John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 28

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 28

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Historical Elucidations


Having now gone through those prophecies of Isaiah which derive illustration from the early history and character of Cyrus, and from the religious views of himself and his people, we may proceed to those which treat of his warlike undertakings and victories. But it seems previously necessary to point out how Cyrus became possessed of that imperial power which had before been possessed by the Medes; or rather, how the Median empire became merged in that of the Persians, who had been till then an inferior and subject people. Taken in the order of the Scripture books, this would most naturally connect itself with those passages of Daniel which intimate the actual transfer of power, but we rather introduce it here for the sake of giving some measure of historical connection to the subject which now engages our attention.

As the origination of the Persian empire in the person of Cyrus, is not a matter to which the prophets direct much attention, and as great space cannot here be afforded to it, we must be content to indicate what appears to us the right view of a matter involving some historical difficulties, without discussing the relative value of authorities, or entering more into the details of reasons and arguments, than may be absolutely necessary to make the matter intelligible. It will be perceived that this statement also involves an explanation of such of the difficulties of Babylonian history as are of any Scriptural connection or interest.

The real question is, whether the transfer of empire was effected by a civil war or by peaceful means. Herodotus declares that Cyrus incited the Persians to revolt against the rule of his mother’s father, Astyages, king of Media, and having overcome him in battle, kept him prisoner in his palace till his death. Xenophon, however, says nothing of this war in his Cyropædia, but describes Astyages as dying, and as being succeeded by his son Cyaxares, who made his nephew Cyrus commander-in-chief of the combined armies of Media and Persia, with which he achieved his first foreign victories in the name of his uncle, at whose death he, as his heir, took the sovereignty which, in all actual power, he had in fact enjoyed before. Yet in his more historical work, the Anabasis, this writer admits the civil war, which it did not suit the purposes of his romance to introduce. This great discrepancy being thus obviated, it becomes easy to reconcile the remaining difference by supposing that Herodotus being aware of the reality of the power, to which Cyrus then attained, did not think it necessary to embarrass his short statement with the account of the nominal authority which policy, no less than the respect due to his mother’s brother, from whom he had received no injury, induced him to permit one, whose heir he was sure of becoming, to retain. That he really did so, as Xenophon states—that as king of the Persians, whose real independence he had established by his victories over Astyages, he in foreign operations acted in alliance with, or in apparent submission to, his uncle—is clear from Scripture. The prophet Daniel, in interpreting the writing on the wall to Belshazzar, amplifies the word Upharsin (which means division) into “thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” What followed? “We are told that the same night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain, and Darius the Mede took the kingdom, being about three score and ten years old.” There is nothing here of Cyrus or the Persians. But presently, when the courtiers had entangled the king in the matter of Daniel, they urge upon him the necessity of acting according to the law of “the Medes and Persians, which altereth not.” This is, we may remark by the way, one of those beautiful undesigned coincidences which continually meet the careful reader of the sacred Books, and by which they supply to every candid mind internal evidence of the most undoubted kind to their own truth. From all that appears in the historical statement, the Medes only and not the Persians, “took the kingdom” of Belshazzar: but from the second intimation, which is of the most incidental kind, we learn that the kingdom had become subject to the law of the Medes and Persians, which points to the kind of connection between them, which secular history discloses; and presently after we see that Darius dies, and is succeeded at Babylon, as elsewhere, by Cyrus the Persian. All this becomes clear as day when we take “Darius the Mede,” who is unknown by that name in common history, to be no other than that same Cyaxares, the uncle of Cyrus, with whom he acted, and whose forces, with those of Persia, were under his command. This is, indeed, now generally admitted; as Darius the Mede cannot be satisfactorily found in any other person than in Cyaxares the son of Astyages.

The relations of the Medes and Persians to the transactions in which Babylon is concerned, are important to the right understanding of many passages in Scripture history and prophecy; and they happen to be the earliest circumstances that arose under the settlement which has been described.

Originally Media and Babylonia had been equally subject to Assyria. The princes of these two realms, however, revolted, and established their own independence upon the ruins of the Assyrian Empire. There were then two contemporary kingdoms formed at first out of the dominions over which the Assyrians had ruled, but these were afterwards greatly extended; that of the Medes on the east of the Tigris, and that of the Babylonians on the west of the same river. Having a common origin, and the founders of the two kingdoms having been friends, the states assumed from the first amicable relations to each other, and strengthened them by matrimonial alliances. This was the easier, as their interests did not clash. Their respective careers of conquest and acquisition starting from nearly the same center, took opposite directions; that of the Medes eastward towards Bactria and the Indus; that of the Babylonians westward towards the Mediterranean. Ultimately however, as time passed, consolidating the power of each state and erasing old associations, the two nations began to eye each other’s greatness with jealousy, and causes of dispute failed not to arise between them. It is difficult to make out the case very distinctly; but as these differences had the effect of bringing Cyrus and his Persians across the Tigris, we must furnish the best account of the matter which existing materials allow.

It seems, then, that the experience and political sagacity of Nebuchadnezzar taught him the wisdom of maintaining peace with his Median neighbors, as the sole means of enabling him to pursue his own plans undisturbed. His power extended to the Mediterranean, and it seems for a time to have embraced Egypt; for in Eze_29:18-20, the spoil of Egypt is promised to Nebuchadnezzar for his service against Tyre. Some have disputed this conquest of Egypt by the Babylonians, because it is not mentioned in history. But much history, which might have recorded it, is lost; and the Egyptian priests had sufficient reason to conceal the disgraceful fact from the Greek strangers, who, two centuries later, visited their country, and wrote the histories now extant. Besides the promises of God, even though we do not know of their fulfillment, are more certain than history. “Hath he said, and shall he not make it good?” If, therefore, God said by Ezekiel that He would give the spoil of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, we know that He did so, even though history has not recorded the event. How long he exercised dominion there, is not certain. But the degree in which his attention must have been occupied with so distant and so valuable a possession while he had it, and of regaining it when it was lost, if it was lost in his life-time, may sufficiently account for is desire to keep on good terms with his neighbors east of the Tigris.

