Babylon reached its zenith under Nebuchadnezzar. A great builder, he ennobled the city with temples, palaces and monuments: he also constructed new moats and walls to strengthen its defences. It is estimated that up to twenty years supply of food could be stored in Babylon. In addition, the city walls enclosed a vast area on which crops could be cultivated. So immense were Babylon’s fortifications that one writer has suggested that “in days before the invention of gunpowder it must have appeared to be impregnable and invulnerable”1. Within two generations, however, Babylon was to fall to the Medes and the Persians. How quickly nations and empires rise and fall under the providential direction of Almighty God!

Fall of Babylon

Daniel 5 records the conquest of Babylon by the Medo-Persian power. It gives a clear indication as to the underlying cause for the fall of what had until then been the mightiest empire and the best fortified city the world had ever seen. On the night Babylon fell Belshazzar (who was the son of Nabonidus, a priest who had married the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, and who was therefore grandson of Nebuchadnezzar) convened a riotous feast with all his officials (Dan 5:1).

Although Nabonidus was the monarch, he took little interest in government and Belshazzar appears to have been reigning as regent in his place. This feast took place in spite of the fact that Babylon had been besieged for two years by the forces of Cyrus, king of Persia. The troops besieging the city were led by a general named Gobryas. It is thought that this Gobryas is also known to history as Darius the Mede.

It is clear that Belshazzar and his colleagues were out of touch—both with their own impending doom and with the people of Babylon. Although Nabonidus was from the priestly caste, his religious preferences were for Babylonian gods other than Marduk, the pre-eminent god of Babylon itself. Marduk had been promoted extensively by Nebuchadnezzar and was central to the devotions of the religious hierarchy in Babylon. Nabonidus was also something of an antiquarian, keenly interested in the study of Babylonian and Assyrian history. He spent much of his time out of Babylon excavating what even then were ancient sites and took little interest in the political or religious life of the capital, which explains why he was happy to hand over to his son Belshazzar responsibility for the day to day administration of the empire. Thus he alienated the priesthood and people in Babylon, who regarded him as neglecting the religious affairs of the city and denigrating its position in the empire. This was an administration that enjoyed little support within the city.

The drunken revellers in Babylon on that fateful night, vainly confident about the impregnability of the city, blasphemously called for the vessels looted from the temple in Jerusalem to be brought out for use in toasting the gods of Babylon (Daniel 5:2–3). This sacrilegious act brought forth the famous “writing on the wall”—mene, mene, tekel, upharsin—which Daniel interpreted as signifying the imminent fall of the city to the Medes and the Persians (verses 25–28). “In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about three-score and two years old” (verses 30–31).

Cyrus or Darius in charge?

Daniel 5 suggests that Darius conquered Babylon, whereas Isaiah 45 predicted that Cyrus would overthrow the city. Given that these passages cannot be in conflict, how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction? One expositor, DJ Wiseman, has propounded a theory which sees Cyrus and Darius as the same person2. This theory, however, would appear to be contradicted by Daniel 6:28 which refers to both Cyrus and Darius by name as two distinct people.

Like Ahasuerus, it would appear that Darius was a title rather than a personal name. It is variously defined as meaning the subduer, the restrainer or the maintainer. It can be seen that in many respects these meanings overlap. The title would appear to be applicable to a powerful man who can impose his will and it was applied to a number of rulers in the ancient Medo-Persian empire.

Historians have debated the identity of the Darius and Cyrus mentioned in Daniel and many theories have been proposed. Two of the difficulties with which historians have wrestled concern how two such powerful men could work together, and the exact nature of the power-sharing which the prophecy of Daniel implies by speaking about both Cyrus and Darius as reigning apparently simultaneously (Daniel 10:1 cp Daniel 11:1).

Two ancient Greek historians, Xenophon and Herodotus, record the history of Babylon and Persia. Xenophon claims that when Babylon fell Cyrus, a Persian, was co-ruler with his uncle, Cyaxares, a Mede, of a Medo-Persian empire. Herodotus, however, presents a different picture about the relationship of the Persians and the Medes. According to Herodotus, Cyrus was related to the Median king Astyages (his mother Mandane was the daughter of Astyages) but in 550 BC he rebelled against Astyages, overthrew the Medes and assumed the position of supreme ruler. As a canny ruler, however, he allowed the Median king, his grandfather, to remain alive and gave selected Medes considerable authority and power within his administration, including in the army.

Until the mid-nineteenth century Xenophon, Herodotus and the Bible were the only sources available to help historians determine the history of Babylon. Early expositors of Daniel, including Brother Thomas, were much influenced by the historian Charles Rollin. Rollin’s record of the history of Babylon was based upon that of Xenophon and for that reason expositors who have relied upon Rollin for their historical facts have tended to regard Darius as the uncle of and co-ruler with Cyrus. Since Rollin wrote his history in the eighteenth century, however, the site of Babylon has been identified and archaeologists have excavated several important monuments that clarify our understanding of Babylonian history. One of these is the Nabonidus Chronicle, details of which were first published in 1882. As well as clarifying the true relationship of the Persians and the Medes, that document also offers a possible clarification of the relationship between Darius and Cyrus.

The Nabonidus Chronicle refers to Babylon being captured by the armies of Cyrus under the leadership of Gobryas. Cyrus was engaged in military campaigns elsewhere at the time and committed the siege of Babylon to this trusted general. The Chronicle goes on to refer to this general being governor in Babylon following the capture of the city and appointing sub-governors to reign under him. This would be consistent with the text of Daniel which indicates that Darius appointed 120 princes and three presidents to help him administer the Babylonian territories (Dan 6:1–2). Other documents refer to Gobryas ruling for about fourteen years as governor of Babylon with responsibility for an extensive territory including Syria, Phoenicia and Israel up to the border of Egypt. It seems likely, therefore, that Gobryas is the man to whom Scripture refers as Darius the Mede.

Josephus says that Darius was the son of Astyages3. If so, this would make him the uncle of Cyrus, and may suggest that Cyrus’ Median co-ruler, to whom Xenophon refers as Cyaxares, was in fact Darius.

The Nabonidus Chronicle also helps to clarify the apparent contradiction between Isaiah 45, which predicts that Cyrus would conquer Babylon, and Daniel 5:31 which suggests that Darius was responsible for its conquest. Darius as both the uncle and lieutenant of Cyrus was appointed his viceroy in Babylon. This interpretation of history is consistent with the language used in Scripture. Daniel 5:31 says Darius “took” the kingdom, which in the context might carry the connotation of conquest. The rv, however, translates this as “Darius the Mede received the kingdom”, which would imply that it was given to him. In Daniel 9:1 we read of Darius being “made king over the realm of the Chaldeans”, which clearly implies that he was appointed to the position of king by a superior force. History records that Cyrus took little direct interest in Babylon following its conquest and appointed a loyal viceroy to administer the Chaldean realms on his behalf. Scripture refers to this man as Darius.

Darius the Conqueror

The conquest of Babylon was predicted in some detail by the prophets. Isaiah recorded: “That saith of Cyrus, Volume11.5

He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundations shall be laid. 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; 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: And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel. 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” (Isa 44:28–45:4).

This not only reveals how the city would fall but the purpose for which it would be conquered. It was to be overthrown for “Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect”. The conquest of Babylon brought to an end the seventy years during which Israel would be subject to the Babylonians (Jer 25:11 and 29:10). These prophecies of Jeremiah were a source of much interest to Daniel and he recognised that the capture of the city brought the seventy year period to a close (Dan 9:1–2). The proclamation of Cyrus to rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1–4) is believed to have been made within one year of the conquest of Babylon. The first year of Cyrus’ reign in Ezra 1 would be the first year in which he exercised authority over the Jews and Israel rather than the first year in which he ruled over Persia.

Isaiah says that God would “loose the loins of kings”, the plural perhaps suggesting the dual nature of the reign of Nabonidus and Belshazzar. In so far as loosing their loins is concerned, it seems that little resistance was offered when the Medo- Persians finally entered the city. Jeremiah’s words are in agreement: “The king of Babylon hath heard the report of them, and his hands waxed feeble: anguish took hold of him, and pangs as of a woman in travail”; and, “The mighty men of Babylon have forborne to fight, they have remained in their holds: their might hath failed; they became as women: they have burned her dwellingplaces; her bars are broken” (Jer 50:43; 51:30).

