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11. The exiles who returned

11-1 Ezekiel’s Temple: Based Upon Solomon’s Temple || 11-2 The Nature Of Prophecy || 11-2-1 Conditional Prophecy || 11-2-2 Human Response || 11-2-3 Tyre in Ezekiel 26 || 11-2-4 Delayed Prophecies || 11-2-5 Prophecies With Changed Fulfillment || 11-2-6 The Nature Of Prophecy || 11-3 Command More Than Prediction || 11-4 The Contemporary Relevance Of Ezekiel's Temple || 11-5 The Restoration: Potential Kingdom Of God || 11-6 The Potential And The Reality || 11-6-1 The Weakness Of Judah Under Nehemiah || 11-6-2 Isaiah's Prophecies Of Restoration || 11-6-3 Jeremiah's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-4 Ezekiel's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-5 The Cherubim And The Restoration || 11-6-6 Zechariah's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-7 The Restoration Psalms || 11.7 “The prince" in Ezekiel || 11-7-1 " The prince" : Potential Messiah || 11-7-2 Zerubabbel- Potential Messiah? || 11.8 The Potential For The Surrounding World || 11-8-1 Haggai 2 || 11-8-2 Meshech And Tubal || 11-8-3 Joel Chapter 3 || 11-9 Different Sequences Of Prophetic Fulfillment || 11-10 Zechariah And Malachi: More Chances || 11-11 The Returned Exiles

11-6-2-2 Cyrus As A Potential Messiah In Isaiah's Prophecies

The servant songs or poems of Isaiah clearly have reference to a Messiah figure who was to appear at the time of the restoration from Babylon. The early songs clearly have reference to Cyrus- he is named as such. Expositors such as Harry Whittaker and J.W. Thirtle have sought to prove the naming of Cyrus as an interpolation, claiming that Isaiah has sole primary reference to the days of Hezekiah. This seems to me to be desperate. The naming of Cyrus, and the specific references to his military campaigns in the prophecies, simply can’t be gotten around. To brush all this off as uninspired interpolation and fiddling with the text of holy Scripture just won’t do. The references to Cyrus aren’t merely the mention of his name. Is. 41:1-5 alludes unquestionably to the dramatic conquest of Sardis by Cyrus in 547 BC. The ‘servant’ is described as swooping down first from the east and then from the north, trampling local rulers beneath him (Is. 41:2-5,25; Is.  45:1; Is. 46:11). This ‘servant’ was to end the Babylonian empire (Is. 43:14; Is. 48:14,15), enable the captive Jews in Babylon to return to their land (Is. 42:6,7; Is. 43:5-7; Is. 45:13), restore Jerusalem and the ruined cities of Judah (Is. 44:26-28; 45:13). There can be no serious doubt that it was Cyrus who fulfilled these things. The servant is a “bird of prey from the east” (Is. 46:11)- according to Xenophon, the eagle was the emblem of Cyrus. The servant “victorious at every step” with lightning speed (Is. 41:2) surely refers to how Cyrus conquered the Medes, the former Assyrian empire, and the Lydians before taking Babylon in 539 BC. We should have no problem with a pagan king being described as God’s “servant”, for that very term is used of Nebuchadnezzar in Jer. 25:9.

Whilst the application of the whole of Isaiah to the times of Hezekiah is sound, the evident reference of Is. 40-66 to the returning exiles implies that this section of Scripture, along with many other prophecies, was re-written under inspiration by the Jewish prophets in Babylon and applied to their own times. Isaiah has so many detailed allusions to Babylonian life and beliefs that it’s impossible to think that it was all written in Hezekiah’s time, with no reference to the Babylonians. We find the specific names of Babylonian idols (Is. 46:1,2), ceremonies and processions known only in Babylon (Is. 46:7), omens (Is. 44:25), magic and astrology (Is. 47:1,2,12,13). Time and again there is specific reference to leaving Babylon and returning to Judah (Is. 40:3-11; Is. 42:15,16; Is. 48:20-22; 49:9-12; 52:11,12).

