Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy — Not THOSE Gates!

The Bible in the British Museum

Balawat Gate Gallery

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Welcome to Room 6 of the British Museum!  This picture appears to be taken at a time when the Museum was not open, with the Black Obelisk moved to where it could be in the picture in front of the Balawat Gate, with the winged lions of Ashurnasirpal II on each side.  The gate is a reconstruction of gates on a palace in northern Iraq.  Obviously, the original gates are decayed, but the brass bands, some 2800 years old, are still with us.

I’ve been writing about the famous Cyrus prophecy of Isaiah.  The Balawat Gate actually has nothing to do with the Cyrus prophecy, but I’d like to write about the two of them in this article anyway.  This article, then, is dual purpose — it’s part of the Bible in the British Museum series, and part of the Cyrus prophecy series.  Two for the price of one!

20140725_185008_LLSThe Museum gave me permission to use their pictures for this series, and usually I’ll do that, but my daughter took this one to the left.  It shows a young woman next to the reconstruction, which gives a feel for just how large these gates were.

The gates were on a palace / temple built by Shalmaneser III of Assyria.  (As I said in previous British Museum articles, the king mentioned in the Bible is Shalmaneser V, not III.)  Apparently, he built it to celebrate finding the source of the River Tigris.

The gate (and its bands) isn’t in Scripture, and it may not enhance your understanding of the Bible.  But if you are interested in archaeology or the Assyrians, you may find it interesting to read about the Balawat Gates and the bronze bands across them.  The pictures are clickable links to associated articles on the Museum’s website.

Balawat Gate Whole Band

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Balawat Gate Fragment

© The Trustees of the British Museum

And one more, showing multiple bands displayed together (here for technical details):

Balawat multiple bands

© The Trustees of the British Museum

As I said above, Balawat and Shalmaneser aren’t mentioned in the Bible, but I’ve mentioned him before in Ancient Royal Propaganda and “O Assyrian, the Rod of Mine Anger!”  In the first of those articles, you can read how Shalmaneser recorded the tribute which was paid to him by Jehu of Israel on the Black Obelisk (pictured above), and how he claimed a victory over Ahab of Israel on the Kurkh Stela (also in Room 6 in the Museum).

This all happened between about 825 and 850 BC.  It tells us that there was significant interaction in this time period between Israel and Assyria.  The force of the Assyrian power had been felt in and near Israel, and emissaries from Israel had taken tribute to Assyria.  It was common for monarchs to show vassals their works as a way of impressing them with their might.  We can’t know, of course, but the impressive palace at Balawat, with its brass-plated gates, was very possibly seen by (or at least reported to) Israelite emissaries, who would have taken the report back to Israel.  But there is nothing to tie these gates to anything in Biblical history.

Forward to Isaiah’s Time

If we roll forward about 125 to 150 years from the time of Shalmaneser, Ahab, and Jehu, we come to Isaiah’s time.  Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, had just invaded Judah, the land of Hezekiah and Isaiah, and dealt crushing defeats to Hezekiah.  Forty six of the walled cities of Judah had fallen, including Lachish, the second city of the kingdom.  But God intervened, and in one night destroyed 185,000 of Sennacherib’s  men.  After this, Hezekiah became proud, with the result being a prophecy from Isaiah that Judah would go into captivity in Babylon.  You can read the whole story in Isaiah 36-39.

But the story didn’t end there, for Isaiah went on to prophesy the return from exile, and thus we come to the Cyrus Prophecy.  A summary page with links to my articles on this series of prophecies can be found here.

The Gates of Brass

Right in the heart of the Cyrus prophecy, Isaiah refers to “the gates of brass.”

Isaiah 45:1-2

45:1 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;
2 I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:

Sending Today’s Technology to 700 BC

Now, I’d like you to pretend, for a minute, that people in 700 BC had today’s technology.  If they did, I think I know what would have happened.  Someone would read Isaiah 45, go to Google, and type in “Cyrus” — and find nothing.  Then, they would try “gates of brass” — and find the Balawat Gates!  

Books (and blog posts) would appear on Isaiah 44-45, with speculations about “Cyrus” and what he had to do with Balawat.  The dried up river would obviously be the Tigris, given the connection to Balawat!  Then someone would find other brass gates!  People would refute one another with fervour, argue over literal vs. figurative language, and denounce the serious doctrinal error of those who “got it wrong.”  🙂

Some of my readers might doubt this pretension, but look around at what people do today with some of the more difficult details of as-yet-unfulfilled prophecies in the Bible!

The Real Prophetic Gates

The gates of Balawat had nothing to do with the prophecy, whatever ancient Internet bloggers might have thought (if they had existed anywhere other than my imagination).  The gates of brass that Isaiah described didn’t even exist at the time he described them.  They were going to be built later, in Babylon, by Nebuchadnezzar.

Herodotus said that there were 100 large gates in the external wall of Babylon, “all of brass, with brazen lintels and side-posts” (History of the Persian Wars, 1.179).  The water gates to the river (Euphrates, NOT Tigris) were also of brass.  These were not the wooden gates of Balawat with brass bands, Isaiah prophesied of solid brass gates in Babylon.

There’s an important truth related to the Balawat gates, though.  It’s simply this — Biblical prophecy is not given so we can feel intelligent about knowing the future.  Very often, it is not so we can know what will happen, but is instead given primarily as a comfort and encouragement to faith for those who see it fulfilled.  We marvel today at the Cyrus prophecy, as did those who saw it fulfilled.  In Isaiah’s day, in many respects it was a puzzle.  In Cyrus’ day, the prophecy was a wonder, a praise, a comfort, and a challenge.

The Cyrus prophecy meant one thing to believers in Isaiah’s time — it assured them God did indeed have a plan (even if details were obscure).  He didn’t intend Jews in the seventh century BC to figure out who Cyrus was, or the rest of it.  Nor does He expect us to figure out precise details He has not made precisely clear to us in Biblical prophecies yet unfulfilled.  We actually CAN scour the Internet looking for parallels to Biblical prophecy, but no Scripture says, “Thou shalt Google for Gog.” 🙂

Those Broken Gates

Perhaps some of the brass used by Nebuchadnezzar’s men in making those gates came from Jerusalem, from the temple.

II Kings 25:13-17 

13 And the pillars of brass that were in the house of the LORD, and the bases, and the brasen sea that was in the house of the LORD, did the Chaldees break in pieces, and carried the brass of them to Babylon.
14 And the pots, and the shovels, and the snuffers, and the spoons, and all the vessels of brass wherewith they ministered, took they away.
15 And the firepans, and the bowls, and such things as were of gold, in gold, and of silver, in silver, the captain of the guard took away.
16 The two pillars, one sea, and the bases which Solomon had made for the house of the LORD; the brass of all these vessels was without weight.
17 The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and the chapiter upon it was brass: and the height of the chapiter three cubits; and the wreathen work, and pomegranates upon the chapiter round about, all of brass: and like unto these had the second pillar with wreathen work.

If some of the brass in those gates came from their beloved temple, how must the Jews in captivity in Babylon have hated the sight of them!  And yet, how they must have been encouraged by Isaiah’s prophecy when they saw them!  They could not have known for sure, not until Cyrus came on the scene, that Isaiah 45 was talking about those Babylonian gates, but they would have known that if it wasn’t, God had a plan to deal with Babylon, too.

And then Cyrus came, and all the other details fell into place, too.  What God says, that He will do.  That we can trust, whether we know the details of how it will happen or not.

Psalm 137:8

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

No brass gates were found when the archaeologists excavated Babylon.  They had apparently been broken and carried away, just like the brass of the temple in Jerusalem had been broken and carried away.  The iron bars used to fasten them were gone.  Babylon eventually was indeed rewarded as Jerusalem had been served.

Isaiah 45:1-2

45:1 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;
2 I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:

***

Sources for the British Museum series:

Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum

Summary for Cyrus prophecy: Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Bible in British Museum, Rightly Dividing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy — Not THOSE Gates!

  1. David says:

    Excellent advise and comfort! This is the take home lesson for today!—

    “Biblical prophecy is not given so we can feel intelligent about knowing the future. Very often, it is not so we can know what will happen, but is instead given primarily as a comfort and encouragement to faith for those who see it fulfilled.”

    Now to make sure that I remember it!

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Thank you, David. Here’s another example of the same thing, a prophecy which was given not for the time of its giving, but for the comfort of those who saw its fulfillment. Jesus explicitly said that the reason for giving the prophecy was to strengthen faith in the crisis of its fulfillment:

      John 13:18 I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.
      19 Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he.

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