Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 23

Verse 1


Although this chapter is labeled "The burden of Tyre" in the first verse; yet it actually contains the burden of Tyre, the burden of Sidon, and the burden of the whole of Phoenicia.

There are four divisions in the chapter: (1) a prophecy of doom (Isaiah 23:1-5), (2) God is the executioner of wicked nations (Isaiah 23:6-9), (3) the extent of Tyre's destruction (Isaiah 23:10-14), and (4) the prophecy of Tyre's renewal (Isaiah 23:15-18). This chapter concludes the second major division of the prophecy, concluding the denunciations hurled by the prophet against a dozen nations.

Present-day commentators are reluctant to decide which destruction of Tyre is here prophesied; but the Assyrian "destruction" which is favored by some cannot be fully established. Sure, there were defeats of Tyre by a number of Assyrian invaders; but by paying heavy tribute, and by certain other accommodations the Tyrians were usually able to maintain some semblance of autonomy except in two instances: (1) that of the 13-year siege by Nebuchadnezzar from, 587-574 B.C., and (2) that of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. which lasted seven months and was completed when Alexander built a mole out to the island city and literally scraped all of it into the sea.[1] Of course, critical commentators are blind to either one of these sieges on account of their absurd dictum about "predictive prophecy." We feel very certain that these are precisely the sieges foretold by the prophecy. In fact, the mention of the Chaldeans in Isaiah 23:13 is the only proof of this needed.

Isaiah 23:1-5

"The burden of Tyre. Howl ye ships of Tarshish; for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in: from the land of Kittim it is revealed to them. Be still ye inhabitants of the coast, thou whom the merchants of Sidon, that pass over the sea, have replenished. And on great waters the seed of the Shihor, the harvest of the Nile was her revenue; and she was the mart of nations. Be thou ashamed, O Sidon; for the sea hath spoken, the stronghold of the sea, I have not travailed, nor brought forth, neither have I nourished young men, nor brought up virgins. When the report cometh to Egypt, they shall be sorely pained at the report of Tyre."


This city was one of the first great cities on earth. Herodotus gave the date of its founding as 2300 B.C.[2] It stood for many centuries as the prime example of commercialism; and Hailey believed that it was in its capacity as a center of commerce that it received God's prophetic condemnation here. Having already proclaimed the doom of great political and military powers, as well as the centers of decadent paganism, God, as Hailey saw it, was here denouncing "the world capital of commerce."[3] We cannot fully agree with this, because Tyre in this chapter represents the entire coastal country. She is identified with Sidon in Isaiah 23:4; and "Tyre and Sidon" are mentioned together throughout the New Testament especially; and, even in the Old Testament, the godless wife of Ahab was identified as the "daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians." She was the one who murdered the prophets of God, installed Baal as the God of Northern Israel and moved hundreds of pagan priests into the country. Therefore, although the selfish, wicked commercialism of Tyre was indeed condemned by the Lord's denunciation here, that was by no means the full extent of their sins.

It is generally believed that Tarshish, as mentioned here must be identified with Tartessus, a colony of Tyre built upon the southwest coastline of Spain "beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which was the center of an important and lucrative commerce."[4]

"No house, no entering in ..." Such words as these denoted the total ruin of Tyre, something that did not occur until the ruin of the city by Nebuchadnezzar; and even in that conquest, Tyre continued "for the life of one king (seventy years)," in a sense "forgotten" and of no particular importance till later. The fulfillment of this line "no house ... no entering in" took place in the siege by Alexander in 332 B.C. It happened like this: After taking the Tyre on the coast, Alexander tore down all the houses of Tyre, using them to construct a mole all the way out to the island city itself, which was literally scraped into the sea. The critics, of course, would date this prophecy, not merely "after the exile"[5] but after 332 if they dared; but Alexander himself indicated belief in these very prophecies. See the full discussion of this in my Commentary on Daniel (Vol. 1 of the Major Prophets), pp. 9-11.

"Merchants of Sidon ..." Here Sidon stands for Tyre and all of Phoenicia. The ships of Tarshish (Isaiah 23:1) are the same vessels referred to here as "ships of Sidon." After all, Sidon was the mother city of Tyre; and, "Old coins, excavated from the ruins of Tyre, carry the legend, "The metropolis of the Sidonians."[6]

"On great waters the seed of the Shihor ..." This is a reference to the extensive products of the Nile valley usually carried by the ships of Tarshish and Sidon to the great cities of the Mediterranean. "`Shihor' is related to the word `black,' which is given to the Nile river because of the black sediment carried by that river in its annual overflow."[7] This name for the Nile also occurs in Jeremiah 2:18, and in 1 Chronicles 8:5.

"Be thou ashamed, O Sidon ..." (Isaiah 23:4) "Sidon, called the mother of Tyre in Isaiah 23:12, is here represented as deeply affected by the calamity of her daughter."[8] For the people of antiquity, childlessness was as great a disgrace as any other calamity; and Sidon's daughter Tyre having been mined is here designated as the shame of Sidon.

Isaiah 23:5 refers to the pain that was supposed to come to Egypt over the fall of Tyre. As Rawlinson suggested, "Egypt bore no great affection toward any foreign nation";[9] but, as Tyre was a buffer stronghold on the Egyptian border, the fall of it would indeed be a source of pain and apprehension on the part of the Egyptians. Whatever nation would be strong enough to take Tyre could reasonably be expected to launch a campaign against the Nile valley also.

Verse 6

"Pass ye over to Tarshish; wail, ye inhabitants of the coast. Is this your joyous city, whose antiquity is of ancient days, whose feet carried her afar off to sojourn? Who hath purposed this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honorable of the earth? Jehovah of hosts hath purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory, to bring into contempt all the honorable of the earth."

"Whose feet carried her afar off to sojourn ..." (Isaiah 23:7). This is a prophetic reference to the selling of 30,000 citizens of Tyre into captivity, and to nothing else in the long history of that great city. Critical efforts to make this a prophecy of some other calamity in Tyre are futile. Regarding all of those conflicts with Assyria, and even in the case of the 13-year siege by Nebuchadnezzar, nothing that even resembles this is visible. Concerning all the invasions and assaults of Tyre prior to Alexander the Great, the Encyclopedia Britannica states that, "For the most part, Assyrian and Babylonian might spent itself in vain against Tyre's defenses ... But after a siege of seven months Alexander took it, slaughtered 8,000 of its citizens, later executed 2,000 more, and sold 30,000 into slavery!"[10] Of course, such slaves were marched to their destination on foot; and right here one finds Tyre's own feet carrying her afar off to sojourn. Oh yes, this is indeed predictive prophecy. Isaiah lived in the eighth century; Tyre was "carried off on its own feet" in the fourth (332 B.C.)! Thus at last the old slave traders finally got what was coming to them. For ages "They had been present on battlefields, either stripping the dead, or bargaining for captives."[11] On one occasion, they had even sold Israelites as captives, a shameful act that earned them this denunciation from Amos:

"Thus saith Jehovah, for three transgressions of Tyre, yea, for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because they delivered up the whole people to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant. But I will send a fire upon the wall of Tyre, and it shall devour the palaces thereof" (Amos 1:9-10).

"The bestower of crowns ..." (Isaiah 23:8). This emphasizes the importance of ancient Tyre. All over the Mediterranean world, there were colonies and cities where Tyre had established petty dependent "kings" who cooperated with them in their worldwide system of markets. Jamieson called Tyre, "The city from which dependent kingdoms had arisen."[12]

Of great significance in this paragraph is the use of the word "traffickers" (Isaiah 23:8). It never meant an honorable merchant, but a crooked deceiver. (See Hosea, Vol. 2 of the Minor Prophets Series for an extended discussion of this word, pp. 198,199.) The word thus rendered here also may be translated Canaanite, or Phoenician; and one of the charges of the prophet Hosea against Israel was that they also had become "traffickers" in the crooked and deceitful sense (Hosea 12:7).

Barnes suggested that the ruin of a great city so magnificent and so ancient would naturally raise a question as to who had purposed such a thing; and that question is raised in Isaiah 23:8. The thundering answer comes in the very next verse: "Jehovah of hosts hath purposed it!" Furthermore, the reasons underlying God's purpose were also given. God wished to stain all false pride and human glory. He would punish and denounce that false standard of success that declared the crooked traffickers of Tyre as the "honorable of the earth." Honorable they were not. God reduced, and he should have reduced such "honor" to the contempt it deserved. In our own generation, there are many examples of the same human conceit that God here punished.

Verse 10

"Pass through the land as the Nile, O daughter of Tarshish; there is no restraint any more. He hath stretched out his hand over the sea, he hath shaken the kingdoms: Jehovah hath given commandment concerning Canaan, to destroy the stronghold thereof. And he said, Thou shalt no more rejoice, O thou oppressed virgin daughter of Sidon: arise, pass over to Kittim; even there shalt thou have no rest. Behold, the land of the Chaldeans; this people was not; the Assyrians founded it for them that dwell in the wilderness; they set up their towers; they overthrew the palaces thereof; they made it a ruin. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish; for your stronghold is laid waste."

"Pass through the land as the Nile ..." (Isaiah 23:10). This verse is admitted to be obscure in meaning; but Barnes thought that, "Just as a river flows without obstruction through a land, so the inhabitants would be scattered."[13]

Isaiah 23:11 mentions the "destruction" of Tyre, a thing that actually took place only once, in the complete sense, but which also appears in this passage to speak of the destruction by Babylon, the successful termination of that 13-year siege, being certainly a sufficient "destruction" to put the city in a state of having been forgotten for some seventy years.

"Pass over to Kittim; even there shalt thou have no rest ..." (Isaiah 23:12). "Kittim" here is generally held to be the same as the island of Cypress, a colony of Sidon, and one of the stops by ships of Tarshish on their way home to Tyre. On two occasions when Tyre fell, some of the people actually escaped in ships to Cypress.

"Behold, the land of the Chaldeans: this people was not ..." (Isaiah 23:13). Lowth seems to have been correct when he declared that this means, "that they were of no account (Deuteronomy 32:21)," that is, without any significance as a powerful nation. As a matter of fact, Babylon (most surely indicated by this mention of the Chaldeans) was not important at all until, "Some powerful king of Assyria gathered them together and settled them in Babylon."[14] Echoes of this historical fact are in this verse.

The really difficult part of Isaiah 23:13 is in the words, "They overthrew the palaces thereof, they made it a ruin." In our view, the first words of the next verse (Isaiah 23:14) compel us to interpret this as a reference to the overthrow of Tyre, not a victory over Babylon by the Assyrians. They appear in the verse as builders of Babylon, which of course, they were until Babylon rebelled and overthrew Assyria.

"Howl, ye ships of Tarshish; for your stronghold is laid waste ..." (Isaiah 23:14). All scholars admit the difficulty and ambiguity of this passage, and we are extremely suspicious of those who wish to see Isaiah's prophecy here as something which he might have been able to foresee, rather than as authentic predictive prophecy of events centuries after Isaiah lived. Only in those instances of Nebuchadnezzar's capture of Tyre and of Alexander's destruction of it may we actually find such terms as "laid waste" applicable to what happened.

We are delighted to note that a recent dependable scholar agrees with our interpretation that Isaiah 23:13-14 refer to the conquest of Tyre by Babylon, and not by Assyria. He wrote:

"In spite of the difficulties of Isaiah 23:13, since Tyre is the object of Isaiah's burden, it seems that its ruin at the hands of the Babylonians, a people from the desert wilderness, is his topic here ... The following verses bear out this view."[15]

To us, no other interpretation of this admittedly difficult passage is acceptable.

