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Lowell Brueckner

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Judgment upon Phoenicia


I don’t know how you feel now that we have gone through a third part of the book of Isaiah, but I can truthfully affirm that I have been enriched. God’s people need to have expository teaching from the Bible. Please have your Bible at hand and open to Isaiah 23, so that you can survey the text, as I cannot take the space to put it all within the article. Be sure to follow this story through to the end. One of the great discoveries that you will make, as you reap the benefits of the Word of God, is that God’s stories have happy endings!

22. An expository study in Isaiah, chapter 23

History of Tyre

Last year we studied the prophecies of Zechariah, which were written about 200 years after those of Isaiah. I wrote that two hundred years after Zechariah’s prophecy, Alexander the Great “invaded the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, which received much diabolical influence, according to Ezekiel 28. Tyre considered itself invincible, because it was situated on an island and, even though Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian, was able to destroy the city on the mainland, he couldn’t arrive at the island, even though he tried for 13 years. No other enemy was able to reach it, but Alexander did, because he had a mandate from God, which was the prophecy that we are studying. He utilized the ruins that Nebuchadnezzar had left to build a causeway in the sea, which reached the island (334-332 B.C.).”

Before we look at Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Tyre, let us fill in some more details on this city’s history, quoting from a number of different sources: “Tyrian merchants were the first who ventured to navigate the Mediterranean waters; and they founded their colonies on the coasts and neighboring islands of the Aegean Sea, in Greece, on the northern coast of Africa, at Carthage and other places, in Sicily and Corisca, in Spain at Tartessus (the biblical Tarshish)”… 

Phoenician trade routes, click for larger image
She grew wealthy from her far-reaching colonies and her industries of purple-dyed textiles. Founded at the start of the third millennium B.C., Tyre originally consisted of a mainland settlement and a modest island city that lay a short distance off shore. But it was not until the first millennium B.C. that the city experienced its golden age.
In the 10th century B.C. Hiram, King of Tyre, joined two islets by landfill. Later he extended the city further by reclaiming a considerable area from the sea”…

“Hiram I ascended the throne in 969 BC and forged close relations with the Hebrew kings Solomon and David. Hiram sent cedar wood and skilled workers to help construct the famed temple in Jerusalem, as well as large amounts of gold...  King Omri of Israel arranged for a marriage of state to take place between his son Ahab and Jezebel, daughter of Itobaal I (887-856 B.C), called Ethbaal in the Bible.”

An astounding fulfillment of prophecy

Now we will take a look at the fulfillment of a prophecy in Ezekiel concerning Tyre:
“And they shall destroy the walls of Tyrus, and break down her towers: I will also scrape her dust from her...and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water...And I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more: for I the LORD have spoken it, saith the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 26:4,12,14).”

The destruction of Tyre could have been plausible. However, the prophecy that Tyre would be thrown into the midst of the sea, and its former location be scraped like the top of a rock seemed more than implausible. Yet both these prophecies were fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged the city and conquered it in 586 B.C. The inhabitants of Tyre, however, escaped to a nearby island. Nebuchadnezzar then rendered the city to ruins. For two and-a-half centuries, these ruins were a mute contradiction of the Bible. Long after Nebuchadnezzar's siege, the new island city of Tyre resisted the advances of Alexander the Great. Frustrated by their efforts, Alexander ordered his troops to build a causeway to the island by throwing the ancient ruins of mainland Tyre into the midst of the sea, and using the dust to create a way for his troops, thus fulfilling the prophecy that Tyre would be thrown into the midst of the sea. Alexander was so enraged at the Tyrians' defense and the loss of his men that he destroyed half the city. The town's 30,000 residents were massacred or sold into slavery. The land bridge he created became the permanent link between the old city and the mainland, and Tyre became a peninsula.”

God is not mocked

This is progressive prophecy once again. Tyre had frequently been besieged before it finally fell to Alexander. This rich, proud port is singled out by God for destruction and the same history lesson is repeated over and over. Nations arise and, because of natural resources and favorable conditions, become prosperous. In arrogant mutiny, they claim independence from their Creator, fill themselves with idols, and bask in their success. As the old saying goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. This is the irony of God’s judgments over all the lands that Isaiah’s prophecies reached.

Alexander siege... Image of Melqart
As far as I can determine, the Baal of Jezebel
The “divine couple”, of whom we hear so much in the Old Testament, Baal and Astarte (Astaroth), had their roots in Phoenician Tyre and Sidon and were propagated through Tyre’s trading power. Melqart, (Moloch in the Bible) was a Phoenician form of Baal. This was the home of Jezebel and the religion of Baal was strongly embedded in her during her childhood and youth. The daughter of King Itobaal I (Ethbaal), she was the strong, rebellious wife of Ahab. Imagine a princess, enjoying all the entertainment of a frolicking port town with jewels, trinkets and goods from Africa, Spain, Egypt and places in between. Her induction into Hebrew culture did not affect her religious beliefs in the least. She became a fanatical missionary of Baal in northern Israel.  

As Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon were twin cities, united under one ruler, and their names are used interchangeably throughout the Bible. Over all the sinful cities of the world, these were the ones, to which the Lord Jesus pointed because of their infamy (Mt.11:20-24). Their destruction was well-known throughout the Middle East.

Isaiah’s prophecy

In the poetic language of Isaiah, an oracle, a heavy prophecy to be drunk like a bitter cup, is proclaimed against Tyre. This is the last of these oracles directed towards a particular foreign power, all of them closely involved with Israel. Figuratively, the prophetic word speaks to the ships of Tarshish and commands them to wail. Tarshish, Spain, was a colony and chief trading partner of Tyre, sailing its ships across the entire Mediterranean Sea. In the history of Judah, King Solomon, allied with Hiram of Tyre, traded with Tarshish and King Jehoshaphat, who, for a time, allied with Ahab, husband of Jezebel of Tyre, later tried to build ships to go to Tarshish. Thereby Israel linked with Tarshish through Tyre. The Psalmist and the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, all speak of Tarshish and Prophet Jonah tried to escape there.

As the ship from Tarshish turned to port on the island of Cyprus, after its long voyage, the news came to the crew of Tyre’s destruction, much to their disappointment. Without inhabitant or harbor, there would be no more lucrative trade between the two cities (v.1).

The following verses 2-8 tell of Tyre’s famous merchant trade and we see from the beginning that, when God speaks, His word carries the power to bring its fulfillment. God says, “Be still”, and just as Jesus commanded the sea to be still, so the Phoenician populace, up and down the coastland, who profited from Tyre’s commerce, are eyewitnesses of its destruction, and they are dumbstruck.  They benefited from the continual supply of produce from Egypt, irrigated by the Nile and other rivers. Egypt mourns the loss of its important trade partner (v.3,5)

Sidon, the oldest of the two cities, who gave birth to Tyre, hangs her head in shame, as a cursed Middle Eastern woman, because she has been left childless, not only losing her elegant son, Tyre, but the numerous colonies that he gained (v.4). Refugees cross the Mediterranean and settle far away in Tarshish. The Word of the Lord poses the proper question that He might ask, not only of Tyre, but the citizens of prosperous nations throughout the world. Will your comfortable lifestyle, your ample income, your many means of entertainment last forever? “Is this your exultant city whose origin is from days of old?” It was enjoying its third millennium of history, when disaster struck! (v.6,7) It had luxuriously rewarded its loyal colonies and partners.

The Lord’s judgment

The Lord stamps His signature on this judgment; He is righteous and He calls forth powerful armies to carry out His plans. The Bible faithfully warns its readers to beware of the God, who rules from heaven. He will not be mocked! He will bring down every proud heart. See how forcefully it is portrayed… “To defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth” (v.8,9). Over all other sins and attitudes of the heart, it is the high-minded thoughts of self-exaltation that the Lord will surely punish. He will not share His glory with another. 

Tyre is no longer a burden to its colonies; it has no strength to put restraint upon Tarshish anymore (v.10). The word of the Lord has spoken to Canaan, the country on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, and its prominent places have lost their power. Phoenicia was part of Canaan, but, of course, not a part of Israel (v.11).     

The phrase quite frequently used in the Old Testament, “virgin daughter”, addresses the carefree, dependent, fun-loving part of society that will most strongly feel the coming oppression, especially in a prosperous area. He is specifically speaking to the city proper of Sidon in this case, as it has survived this far, but its time is coming. The outcasts will find no asylum (v.12). God has given them an example that they should seriously take into account, as we all should learn from the lessons of history. “Behold the land of the Chaldeans!” Behold the fall of Rome! Behold Germany and Japan at the end of World War II! Babylon, also, came under the power of the Assyrian Empire (v.13).

The word of the Lord is heard again in the ships anchored in Cyprus. They have no destination and no place to trade their cargo. “Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold is laid waste” (v.14).Their protector has been stripped of its power.

The 70 years of oppression upon the Tyrians is possibly the same period of time given to the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians, he gave liberty, not only to the Jews, but to all the captive people to return to their native lands.

What is clearly seen in the following verses (v.15-17) is that Tyre is trying to recover its prestige. In studying for this article, I ran across a web site from the tourist department of modern Tyre, giving a short history of the city, telling of its antiquity and its former glory, I think accurately carrying out a similar task, as in Isaiah’s prediction. The time came for Tyre to make an effort to recover, willing to do whatever was necessary, selling herself shamelessly to reestablish her identity. Certainly, to this day it has not regained its former glory. A city called Tyre lies on the Peninsula created by Alexander the Great, to be sure, but modern Tyre cannot be compared to the great world-renowned Phoenician port.

God’s wonderful restorative power

Ah people, once again we are going to see the goodness and mercy of God to all people in His wonderful power of restoration. He is going to get something good from the middle of all the destruction: “Her merchandise and her wages will be holy to the Lord. It will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who dwell before the Lord” (v.18). We have been seeing in the last ten chapters, as God warns and deals with the different nations, he provides a way of escape and a future for those who will take heed to His word. We noticed, that is what He did in the days, when Israel escaped from Egypt, saving the Egyptians who feared Him. Many of them joined the Israelites and crossed the wilderness with them. In Esther’s time, “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them” (Esther 8:17).

John Wesley comments: This is a prophecy concerning the conversion of the Tyrians to the true religion. Not Laid up, stored or hoarded - Either out of covetousness, or for their pride and luxury, as they formerly did; but now they shall freely lay it out upon pious and charitable uses. Shall be - For the support and encouragement of the ministers of holy things, who shall teach the good knowledge of the Lord.

I don’t want to leave this chapter without taking into consideration the comments from Jamieson, Fausset and Brown: Her traffic and gains shall at last (long after the restoration mentioned in Isa_23:17) be consecrated to Jehovah. Jesus Christ visited the neighborhood of Tyre (Mat_15:21); Paul found disciples there (Act_21:3-6); it early became a Christian bishopric, but the full evangelization of that whole race, as of the Ethiopians (Isa_18:1-7), of the Egyptians and Assyrians (Isa_19:1-25), is yet to come (Isa_60:5). Isaiah has taken us again to the Millennium!


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