I’ve saved this for the last in this series on the Cyrus prophecy because it has become my favourite part of the prophecy.
I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts.
Isaiah the prophet, writing some 150 years before the events, foretold many details of the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon. The prophecy that draws the most attention was the actual naming of Cyrus the Great of Persia, whose armies would conquer Babylon, and who would release the Jewish captives and send them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. (See Isaiah’s Amazing Cyrus Prophecy — Summary with links to my articles on these prophecies.)
In the Ancient Near East, captives taken in war were slaves. They might be set free if they performed some great service for their masters, but usually they remained slaves for the rest of their existence.
Their freedom might be purchased by friends or family for financial considerations, but in this verse God says that isn’t going to happen. In this case, they will be set free because of righteousness. By the time Cyrus came to power, the 70 years since the first Babylonian captivity was coming to an end. The prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled, and God’s people had “received of the Lord’s hand double” for their sins (Isaiah 40:1-2). It was time for them to return, it was righteous for them to return, and so no ransom would have to be paid for them.
Set Free By an Ally?
Another way, besides a ransom, that captives might be released would be if their masters were conquered by one of their allies. Normally, slaves belonging to conquered people would just become slaves of the conquerors — unless they were friends and allies of the conquerors, who would probably be freed. Their freedom would not be because of a ransom payment, but the conqueror doing that which was right for his ally.
The Jews were not, in the ordinary sense, allies of Cyrus. But it is very possible that Cyrus saw their God as an ally. Josephus wrote that Cyrus was given the book of Isaiah, and read God’s prophecy of him. If so, not only the fact that he had been named, but also the details of the fall of Babylon, must have left a strong impression on him. It is certainly possible that Cyrus became convinced that this Jehovah God is a very good God to have on one’s side, and so decided to set His people free, “not for price nor reward.”
Giving, not Taking
Whatever Cyrus’ conscious motivation may have been, the facts are clear. Not only did Cyrus set them free to return to Jerusalem, “not for price nor reward,” he returned to them that which Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the temple, and provided for additional wealth to be given to them. The first chapter of Ezra tells the story:
1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, 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,
2 Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
3 Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.
4 And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.
5 Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem.
6 And all they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.
7 Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods;
8 Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.
9 And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives,
10 Thirty basons of gold, silver basons of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.
11 All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.
The fulfillment is clear. Not only were they set free to return to Jerusalem, “not for price nor reward,” they were actually enriched for doing so.
Why This is the “Best” Part of the Prophecy
Cyrus is a type, a picture, of Christ. The prophecies of Cyrus come in the midst of Messianic prophecies (Isaiah 40, 42, 49 and following). Cyrus is called the Lord’s anointed (45:1), just as Messiah is. He is called a “righteous man” and is portrayed as a deliverer of God’s people.
When God says that Cyrus will set His captives free, in righteousness, not for price nor reward, He is not only telling us what Cyrus will do, He is also prefiguring what Christ will do.
Jesus (like Cyrus) sets captives free, but not from earthly bondage like Cyrus did, rather from spiritual slavery:
If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
Jesus, like Cyrus, does so in righteousness, though His righteousness is perfect. He paid the price for our sin so that there was nothing unrighteous in forgiving us, and gave us His His righteousness in its place:
21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Jesus, like Cyrus, gives what He gives not for price nor reward, but as a gift (though His gift, of course, is far greater than that of Cyrus):
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Cyrus, of course, did not just give freedom, but arranged so that those around the Jews “strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.” The captives returned, not just with their freedom, but with wealth. And Jesus, likewise, offers this, which is far greater:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:
Isaiah’s prophecy is more than just a “Wow, that’s really neat!” prophecy. It isn’t just there to make us say, “Our God is really, really, really great!” — though it should and does make us say that, too. It really is a wonderful example of God’s greatness — but it is more.
The prophecy is there to point to Christ. God pre-declared the history of Cyrus, appointing him a century and a half before his birth, not merely to deliver the Jewish people from the mess they’d gotten themselves into because of their sin. God also pre-declared the actions of Cyrus to point yet further into the future, to illustrate the work of the far greater Anointed One, Jesus the Messiah. He to would deliver, not just the Jews, but believers of every nation and people and language, from the mess they’d gotten themselves into because of their sin.
It’s more than just “Wow, that’s really neat!” It’s “Wow, God really, really loved ME, all the way back then!” Cyrus was anointed by God to point to Christ, to our redemption, to the Cross of Calvary, and to all that we have received as a result. To me, that’s the best part of the whole, wonderful, spectacular, amazing Cyrus Prophecy.