There is a tradition that during the years in which this great king lay under the judgment of God, and “was driven from men, and had his dwelling with the beasts of the field” (Dan_4:32), his son Evil-Merodach, who acted as regent of the kingdom, contrived to embroil himself with the Medes, whereat Nebuchadnezzar, on his recovery, was so exceedingly wroth, that he cast his son into prison. It was in this prison, as Jewish traditions allege, that Evil Merodach became acquainted with Jehoiachin, erewhile king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar had kept many years in confinement, and whom, on his accession to the throne, he released from his long bondage, and gave him a high place among the princes who sat at his table and frequented his court. Nebuchadnezzar not long surviving his restoration, Evil-Merodach ascended from the prison to the throne, and forthwith resumed his designs against the Medes, whose growing power he dreaded, and formed a powerful confederacy against them. This brought Cyrus across the Tigris, as commander of the combined armies of the Medes and Persians. The latter were in number thirty thousand, and formed the force on which he chiefly relied. Not waiting for them in Babylon, Evil-Merodach, more courageously than wisely, went forth to meet them and give them battle, and was defeated and slain, after a reign of less than three years. He was succeeded by his son (or, according to some accounts, his sister’s husband) Neriglissar, the common accounts of whom are difficult to analyze. Hales and other careful inquirers into this perplexed subject, regard him as the Belshazzar of Scripture; and we are disposed to adopt that conclusion, not because it is free from difficulties, but because, upon the whole, it agrees better with Scripture than the conclusion advocated by some old interpreters, that Nabonadius (to be presently mentioned) was the same with Belshazzar. Neriglissar was killed by conspirators on the night of the impious feast; and not in consequence of the city being taken by the Persians, as is commonly stated. We are to refer that great transaction, the subject of magnificent prophecies, to a later time. Neriglissar or Belshazzar was then succeeded by his son, a boy named Laborosoarchod, whose short reign of nine months is passed over in Scripture (as it is in the canon of Ptolemy), and it is at once stated that “Darius the Mede took the kingdom.” This, Hales contends, was by peaceable succession. By the death of Laborosoarchod, the reigning dynasty became extinct; and Cyaxares or Darius, as the brother of the queen-mother, and the next of kin by her side to the crown, had, according to the notions of that age, some pretensions to the succession, which, of whatever value, there was no opposing claim that could withstand. The recent victories of the Medes and Persians gave them great power, and almost the rights of conquest; while the still recent indication of such a transfer by the prophet, in his interpretation of the handwriting on the wall, was calculated to give added weight to the claim of Darius, and would of itself have disarmed opposition had there been any strength to oppose. The terms in which the event is expressed, that “he took the kingdom,” implies this form of succession, and is never used with reference to any succession by an act of war. It is analogous to the New Testament expression respecting “A certain king who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom.” Let us add, that a claim growing out of that of his sister was not a weak one, for she was a famous woman, who had taken an active part in public affairs, and had done great things for the improvement of Babylon and the welfare of the inhabitants. Her name was Nitocris; and she appears to have been “the queen” who came in at the impious feast, in the midst of the consternation which the appearance of the handwriting on the wall occasioned, and directed the king’s attention to the services and abilities of Daniel, who was thereupon summoned to give his interpretation of the dream. It was probably the same princess who introduced the prophet to the notice of her brother when “he took the kingdom,” and by the report of his high qualities and services, obtained for him an introduction to the high favor which he enjoyed under that king.

It is worthy of observation that the character which history gives of Cyaxares is entirely in accordance with that which the Scripture assigns to Darius the Mede. Xenophon represents Cyaxares as weak and pliable, but of a cruel temper, easily managed for the most part, but ferocious in his anger; and this character would quite answer for Darius, who allowed his nobles to make laws for him and then repented; who suffered Daniel to be cast into the lion’s den, and then spent a night in lamentation for him; and at last, in entire conformity with Xenophon’s description, condemned to death not only his guileful counsellors, but also their wives and children.

This transaction could not fail greatly to increase the respect and esteem in which Daniel was held by “Darius the Mede;” and it is impossible but that Cyrus himself must have become acquainted with the Hebrew statesman, and learned to estimate his high character and signal merits, before the death of his uncle left him unquestioned master of the united empire of the Medes and Persians. This enables us to apprehend that the influences had already begun to operate which eventually, in the very “first year of his reign,” drew from Cyrus the memorable decree in behalf of the Jews.

The reader is aware that, in permitting such of the Hebrew exiles as thought proper to return to their own land, this great king gave the government of the province to Zerubbabel, their native prince, and heir to the throne of David. In respect of so weak and dependent a colony, there was little reason to apprehend that the prince would set up for himself or affect independence. But had his resources been greater, the same course would probably have been taken, as it was in accordance with the general policy of the Persians to appoint native princes to rule over the foreign provinces of the empire. Another instance of this, which has some concern with our immediate subject, occurs in the case of Babylon, the government of which was given to a native Chaldean prince called Nabonadius. This person, finding Cyrus much occupied in his western wars, ventured to assert his independence, and to take the title of king; and he was suffered for a time to remain undisturbed in his pretensions, as Cyrus had too much work on his hands to inflict at once the punishment destined for his rebellion.

As these foreign wars of Cyrus, and the ultimate overthrow of Nabonadius and capture of Babylon, are distinct subjects of Scripture prophecy, we shall next bestow upon these matters the attention they seem to require.