Ezra 1:1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: Ezra 1:2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.
This is rightly called "one of the most extraordinary acts in international history." A Gentile king acknowledges the LORD as having directed his path and given him a divine charge to rebuild the Temple, and makes proclamation to do so. This text interests me theologically and historically and personally.
First theologically - what does it say about God? That God directly acts in history to work out his will in accordance to his divine plan. God acts by "stirring up the Spirit of Cyrus". Here he seems to do something within the spirit of Cyrus directly leading to Cyrus' proclamation. However, this is not the only instance of the LORD directly intervening in Cyrus' life. Isaiah, writing a century before Cyrus, speaks of God's intervention and guidance throughout Cyrus' life and dominion:
Is. 44:28 ... who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’” Is. 45:1 Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.
The mindblowing thing about all of this is that Cyrus had no conscious idea that it was the Lord doing all of these things. He did not know the Lord during the period of his life in which he rose to power and subdued the nations before him. Yet the Lord was with him and was the primary cause of all such activity. Now here in Ezra 1, the Lord stirs up Cyrus spirit to proclaim that the end of the captivity and permission to rebuild the temple. Historically, this is also very interesting. Josephus has an insightful historical theory:
“[God] stirred up the mind of Cyrus, and made him write throughout all Asia: ‘Thus says Cyrus the king: Since God Almighty has 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 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. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the Divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written” (Antiquities 11.1.1-2).
Do we have any other evidence that Cyrus indeed may have issued this decree? This page details the supporting historical evidence, such as
In 1879, an explorer by the name of Hormuzd Rassam discovered the famous Cyrus Cylinder (now in the British Museum) at the site of ancient Babylon. The small (9 inch long), barrel-shaped, clay chronicle describes the benevolent policy of Cyrus in restoring captives to their homelands, along with their religious treasures. In part, the inscription has the ruler saying: “I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which [used] to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I [also] gathered all their [former] inhabitants and returned [to them] their habitations” (Pritchard, 208). This text confirms that the disposition of Cyrus demonstrated toward the Hebrews was a reflection of his generally benevolent attitude regarding those he subjugated.
Personally, I must have great faith that if the Lord has decreed by his will good works that he has prepared for me in which to walk (Ephesians 2:10), then the Lord is able to stir up the hearts of even the unlikeliest of people - even those who do not know him! - to work out his purposes according to his will.