Cyrus the Messiah
Why Isaiah calls a non-Jewish king of Persia Israel’s anointed one
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The Persian emperor Cyrus is honored as the only foreigner in the Bible to be identified as the “messiah” or “anointed one” of YHWH, the Israelite God.1 Isaiah tells us that YHWH spoke “to his messiah, to Cyrus, whom I [YHWH] took by his right hand to subdue nations before him” (Isaiah 45:1).
The title messiah means “anointed.” It is an anglicization of the Hebrew meshiach (jyvm). In Greek it is rendered Christos (cristos)—English “Christ.”
Many people are anointed in the Hebrew Bible, and many are referred to as the “messiah” or “anointed one.” The high priest is called the “anointed priest” (Leviticus 4:3, 5, 16, 6:15). God tells Elijah to anoint two different men as kings of their people: Hazael as king of Aram (1 Kings 19:15) and Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. God also instructs Elijah to anoint his own successor, Elisha son of Shaphat, as prophet (1 Kings 19:16). At this point in time, the term “messiah” or “anointed one” did not refer to the apocalyptic savior of humankind.
These people are called “messiah” or “anointed one,” but they aren’t designated “YHWH’s messiah,” as Cyrus is. This much less common phrase (including variants such as “my anointed” or “his anointed”—always referring to YHWH, the God of Israel) appears only 30 times in the Hebrew Bible, and always in reference to the legitimate anointed king of Judah. It is applied to Saul eleven times (1 Samuel 12:3, 5, 24:6 [twice],10, 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Samuel 1:14, 16); to David three times (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 19:22, 23:1); and to an unnamed king of either the United Monarchy or Judah (1 Samuel 2:35). It also refers to the Judahite king in Lamentations (4:20); in eight psalms (Psalms 2:2, 18:50, 20:6, 28:8, 45:7, 84:9, 89:20, 38, 51, 132:10, 17); in Habakkuk’s prayer (3:13); and in the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:10). But in Isaiah 45:1 the phrase refers to Cyrus, a Persian monarch.
The non-Jew Cyrus the Great (r. 559–530 B.C.E.), whom Isaiah 45 calls YHWH’s anointed, was the Persian king of Fars, a southern province of present-day Iran. The Greek historians and the chronicle of the last Babylonian king Nabonidus tell us that in 553 B.C.E. Cyrus rebelled against the ruling Medes, then a major power in the Near East. By 550 he had defeated them and imprisoned their king, his maternal grandfather, Astyages.2 He then turned to the west. By 546 he had defeated the wealthy king Croesus of Lydia (in modern Turkey), and the Lydian capital of Sardis fell to him along with all the other cities of Asia Minor. Cyrus then turned his attention to the most powerful kingdom in Central Asia: Babylon. By the end of 539, he had taken Babylon and captured its king, Nabonidus.3 The Persian empire founded by Cyrus extended from the Aegean to Central Asia.
It was probably in the fall of 538 that Cyrus issued a decree permitting the Jews of the Babylonian Exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. According to the Book of Ezra, Cyrus told the Jews:
Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: YHWH God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all His people—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of YHWH God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem; and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock besides the freewill offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem.a
According to Ezra, Cyrus also refurbished the Temple:
But in the first year of King Cyrus of Babylon, King Cyrus issued an order to rebuild this House of God. Also the silver and gold vessels of the House of God that Nebuchadnezzar had taken away from the Temple in Jerusalem and brought to the temple in Babylon—King Cyrus released them from the temple in Babylon to be given to the one called Sheshbazzar whom he had appointed governor. He said to him, “Take these vessels, go, deposit them in the Temple in Jerusalem, and let the House of God be rebuilt on its original site.”
Isaiah also mentions Cyrus in connection with rebuilding the Temple:
Thus said YHWH, your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: “It is I, YHWH, who made everything, who alone stretched out the heavens and unaided spread out the earth” … The same who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, he shall fulfill all my purposes!; He shall say of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and to the Temple, ‘Your foundation shall be found again.’”
Who is this prophet who identifies Cyrus as YHWH’s “shepherd” and “anointed”?
We must be careful at this point to distinguish between two Isaiahs, both in the same book of the Bible. Scholars label them as First Isaiah and Second Isaiah. First Isaiah, who is credited with writing much of Isaiah 1–39, lived in Jerusalem during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah (Isaiah 1:1, 6–8, 36–39). Second Isaiah, author of Isaiah 40–65, probably lived in Babylon during the late Exilic period (late sixth century B.C.E.). We know he wrote after 539 because Isaiah 40–65 mentions Cyrus the Great (see “Who Wrote Second Isaiah?”).
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Second Isaiah believed the Jews had completed their punishment for whatever sins they had committed, and he encouraged those exiled in Babylon and Egypt to return home to Judah:5
Comfort, O comfort My people,
Says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And declare to her
That her term of service is over,
That her iniquity is expiated;
For she has received at the hand of YHWH
Double for all her sins.
And now YHWH has resolved—
He who formed me in the womb to be His servant—
To bring back Jacob to Himself,
That Israel may be restored to Him.
And I have been honored in YHWH’s sight,
My God has been my strength …
I will make all My mountains a road,
And My highways shall be built up.
Look! These are coming from afar,
These from the north and the west,
And these from the land of Sinim [modern Aswan].
Shout, O heavens, and rejoice, O earth!
Break into shouting, O hills!
For YHWH has comforted his people;
And has taken back his afflicted ones in love.
What does it mean to be called “YHWH’s anointed,” as Cyrus is called by Second Isaiah? As we have seen, the title always refers to the ruler of Judah. To the biblical writers, however, the term “YHWH’s anointed” is more than a title. It also connotes a theology. “YHWH’s anointed” is the legitimate king appointed and protected by God. In the Psalms, he is idealized, mythical. According to Psalm 2, which has long been recognized as a poem recited at the coronation of a Judahite king, the king is anointed by YHWH during the installation process:
[YHWH says,] “But I have installed6 my king
on Zion, My holy mountain!”7
Let me tell of the decree:
YHWH said to me,
“You are my son,
I have fathered you this day.
Ask of Me,
and I will make the nations your domain;
your estate, the limits of the earth.
You can smash them with an iron mace,
shatter them like potter’s ware.”
YHWH has given to his anointed king all the nations of the earth as his inheritance. This theme of sovereignty over the nations is echoed in Psalm 18. Here, the anointed one is the reigning Davidic king:
YHWH lives! Blessed is my rock!
Exalted be God, my deliverer,
the God who has vindicated me
and made peoples subject8 to me,

He accords great victories to His king,
keeps faith with His anointed,
with David and his offspring forever.
As in Psalm 2, this psalm describes YHWH giving the anointed victory and placing him at the head of nations. Similarly, Psalm 20 stipulates that it is not chariots or horses that bring the anointed one victory, but reliance on YHWH:
May we shout for joy in your victory,
arrayed by standards in the name of our God.
May YHWH fulfill your every wish.
Now I know that YHWH will give victory
to His anointed,
will answer him from His heavenly sanctuary
with the mighty victories of His right arm.
They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses,
but we call upon the name of YHWH our God.
They collapse and lie fallen,
but we rally and gather strength.
O YHWH, grant victory!
May the King answer us when we call.
How then, knowing the full theology associated with the term “YHWH’s anointed,” could Second Isaiah have applied this title to Cyrus, the Persian emperor?
Whenever Cyrus (r. 550–530 B.C.E.), or his son and successor Cambyses (r. 530–522 B.C.E.) or Cambyses’s successor Darius (r. 522–486 B.C.E.) extended the mighty Persian empire, local priests of powerful temples would apply the titles and theologies of their own kings to their Persian conquerors. Second Isaiah appears to have done the same.
After Cambyses successfully invaded Egypt, the local priests hailed him as pharaoh, or “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.”
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In an autobiographical inscription (photo, above), the priest Udjah\orresnet, a former admiral who served in a temple dedicated to Neith (the mother of the supreme god, Re), wrote:
The Great Chief of all foreign lands, Cambyses, came to Egypt, and the foreign peoples of every foreign land were with him. When he had conquered this land in its entirety, they established themselves in it, and he was Great Ruler of Egypt and Great Chief of all foreign lands. His Majesty assigned to me the office of chief physician. He made me live at his side as companion and administrator of the palace. I composed his official pharaonic title, to wit his name of King [Pharaoh] of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesuti-Re (Offspring of Re).9
Another priestly Egyptian inscription identifies Cambyses with a typical combination of pharaonic titles: “The Horus Who Unites the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Son of Re, The Good God, Lord of the Two Lands.”10 This Egyptian sarcophagus shows Cambyses in pharaonic dress kneeling beside an offering table. The accompanying inscription notes that Cambyses is performing the appropriate rites to conduct his “father,” the Apis bull—identified with Osiris, the god of the underworld—to the good land of the West.11
After Darius rose to power, he cut a canal (an early Suez Canal) to connect the Red Sea to the Nile River. The commemorative stelae erected along the route identified12 him as one “born of Neith” (Re’s mother) and as “he whom [Re] placed on his (Re’s) throne in order to achieve what he (Re) had begun.”
