Cyrus, David’s Heir?

What did it mean in the late sixth century BCE for the pagan king Cyrus, ruler of the foreign empire Persia, to be called “my shepherd” (Isa 44.28), and “his messiah” (Isa 45.1)? Is Cyrus also a “servant”? Indeed, while second temple Judaism and early Christianity read eschatological-messianism1 backwards into Isaiah, there is but one image of messiah proper2 within the book. Given the context of Isaiah 40-48, and despite the imagery of Yahweh as potter (45.9) and his creatures as (hopefully) yielding clay, it is odd for this imagery to be applied to a pagan potentate, even one relatively beneficent as Cyrus. While Yahweh’s use of Cyrus is portrayed as something like a force of nature (44.24, 27), nothing need prompt Yahweh to use imagery such as shepherd, messiah, straight paths, and inherent righteousness as well. As part of using his prediction of Cyrus’ coming as proof of Yahweh’s, and Yahweh’s alone, power to effect the future,3  Cyrus could have been declared a mere tool like earlier foreign agents (e.g. 7.20, 8.7, 10.5-26, 13.5). 

Isaiah itself, Pre-Isaianic Old Testament backgrounds’, and Ancient Near Eastern parallels, can help clarify the meaning, scope, and original impact of these terms as applied to Cyrus within the context of anti-paganism, servanthood, shepherd, messiah, and Yahweh’s sovereign restoration of Jerusalem and Temple.

“Anointed” is peculiar to Judaism, but other motifs in the Cyrus oracles are not. In fact, one metaphor applied to Cyrus by deutero-Isaiah, being “shepherd” on behalf of god(s), is the paradigm of Mesopotamian kingship from Hammurabi to Nabonidus,4 to Cyrus5 and beyond.6  The kings were dependent upon the gods and touted their piety in tending their flocks.7 Beyond this primary paradigm, Laato’s condensation8 of royal apologia is helpful: 1) The king’s name is called or proclaimed by the gods, 2) The king is loved and favored by the gods, 3) The king is chosen by the gods, 4) The king is a shepherd, 5) The king is servant, 6) The creation and destiny of the king, 7) The divine predestination and election of the king in the womb of the mother, 8) The king is the one to whom the gods stretched out their hands, 9) The king walks safely on treacherous ways with the aid of the deity, and 10) The deity will be with or walk with the king. Knapp adds royal prerogative/affiliation (legitimate or fictive as in the case of Cyrus and Assurbanipal) and popular acclimation to (7) to form his rubric of the “triad of legitimacy” for Mesopotamian kings.9 The correspondences to Laato’s and Knapp’s digests are familiar to any student of scripture. See also Kuhrt for specific comparison to the commemorative cylinder of Merodach-baladan. 10

Kuhrt’s work collecting, translating, and analyzing Achaemenid period source material11 including the Cyrus cylinder is without parallel. And initial attention should be drawn to the fact that the Cyrus cylinder is focused in purpose and audience. It is only concerned with one city, Babylon, that city’s patron deity, Marduk,12 and it should not be taken as indicative of Cyrus’ own devotion any more than Zoroastrianism should be retrojected without evidence.13 A theme frequently noted as shared with Isaiah is: “All their people I collected and brought them back to their home.”14 But, only the well-being of the citizens of Babylon is clearly in view of the cylinder; the propaganda is local and specific.15 While absence of evidence does not disprove a general policy of return of exiles consistent with Scripture, this is not independent conclusive proof either.16 Fitting Fried’s and Flynn’s hypotheses below, Marduk is described as becoming angry at Nabonidus for impiety and injustice (it is the only way he could have lost). Nabonidus is thereby vilified,17 while Cyrus is celebrated for his graciousness and justice to the people and the restoration of the status quo of the cult of Marduk (and his pantheon) in the pattern of Assurbanipal.18 Cyrus invents that he is the descendent of the more venerable Assurbanipal and embodiment of his prototypical ideal kingship.19

The appeal to Assurbanipal is telling, Cyrus, like his Babylonian predecessor, played to the local traditions by mimicking Assyria, rather than Babylon directly, or asserting his own cultural patterns.20 “The main significance of the text lies in the insight it provides into the mechanism used by Cyrus to legitimise his conquest of Babylonia by manipulating local traditions.”21 He restores normalcy (at least to the enemy capital)22 as opposed to Nabonidus’ recent disruptive innovations.

