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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Isaiah 23

The oracle against Tyre ch. 23

The first cycle of oracles closed by revealing that Egypt, the political oppressor of the Israelites, would come into equal status with Israel in the future (Isaiah 19:25). The second cycle similarly closes by disclosing that Tyre, the materialistic corrupter of God’s people in the past, would come into a relationship of holiness (Isaiah 23:18). Thus the climax of both revelations of judgment was the divine blessing of the Gentiles.

There are also parallels between Babylon, the first oracle in the first series, and Tyre, the last oracle in the second series. Babylon was the great land power of the ancient world, and Tyre was the great sea power. Babylon gained her power through warfare, whereas Tyre gained hers through peaceful trading. The descriptions of both cities meld into the view of future Babylon presented in Revelation 17-18. There the religious and commercial aspects of future Babylon are strongly reminiscent of Tyre. Note also the reference to a prostitute in both passages.

"Babylon’s greatness lay in her glory, the list of her achievements and accomplishments, her sophistication and culture. Tyre did not have all of that, but she did have her wealth and her vast maritime contacts. So between the two of them, Babylon and Tyre summed up from east to west all that the world of that day-and this-thought was significant." [Note: Oswalt, p. 427.]

This oracle consists of two parts: a poem describing Tyre’s fall (Isaiah 23:1-14) and a prediction of Tyre’s ultimate commitment to the Lord and His people. Tyre was the major city of Phoenicia at this time, and undoubtedly represents the other towns allied with it in the region, in some of the references in this chapter. [Note: Watts, p. 305.] Similarly, Jerusalem represented all of Judah when used in a collective sense.

Verse 1

The prophet described news of Tyre’s total destruction reaching sailors on ships of Tarshish moored in Cyprus. The Tarshish (lit. refinery) in view here was probably in Spain, but "ships of Tarshish" was a term that described the largest ships of the day capable of the longest voyages (cf. Isaiah 2:16). Tyre was a very important Mediterranean seaport north of Israel, and its destruction would impact maritime trade everywhere.

"It is not improbable that the whole of the Mediterranean may have been called ’the sea of Tarshish;’ and hence the rendering adopted by the Targum, Jerome, Luther, and others, naves maris . . ." [Note: Delitzsch, 1:406.]

Verses 2-3

Isaiah also directed the residents of the Phoenician coast, including Sidon, another important port, to be silent and motionless, since Tyre had collapsed. Tyre had been the marketplace for the large wheat crops that came from Egypt and were distributed to other Mediterranean lands.

Verse 4

Isaiah also gave voice to the sea, the mother of Tyre, which bewailed its loss at Tyre’s demise. Its children were the ships that plied its waters because of Tyre’s commercial activity, or perhaps its colonies. This loss would be a source of embarrassment to Sidon since it was a sister city in Phoenicia.

Verse 5

The fourth entity to sorrow over the news of Tyre’s downfall would be Egypt. Tyrian ships transported Egyptian products all over the Mediterranean region. Tyre’s destruction would have far-reaching effects.

Verses 6-7

Isaiah advised refugees to flee from Tyre to Tarshish. How the course of Tyre’s fate would change! She had for centuries been a world power, not as an empire but as a broker of international trade. Her ambitions were not political, to rule others, but commercial, to grow rich. As such, Tyre symbolizes one aspect of worldly endeavor.

Verses 8-9

Why had Tyre perished? When Tyre founded colonies, she set up rulers over them-bestowed crowns. Princes and the honored of the earth ended up serving Tyre’s ends. Thus this ancient city had tremendous power and influence.

"The reference [to the earth, or land, Heb. ha’res] is to Palestine-Lebanon, extending to the Euphrates in the northeast and to the ’River of Egypt’ and beyond to Egypt in the south. All this ’land’ was served by Tyre’s commerce and, accordingly, it treated Tyre with deference. All the ’land’ envied Tyre’s wealth and imitated her styles." [Note: Watts, p. 307.]

The reason for Tyre’s death was the plan of the Lord Almighty. He desired to humble the proud and to humiliate the admired. He wanted to show the transitory nature of human glory and the folly of depending on such glory. God does not object when worthy people receive the credit due them. What He opposes is pride that seeks to live independent of Himself.

Verse 10

Tarshish could now expand freely, as the Nile overflowed Egypt, because God had removed her main competitor, Tyre.

Verses 11-12

The Lord had stretched His hand over the sea in judgment, as He had over Egypt long ago (cf. Exodus 14:16; Exodus 15:4-6; Exodus 15:12). The sea was His province, not Tyre’s (cf. Jonah 1:3-4). He had made all kingdoms tremble by condemning the whole Gentile Canaan region to judgment. The Phoenician coastal cities would have no more joy, peace, or security. Their residents would flee to Cyprus, Tarshish, and elsewhere but would not be able to find rest.

"Phoenicia called itself Kena’an (Canaan); but this is the only passage in the Old Testament in which the name occurs in this most restricted sense." [Note: Delitzsch, 1:410.]