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In Babylon, too, Cambyses was hailed as the Babylonian crown prince and, later, as king. The Babylonian Chronicle indicates that during the reign of Cyrus, his son Cambyses assumed the role of the crown prince in the New Year’s Akitu festival, a ceremony reserved for the legitimate Babylonian monarch.13 During the ceremony, Cambyses went to the temple of the god Nabu and prepared to lead him to the sanctuary, called Esagil, of their chief god Marduk. Cambyses was immediately named king of Babylon; several texts from this period are dated to “the first year of Cyrus, king of lands, and Cambyses, king of Babylon.”14
Why did the priests of Marduk allow Cyrus to participate as crown prince in the Akitu festival? Why did the Egyptian priests identify Cambyses and Darius as pharaoh?
First, self-interest. These priests tied their own successes to the success of their conquerors.15 The Egyptian priest Udjah\orresnet, whose inscription is quoted in part above, had been admiral of the Egyptian fleet under pharaohs Amasis (r. 570–526 B.C.E.) and Psammeticus III (r. 526–525 B.C.E.). He lost his military title with the Persian conquest, but, by supporting Cambyses, he was able to retain a high-ranking and influential position at court. According to his inscription, now in the Vatican, the former admiral became “royal seal-bearer, sole companion, true beloved king’s friend, the scribe, inspector of council scribes, chief scribe of the great outer hall”—titles that Cambyses himself may have conferred.
Second, the priests recognized that the restoration of their temples depended on the good will of the Persian leader.
The famous Cyrus Cylinder, a 10-inch-long inscribed clay barrel bearing the story of Babylon’s “liberation” by Cyrus, tells how Cyrus, with the help of the Babylonian god Marduk, restored worship at temples where Nabonidus had removed the cult images and brought them to Babylon.
From [Babylon] up to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, to the land of Eshnunna, to the towns Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der up to the region of the Gutians, I returned to (these) sacred cult-cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the gods who live in them and established for them eternal sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great Lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus has brought into Babylon to the anger of the Lord of the gods, unharmed, in their chapels, the places which make them happy.16
More importantly for the Marduk priesthood located in the city of Babylon, Cyrus removed the stigma of corvée labor:
As to the inhabitants of Babylon, whom he [Nabonidus] against the will [of the gods] made them pull the yoke—which for them was not appropriate—for their exhaustion I provided rest. I removed the yoke.17
Similarly, a generation later, Udjah\orresnet’s inscription tells us how Cambyses cleansed the temple of Neith (where Udjah\orresnet served) and restored worship there:
His majesty [Cambyses] commanded to expel all the foreigners [who] dwelt in the temple of Neith, to demolish all their houses and all their unclean things that were in this temple.
When they had carried [all their] personal [belongings] outside the wall of the temple, his majesty commanded to cleanse the temple of Neith and to return all its personnel to it […] and the hour-priests of the temple. His majesty commanded to give divine offerings to Neith-the-Great, the mother of god, and to the great gods of Sais, as it had been before. His majesty commanded [to perform] all their festivals and all their processions, as had been done before. His majesty did this because I had let his majesty know the greatness of Sais, that it is the city of all the gods, who dwell there on their seats forever.
But Udjah\orresnet’s inscription suggests there may have been a third, even more powerful reason that he and other priests collaborated with their conquerors: They believed the Persian invaders had God—or the gods—on their side. How else could they have conquered foreign nations and, even more important, restored worship of the local deities in their temples?
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As the British historian Alan Lloyd has noted, Udjah\orresnet took pains to demonstrate that Cambyses accepted the traditional role of pharaoh. He acted the way a legitimate pharaoh should act; that is, he participated in the worship of the Egyptian gods.
Udjah\orresnet’s inscription states (italics mine):
The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Cambyses, came to Sais. His majesty went in person to the temple of Neith. He made a great prostration before her majesty, as every king has done. He made a great offering of every good thing to Neith-the-Great, the mother of god, and to the great gods who are in Sais, as every beneficent king has done. His majesty did this because I had let his majesty know the greatness of her majesty Neith, that she is the mother of Re himself.18
Cambyses’s willingness and capacity to adopt the Egyptian model of kingship seems crucial to Udjah\orresnet’s willingness to collaborate.19 Udjah\orresnet must have believed that Cambyses truly was Offspring of Re, as he calls him; if he weren’t, Re never would have let the Persian king conquer Egypt, and Cambyses could never have restored the worship of Re in Egypt.
