The Decree of Cyrus – Part 3

TAGS:   |  

In the previous articles we have described the various influences (both human and divine) which led Cyrus to make the decree recorded in Ezra 1 and 6. In this concluding article we will deal briefly with the timing, location, immutability, and importance of the decree.

1. The Timing of the Decree

The decree is dated within the first year of Cyrus’ reign over Babylon, Ezra 1. 1; 5. 13; 6. 3. On the face of it this implies a priority given to Jerusalem which is surprising. However, immediately following the capture of Babylon in October 539 BC, Cyrus undertook many pious works. One of his very first acts was to restore to the Babylonian sanctuaries the (supposedly) divine statues which the earlier monarch Nabonidus had removed. The timing of the decree therefore coincides with what is otherwise known of Cyrus’ early activities.

2. The Location of the Decree

The opening verses of Ezra 6 read rather strangely; “search was made … in Babylon. And there was found at Achmetha”, vv. 1-2. In an attempt to remove this seeming anomaly the Sep-tuagint deletes the reference to Achmetha and substitutes, “ … and there was found in the city”. Increased knowledge of the background, however, has provided a likely explanation for the words of the Hebrew text. The writings of the Greek historians Herodotus, Xenophon and Plutarch make it clear that it was the custom of the early Persian monarchs to winter in Babylon but to spend the spring and summer of each year in one of several other locations — including Achmetha (that is, Ecbatana, the former capital of Media; see v. 2). We know that Cyrus was absent from Babylon in the spring of 538 BC, for it was his son, Cam-byses, who officiated at the New Year Marduk ceremony there in the month Nisan. Given the established policy of Cyrus of accommodating himself to the religious practices of his subjects, it would have been unthinkable for him to have left this to Cambyses had he been present himself. There is good ground for believing that Ecbatana was the place of his residence at the time. He was certainly there one year later.

Akkadian tablets have been discovered which supply details of a loan of P/2 pounds of silver made by Cyrus in 537 BC at Ecbatana to Itti-Marduk-Balutu, the head of a Babylonian banking house. We conclude therefore that Cyrus’ decree was issued from Ecbatana. This would explain why the initial search, carried out in Babylon, proved abortive whereas the later search, conducted at Ecbatana, proved successful.

It is interesting that an earlier search made in the Persian archives had failed to reveal any trace of the decree, 4. 17-22. The reason for this is simple. On that occasion the Jews’ enemies (who suggested the search) had studiously avoided any mention of the decree in their letter to Artaxerxes, vv. 11-16 (although they probably knew of its existence, v. 3). The king had no reason therefore to delve into the archives at Ecbatana. His successor, Darius, on the other hand, had been informed by the Jews of the decree’s existence, 5. 17, and so the search for it was extended until it was found.

3. The Immutability of the Decree

Darius’ reaction to the discovery of the decree is interesting, 6. 6-12. Its terms led him to issue an immediate instruction, in the form of a fresh decree, to his officials in the relevant province that they were to do all in their power to advance the building of God’s house and not to hinder it. Notice the “therefore” of verse 6; erroneously put in italics in the A.V. The truth was that the terms of the decree left Darius no room at all to manoeuvre. Scripture places considerable emphasis on the fact that the laws of the Medes and Persians were unalterable, Esther 1. 19; 8. 8; Dan. 6. 8, 12. In these circumstances Darius was compelled to endorse the earlier decree. It should be noted that there was an intervening command from Artaxerxes which required the Jews to cease their building programme, 4. 17-22. In that case, however, specific provision was made for a later command to change the situation; “until another commandment shall be given from me”, v. 21. The door was thus left open for the decree of Darius. In what amazing detail did the Lord overrule in all these things!

4. The Importance of the Decree

It is unlikely that Cyrus regarded his decree concerning Jerusalem as being of any great importance; it was just one of many similar measures introduced at the time. For the believing Israelite, however, it not only provided the opportunity to return to his homeland and to build something for God, but it marked the fulfilment of divine prophecy; see Isa. 44. 28 and Jer. 29. 10-14 with Ezra 1. 1. It therefore demonstrated both the sovereignty of God over the kingdoms of men and His faithfulness to His word. In this way it proved of considerable value to the faith and experience of His people. For the Christian, however, the decree’s chief importance lies in that it paved the way for the coming of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets. Almost two centuries earlier it had been revealed that the Messiah would be bom in the land of Judah, Mic. 5. 2, and that His ministry would be performed, in part at least, in Galilee, Isa. 9. 1-2. But how could this be, if the Jews were exiled in Persia? How would Matthew be able to claim the fulfilment of both these prophecies in the coming of the Lord Jesus?, Matt. 2. 5-6; 4. 13-16. The decree of Cyrus formed God’s answer to these questions. Our Lord was descended from Zerubbabel, 1. 12-13, who returned to Jerusalem in response to the permission given by Cyrus, Ezra 2. 2.

We will conclude our study by comparing and contrasting Cyrus with the One for whose coming his decree prepared. Our comments will be confined to the prophecy of Isaiah. Both Cyrus and the Lord Jesus are spoken of as God’s “anointed” (the basis of the title Messiah), Isa. 45. 1; 61. 1, as shepherds, 40. 11; 44. 28, as “righteous”, 41. 2; 53. 11, as performing God’s “pleasure”, 44. 28; 53. 10 (end), as subduing their enemies and ruling over “kings”, 41. 2; 52. 15; 53. 12, and as liberating “captives”, 45. 13; 61. 1. Additionally, Isaiah supplies the name of Cyrus and several of the names of the Lord Jesus long before either was born, 7. 14; 9. 6; 44. 28. On the other hand, Isaiah mentions at least two important contrasts between Cyrus and the Messiah, (i) Whereas both were to attain to positions of great power and glory, Cyrus would do this directly, 41. 2; 45. 2-3, but the Lord Jesus only through the path of suffering, 53. 10-12. (ii) It seems clear that Cyrus was an unwitting servant of the Lord, having no intimate knowledge of Him, 45. 4-5, and being unaware of the key role he was playing in the fulfilment of His purpose. But the Lord Jesus was the willing Servant of the Lord, whose ear was ever open to hear His voice and in whom His soul delighted, 42. 1; 50. 4-5.

Isaiah identifies the One who exalted Cyrus and gave him his notable victories as “the Lord , the first and with the last”, 41. 4. We learn from a later writer that “the first and the last” is one of the titles of the Lord Jesus, Rev. 1. 17; 2. 8. We discover therefore that He who came to Bethlehem was the very One who raised up Cyrus to make that coming possible!