The idea of prophecies being re-written shouldn’t come as strange to us. Many of the Psalms are clearly relevant to David, and yet just as clearly relevant to Hezekiah and other Kings. Thus Ps. 41 is David’s reflection on the situation of 2 Sam. 15- but evidently it’s been re-written with reference to Hezekiah, also afflicted with an “evil disease”; and Ahithophel’s part in David’s life was played out in Hezekiah’s life by Shebna (Is. 22:15). It seems apparent they were re-written over time, and hence have relevance to various historical settings. As an example, consider Psalm 51, which down to v. 17 is clearly relevant to David’s sin with Bathsheba. But then, in order to make the entire Psalm an acrostic, we find verses apparently ‘added’, referring to God building the walls of Jerusalem and acceptable sacrifice being offered again in the temple [which didn’t exist in David’s time]. David’s sin and restoration was evidently understood by some inspired scribe or prophet at the time of the exile to speak to Judah’s sin, punishment and restoration. Hence the apparent changes of some passages from “I” to “we”. Psalm 137 speaks of Judah in captivity, apparently initially as a result of Sennacherib’s invasion as recorded in 2 Kings 18:13. And yet it seems to have been re-written with reference to Judah’s captivity at the hands of the Babylonians some years later. This sort of thing would’ve happened with whole books. J.W.Thirtle claims that the original manuscripts of most Old Testament books were sealed with Hezekiah’s seal, as they had been re-written and edited during his time (1)- Scripture itself testifies to him and his men re-organizing the writings of David. Isaiah, with its initial application to Hezekiah, and then its obvious reference to the captivity and restoration, is another example. Isaiah 14, an oracle against the King of Babylon, goes on to speak of him within the same chapter as the King of Assyria (Is. 14:4,22,25). What seems to have happened is that a prophecy relevant to the Assyrian invasion under Hezekiah has been re-written, under inspiration, with reference to the pomp of Babylon being cast down too. Any serious student of Job will have observed the huge number of links and verbal similarities to the restoration prophecies of Is. 40-66. Job lost his family as a result of God’s hand, endured the silence of God for a period, and then the Lord ‘restored his captivity’ (Job 42:10) and he received a new family even more numerous than the old one, and great wealth. Clearly, the story of Job was re-written as encouragement to the exiles to endure the apparent silence of God, and to believe in their ultimate restoration- as well as an exhortation to pray for their captors, as Job prayed for his friends. The same could even be said of parts of the Genesis record concerning Jacob, who figures so widely in Isaiah as an encouragement to the exiles- for he too went into exile and returned. 2 Macc. 2:13 speaks of Nehemiah collecting the writings of David and editing them, and I suggest that Ezra and Nehemiah may have been responsible for this inspired re-writing of the Old Testament books at the time of the exile. There are several references within the historical books that appear to be notes added during the exile- e.g. Jud. 18:30 refers to a situation being ongoing until the time of the deportation to Babylon. Clearly an inspired editor was at work in Judges some time after the exile.  

This leaves us with the ‘problem’ which Whittaker and Thirtle pointed out- how can Messianic language be applied to a pagan king like Cyrus? Rather than run a red line through the text and disregard it as uninspired, I suggest the following solutions.

Firstly, it should be noted that Isaiah 40-55 especially is packed full with allusion to the Marduk cult. All that Marduk claimed to do and be, Isaiah explained as actually true, and solely true, of Yahweh God of Israel. The descriptions of Cyrus as having been anointed etc. are allusions to the way Cyrus was held to have been anointed and raised up by Marduk. Yahweh is saying that actually He, and not Marduk, had done this. The Abu-Habba collection in the British museum actually has an inscription that claims Nabonidus dreamt that Marduk raised up Cyrus (2)- Isaiah’s point is that actually it was the God of Israel who had done this. The references to Yahweh taking Cyrus by the hand, anointing him, pronouncing his name and giving him a throne (Is. 45:1,8) are almost word-for-word what Cyrus claimed about Marduk in his ‘Cyrus Cylinder’.

But secondly and more importantly in our context, it seems to me that Cyrus was a potential Messiah figure. Cyrus was the anointed one, the ‘Christ’ of God (Is. 45:1). Anointing is especially associated with being anointed as a king in the Davidic line (1 Sam. 2:10,35; 2 Sam. 22:51; 2 Sam. 23:1; Ps. 2:2). Could it be that God was willing for Cyrus to become Israel’s King?

Whilst the chronology is admittedly difficult, it would appear that Daniel and his group of faithful friends, possibly Ezekiel, maybe Esther, and some other prophets were in close contact with Cyrus. The enigmatic reference to Cyrus making the decision to allow Nehemiah’s mission for the Jews to return with his queen sitting near him may suggest Jewish influence upon him (Neh. 2:6). Could it be that potentially, he was enabled to convert to the God of Israel and fulfil the ‘servant’ prophecies? It would be thanks to him that the seed of Abraham would be redefined- Gentiles could become part of the covenant seed by saying “I belong to Yahweh” or writing Yahweh’s Name on their hand (Is. 44:3,5). This didn’t actually happen- but the prophecy was reapplied to the way that Gentiles became part of Abraham’s seed through baptism into the Name (Gal. 3:27-29). The later servant poems / songs in Isaiah appear irrelevant to Cyrus, but applicable to the nation of Israel as God’s “servant”, or to one particular “servant”. Perhaps this is reflective of the way that Cyrus didn’t live up to his potential, and the ‘servant’ prophecies became capable of other potential fulfilments?  And yet Is. 44:28 states: “Of Cyrus he says, ‘He is my shepherd; he will fulfil all my purpose’”. This is typical of prophecy which is conditional, even though the conditions aren’t stated. It is observable that all the servant songs / poems have language and terms which repeat throughout them- it’s as if one person could have fulfilled them all, they could’ve been relevant to one person, but in reality this didn’t work out.

The Jews of Isaiah’s day would have had big problems with this idea of a pagan king becoming  the King of Israel and being Yahweh’s special “servant” and even Messiah. Folk have the same problem and resistance to the idea today. But passages like Is. 45:9-13, Is. 48:14-16 and much of the material that follows the servant songs, are in fact seeking to answer objections to this- e.g. by saying that God is the potter and men are mere clay, and He will raise up precisely whom He wishes- even pagan Cyrus- to be His man, the arm of His salvation, at least potentially.


(1) J.W. Thirtle, Old Testament Problems (Printland Publishers reprint, 2004 facsimile of the 1914 edition) p. 301.

(2) See P.A. Beaulieu, The Reign Of Nabonidus King Of Babylon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) p. 108.