Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 1st, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 23

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-18

Isaiah 23:1-18

The burden of Tyre

The prophecy against Tyre: lessons

The Tarshish of this chapter is Spain.

Chittim is the island of Cyprus. The word “merchant” is the same word that is rendered in other places “Canaanite.” The Canaanites were the most energetically commercial men of their time. To be a merchant was to be a Canaanite; to be a Canaanite was to be a merchant, substantially.

The world must come, however slowly, to recognise the fact that RULERS THEMSELVES ARE RULED; that the Lord reigneth. There can only be one Supreme. What a glorious dawn is that which will shine above the eastern hills when the world begins to feel that it is reigned over, governed, guided in all its march of progress. The world grows warmer under that recognition. At first the recognition is terrible enough, but it becomes more and more beneficent as things shape themselves.

The world must come to recognise the fact that EVEN EMPIRES ARE DEPENDENT UPON CHARACTER FOR THEIR EXISTENCE. For Tyre we may substitute London, Paris, New York, or the countries which they indicate. It is only the letter of this chapter which is ancient; the principle is energetic evermore. (J. Parker, D. D.)

The prophet’s attitude towards cities and states

When the Spirit of God is in a man he cares for no city, how great soever it may be, though he himself may not have whereon to lay his head. There is, however, a spirit in him which makes him greater than all the capitals of the world were they added to one another and constituted into one great avenue of capitals, each house in all the vista crowned or starred with a sceptre thrust from every window. The Galilean fishermen cared nothing for the pomp of Jerusalem; old prophets with ragged mantles on their stooping shoulders hurled Divinest judgment against proud kings. (J. Parker, D. D.)

The Church’s love of worldly patronage

The Church has lost this prophetic inspiration, and now she bows down to worldly greatness and tells with delight that a chariot and pair has driven up to her front door. To what cent of indignity has she sunk, even in her very speech! She is now an influential Church, a respectable Church, an intelligent Church, a Church possessed of exceptional advantages, and most careful about her reputation! So the world pays its copper tribute, and says to the Church, Behave yourself! let us do what we like, and you sing your hymns and go up to heaven like any other vapour. Where are the men who can do without food, clothing, shelter? Where are the men who would spurn any offer of patronage?--sons of thunder, sons of judgment; men who never sit down to eat, but snatch their apple as they hasten along the road that they may keep their next appointment to thunder judgment upon unrighteousness, and break in pieces with an iron rod the vessel of impurity. (J. Parker, D. D.)


Tyre’s celebrity dates first from the time of David. In the Assyrian era, however, Tyre had already attained to a kind of supremacy over the rest of the Phoenician cities. It lay on the coast, rather more than twenty miles from Sidon; but being hard pressed by enemies, it had transferred the real seat of its trade and wealth to a rocky island, three miles farther north, and only 1200 paces from the mainland. The strait that separated this insular Tyre (Τύρος) from ancient Tyre (Παλαίτυρος) was, upon the whole, shallow, and the ship channel in the neighbourhood of the island was only about eighteen feet deep, so that a siege of insular Tyre by Alexander was carried out by the erection of a mole. Luther refers the prophecy to this attack by Alexander. But earlier than this event was the struggle of Tyre with Assyria and Babylon, and first of all the question arises, Which of these two struggles has the prophecy in view? In consequence of new disclosures, for which we are indebted to Assyriology, the question has entered a new phase. Down to the present, however, it still permits of only a hypothetical and unsatisfactory solution. (F. Delitzsch.)

The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were simply carriers and middle men. In all time there is no instance of a nation so wholly given over to buying and selling, who frequented even the battlefields of the world that they might strip the dead and purchase the captive. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)

Verse 3

Isaiah 23:3

The harvest of the river

The harvest of the river

The valley of the Nile was the field for sowing and reaping.

The ships of Tyre trafficked far and wide, and by purchase or by barter the corn supplies of Egypt were fetched in to fill the barns and granaries of the merchant city, and were thence resold with profit to many nations. The harvest of the Nile most accurately describes and stands for all the resources and the wealth of Egypt, which depend entirely upon the Nile. This river brings down from the mountains of Abyssinia a great quantity of decayed vegetable matter and rich alluvial deposit, which in flood time it spreads over the land. A failure in the rise of the Nile means famine in Egypt, and it was lately computed that one foot difference in the height of the annual flood makes a difference of £2,000,000 to the income of the country. So little in this respect have things changed since the days of Isaiah. (P. T. Bainbrigge, M. A.)

The harvest of the river

We need not, however, restrict the term to the importation of corn. The harvest of the river was the merchandise of the world, which the ships of Tarshish conveyed to the city of the isle--Tyre. The harvest of the river, then, is the commerce of the city built upon its banks. God is equally the God of the harvest of the river as He is the God of the harvest of the field, and though He made the country He ordained that men should form themselves into communities and dwell together in cities, and He has laid down laws for their guidance as members of a great society which must be followed, that order may be maintained and prosperity achieved. The merchant is as much engaged in doing God’s work as the farmer is. There may not be so much romance and poetry about his occupation. But God may be glorified in the fires as well as in the green fields and the pleasant woods. It is He who assigns to every man his proper place--implants within him a desire to do his duty in his appointed sphere of action, and so contrives that while a man does his duty and provides for his own interest and welfare, he by so doing contributes at the same time to the happiness and well-being of all. (W. Rogers, M. A.)

God the great World-Provider

When the Shah of Persia some few years ago visited this country, he was taken through the docks down the river, and while contemplating the great harvest reposing on its bosom, and witnessing the crowds of people eager to see the Eastern potentate and to do him honour, he asked a pertinent question of the nobleman who accompanied him. It was this: “How are these vast multitudes fed?” It is a question which showed the thoughtful intelligence of the barbarian, but it is one which few pause to ask, and which few are able to answer, because few look beyond the surface and attempt to unravel the great mystery by which we are enshrouded, and recognise the agency of the invisible One in all the affairs of men. (W. Rogers, M. A.)

Verse 4

Isaiah 23:4

The sea hath spoken, even the strength of the sea

The voice of the sea

God, through the wildly wailing winds, and loudly surging waves, has often uttered a voice of warning and of woe to cities filled with corruption and vice.

And how, too, through these winds and waves, has the sea spoken in its strength to crushed and broken hearts, when its surface has been thickly strewn with shattered wrecks, and the floating and sinking bodies of its helpless victims.

But the sea often speaks to us in other language than this, addressing us, as it does, through the eye as well as the ear, and CALLING UPON US TO ADORE AND LOVE GOD for the beauty with which He clothes and overhangs it, and for the blessings which, by means of the sea, He conveys to us, no less than to tremble and bow down before Him in view of the vastness and the majestic grandeur of the ocean in its more excited and terrific moods.

The sea hath spoken, even the strength of the sea, by ITS VASTNESS AND FORCE AND GRANDEUR OF ITS MOVEMENTS.

The sea hath spoken, too, and will, we trust, thus ever speak, through THE ELECTRIC WIRE, which here and there lies far down in its lowest depths, and which, in coming years, will be more widely extended abroad.

Yet again the sea hath spoken, in that IT APPEALS TO OUR KIND CHRISTIAN SYMPATHY AND INTEREST in behalf of those who, as seamen, go forth upon the deep.

When the sea in its strength thus speaks to us, with the voice of wailing, lamentation, and woe, HOW OUGHT WE TO PRAY FOR SEAMEN AND THOSE CONNECTED WITH THEM, with all the power of faith which God shall give us, that He would save them from a watery grave, or, if they thus perish, that He would comfort those who mourn their loss, and that in the day in which the earth and the sea shall give up the dead that are in them, they may all together enter the haven of eternal rest. So, too, should we ever pray that the time may soon come when the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto God, and the isles shall wait for His law. (C. Rockwell.)

The violent in the serene

The sea, as a rule, is tranquil. Yet what awful power it possesses when it is aroused to fury! Blocks of stone weighing over thirteen tons have been known to be hurled by it a distance of more than thirty feet, and blocks of three tons to more than one hundred yards. Jetties and bridges are dashed about like toys. The entire harbour of Fecamp was destroyed by its rage, and the mass of earth torn from the north side of Cape la Heve was estimated at more than 300,000 square yards. Yet these are only among the trifling achievements of the sea when it passes from its peaceful to its furious mood. Violence often slumbers under an appearance of serenity. A crowd of joyous holiday makers today may become tomorrow a foaming mob of insurrectionists! (Scientific Illustrations and Symbols.)

Power of the sea

That part of Hey Head; in Orkney, which is called the Brow of the Brae, is one sheer unbroken crag of 1150 feet. The Orcadians told me that in a hurricane they have seen an Atlantic wave strike this headland in such volume and with such power, that it has rushed half-way up the cliff, throwing itself in its great but impotent rage to the height of nearly 600 feet. Hurled by such a sea against such a crag, a man-of-war, though built of the strongest oak, and bound with the toughest iron, would be shattered like a ship of glass. (T. Guthrie, D. D.)

The sea

He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea. (George Herbert.)

Verse 8

Isaiah 23:8

Tyre, the crowning city, whose merchants are princes

Tyre, “the crowning city”

The speaker cannot drop his satire: he has got accustomed to it now; he is in his best vein of mockery.

The crowning city was Tyre because she distributed crowns to the Phoenician colonies,--so to say, she kept a whole cupboard full of crowns, and took one outafter another, and gave to the little colonies that they might play at being kingdoms (Ezekiel 27:23-25). (J. Parker, D. D.)

The ancient estimate of trade

This passage reveals to us the estimation in which merchants were held in ancient time. Tyre was celebrated for her commerce. Her traders were renowned because of their wealth. The treasure they amassed gave them rank and position. They were influential and honoured. Trade was not regarded in old time as a menial, but a noble pursuit. The ambitious entered into it as a means to gratify their ambition. It furnished them with a field in which to exercise their faculties and develop their powers. Subsequently the sword gave rank and power,--valour, and not ability, lifted men to thrones: but before the feudal age, in the ancient time, and among the older civilisations, “merchants were princes, and traffickers were the honourable of the earth.” (W. H. Murray.)

The origin of commerce

It is not difficult to ascertain the origin of commerce. It was born of men’s necessities, and was characterised by the spirit of accommodation. Its birth dates back to the first family that existed on the earth. One had what another needed, and for it he had something to give in exchange. From this mutual need sprang trade. It was a family institution, a method by which the several members of the household could benefit themselves and each other. As families increased and population multiplied, trade enlarged the circle of its operations, became more complex and multiform in its action and agents, and at length grew to be a vast system of exchange; the means of universal accommodation by which every person in the community received and bestowed benefits, and acquired the facilities of a larger and happier life. But it still kept its original significance and family spirit. Such was the origin of trade. There was nothing selfish about it; it was not mercenary, it was benevolent and humane. Centuries later, when it had become a profession, and its agents a class among other classes, there was nothing in its parentage of which it need be ashamed, no reason why those who were engaged in it should not be called “the honourable of the earth.” (W. H. Murray.)

Trade gave birth to our modern cities

If we would realise more fully the noble part that merchants have played in the history of the world, and the close relation that commerce has always sustained to human progress, we hare only to investigate the origin of cities and consider the forces that pushed them upward in their growth. It was trade that gave birth to our modern cities; a knot of traders beneath the wails of a castle, feeding the castle and protected by it, adding booth to booth and house to house,--so cities arose, so have they been builded. The same is true today. Commercial facilities and necessities are the forces that build our cities. They represent the material forces and results of civilisation. Each city is a hive, and ships and railways are the bees that bring honey to the hive, bringing it from all the world. They fly everywhere,--these bees with sails and wheels for wings,--their flight girdles the earth, and the rush and roar of their going and returning fill the whole air. Now, cities represent progress. In them you see the results of human invention and skill. Here the artist brings his canvas and the sculptor his marble. Hero the loom is represented by the finest fabrics, and architecture lifts the pillars of her power. In cities oratory finds her school, and eloquence her platform; music her applause, and the poet his wreath. Every city is a record, a testimony, an advertisement. In its congregated forces and results you behold the people who built it. (W. H. Murray.)

Commerce and discovery

Nor would it be well to overlook the use that God has made of commerce in relation to discoveries. The pioneers of civilisation have been ships and traders. The race has, as it were, sailed to its triumphs. (W. H. Murray.)

God in commerce



God’s design in commerce

It is not that individuals may be enriched,--that is only an accidental result, one of the minor consequences; the realobject on the part of God, the great result to be achieved, is and will be this: that every man on the face of the whole earth may be supplied with what he needs, in body, mind, and spirit, to the end that he may stand at last clothed in the original beauty and excellence, the likeness of which has for so many ages been lost from the earth. (W. H. Murray.)






The folly of reckless speculation

If ever tempted into reckless speculation, preach to your soul a sermon from the text: “As a partridge sitteth on eggs and hatcheth them not, so riches got by fraud; a man shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at the end he shall be a fool.” (T. DeWitt Talmage, D. D.)

Rivalry in business

Go where you will, in town or country, you will find half a dozen shops struggling for a custom that would only keep up one. And so they are forced to undersell one another; and, when they have got down the prices all they can by fair means, they are forced to get them lower by foul, and to sand the sugar, and sloeleaf the tea, and put, Satan--that prompts them on--knows what, into the bread; and then they don’t thrive--they can’t thrive. God’s curse must be on them. They began by trying to oust each other and eat each other up, and, while they are eating up their neighbours, their neighbours eat them up, and so they all come to ruin together. (C. Kingsley, M. A.)

Verse 9

Isaiah 23:9

The Lord of hosts hath purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory

God abases pride

In this message there is a revelation of the Divine method in dealing with men and nations.

For here the Divine purpose is to show how stained is all human pride, and how contemptible are those whose honour comes from men only. What God brings about is a gradual uncovering of things, a discovering of their true character, and therefore the manifestation of the utter unsoundness and instability of anything not based on the:Divine will. (B. Blake, B. D.)

God exalts the humble and abases the proud

A philosopher, being asked how God was employed, gave for answer, “In exalting the humble and abasing the proud.” The reply was good, and agreeable to Scripture. (R. Macculloch.)

The great sin of pride

Other sins are violations of the law of God, this acteth in direct opposition to His very existence and sovereignty; it not only despiseth His commandment, but it arraigneth the dispensations of His providence and grace, and proves the fruitful source of all other transgressions. (R. Macculloch.)

Verse 15

Isaiah 23:15

Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years

Tyre forgotten seventy years

Tyre shall be forgotten “seventy years, like the days of one king”;--a Hebrew idiom, obscure to us, though probably plain enough to Isaiah’s hearers; but of which the most probable sense is, that the round number here, as elsewhere, indicates an indefinite, though considerable time, and that the prophet either farther limits this by a phrase equivalent to “for about a whole generation,” or else implies that the seventy years--the long time of oblivion--shall be as monotonous, and perhaps as short to look back upon, as those of a single reign.

(Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)

Verses 17-18

Isaiah 23:17-18

And it shall come to pass, after the end of seventy years, that the Lord will visit Tyre

The revival of Tyre

In the fourth and last strophe, the prophet dwells upon the revival of Tyre in the ideal future.

After seventy years of enforced retirement and quiescence, Tyre will resume her previous activity, but with the significant change, that her gains will now be consecrated to Jehovah, supplying food and stately clothing to the people of Israel who dwell in His immediate presence (Isaiah 23:18). The figure under which Isaiah expresses this thought, appears to us a strange one; but it is suggested by the reflection that devotion to gain as such, unrelieved by any ennobling principle, is an unworthy occupation, which may easily degenerate into spiritual prostitution. The prophet, having once made use of the figure, retains it to the end. Disengaged from its singular garb, the truth which he enunciates is an important one. Tyre was preeminently, in Isaiah’s day, the representative of the spirit of commerce: and the prophet here anticipates the time when this spirit may be elevated and purified. Isaiah pictures to himself the future growth of religion among the different nations with which he was acquainted under figures consonant to the peculiarities of each; in the case of Tyre, it takes the form of a purification of the base spirit of commerce; the old occupation of Tyre is not discarded, it is only purged of its worldliness, and ennobled. (Prof. S. R. Driver, D. D.)

The mercenary spirit a prostitution of the soul

In so far as commercial activity, thinking only of earthly advantage, does not recognise a God-appointed limit, and carries on a promiscuous traffic with all the world, it is a prostitution of the soul. (F. Delitzsch.)

Phoenician harlotry

Moreover, at markets and fairs, especially Phoenician ones, prostitution of the body was an old custom. (F. Delitzsch.)

Commercial harlotry

The harlot converts into a matter of traffic what should be a sacred relationship: so trade brings men together merely as buyers and sellers, not as brethren; and consequently rapidly degenerates from self-interest into selfishness, unless it be perpetually counterbalanced by other and nobler aims in the man. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)

Verse 18

Isaiah 23:18

And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord

Mercantile life


We are reminded that THE MARKET IS A DIVINE INSTITUTION. In this chapter it is not commerce that is doomed to destruction but commercialists. When one thinks of the innate tendency of human nature to exchange commodities, a tendency discoverable even in children and barbarians: the distribution of the necessaries of human subsistence and progress over every zone of the globe, each zone supplying a something which the other does not, and the provisions of each zone, if not essential to human life, essential to human civilisation and comfort; the facilities which nature has provided in rivers, and oceans, and winds for conveying these commodities from one part of the globe to another, and the fact that the social unity and happiness of mankind can only be advanced by the principle of mutual interdependence, and that commerce is essential to this--it is impossible to escape the conclusion that trade is of Divineappointment. The principle is as old as the race, as wide as the world, as operative as life itself.

The chapter reminds us that THE MARKET IS UNDER THE SCRUTINY OF THE RIGHTEOUS GOVERNOR OF THE WORLD. Though the Tyrian traders pursued their daily race for wealth, and indulged in the luxuries which their wealth could supply, utterly regardless of God, He was not regardless of them. So now, God is as truly in the market as in the temple, and as truly demands worship at the stall of the one, as at the altar of the other.

The chapter reminds us that MERCANTILE PROSPERITY IS NO GUARANTEE FOR THE SAFETY OF A COUNTRY. If commercial prosperity could have saved a people, Tyre would have remained. But where is Tyre now? As she rose in wealth, she sank in vice. “Righteousness alone exalteth a nation.”

The chapter reminds us that THE MARKET SHOULD BE SUBSERVIENT TO THE TEMPLE. This indeed is the grand subject of our text. (Homilist.)

True religion in Tyre

The prophecy does not mean that this would take place immediately after the rebuilding, but subsequently to the seventy years of its desolation. After the return of the Jews from Babylon they penetrated different countries and everywhere endeavoured to proselyte their inhabitants. That the Christian religion was established at Tyre, is not only indicated by the fact that Paul found several of his disciples there on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 21:3-4), but from the statement of subsequent historians. Eusebius says, that when the Church of God was founded in Tyre “much of its wealth was consecrated to God.” And Jerome says, “We have seen churches built to the Lord in Tyre.” So not only has the prophecy of its destruction been fulfilled, but the prophecy in the text, namely, its restoration and consecration to God, has also to some extent been realised. (Homilist.)


In relation to this subject there are several popular errors.

1. One is, that which makes business an end in itself. The pursuit of wealth for its own sake eats up the soul and reduces the man to a grub, it may be a bloated and a decorated grub, still a grub.

2. Another error is the using of the market as a means of ultimate retirement. What is this but to grasp at a shadow? The man who spends his best energies and days in accumulating riches becomes utterly unfit for the enjoyment of a retired life.

3. Another error is the regarding business and religion as antagonistic elements. Man is a moral being, and everywhere and everywhen his moral obligation meets him. There is no more opposition between business and religion than there is between the body and the soul. It is by the body only that the soul can be truly developed.

4. There is yet another error that is noteworthy, that of making religion subservient to business. There are men who make gain of godliness. (Homilist.)

The subserviency of the market to the temple

The market should be subordinate to the temple. This will appear if we consider the following things--


1. His relation to the market or to business is material. But his spiritual part is related to religion. It hungers for spiritual knowledge, for moral holiness, for communion with God. It does not live by bread alone. Now, as the spiritual part of man is confessedly of more value than the material, should not that work which is necessary for the latter be made subservient to the interest of the former?

2. Again, his relation to the market is temporary. How short is man’s mercantile life? But his relation to spiritual engagements is abiding. Ought not the market, therefore, to be rendered subservient to the interests of the temple?


1. Commerce is suited to promote religious discipline. Neither inactivity nor exclusive solitude is favourable to spiritual development. The duties of the market properly discharged tend to quicken, test, and strengthen the eternal principles of virtue. Those principles, like trees, always require the open air, and oftentimes storms to deepen their roots, and strengthen their fibres. In the market, man has his integrity, patience, faith in God put to the test.

2. Not only is the market a good scene for spiritual discipline, but for spiritual intercourse as well In it there is not only the exchange of material commodities, but an exchange of thoughts and emotions and purposes. Mind flows into mind, and the souls of nations mingle their ideas. What an immense influence for good or ill can men exert in the market! One impious mind in the market may pour its poisonous influence far into the civilised world. On the other hand, what an opportunity has the godly man for spiritual usefulness! The apostles often went into the market place to preach because of its opportunities for diffusing the truth. It seems that the Author of our being made an exchange of temporal commodities necessary for us in order that we may exchange the spiritual commodities of true thoughts and high purposes.

3. Once more, it is one of the best scenes for the practical display of religious truth. When does piety appear to the best advantage? On its knees in the closet? No one sees it there. In the temple, in the presence of the great congregation, going out in song and sigh? No. But in the market, a thing of life and strength. The man who stands firm in the market to principles in the midst of temptation, who stoops not to the mean, the greedy and the false, but who governs his spirit with calmness amidst the annoyances and disturbances of commercial life, gives a far better revelation of genuine religion than is contained in the grandest sermon ever preached. The British market is almost the heart of the world: give to it a holy and healthy pulsation, and its sanitary influence shall be felt afar.


1. The principles of righteousness should govern us in the discharge of commercial duties.

2. Spiritual prosperity is the only true test of commercial success The more a man succeeds in the accumulation of wealth apart from the growth of his soul, the more really disastrous is his business. He becomes a moral bankrupt. Nay, more, the real man is lost--lost in the clerk, the shopkeeper, the merchant. (Homilist.)

Undue devotion to business

There are too many people in England on whose gravestones the French epitaph might be written, “He was born a man and died a grocer.” (C. Kingsley, M. A.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Isaiah 23". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/isaiah-23.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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