Isaiah goes on to speak as though the gates of the city were opened to the invaders rather than being stormed. A clay cylinder recording details of Cyrus’ conquest of the city has been unearthed. It records that: “He [Marduk] sought out a righteous prince, a man after his own heart, whom he might take by the hand; and he called his name Cyrus, king of Anshan, and he proclaimed his name for sovereignty over the whole world… And Marduk, the great Lord, the protector of his people, beheld his good deeds and his righteous heart with joy. He commanded him to go to Babylon, and he caused him to set out on the road to that city, and like a friend and ally he marched by his side; and his troops with their weapons girt about them, marched with him in countless numbers like the waters of a flood. Without battle and without fighting Marduk made him enter into his city of Babylon; he spared Babylon tribulation, and Nabonidus, the king who feared him not, he delivered into his hand”.

It would seem that the priestly class, disaffected with the detachment of Nabonidus and the decadence of his regent, actually welcomed the invaders as a means of ridding the city of the despised regime.

Of course, whether we regard Babylon as being conquered by Cyrus or Darius, or even betrayed by the priests, the real power that brought about her downfall was Yahweh: “Behold, I am against thee, O destroying mountain, saith the Lord, which destroyest all the earth: and I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and roll thee down from the rocks, and will make thee a burnt mountain” (Jer 51:25). But Jeremiah goes on to show that Yahweh would use a Median as his instrument: “Prepare against her the nations with the kings of the Medes, the captains thereof, and all the rulers thereof, and all the land of his dominion” (verse 28). Darius is clearly referred to here, and perhaps we have a hint of the joint nature of his rulership in the language used.

History records that Darius was a clever general. Nebuchadnezzar had developed elaborate irrigation canals and waterworks that provided not only for the cultivation of crops but could also be used strategically to frustrate the advance of invaders. The Medo-Persian forces seized one of the key dams in this system and also took advantage of natural low flows in the rivers to secure their position against the city. This may be seen as being a fulfilment of prophecy: “Thus saith the Lord … That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up the rivers (Isa 44:24, 27); and, “Therefore thus saith the Lord; Behold, I will plead thy cause, and take vengeance for thee; and I will dry up her sea, and make her springs dry” (Jer 51:36).

Darius the Administrator

Cyrus entered Babylon after its capture by Darius but did not stay long. He made the city one of his capitals but preferred to reign elsewhere, leaving Darius in charge in Babylon. Although Cyrus and the Persians were the senior party in the Medo-Persian rulership, a fact signified by the lop-sided nature of the bear-power in the vision of Daniel 7:55, in so far as Babylon, Syria, Phoenicia and Israel were concerned Darius the Mede was the ruling authority. Hence Scripture, which is written from the perspective of Israel and of the Holy Land, assigns the authority in Babylon at this time to Darius.

Daniel 6 refers to Darius twenty-eight times as king; clearly he was the supreme authority in the city. In view of the ease with which he had conquered the city there was no need to be brutal towards the ruling class. Darius elevated Daniel and many others from the previous regime to positions of power, although he recognised in the aged Daniel qualities that excelled those of others (Dan 6:3). A number of the Babylonian elite decided to take advantage of Darius’ relative inexperience and conspired against Daniel by convincing the king to prohibit the worship of anyone other than the king (verses 4–9). Daniel of course was unable to obey a law that prevented his worship of Yahweh (verses 10–14). In spite of a desire to pardon Daniel Darius was trapped and had no choice but to punish Daniel.

That Darius was troubled by the need to cast Daniel to the lions is testimony to both the regard he had for Daniel’s personal integrity and the respect for the things of God that Yahweh had caused to be engendered within the Medo-Persian leadership. Cyrus had acted quickly to proclaim the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and Darius wasted no time in acknowledging that Daniel’s God was the “living God” (verse 20), and, following Daniel’s deliverance, issuing a remarkable decree calling for respect to be shown towards Daniel’s God:

“Then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth; Peace be multiplied unto you. I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end. He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions” (Dan 6:25–27).

“So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (Dan 6:28). Darius was a man who recognized the integrity of Daniel as a servant of God and the authority of the God of Israel. Together with Cyrus he brought an end to the seventy-year captivity of Israel in Babylon and paved the way for the return of the Jews and the rebuilding of the temple. Darius was a clever general and gifted administrator who was raised up by God to fulfil his purpose. Did he heed the advice of his own decree calling upon people to honour the God of Israel? We cannot tell, but it is our wisdom to heed that advice to “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel” for, unlike the kingdom of Babylon, “his kingdom … shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end.”