Ezekiel 26:16-21 carries another explicit prophecy of the destruction of Tyre, which also is a prophecy of the total destruction of the city, which actually occurred in 332 B.C. "Thou shalt never be found again ... I shall make thee a desolate city like the cities that are not inhabited ... The isles shall be dismayed at thy departure" (Isaiah 23:18,19,21).

Verse 15

"And it shall come to pass in that day, that Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years, according to the days of one king: after the end of seventy years, it shall be unto Tyre as in the song of a harlot. Take a harp, go about the city, thou harlot that has been forgotten; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered. And it shall come to pass after the end of seventy years, that Jehovah will visit Tyre, and she shall return to her hire, and shall play the harlot with all the kingdoms of the world upon the face of the earth. And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to Jehovah: it shall not be treasured nor laid up; her merchandise shall be for them that dwell before Jehovah, to eat sufficiently, and for durable clothing."

Peake declared that, "This is best referred to Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Tyre (585-577 B.C.)."[16] This, of course is correct; but the critical dictum about "predictive prophecy" forces such a scholar to date the passage "after the exile," which is ridiculous, there being no evidence for such a thing anywhere on earth. The repeated mention of "seventy years" is significant, that being almost exactly the duration of the Chaldean dynasty that controlled Babylon during their conquest of Assyria and their conquest of Jerusalem and the removal of Judah into captivity. Lowth pointed out that:

"Nebuchadnezzar began his conquests in the first year of his reign; from thence to the taking of Babylon by Cyrus are seventy years, at which time the nations taken by Nebuchadnezzar were to be restored to liberty...Some of the nations were conquered sooner, some later; but the end of the seventy years was the occasion for the deliverance of all of them."[17]

In this connection Barnes also noted that "king" in the Bible may and many times does refer to a dynasty rather than to a single monarch.[18]

The mention of the "song of a harlot" (the end of Isaiah 23:15) is a reference to the custom of ancient harlots who, when they became old, often resorted to the role of a singing beggar to attract gifts, or to induce renewed acceptance by old customers. Isaiah here adopted that ancient custom as a metaphor of what would happen to Tyre after her fall to the Babylonians.

In this connection we might ask, in what way was Tyre a harlot? Well, their very religion was largely Baal-worship, featuring hundreds of both male and female prostitutes; but more is intended here. By pandering to the slave trade, which we have already mentioned, they were prostituting their honor and sacrificing the lives of countless people in order to satisfy the greed and lust of people who desired to own slaves. In a similar way today, some people are pandering to the desire of the wicked for drugs.

Isaiah 23:17 states that Jehovah would restore Tyre and bless the city again after the seventy years; and we might have hope that after such a scourge was lifted, Tyre might have learned her lesson; but no! She returned to her hire and "played the harlot with all the nations of the world" (Isaiah 23:17). "A nation's prosperity is of God; all is in his hand. He controls the destiny both of men and of nations."[19]

The final Isaiah 23:18 speaks of the commerce in which Tyre continued to engage as resulting in benefit to the people of God, and this is another mystery found in this chapter. Is there a reference here to the conversion of citizens of Tyre in the kingdom of Christ? It does not appear that this was ever extensive enough to warrant such a statement as is found here. We like the comment of Hailey who wrote:

"Might not the prophecy mean simply that whatever the motives of tradesmen, Jehovah uses commerce for the good of mankind, consecrating it to that purpose? What we know of God and his ways tends to make this view reasonable."[20]

The unreasonable and inaccurate dating of this prophecy often encountered violates the very words of the prophecy. For example, Kelley flatly declared that, "The prophecy of Tyre's restoration probably belongs in the sixth century!"[21] If so, what about the "seventy years" mentioned three times? Such a date simply does not fit, and it could not possibly be correct.

(The end of Division II)

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.