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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Isaiah 23

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 23 The Burden of Tyre

Tyre lay to the north along the sea coast. Combined with Sidon and the surrounding country it was an ancient seafaring nation. Its ships travelled the ancient world, trading, establishing colonies, and making it rich and powerful, and sometimes overbearing (Isaiah 23:10). Having a great sense of its own importance it was regularly involved with the intrigues of the area. The city was split into two, the island section and the mainland section, united by a causeway. But Tyre too was not dependable. She too would be laid waste by Assyria. Apart from Yahweh there was really nowhere else for Judah to turn.

Amos 1:9 tells us that Tyre in fact betrayed her covenant with Judah and did nothing to prevent the Edomites from taking advantage of Judah’s weak state.

Like many of Isaiah’s prophecies the future is spoken of as though it has happened using the Hebrew tense to indicate something already completed in the mind of God, although awaiting completion on earth. When the detailed prophecy was literally fulfilled we cannot date accurately, but what we do know is that the island of Tyre was finally totally destroyed by Alexander the Great who was the first to capture the island city.


Verses 1-14

Lament Over Tyre (Isaiah 23:1-14).

The final burden is the burden of Tyre and Sidon. These were two wealthy and powerful seaports on the Mediterranean coast from which ships went out to all parts of the known world. Their largest ships were called ships of Tarshish, possibly because of the smelted metals that they carried, or possibly because of the destinations that they reached (Jonah set sail for Tarshish from Joppa in order to go to a distant land - Jonah 1:3; Jonah 4:2). There may in fact have been a number of places called Tarshish as it may have been a name given to a number of places from which such metals were obtained. Tartessus in Spain, Sardinia (where Phoenician inscription have been found bearing the name Tarshish), and some port in East Africa (on the basis of 2 Chronicles 20:36) have all been suggested.

Analysis

a The burden of Tyre. Howl you 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 (Isaiah 23:1).

b Be still (or ‘silent’) you inhabitants of the isle (or ‘coastland’), you whom the merchants of Zidon who have passed over the sea have replenished, and on great waters the seed of Shihor, the harvest of the Nile, was her revenue, and she was the market of nations (Isaiah 23:2-3).

c Be ashamed, O Zidon, for the sea has spoken, the stronghold of the sea, saying, “I have not travailed nor brought forth, nor have I nourished young men or brought up virgins” (Isaiah 23:4).

d When the report comes to Egypt they will be sorely pained at the news of Tyre (Isaiah 23:5).

e Pass over to Tarshish. Howl you inhabitants of the isle. Is this your joyous situation whose antiquity is of ancient days, whose feet carried her afar off to reside as an alien? (Isaiah 23:6-7).

f Who has purposed this against Tyre, the one who dispensed crowns, whose merchants are princes, whose trade supremos are the honourable of the earth? (Isaiah 23:8).

f Yahweh of hosts has purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory, to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth (Isaiah 23:9).

e Pass through your land like the Nile, O you daughter of Tarshish. There is no restraining girdle any more (Isaiah 23:10).

d He has stretched out his hand over the sea, he has shaken the kingdoms, Yahweh has given commandment concerning the merchant (or ‘Canaan’) to destroy its strongholds (Isaiah 23:11).

c And he said, “You will no more rejoice, O you oppressed virgin daughter of Zidon. Arise, pass over to Kittim, even there you will have no rest” (Isaiah 23:12).

b Behold the land of the Chaldeans. This people is no more. The Assyrian has appointed (or ‘founded’) it for the beasts of the wilderness. They set up their towers, they overthrew its palaces, he made it a ruin (Isaiah 23:13).

a Howl, you ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold is laid waste (Isaiah 23:14).

In ‘a’ the ships of Tarshish are to howl, because Tyre is laid waste, and the same applies in the parallel. In ‘b’ the isles and coastlands across the sea are to be silent as they behold what has happened to the one who replenished them, the merchant of the nations, who brought to them the produce of the Nile, standing by unable to help her, while in the parallel Babylon is unable to help her because she herself has been devastated and is a ruin. In ‘c’ even Zidon is to be ashamed of Tyre because she is now childless, while in the parallel she who is the raped ‘daughter of Zidon’ will pass over to Kittim and find no rest there. In ‘d’ Egypt will be sorely pained at the news of Tyre, while in the parallel it is because of what Yahweh has done to Tyre. In ‘e’ she is to ‘pass over’ to far off Tarshish which no longer looks as welcoming as it once did, and in the parallel she is the ‘daughter of Tarshish’ where she is now unrestrained as she ‘passes’ homeless through the land. In ‘f’ the question is as to who has done this to Tyre, and in the parallel the answer is that it is Yahweh of hosts Who has humbled her.

Isaiah 23:1

‘The burden of Tyre. Howl you 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.’

The picture is poignant. News will reach the great ships of Tarshish, the large ore-carrying, sea-going vessels, as they return from their long voyages via Kittim (Cyprus), of the disaster that has befallen their beloved Tyre. And they are told to howl. Their city has been laid waste. Its houses have been demolished. No one enters it. This would refer to the mainland section, still under occupation by Assyria. The small island would be secure even if under pressure. But the port could not operate normally. The ships would have nowhere to find shelter. (And one day that too would be destroyed, compare Ezekiel 26:1-5).

Isaiah 23:2

‘Be still (or ‘silent’) you inhabitants of the isle (or ‘coastland’), you whom the merchants of Zidon who have passed over the sea have replenished.’

The word translated isle or coastland is always difficult to interpret exactly. It often refers to the more distant peoples across the seas, on ‘isles’ and distant ‘coastlands’, without being too specific. If that is the idea here, although it is in the singular, then the inhabitants of the distant coastland are called on to be still or silent, a mark of respect for the disaster which has befallen the one who has replenished them by trade. Or it may be that they are to be still because they can offer no help, just as in the parallel Babylon can offer no help. Tyre is stranded without assistance. The merchants of Zidon and the merchants of Tyre could be seen as one, for they were sister cities.

Alternatively we can read ‘isle’, thus being a reference to the small island fortress which was part of Tyre and was still secure, seen as fed from the sea by the ships of Zidon (probably secretly by night), and they are called on to wait in silence because of their precarious situation. The same word for ‘isle’ occurs in Isaiah 23:6 where it seems to have this meaning.

Isaiah 23:3

‘And on great waters the seed of Shihor, the harvest of the Nile, was her revenue, and she was the market of nations.’

The importance of Tyre to all is now explained. Shihor is probably here to be identified with the a branch of the Nile, as in Jeremiah 2:18, although now no longer in existence (contrast Joshua 13:3; 1 Chronicles 13:5 where it seems at first sight to refer to ‘the Wadi of Egypt’. But there may well once have been a branch of the Nile further north than today to which these were referring. However as geography was not then an exact science, and waters connected with Egypt may not always have been clearly distinguished, more than one waterway may have been called Shihor, ‘the canal of Horus’).

Here reference is to the fact that the ships of Tyre were the main means by which the large exports of grain from Egypt (the seed of Shihor) were carried to the cosatland and to the world across ‘great waters’ for which their ships were suited, earning both Egypt and Tyre great profits. Indeed Tyre was the middleman of the nations, encouraging trade between the different nations. Thus both Egypt and the nations must wail at her difficulties.

Isaiah 23:4

‘Be ashamed, O Zidon, for the sea has spoken, the stronghold of the sea, saying, “I have not travailed nor brought forth, nor have I nourished young men or brought up virgins”.’

These words are poignant. Even her sister city Zidon is exhorted to turn from Tyre in shame, for she is bereft of children. Her youths and maidens are no more. She is as though she had never borne them. Perhaps Tyre is here called ‘the Sea’ because with her stronghold in the sea and her ships plying the seas it was as though she was the sea. She was mistress of the seas.

Isaiah 23:5

‘When the report comes to Egypt they will be sorely pained at the news of Tyre.’

Once the news of what has happened to Tyre reaches Egypt she will be sorely pained, distressed at what it will do to her trade. But there is a pregnant silence about the possibility of her coming to her aid. She too disowns Tyre as her responsibility. So much for alliances.

Isaiah 23:6-7

‘Pass over to Tarshish. Howl you inhabitants of the isle. Is this your joyous situation whose antiquity is of ancient days, whose feet carried her afar off to reside as an alien?’

‘Pass over to Tarshish.’ Tarshish is the distant land with which Tyre traded which has been variously identified as Sardinia, Spain or East Africa. It may indeed refer to more than one place for it signified the land from which she collected ore. So to the landsman Tarshish was the distant ore provider, wherever it was. No doubt the Tyrians often spoke of it boastingly, that land that no others knew. That is the place to escape to, he suggests, sarcastically, the place of which they speak with the natural boasting of the sailor to a landsman, for it is far away beyond the reach of Assyria, and it is where they lord it over the natives (Isaiah 23:10).

So Tyre is to howl over her situation, for it has now changed. It is no more. The word ‘situation’ is read in, others suggest reading in ‘city’ (the Hebrew leaves ‘joyous’ standing on its own). However, the idea is probably ‘what Tyre was’ (its general status) that made it joyous, for it was unique in the world. It was a world city. She had had this unique situation from ancient days, travelling the known world and residing as a welcome resident alien in many places, forming trade colonies, living on the sea, but always able to return home to port. But now there is no port. Her foundation is gone. Her life situation has collapsed, her colonies are bereft. Her joyous situation is no more.

Isaiah 23:8

‘Who has purposed this against Tyre, the one who dispensed crowns, whose merchants are princes, whose trade supremos are the honourable of the earth.’

But the question is, who has purposed this against Tyre, the great Tyre, who crowned merchant princes in many lands, whose trade supremos are honoured everywhere? Who could possibly have brought her to this situation?

Isaiah 23:9

‘Yahweh of hosts has purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory, to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth.’

The answer is that Yahweh has done it to stem her pride. His purpose is to destroy her worldwide glory and bring her international trade supremos into contempt. In other words, to put Tyre in her place so that she may learn her need and seek to Yahweh. Only Yahweh could reach so far across the sea and do so much.

Isaiah 23:10-11

‘Pass through your land like the Nile, O you daughter of Tarshish. There is no restraining girdle any more. He has stretched out his hand over the sea, he has shaken the kingdoms, Yahweh has given commandment concerning the merchant (or ‘Canaan’) to destroy its strongholds.’

Here the ‘daughter of Tarshish’ could be seen as signifying the inhabitants of Tarshish (compare daughter of Zion) so that the people of Tarshish are now addressed. The suggestion here would then seem to be that the Tyrians have been lording it over the people of Tarshish. Where ore is involved, which has to be dug from the ground, labour had to be obtained, and that often no doubt resulted in slave labour and the use of force against unwilling peoples forced to become labourers. Thus God’s action here has given the people of Tarshish a new freedom. They are now as free to pass through their land as the Nile is to pass through Egypt. The restraining girdle has been removed. For Tyre’s colonies (kingdoms) are in disarray, shaken by Yahweh (and by the lack of ships), and His command is that the Tyrian strongholds be destroyed. Note that the sea is no hindrance to the hand of Yahweh, He reaches where He will.

Or ‘daughter of Tarshish’ may refer to the fact that Tyrians now find refuge there rather than being their masters. In Isaiah 23:6 they ‘pass over’ to Tarshish. Here they ‘pass’ unrestrained through Tarshish.

For mezach as ‘girdle’ see Job 12:21; Psalms 109:19. Others would translate as ‘shipbuilding’.

