The Jewish Scriptures tell of many Jewish heroes — and heroines — who did great things, inspired and empowered by the grace of God. The conclusion of II Chronicles (and the beginning of Ezra) startlingly speaks of a non-Jewish hero, Cyrus the Great, Emperor of Persia (modern Iran), and his great deed for the Jewish exiles in Babylon (modern Iraq):
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, both by word of mouth and in writing: “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever,therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!’ God be with him!’”
In the British Museum there is an ancient artifact known as the Cyrus Cylinder. A replica of it is in the United Nations headquarters. It is a declaration of the Emperor Cyrus, written on a clay cylinder after his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C., that resonates with the biblical account:
I returned the images of the gods [whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time] to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned them to their dwellings.
Cyrus’s declaration is sometimes called the first charter of human rights, since it liberates conquered and deported peoples and gives them freedom of worship.
If this seems an extravagant description of Cyrus’s policy, it is modest indeed compared to the view of the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: I will go before you and level the mountains; bronze doors I will shatter, and iron bars I will snap. I will give you treasures out of the darkness, and riches that have been hidden away, that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not.
Isaiah uses the title “the Lord’s Anointed” for Cyrus — the title of the Jewish kings — the title that expressed the great hope of the ancient Jewish people — the title we are used to in its Hebrew form, “Messiah,” and its Greek translation, “Christ.”
The mind-boggling teaching of the prophet Isaiah is that the one God uses whomever he wills to achieve his purposes — no matter what that person’s nationality, politics, ethnicity, religion or beliefs.
A good lesson to keep in mind.
Thanks be to God for Cyrus the Great and for this precious legacy of ancient Iran to the entire world. May it be enshrined not only in the U.N., but in all the world’s laws and in all people’s hearts.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern