Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but the Jewish captives did not return to their homeland until 537 B.C.E. Therefore, how could it be said that the Jews served "the king of Babylon" for seventy years if the king of Babylon was conquered two years earlier?
At Ezra 1:1-3 we read that it was in the first year of Cyrus that the decree was issued allowing the Jews to return to their homeland:
Some critics have suggested that Jehovah's Witnesses have concocted an unorthodox and dishonest explanation in asserting that the seventy years of desolation ended in 537 B.C.E. Is this claim substantiated?
No. At Ezra 1:1, reference is made to "the first year of Cyrus," not "the year Cyrus became king" (or accession year), so he was speaking of the first regnal year of Cyrus, which cuneiform documentation places in 538/537 B.C.E. Jewish historian Josephus corroborates by referring to "the first year of the reign of Cyrus."—Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chapter I.
This point is generally agreed upon by historians. For instance, the Handbook of Bible Chronology by Jack Finegan (Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 170, states:
TABLE 77. BABYLONIAN REGNAL YEARS OF CYRUS
The Watchtower of May 1, 1952, pp. 271-2 further observes:
The account is summarized nicely by Werner Keller in his book The Bible As History, p. 352:
Until their release in 537 B.C.E., for the entire duration that the Jewish exiles were held captive in Babylon, it could rightly be said that they were serving the king of Babylon. This is expanded upon in paragraph 10 of an article entitled "The 'Cup' That All Nations Must Drink at God’s Hand" that appeared in the September 15, 1979 issue of The Watchtower, p. 24:
Are Jehovah's Witnesses justified in making this claim? Yes, for the Bible tells us that after Cyrus II conquered Babylon, Darius the Mede became "king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans," (Daniel 5:31, 9:1) and shortly thereafter, Cyrus established his kingship over all of Babylon, even being referred to as "Cyrus the king of Babylon" at Ezra 5:13. A contemporary inscription on a clay barrel confirms the accuracy of the Biblical account:
However, does that fact that Jeremiah 27:7 indicates that the nations would serve "him [Nebuchadnezzar], his son, and his grandson" mean that the seventy years of servitude would not include Cyrus as "king of Babylon"?
In fulfillment of Jeremiah 27:7, the exiled Jews did in fact literally serve Nebuchadnezzar's son (Evil-merodach) and Nebuchadnezzar's grandson (co-regent Belshazzer, whose mother was reportedly Nebuchadnezzar's daughter, Nitocris). However, the captive Jews also served other kings of Babylon, including Neriglissar, Labashi-Marduk and Nabonidus, none of whom bore any blood relation to Nebuchadnezzar. Thus, the words at Jeremiah 27:7, though indisputably true, were obviously not meant to be an all-encompassing list of rulers whom the Jews would serve during the seventy years. Therefore, the Jews continued to serve the king of Babylon, which included Cyrus, until their official release initiated by Cyrus' decree described at Ezra 1:1:
The highlighted portion of the above-quoted verse serves as unimpeachable evidence that "Jehovah's word from the mouth of Jeremiah" had not yet been accomplished, even by the "first year of Cyrus," proving conclusively that the conquest of Babylon by Persia was not the determining factor in fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy. Therefore, the Jewish nation continued to serve the king of Babylon until their release from captivity in 537 B.C.E., resulting in the reoccupation of the land of Judah and the end of the desolation of the land.
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