‘Canaan.’ The inhabitants of the coastland north of Carmel where called Canaanites, both by Greek sources and on their own coins, and Zidon was ‘the firstborn of Canaan’ (see Genesis 10:15; Genesis 10:19 compare Joshua 5:1), thus we may read ‘Canaan’ here. But the word does also mean ‘merchant, trafficker’ (see Isaiah 23:8. Also Job 41:6; Proverbs 31:24; Ezekiel 17:4; Zephaniah 1:11; Zechariah 14:21).

Isaiah 23:12

‘And he said, “You will no more rejoice, O you oppressed virgin daughter of Zidon. Arise, pass over to Kittim, even there you will have no rest.” ’

Tyre is here pictured as the virgin daughter of Zidon who has been raped (oppressed). She has no security where she is and will know no more rejoicing, so she should rouse herself, leave her island fortress, and pass over to Kittim (Cyprus). But even there she will not find rest. Cyprus was also under the powerful influence of Assyria. She will be a displaced person, even a fugitive, and restless because she has no one to turn to. She is alone.

She had been told to go to Tarshish, now she is told to go to Cyprus. But the significance of all these suggestions, in spite of all her colonies, was that she really had nowhere to go where she would be welcome.

Isaiah 23:13-14

‘Behold the land of the Chaldeans. This people is no more. The Assyrian has appointed (or ‘founded’) it for the beasts of the wilderness. They set up their towers, they overthrew its palaces, he made it a ruin. Howl, you ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold is laid waste.’

It will be of no use to look to Babylon for help. Babylon is herself past help. Indeed Tyre have only to look at the example of the Chaldeans, with whom they were probably in alliance, in order to see mirrored there their own fate. They opposed Assyria, and now they are no more. So what chance will Tyre have? The Assyrians have determined to make Babylon a place for beasts to dwell in. They will set up their siege towers, they will overthrow its palaces. He will make it a ruin (‘he’ refers to the Assyrian). And they will do the same to Tyre. They could only do it to the mainland city, for the island fortress was impregnable until the coming of Alexander the Great, but that would be enough to prevent further trade for a time. Thus the ships of Tarshish may well howl for they will have no harbour to come to. Their place of safety will be destroyed.


Verses 15-18

After Seventy Years Tyre Will Be Restored (Isaiah 23:15-18).

Analysis.

a And it will come about in that day that Tyre will be forgotten seventy years, according to the days of one king (Isaiah 23:15 a).

b After the end of seventy years it will be to Tyre as in the song of the prostitute (Isaiah 23:15 b).

c Take a harp, go about the city, you harlot, you have been forgotten.

c Make sweet melody, sing many songs, that you may be remembered.

b And it will come about after the end of seventy years that Yahweh will visit Tyre, and she will return to her hire, and will play the harlot with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth (Isaiah 23:17).

a And her merchandise and her hire will be holiness to Yahweh. It will not be treasured or laid up, for her merchandise will be for those who dwell before Yahweh to eat sufficiently and for durable clothing (Isaiah 23:18).

In ‘a’ Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, for the period of one king, but in the parallel she will in the end finally be remembered by Yahweh, for she will turn to Yahweh. In ‘b’ she will after the seventy years go forth as in the song of the prostitute, and in the parallel she will return to plying her trade as a prostitute to the nations of the world. In ‘c’ and parallel we have the song of the prostitute.

Isaiah 23:15-16

‘And it will come about in that day that Tyre will be forgotten seventy years, according to the days of one king. After the end of seventy years it will be to Tyre as in the song of the prostitute,

Take a harp,

Go about the city,

You harlot, you have been forgotten.

Make sweet melody,

Sing many songs,

That you may be remembered.’

The destruction of Tyre would have effect for ‘seventy years’. Then she would again begin her harlot ways. She will rise again and bring herself to people’s memories. This is pictured in the form of what was probably a well known song about a prostitute who had been off the streets and had been forgotten. So she took her harp and went about the city singing sweet melodies, so that soon she was again remembered. Central to the thought is that she was a harlot, as was Tyre with its licentious ways. Indeed harlotry is a description regularly used of cities in the Bible because of the behaviour that occurred in them and because they were idolatrous (compare Isaiah 1:21; Nahum 3:4; Ezekiel 23:5; Ezekiel 23:7; Ezekiel 23:11; Ezekiel 23:16).

