How Could Isaiah Know ‘Cyrus the Great’ by Name?


This coming Friday, October 5, 2018, marks the 2557th anniversary of Cyrus the Great’s taking of the city of Babylon in 539 BC. As founder of the first Persian Empire his kingdom grew to roughly what we call the Middle East today and expanded in include most of Southwest Asia, much of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

During his 30 year reign, he pushed into Central Asia, with campaigns that the Greek historian Herodotus claimed brought  “into subjection every nation without exception.” In the case of the Jews, they were captive in Babylon from Nebuchadnezzar‘s day. Still, in October 539 BC, Cyrus set into motion Isaiah’s prophecy made more than 200 years earlier:

Isaiah 45

Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;
I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:
And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.
For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.

Naming Cyrus as a liberator should be no surprise to Latter-day Saints or anyone else who believes in prophecy. God’s foreknowledge is a thing that separates Him from the false gods and idols of ancient times and very many doubting modern scholars today.

The Prophet Joseph Smith, tell us that Cyrus was foreordained to his task when he said, “That we may learn still further that God calls or elects particular men to perform particular works, or on whom to confer special blessings, we read, Isaiah 45:4, “For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee Cyrus by thy name,” to be a deliverer to my people Israel, and help to plant them on my holy mountain, Isaiah 45:9.1

Victor Ludlow wrote this about Isaiah 44:8 where the Lord says:

“It is I who says to Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd!
And he will perform all My desire.’
And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’
And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.'”
(New American Standard Bible)

“…many scholars believe that these verses were written at the time of or after the death of Cyrus (c. 590-529 B.C.). There are, however, other examples in the scriptures where prophets foretell the name and mission of people centuries before they are born. For examples, see Joseph’s prophecies about Moses and Joseph Smith (JST Gen. 50:24-382 Ne. 3), Nephi’s prophecy about Jesus (2 Ne. 25:19-20), and King Benjamin’s and Alma’s prophecies about Mary (Mosiah 3:8Alma 7:10).

“The mission of Cyrus was to include a number of important events, the most important being the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. With new political and religious centers in Judah, the Jews could reestablish themselves as a nation that would remain in the land until a descendant of David, the Messiah, would finally be born in Bethlehem.”2

Because God is omniscient, knowing this about Cyrus and foretelling his name should not cause wonder. The LDS Bible Dictionary explains the role of prophets this way:

The work of a Hebrew prophet was to act as God’s messenger and make known God’s will. … It was also the prophet’s duty to denounce sin and foretell its punishment … In certain cases prophets predicted future events, such as the very important prophecies announcing the coming of Messiah’s kingdom; but as a rule a prophet was a forthteller rather than a foreteller.

In his book, Isaiah, Prophet, Seer and Poet, Victor Ludlow explained: “…as a seer, Isaiah had spiritual insight beyond that of a prophet. (See Mosiah 8:15-17; MD, p. 315.) Isaiah was both a prophet and seer, for he envisioned events beyond his own time. His prophecies record that he perceived visions of at least two major events, the Messiah and the last days.”3

One of Cyrus’s strategies was to repatriate conquered peoples, God knew that long before Cyrus was born. Cyrus’ cunning made him seem more the liberator rather than a conqueror which led to greater popularity and control. As he repatriated exiled peoples, he rebuilt their temples. His strategy worked so well that conquered religious leaders often adopted his mindset for themselves.

For example, in the taking of Babylon, he placed a declaration, which is known as the Cyrus Cylinder, in the Temple of Marduk.  In that cylinder seen above was a declaration that he had been chosen by Madruck, the city-god of Babylon, to replace their impious king.

Of course, Cyrus wanted to come across the same way with the Jews, who saw in him the prophet Isaiah’s words this way: “Thus says the Lord to his Anointed (Messiah), to Cyrus whom I took by his right hand” (Isa 45:1). Thus making Cyrus God’s anointed one; a kind of political Messiah.

However, this anointing has confused Bible Scholars; anointing had been reserved for Israel’s kings such as Saul and David. However, Josephus, a Jewish historian wrote:

In the first year of the reign of Cyrus [539 B.C.], 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 . . . 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.”

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 [c. 726 and 586 B.C.]. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, and earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written.4

Isaiah 40–55 is filled with striking poetry praising Cyrus’ victories and describing God’s part in facilitating his conquests. Some modern scholars call these sections the “Cyrus Songs, but this part of Isaiah is especially important to Christians because of its prophecies about Jesus as the Messiah. Still, it is quite clear that in the case of Isaiah 45:1 that the “anointed one” of God is Cyrus, the Persian king, at least in this case.

According to the prophet Ezra, in 538 B.C., the year after conquering Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He sent them with them the vessels of the house of the Lord captured by King Nebuchadnezzar.

In the opening verses of Ezra, Cyrus is featured as follows:

Ezra 1

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 Lordstirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Who is there among you of all his people? 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 the God,) which is in Jerusalem.
And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.

Some scholars feel that Cyrus, his appointees, and successors sponsored the rebuilding of the Temple with the goal of establishing a local theocracy loyal to “divinely-backed Persian monarchs.” That same philosophy of divine kingship flourished in European monarchies centuries later.

No matter his motivation, Cyrus was the political Messiah described by Isaiah and he became a pivotal figure in the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem.

Interestingly, some modern Jews see President Trump in the same light by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he has become a modern Cyrus.

History of the Church, vol. 4, p. 257
2i Victor Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, Deseret Book, p. 382
3 Ludlow, ibid,
4 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 11, ch. 1.

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