Cyrus is a king mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible and is identified as Cyrus the Great (also Cyrus II or Cyrus the Elder) who reigned over Persia between 539—530 BC. This pagan king is important in Jewish history because it was under his rule that Jews were first allowed to return to Israel after 70 years of captivity.
In one of the most amazing prophecies of the Bible, Isaiah predicts Cyrus’ decree to free the Jews. One hundred fifty years before Cyrus lived, the prophet calls him by name and gives details of Cyrus’ benevolence to the Jews: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.” (Isaiah 45:1, 4; see also 41:2-25; 42:6).
Evincing His sovereignty over all nations, God says of Cyrus, “That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.” Isaiah 44:28
Cyrus’s decree releasing the Jewish people, in fulfillment of prophecy, is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36 “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.” 2 Chronicles 36:22–23
Other Old Testament books that mention Cyrus include Ezra and Daniel. King Cyrus actively assisted the Jews in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem under Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest.
In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1–2). The Persian king appointed Zerubbabel as governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1), and right away Zerubbabel began rebuilding the temple with the help of Joshua, the high priest (Ezra 3:2–3, 8). The first temple, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:8–10).
It took Zerubbabel two years to rebuild the foundation of the temple. Then construction was delayed by Samaritan settlers whose friendly overtures masked a hidden hostility (Ezra 4:1–5). As a result of the opposition to the temple construction, Persia withdrew support for the project, and for seventeen years the temple sat unfinished (Ezra 4:21).
Finally, God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage and support Zerubbabel (Ezra 5:1–2), and the work on the second temple resumed. Four years later, in 516 BC, the temple was completed and dedicated with great fanfare (Ezra 6:16). The Jews also observed the Passover (Ezra 6:19). Zerubbabel is never mentioned in connection with the dedication ceremonies, nor is his name mentioned again after Ezra 5:1. For this reason, Zerubbabel’s temple is often referred to simply as the “second temple.”
The Lord God was pleased with Zerubbabel’s efforts in returning the captives to Jerusalem, in building the second temple, and in reestablishing the temple worship (Ezra 3:10). With God’s prompting, Haggai gave Zerubbabel a special blessing: “In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the Lord, and will make thee as a signet: for I have chosen thee, saith the Lord of hosts.” Haggai 2:23
As the second temple was being built, there was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed. Older Jews who recalled the size and grandeur of the first temple regarded Zerubbabel’s temple as a poor substitute for the original. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple. It was true that Zerubbabel’s temple was built on a smaller scale and with much fewer resources. Also, Solomon’s temple had housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was no longer in Israel’s possession. And at the first temple’s dedication, the altar had been lit by fire from heaven, and the temple had been filled with the Shekinah; attendees at the second temple’s dedication witnessed no such miracles. Even so, Haggai prophesied that the second temple would one day have a magnificence to outshine the glory of the first (Haggai 2:3–9). Haggai’s word was fulfilled 500 years later when Jesus the Christ arrived on the scene (Luke 2:22, 46; 19:45). Zerubbabel’s temple was not as outwardly impressive as Solomon’s, but it had a greater glory: the Messiah Himself walked the courts of the temple that Zerubbabel built.
Cyrus restored the temple treasures to Jerusalem and allowed building expenses to be paid from the royal treasury (Ezra 1:4–11; 6:4–5). Cyrus’s beneficence helped to restart the temple worship practices that had languished during the 70 years of the Jews’ captivity. Some point to Cyrus’s decree to rebuild Jerusalem as the official beginning of Judaism.
Among the Jews deported from Judah and later placed under the rule of Cyrus include the prophet Daniel. In fact, we are told Daniel served until at least the third year of King Cyrus, approximately 536 BC (Daniel 10:1). That being the case, Daniel likely had some personal involvement in the decree that was made in support of the Jews. The historian Josephus says that Cyrus was informed of the biblical prophecies written about him (Antiquities of the Jews, XI.1.2). The natural person to have shown Cyrus the scrolls was Daniel, a high-ranking official in Persia (Daniel 6:28).
Besides his dealings with the Jews, Cyrus is known for his advancement of human rights, his military strategy, and his bridging of Eastern and Western cultures. He was a king of tremendous influence and a person God used to help fulfill an important Old Testament prophecy. God’s use of Cyrus as a “shepherd” for His people illustrates the truth of Proverbs 21, “The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Proverbs 21:1