Jerusalem, Jer. 29. 10; Dan. 9. 2 (note that, though a great prophet himself, Daniel was not above studying carefully what God had revealed to another of His servants). Possibly he knew also of the prophecy of Isaiah, “That saith of Cyrus, He … shall perform all my pleasure; even saying … to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid”, Isa. 44. 28.
  4. Finally, Daniel was wholeheartedly in sympathy with the rebuilding of God’s temple. Jeremiah had foretold that the restoration of the people to Jerusalem would follow upon their prayer to God when the time of the exile was fulfilled, Jer. 29. 12-14. Daniel’s discovery that the time was ripe for God’s “good word”, Jer. 29. 10, to be performed led him therefore to seek God in earnest prayer and supplication, Dan. 9. 1-4. It is clear from these passages that prayer is intended by God as a means of accomplishing His will and not a means of altering it. Compare “I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it. Thus saith the Lord God, I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them”, Ezek. 36. 36-37. Our aim should be to pray “according to his will”, 1 John 5. 14. Although the burden of Daniel’s prayer centred in the building of God’s city Jerusalem, Dan. 9. 16, 18, 19, he also requested specifically that the Lord would cause His “face to shine” upon His “sanctuary”, v.17. There can be no doubt therefore that Daniel was altogether in sympathy with the Jews’ return to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the temple.

Daniel’s availability, high position, knowledge of the need and evident sympathy with the cause (together with the use of the title “God of heaven”) point very forcibly to his having had something to do with the decree of Cyrus. It would have been most fitting if the man who saw the need and prayed so fervently about it should then have been used by the Lord to help meet that very need. In like manner, it was the same group of men who were told to pray that God would “send forth” labourers into His vineyard, Matt. 9. 38, who were then themselves “sent forth” to work there, 10. 5.

We cannot be certain, however, that Daniel was an influence on Cyrus in the matter of his decree, for neither Scripture nor history says so. But, although there must remain some doubt over Daniel’s involvement, there can be none about the Lord’s!

God was in control of world events. The exiles, He said, are “my captives”, Isa. 45. 13, for Nebuchadnezzar (who had been responsible for their deportation) had been His “servant”, Jer. 25. 9; 27. 6; 43. 10. It was the Lord who had “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” to make his decree, Ezra 1. 1, just as it had been the Lord who had “raised up” Cyrus in the first place, Isa. 41. 2; 45. 13. (The expressions “stirred up” and “raised up” translate the same Hebrew word. Compare also its use in Ezra 1. 5.) The Lord (a) raised up Cyrus to be king, (fr) put it into his heart to give the Jews opportunity to return to their land, and then (c) put it into their hearts to take advantage of the opportunity given. It was all of God!

The Scripture makes it clear that Cyrus was only “a second cause”. He is described as God’s “shepherd”, Isa. 44. 28, and His “anointed”, 45. 1. The temple was built “according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus”, Ezra 6. 14 (note the order). It seems that Cyrus had no personal, intimate knowledge of God, Isa. 45. 4-5, and yet he was God’s instrument in the fulfilment of His unfailing purpose. Daniel knew, if Cyrus didn’t, that “the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men”, Dan. 5. 21. And so do we!

To be continued