The Benevolence of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus was the benevolent, tolerant Persian dictator who allowed 50,000 Jews to return to Jerusalem in 538 BC, as part of his administrative policies. How do we understand this in terms of Daniel’s prophetic statue in Daniel chapter two? Allow me to propose a theory to interpret it. Daniel 2:39, speaking of Cyrus, says, “Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you”. In what way would God consider the Persian Empire inferior to the Babylonian Empire, since it was more extensive and better organized? The key, I believe, lies in the fact that Daniel’s statue of a man represented political independence from God. If my conjecture stands up to scrutiny, Babylon was the most centralized human authority, and Cyrus began the long process of decentralizing it and turning over power to the people and to laws. This vision was God’s opinion of four empires that would rule for over a thousand years.


The real question that history should answer is “What does God think about us” rather than “What do I think about God”. Our entire approach is backwards. When historians honor the material success of nations and neglect making moral judgments, or favor immorality, they distort history. Morality matters. It matters to God. Godliness was clearly revealed from the beginning, with Israel’s laws being the golden standard. Empire-building is not godliness but rebellion. There is no excuse for anyone to enslave others for their personal benefit. The very idea that an estimated 50 million enslaved people in the Persian empire would have to make personal sacrifices for one man, Cyrus in this case, is the exact opposite of what God intended for mankind. No wonder God was angry.


Cyrus was only the tip of the iceberg. He delegated his abusive power to others, so that it was legally disseminated to provinces, regions, cities, communities, and families. It was supported by pagan religion. We have no way of knowing how much abuse was suffered by those at the bottom. Any abuse of power is wrong, and there was much abuse. In countries with the abuse of leadership, the common people lose their sense of personal responsibility and initiative. That can be verified by countries today. People adopt a slavery mentality. Moreover, empires cannot be justified because they provide benefits in exchange for the freedom that is lost. As the Declaration of Independence states, men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. Taking away basic personal freedoms is immoral. All empires, whether it was Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, or Rome, stood in opposition to God.


Cyrus also raises questions about God’s sovereignty. God used Nebuchadnezzar to put the Jews into captivity and Cyrus to release them. Does God approve of empires or just work with them? Does God force history to happen or gently influence it? Our misunderstanding is really of our own making. We pray, “God, give us freedom to make our own choices”. Then having freedom, we pray, “God, don’t allow us to suffer the consequences of our bad choices”. Both can’t be true, no matter how much we want them to be. We suffer the consequences of bad choices, sometimes from the bad choices of others. That’s justice. That’s God’s sovereignty. But then grace comes in and gives us better things than what we deserve. God’s grace to Israel came through Cyrus.


In 593 BC, while Jerusalem was still standing, Jeremiah prophesied, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10). The Northern Kingdom of Israel didn’t return, so there was no reason that the Southern Kingdom of Judah had to return. God was better to them than what they deserved. God knew it would happen before it happened. God made sure it happened, through Cyrus. We have no idea what events transpired in Cyrus’ life to make him want to rebuild regional temples. It may have been a long series of events. In any case, when the time came that was predicted by Jeremiah, Cyrus the Great made the decision that prevented the Jews from disappearing forever. He sent them back to rebuild their temple. Should we not be amazed when a lowly people is raised from the dead and given life by the unlikely benevolence of a dictator?

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