‘Seventy years, according to the days of one king.’ It is often suggested that this indicates a precise measurement like Isaiah 16:14; Isaiah 21:16, but the use of the number seventy militates against this, nor does this refer to a business contract. The phrase here rather suggests that it is a symbolic number. Kings rarely lived for anywhere near seventy years, never mind reigning for that period (the ‘book of days’ which was kept in respect of a king, and is often mentioned in this connection, covered only his reign). Thus this probably means ‘seventy years, that is, the lifetime of a king’, with seventy years being thus clearly indicated to be symbolic and signifying the divine perfection of the determined period as often occurs with the use of seventy.

On the other hand it may refer to the length of reign of a particularly long-lived king.

Tyre was constantly subject to attack by the Assyrians and equally constantly rebelled when the opportunity arose. She was never loath to take part in insurrections. Which incident this refers to is unclear, for it is very general and could be applied to any major taking of the mainland city. But the period of ‘seventy years’ may reflect the period when Tyre came under the domination of Sidon some years after Tyre’s capture and partial destruction by Sargon II in 722 BC. Thus she was ‘forgotten’. The period would badly affect her world position and her trade. She regained her autonomy in around 630 BC.

Isaiah 23:17

‘And it will come about after the end of seventy years that Yahweh will visit Tyre, and she will return to her hire, and will play the harlot with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.’

After her restoration Tyre will again become prominent in world trade and in taking her licentious behaviour ‘worldwide’. She will not have learned from her judgment.

Isaiah 23:18

‘And her merchandise and her hire will be holiness to Yahweh. It will not be treasured or laid up, for her merchandise will be for those who dwell before Yahweh to eat sufficiently and for durable clothing.’

The contrast with Isaiah 23:17 is stark. This clearly looks beyond Isaiah 23:17 into the future. Such sudden switches are seen elsewhere in Isaiah who sees all the future as one. (We have already seen in the burdens how in the end other nations will turn to Yahweh - Isaiah 18:7; Isaiah 19:19-25). God will turn her around. Then Tyre’s merchandise and trading will have been purified (thus it is not trade itself that is seen as sinful). It will be ‘holiness to Yahweh’, separated to Him and His service. This was partly so in that Tyre would provide material for the new temple (Ezra 3:7). But the description goes beyond that. The point is that her selfish building up of wealth will cease and she will rather make it available to supply the needs of God’s people. She will partake in the blessings of the future (Revelation 21:24-26). There would be those in Tyre too who would be conquered by Christ and have their part in the new heaven and the new earth.

We should note as we come to the end of this section that Babylon and Edom were the only two of the ten for whom Isaiah had a burden, whose final and complete destruction was, or will be, emphasised. In the cases of both Egypt and Tyre (and even Assyria) their future restoration is emphasised. Compare also Ethiopia/Sudan (Isaiah 18:7). Thus behind all the judgments is the prospect of final restoration for all apart from those set against God from the beginning by their very nature. What ‘Babylon’ stood for, pride, arrogance, rebellion, blasphemy, anti-Yahwism, the occult, must be destroyed, whichever nation it was in. And what ‘Edom’ stood for was betrayal. As the brother tribe of Israel who turned against them (Esau/Edom was Jacob/Israel’s brother) they were the Judas before Judas.

(Ezekiel will take another approach to Isaiah with regard to Tyre. He stresses the final end of Tyre (Isaiah 26:14). But his emphasis all through is on judgment. Thus we see that the prophets are more to be seen as drawing lessons from the future of the nations than as trying to prophesy the whole future. Both were right. Tyre did cease as a powerful city, but its people did continue, and many did come to Christ).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 23:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-23.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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