While the similarities and possible allusions to the Cyrus Cylinder by 44-45 are commonly noted,23 the Prophet and the Marduk Priests of the Cyrus Cylinder are both likely indebted to Mesopotamian tradition without any direct literary dependence. 24

The message of the cylinder is so emphatically pro-Marduk cult that it is difficult to imagine pious Judeans would have respected it. Further, as it is a foundation stone, it is unlikely its specific message would have circulated widely enough to be allusive. However, some scholars do see Second-Isaiah as much an imperial collaborator as any other cult leaders of the time, writing 40-48 in part for the consumption of the Persians to ingratiate Yehud to their new rulers.25

Apart from the absence of “anointing” the royal ideologies of the empires of exile and return are much like Israel’s.26 Shepherd, regent, piety, selection, justice, etc. are all hallmarks, it is theology where the differences lie.

The Prophet has to build his case slowly,27 with many appeals to Yahwistic monotheism and denunciations of idolatry as a rhetorical strategy, for his audience to accept Cyrus as the scion of David and Moses redivivus,28 that is, raised to accomplish a second exodus, restore Zion, and rebuild the temple.29 Monotheistic propaganda and apology are found throughout Isa 40-48: 41.1-530, 41.25-42.931, 43.3, 44.28-45.1432, 46.9-11, 48.14-16, 20. Isa 40-48 can be generalized as a defense of Yahweh’s right to be creative in how he keeps his promises and how he reapplies titles. 

Our first title of interest for Cyrus is scandalous. In the Hebrew Bible, many people and things are anointed,33 but the most common use of the term, Yahweh’s Anointed34 has a technical meaning. 

“With one exception all these occurrences refer to the contemporary Israelite king, and the use of the term seems intended to underscore the very close relationship between Yahweh and the king whom he has chosen and installed.”35

In view of the gestalt, the exception, the core of the Cyrus oracles, 45.1, is not an exception.36 

The title Yahweh’s anointed is the core of Israelite royal ideology.37  The anointing of the king of Israel was a cultic act designating the king as the divine agent set apart as Yahweh’s chosen intermediary.38 It is through anointing that the king was enthused with Yahweh’s spirit (1 Sam 10; 16).39 Afterword “[t]he king stands in a closer relation to Yahweh than anyone else.”40 This relationship creates the responsibility to maintain and expand the peace and justice of Yahweh “in every respect, both within the community and in the outside world.”41

Designating Cyrus as Yahweh’s Anointed was thus an inflammatory claim that the Prophet carefully notes comes from the mouth of Yahweh himself, for it is “an affirmation that we suspect not all of the prophet’s audience would have agreed with.”42  In fact, this claim is the most probable cause of the persecution and likely martyrdom of the prophet,43 nothing else we know of is as incendiary. Without the Davidic referent, in hope of whom Israel had been waiting, Cyrus Anointed would not be scandalous, he would be another Hazael. Yet it is Cyrus who would recognize Yahweh and foment the recognition of the one true God from the East to the West (45.6). 

Less surprising to modern readers is Cyrus as shepherd. Like in broader Ancient Near Eastern usage “Shepherd” in the Hebrew Bible is primarily used of royal leaders.44 The usage in Ezekiel 34 is especially important for our inquiry given the time and place of composition. It has an extended metaphor of kings of Israel, good and (mostly) bad, as shepherds. Most notably Isaiah’s audience was waiting on the hope of gathering, return, and just rule promised in 34.23-34:45  “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, Yahweh will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I Yahweh have spoken.” Ezekiel’s use may have primed Deutero-Isaiah’s audience for the stunning reveal of Cyrus as Shepherd and Yahweh’s Anointed. Compare to another contemporaneous passage, Jer 23.1-8, where: the prior evil shepherds/kings destroyed and scattered the flock/Israel; so Yahweh will gather the remnant, raise up a new shepherd—i.e.  a Branch of David—who shall rule justly, enact a new exodus, and repopulate the land of promise. This concords with Isaiah 9, 11, and 40-48.46 Shepherd would thus have been seen just as Davidic as Yahweh’s Anointed.

Cyrus’ next title is the most contentious to scholars. Cyrus is clearly a (unwitting) servant of Yahweh. In fact, discourses about the servant and about Cyrus are hardly separable in 41-45.  The disagreement among scholars47 and among traditions regarding the referent of ‘servant’ (42.1-5 esp.) being the Prophet, People, Cyrus or someone(s) else highlights the degree of overlap in the imagery and motifs applied to the servant and to Cyrus. This bolsters the theory that at least some of the servant oracles may have originally referred to Cyrus and have been reworked48 after the post-exilic disappointment.49 Mowinckel (189) is explicit50 that the first servant song 42.1-7 “was originally addressed to Cyrus.” and the text was later adapted as Cyrus ended up not living up to the promise of the oracles in their entirety. This use fits the general use of the term servant for rulers in pre-Isaiah biblical texts.51 