Verse 13

The Tyrians would not find rest because the Assyrians would take revenge on any nation that gave them sanctuary.

God’s agent in the destruction of Tyre was first Assyria, then Babylonia, and finally Greece. Tiglath-pileser of Assyria set up a military governor in Tyre in 738 B.C., and his successors imposed escalating restraints on the city because it stubbornly resisted foreign control. Alexander the Great finally wiped the city into the sea in 332 B.C., leaving it uninhabitable. Here Isaiah pointed to Assyria as the power God would use to cut back the influence of Tyre. Tyre came under attack at least five times from Isaiah’s day until its end. It’s invaders were Sennacherib (705-701 B.C.), Esarhaddon (679-671 B.C.), Nebuchadnezzar (585-573 B.C.), Artaxerxes III Ochus (343 B.C.), and Alexander (332 B.C.). Assyria had already done to the Chaldeans what the prophet foretold it would do to Tyre. Sargon II attacked Babylon in 710 B.C., and Sennacherib destroyed it in 689 B.C.

Verse 14

This repeated call to the ships of Tarshish, to wail, concludes Isaiah’s announcement of Tyre’s destruction, forming an inclusio with Isaiah 23:1. Even though Tyre’s demise would give Tarshish more control, Tarshish would suffer because Tyre determined the prosperity of the Mediterranean world. The ships of Tarshish would have no port to enter at Tyre (Isaiah 23:1), and they would have no security for their enterprise (Isaiah 23:14). How foolish it would be, then, for the Jerusalemites to pin their hopes on Tyre.

As in the previous chapter, Isaiah gave a sign that what he had predicted about Tyre’s destruction would indeed happen (cf. Isaiah 22:15-25). It would experience a brief revival in the near future. Looking into the far distant future, the prophet also announced the conversion of Tyre into a place of holiness to the Lord (cf. Isaiah 19:16-25).

Verses 15-16

In the day that the Lord would execute His plan against Tyre, there would be a period of 70 years when Tyre would experience relief from her oppressors. Compare the 70 years of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, probably not the same period. "Like the days of one king" refers to the book of days that kings kept in which they recorded the events of their reigns day by day. The meaning is similar to "as a hired man would count" (Isaiah 16:14; Isaiah 21:16), namely, that these would be 70 literal, fixed years. Tyre did experience such a period of respite following the campaigns of Sennacherib in 701 B.C. During the next 70 years, Assyria was in decline and did not pay much attention to Tyre. Another view is that the 70 years followed Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. A third view is that the 70 years are the same as those of the Babylonian captivity of Israel (Delitzsch, 1:414, 420). A fourth interpretation is that 70 is a round number and indicates simply an extended period of time. Consequently Tyre regained some of her former strength.

Verse 16

Isaiah’s comparison of Tyre’s recovery to the self-advertisements of a harlot illustrates two realities. Tyre would attract interest in herself again, and what she did was selfish and strictly for money (cf. Amos 1:9).

Verse 17

At the end of 70 years, the Lord would restore Tyre to her former position of playing the materialistic harlot among the nations.

Verse 18

Unlike a selfish prostitute, however, Tyre would set aside her income to the Lord, and it would benefit those who dwell in the Lord’s presence. The wages of a prostitute were unacceptable offerings to the Lord under the Old Covenant (Deuteronomy 23:18). When the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon, the merchants of Tyre sold them building materials for the second temple (Ezra 3:7), as they had done for the first temple during Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 5:1-12). But the change in the Tyrians’ attitude that this verse promises did not mark them then; they still engaged in commerce for selfish ends. Thus this verse looks beyond the history of ancient Tyre to a time yet future when God will transform hearts and cause Gentiles worldwide to come and worship Him (cf. Isaiah 60:5-9; Revelation 21:24-26). In the future Tyre will have a new status, a new spirit, and a new allegiance (cf. Psalms 87:4). She will join the Ethiopians, Egyptians, Assyrians (Isaiah 18:7; Isaiah 19:18-25), and many other Gentiles in uniting to fulfill God’s glorification of Israel.

"The care of a Phoenician widow once extended to a prophet (1 Kings 17:8-16) will be the norm of coming relationships." [Note: Motyer, p. 189.]

The Judeans should not envy the Tyrians, nor should God’s people of any era envy materialistic idolaters. Ultimately God’s people will enjoy all the wealth of Tyre that will come to her God.

". . . chs. 13-23 seem to be saying that since the glory of the nations (chs. 13, 14) equals nothing, and since the scheming of the nations (chs. 14-18) equals nothing, and since the vision of this nation (chs. 21, 22) equals nothing, and since the wealth of the nations (ch. 23) equals nothing, don’t trust the nations! The same is true today. If we believe that a system of alliances can save us, we have failed to learn the lessons of Isaiah and of history. God alone is our refuge and strength (Psalms 46:2 [Eng. 1])." [Note: Oswalt, pp. 427-28.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.