If yesterday’s passage from 2 Kings 17 spoke of one of the darkest days for Israel and Judah, today’s recounts one of those moments when God acts to bring his people out of exile. He is a liberating God, although he often works through the most un expected people.
Cyrus, king of Persia, is unconditionally praised by the post-exilic Jews. He later was considered as a messiah sent by God (Isaiah 45:1). Daniel was a favourite of Cyrus (Daniel 10). Cyrus issued the decree of liberation to the Jews (Ezra 1:1-2), concerning which Daniel had prayed and prophesied. And he approved the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem which marked a great moment in the history of the Israelites.
We know quite a lot about this man:
A chronicle drawn up just after the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, gives the history of the reign of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, and of the fall of the Babylonian empire. In 538 BC there was a revolt in Southern Babylonia, while the army of Cyrus entered the country from the north. In June the Babylonian army was completely defeated at Opis, and immediately afterwards Sippara opened its gates to the conqueror. Gobryas, the governor of Media, was then sent to Babylon, which surrendered "without fighting," and the daily services in the temples continued without a break. In October, Cyrus himself arrived, and proclaimed a general amnesty, which was communicated by Gobryas to "all the province of Babylon," of which he had been made governor. Meanwhile, Nabonidus, who had concealed himself, was captured, but treated honourably; and when his wife died, Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus, conducted the funeral. Cyrus now assumed the title of "king of Babylon," claimed to be the descendant of the ancient kings, and made rich offerings to the temples. At the same time he allowed the foreign populations who had been deported to Babylonia to return to their old homes, carrying with them the images of their gods. Among these populations were the Jews, who, as they had no images, took with them the sacred vessels of the temple.
Not unlike the Romans who would follow him, it seems that he was prepared to be reasonably tolerant (albeit on his terms) of the diverse beliefs and customs of the peoples within his extended kingdom. After the conquest of Babylon, it is recorded that he paid homage at the temple of the Babylonian god Marduk – thereby gaining the support of the Babylonian people and minimizing further bloodshed. In Ezra 1:1-8, it is "the Lord [who] inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation".
Whereas in Isaiah 1-39, the prophet saw the destruction of Israel as imminent, and the restoration in the future, the later chapters of Isaiah speak of the destruction in the past (Is 42:24-25), and the restoration as imminent (Is 42:1-9). So, for example, Is 39:6-7 sees captivity as being far in the future, whilst by Is 43:14 the Israelites are spoken of as already in Babylon. So these later chapters help us to understand how God used an unbeliever to achieve his purposes:
Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow.
He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not travelled before.
Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD – with the first of them and with the last—I am he."
Then the alliance between Cyrus and the Lord is made explicit:
"This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:
I will go before you and will level the mountains ; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.
I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name."
Josephus (1st century AD )also mentions that Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity and helped rebuild the temple. He also wrote to the rulers and governors that they should contribute to the rebuilding of the temple and assisted them in rebuilding the temple. A letter from Cyrus to the Jews is described by Josephus:
“I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the temple of God at Jerusalem on the same place where it was before.
I have also sent my treasurer Mithridates, and Zorobabel, the governor of the Jews, that they may lay the foundations of the temple, and may build it sixty cubits high, and of the same latitude, making three edifices of polished stones, and one of the wood of the country, and the same order extends to the altar whereon they offer sacrifices to God. I require also that the expenses for these things may be given out of my revenues.
Moreover, I have also sent the vessels which king Nebuchadnezzar pillaged out of the temple, and have given them to Mithridates the treasurer, and to Zorobabel the governor of the Jews, that they may have them carried to Jerusalem, and may restore them to the temple of God.
The priests shall also offer these sacrifices according to the laws of Moses in Jerusalem; and when they offer them, they shall pray to God for the preservation of the king and of his family, that the kingdom of Persia may continue. But my will is, that those who disobey these injunctions, and make them void, shall be hung upon a cross, and their substance brought into the king’s treasury.".
This display of divine grace had created an atmosphere of awe and excitement among the people of God. He was causing them to return to their land. Yet even as the exiles resettled in Jerusalem and engaged in the work of restoration, we read:
Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They hired counsellors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:4-5
Incredibly, in spite of the miracles, signs and provisions, simple discouragement neutralized their progress. Scholars say that their work stalled for nearly 20 years! Discouragement is an enemy that is both subtle in its attack and powerful in its ability to stop us. We must discern it when it comes and refuse to accommodate its influence when it speaks.