Further, doing justice for the nations, (42.1, 4), giving mercy to the oppressed (42.2-3), being taken by the hand (42.6), being a covenant to the people, and a light to the nations (42.16),52 opening the eyes of the blind (42.7a), bringing out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness (42.7b), and new things Yahweh declares before they spring forth (42.9) are all things fitting Cyrus’ actual actions,53 and are generally royal,54 rather than democratic. 42.1-9 is also bracketed by Cyrus’ stirring in 41.25 and monotheistic paean in 42.8-17ff. But, this application of the title servant to Cyrus should be seen as less innovative than Yahweh’s Anointed, cf. “Nebuchadnezzar my servant,” Jer 25.9, 27.6, 43.10. 55

In prophetic preview and in historic review, Cyrus shares another trait with David and his line, he is the temple builder (44.28b).56 The first use of Cyrus’ name is immediately followed by Yahweh declaring that as shepherd his purpose is to rebuild David’s city and Solomon’s temple.57 The restoration of Zion and rebuilding of the temple is the primary reason Yahweh calls Cyrus. 45.1ff. is the “therefore” of that purpose statement. Cyrus military success is only the mechanism that Yahweh uses to enable the return of his people, which in turn is only to restore Zion, and rebuild the temple.58 If that was not the goal then Yahweh could have caused his people to flourish wherever they were.

Psalm 89 and 132 epitomize the background motifs Isaiah worked with when setting up his stunning revelation. They connect David, Servant, and Yahweh’s Anointed, Chosen, Called, and Temple building. Exilic hymns would have been among the most readily recalled “scriptures” for the original audience. These psalms’ vocabulary for Davidic theology adds force to the argument that Second Isaiah’s audience would have heard Isaiah similarly.

Even after all these allusions to David (and Moses) applied to Cyrus, deutero-Isaiah believes that he needs to antagonize his audience again before closing the section59 thus he finishes with one last baiting. He uses the same verb of Yahweh’s love for Abraham in 41.8b, Israel in 43.4, and Cyrus in 48.14.60

Modern readers may be as uncomfortable with the idea that Cyrus is the Davidic king as those who martyred Deutero-Isaiah;61 objecting that the exile terminated the Davidic covenant and no heir should be expected or accepted. But compare to the Mosaic covenant that is expressly conditional, Yahweh exercised the option to have the land vomit them up, and yet scholars don’t construe it to have been terminated at the Babylonian exile. 62

Finally, regarding the monotheistic propaganda, the Prophet seems to be encouraging a change in Israel’s understanding of Yahweh’s kingship as a response to the humiliation of invasion, defeat, exile, and vassaldom at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. Flynn maintains that in a process like the psychological concept of ressentiment, the Israelites reimagined Yahweh not as a geographically limited warrior god (the original conception behind the Zion motifs, wilderness mobility, etc.), but as a “universal-creator” king and God of the cosmos.63 This is a novel understanding of Yahweh or any deity. Contrary to pagan deities, Yahweh does not have an origin. While Marduk may create, there was a time when he was not.64 The new Yahwistic conception was of an origin-less deity creating all from nothing without any true competitors. All other so-called gods where his creatures or illusions. This allows the Judeans to understand all events on the world stage as still orchestrated by Yahweh65 even though their defeat and exile would have otherwise indicated Yahweh’s impotence or non-existence under the previous conception. 

Thus, Isaiah’s anti-Idolatry polemics and assertions of high monotheism are definite political statements.66 Statements the empires would not have believed, they were still devoted to gods of the old conception. Their military success was sufficient proof Aššur (or Marduk, etc.) was the god of all, just as they were the rulers of all.67 These vast empires had military success on such a scale that only a God of the cosmos could be outside of the competition.68 All the stylistic similarities to Assyro-Babylo-Median propaganda in 40-48 had therefore already been assimilated before Cyrus’ arrival (as we have seen) or were intentional subversions.

The course that Cyrus follows highlights the contingent nature of prophecy. After the failure of the Davidic heir(s) and exile, 40-48 transfers hope in him from Isa 9.7, and 11.4 qua 1-39 to Cyrus, until Cyrus also fails; then after Cyrus’ post-exilic failure, 49.7-13 transfers hope in Cyrus from 40-48 to the suffering servant of 49-55, until the servant also fails; then after the servant’s martyrdom, 55.3-13 transfers hope in him to the (faithful) people, his disciples.69 

The message of the book of Isaiah is clear, Yahweh can do whatever he wills, he can accomplish his purpose despite the failures of his chosen one(s), even raise up Cyrus as the penultimate Davidic king.70 Cyrus doesn’t have to be faithful to be Davidic king, nor even be aware that he is the Davidic king. And we should consider that Cyrus wasn’t even the most disappointing Davidic king, but he is the most provocative.71 Reconceiving Yahweh’s Anointed gets people killed; the prophet of Second Isaiah, Jesus of Nazareth.


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  1. 24-45.7
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