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Isaiah 44:28

28 I say of Cyrus, My shepherd! He carries out my every wish, Saying of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Lay its foundations.”

Isaiah 45:1

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, Subduing nations before him, stripping kings of their strength, Opening doors before him, leaving the gates unbarred: 2 'I will go before you and level the mountains; Bronze doors I will shatter, iron bars I will snap. 3 I will give you treasures of darkness, riches hidden away, That you may know I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.'

Isaiah 46

Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols set upon beasts and cattle; They must be borne upon shoulders, a load for weary animals. 2 They stoop and bow down together; unable to deliver those who bear them, they too go into captivity.

Bel and Nebo were well known Babylonian gods. Bel was another name for Marduk, the supreme deity, a storm god not unlike the Canaanite Baal. In fact the names "Bel" and "Baal" both mean "Lord." Nebo was the god of writing and one of Marduk's sons. Isaiah makes it clear that Bel and Nebo will fall, being in reality only statues and not true deities.

My question deals with the interpretation of these passages in the context of Cyrus' own understanding of God. Isaiah tells us that Cyrus is God's anointed, chosen to liberate the Jews from captivity and allow them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. God speaks to Cyrus and he responds, carrying out God's will. The prophet also predicts the fall of Bel and Nebo.

But in the 19th century, archaeologists discovered the Cyrus Cylinder, in which Cyrus provides an alternative account of what motivated him to allow the Jews to return.

Upon the command of Marduk, the great Lord, I resettled all the gods of Sumer and Akkad unharmed, in their (former) chapels... May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask Bel and Nebo for a long life for me and may they recommend me. To Marduk, my lord, they may say this: “Cyrus, the king who worships you, and Cambyses, his son…” … (six lines destroyed)

Cyrus apparently thought of Judea as part of the Akkad - meaning the western portion of the Fertile Crescent. The interesting thing here is that Cyrus' words tells us that he himself thought it was Marduk (Bel) who told him to return the various deities to their sanctuaries. He specifically asks that these gods petition "Bel and Nebo" on his behalf. So although they may have fallen in the future, these gods were still living deities in Cyrus' mind even after God told him to restore Jerusalem's temple. And reading Cyrus' accounts, it was not the Israelite deity but Marduk who inspired him.

The question: Did Cyrus actually understand that God had chosen him, as Isaiah 45 suggests? Or should we be thinking along more complex lines, such as Cyrus believing it to be Marduk but Isaiah understanding it to be God? Christians and Jews, following the Bible, have faith that God inspired Cyrus. The question is: did he know it was God? To put it another way: did God appear to Cyrus to be Marduk?

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  • +1. Great question!! I think the answer itself will be difficult to definitively answer based solely on historical and biblical evidence, but I'm interested to see what people have to say!
    – Jason_
    Commented Mar 22 at 7:43

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The closest we get to an answer to this question is found in in V4 -

Isa 45:4 - For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.

We see the fulfilment of this prophecy as recorded by Ezra:

Ezra 1:1 - In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

Just how the LORD accomplished this is obviously not stated (even if it were stated, we probably would have no hope of understanding!)

However, it perfectly illustrates the fact that God regularly uses people of all persuasions to accomplish His divine purpose, even people opposed to God. Judas is a good example of this, and much discussed and debated.

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  • There are, indeed, a number of clues that God moves people without their conscious knowledge, one of the best being a comparison of Ezekiel ch38 v4 ("I will bring you forth") with v10 ("Thoughts will come into your mind and you will devise a scheme"). Commented Mar 22 at 10:48

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