Similarly, in Babylon, when Cyrus returned the cult statues that had been removed under the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, and restored the sanctuaries, the local priests could interpret this as a sign of their god’s joy at Cyrus’s rule. The Marduk priests, like Udjah\orresnet, assisted the foreign rulers because they were able to see them as true to, and in the service of, their god.
Indeed, throughout the Near East, conquered peoples interpreted their fate similarly: When a town was conquered or destroyed, the devastation was attributed to the god’s displeasure in the citizens. The restoration of order—particularly the restoration of the city to its former glory and the presence of the god’s statue back in his sanctuary—was seen as proof that the local god had participated in the conquest, had negotiated his own return and had restored order.
Might Second Isaiah have been motivated by the same reasons: self-interest, desire to restore the Temple, belief that the Judeans had been conquered because they had been untrue to their God, belief that their term of service was now over, and belief that Cyrus was able to restore the Temple because YHWH favored him and his work on behalf of the Jews?
Like Udjah\orresnet in Egypt and the priests of Marduk in Babylon, Second Isaiah was a vocal religious leader of a conquered people. He was devoted to restoring, promoting and preserving the worship of his God, YHWH, in the Jerusalem Temple. He facilitated Persian rule because it helped him achieve this goal and because he believed this was part of YHWH’s plan.
Just as Udjah\orresnet made Cambyses “pharaoh” and the priests of Marduk in Babylon made him “crown prince,” Second Isaiah gave Cyrus the royal Judean title of “YHWH’s anointed” because he really believed Cyrus was the legitimate ruler anointed by YHWH.
With the name went the entire royal Judean court theology associated with it. Second Isaiah applies to Cyrus the same themes associated with YHWH’s anointed in the Psalms: victory over the enemy, nations falling under his feet. In Isaiah 41 and 45, we read of YHWH’s selection of Cyrus as the victor who will subdue nations:
Who has roused a victor
from the East [Cyrus],b
Summoned him to His service?
Has delivered up nations to him,
And trodden sovereigns down?
Has rendered their swords like dust,
Their bows like windblown straw?
He pursues them, he goes
on unscathed;
No shackle is placed on his feet.
Who has wrought and achieved this?
He who announced the generations from the start—
I, YHWH, who was first
And will be with the last as well.
… I have roused him from the north,
and he has come,
From the sunrise, one who invokes
My name;20
And he has trampled rulers like mud,
Like a potter treading clay.
Who foretold this from the start,
that we may note it;
From aforetime, that we might say,
“He is right”
Not one foretold, not one announced;
No one has heard your utterance!
Thus said YHWH to Cyrus,
His anointed one
Whose right hand He has grasped
Treading down nations before him
Uncovering the loins of kings
Opening doors before him
and letting no gate stay shut:
I will march before you
and level the hills that loom up;
I will shatter doors of bronze
and cut down iron bars.
The very imagery used to describe YHWH’s assistance to the Davidic monarch is now applied to Cyrus. In Second Isaiah, YHWH subdues kings for Cyrus (Isaiah 41:2; cf. Psalm 18:48). He causes Cyrus to trample on rulers like mortar, like the potter treads the clay (Isaiah 41:25; cf. Psalm 2:9).
In Second Isaiah, YHWH makes it clear that it is now Cyrus, and not the Davidic monarch, who will fulfill YHWH’s purposes. The above passage (Isaiah 45:1, 2) concludes as follows:
It was I who roused him [Cyrus]
for victory,
And who level all roads for him.
He shall rebuild My city,
And let my exiled people go
Without price and without payment,
—said YHWH of Hosts.
Like Udjah\orresnet and the priests of Marduk, Second Isaiah is delivering up to the Persian conqueror the entire theology that had defined the local king. Self-interest was no doubt one reason for his actions, but not his sole motivation. Like his counterparts in Egypt and Babylon, Second Isaiah was convinced that Cyrus was in actuality the genuine Judean king, legitimate heir to David’s throne, YHWH’s anointed, his messiah, his christ. He believed this because Cyrus was able to do what a legitimate king must do: He brought back authentic order to the world. Cyrus rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple and permitted the Jews to return to worship their God in Zion.21
This article is based on Lisbeth S. Fried, “Cyrus the Messiah? The Historical Background to Isaiah 45:1, ” Harvard Theological Review 95:4 (2002), pp. 373–393.