Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy — “The Gates Shall Not Be Shut”

In Isaiah 44-45, written around 700 BC, Isaiah the prophet, writing as he was moved by the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:21), named the Persian emperor who would come to power and conquer Babylon more than 150 years later.  I’ve written two articles on this prophecy previously.  The first discussed the naming of Cyrus, and the second was on the context within the book of Isaiah.

In that second article I said that chapters 40-48 deal with God’s deliverance from captivity in Babylon, and that there are other parts of the prophecy in that section related to Cyrus besides just his name.  In this article I want to discuss several things in the immediate context of his naming, including things related to the Median-Persian battle plan in taking Babylon.

Isaiah 44:26-45:1

26 That confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers; that saith to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be inhabited; and to the cities of Judah, Ye shall be built, and I will raise up the decayed places thereof:
27 That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy rivers:
28 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.

1 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;

If Isaiah wrote right after the invasion of Sennacherib, as seems likely, verse 26 would have been poignant for Isaiah’s readers.  Sennacherib had taken Lachish and 45 other walled cities.  Readers in Isaiah’s time might have wondered what verse 27 was talking about, wondered who Cyrus was, and tried to find a current meaning — but Isaiah was not writing about a post-Sennacherib rebuild.

“I Will Dry Up Thy Rivers”

According to the ancient historian, Herodotus, the armies of Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River so they could enter Babylon in the riverbed, bypassing the city’s defences.  Thus, the means by which Cyrus was able to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 24:26, the return of the Jews to their homeland, was a dried up river.

The Jews of Isaiah’s day may have wondered what this talk about dried up rivers meant.  Not so the Jews in the city of Babylon, when they discovered Cyrus’ armies had entered by an empty riverbed.  God seems to have foretold and even providentially directed Cyrus’ battle plan.

“To Subdue Nations Before Him”

Cyrus the Great eventually ruled over Persia, the Median Empire, the Lydian Empire, and the Babylonian Empire.  He ruled all of the Ancient Near East and much of central and western Asia, from modern day Turkey to parts of India.

“I Will Loose the Loins of Kings”

This might be thought simply Hebraistic repetition, a varied way of stating “subdue nations before him.”  We see similar things throughout the Old Testament.  But the believing Jews in Babylon on that night must have been struck by the parallel between this verse in Isaiah and the last night of Belshazzar, the last ruler in Babylon:

Daniel 5:5-6

Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt

5 In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
6 Then the king’s countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.

So we see an empty riverbed, a mighty conqueror, and a terrified defender of the city (terrified not by Cyrus, but by a direct act of God).

“The Gates Shall not be Shut”

Isaiah wrote, “…to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut.”  In Babylon, there were gates, double gates in fact, at the end of the streets leading to the river.  If the gates had been closed, the city would not have fallen.  I’ll let Herodotus explain it:

Had the Babylonians been apprised of what Cyrus was about, or had they noticed their danger, they would never have allowed the Persians to enter the city, but would have destroyed  them utterly; for they would have made fast all the street gates which gave access to the river, and mounting upon the walls along both sides of the stream, would so have caught the enemy, as it were, in a trap. But, as it was, the Persians came upon them by surprise and so took the city. Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of the central parts (as the residents at Babylon declare) long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had chanced, but as they were engaged in a festival, continued dancing and reveling until they learnt about the capture. 

“The gates shall not be shut” — because of a festival going on in the city that night, a festival Daniel described:

Daniel 5

1 Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
30 In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.

“That Confirmeth the Word of His Servant”

If you lived in Judah in 700 B.C., and a copy of Isaiah’s latest prophecy appeared in your daily newspaper 🙂 , you might try to figure it out, and maybe make some guesses as to what it all meant.  You’d make some crazy guesses, no doubt.

But suppose you are a Jew in captivity in Babylon, 536 B.C.  You have been reading Isaiah’s prophecy.  You watched in fascination as the army of a mighty conqueror named Cyrus  defeated the Babylonians in battle but is held outside the city.  Now, stunningly, that same army is coming into the city, through gates that should have been shut, from a river bed that should have had water!  And suppose you heard afterwards about Belshazzar’s knee-knocking experience on his final night.

You just might have unrolled your scroll to Isaiah chapters 44 and 45 and read them again.  You might have been struck particularly by this from 44:26:

Isaiah 44:26

That confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers.

You might also have taken notice of this:

Isaiah 45:4

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.

You might even now, 2500 years later, find it all stunning, and you might, just maybe, take this God seriously in what He says.

More to come….

Next: Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy — “A Ravenous Bird from the East”

Series Summary: Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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2 Responses to Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy — “The Gates Shall Not Be Shut”

  1. Ruth Gleason says:

    In reading these I am amazed again in the study of Isaiah! How great is our Godl

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Indeed! And it is no accident that He confirmed “the word of His servants” just before His servant wrote of a coming Saviour. We couldn’t even appreciate His greatness, we could only fear it, if not for the Cross.

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