Isaiah 23: The Lord of Hosts Planned It
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Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the time of this prophecy, Isaiah likely proclaims this oracle against Tyre during the reign of Hezekiah, a short time before Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C.
Isa. 23:11 – He stretched out His hand over the sea; He made kingdoms tremble. The Lord has commanded that the Canaanite fortresses be destroyed.
This oracle completes a series of messages from the Lord stretching from Isa. 13-23. Beginning with Babylon in the east and ending with Tyre in the west, Isaiah exposes the sins of these nations and foretells God’s dealings with them. Gary V. Smith comments: “God’s destruction of all these nations, including the great sea power Tyre, clearly demonstrates God’s sovereign power over every people on land and sea” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 394).
Tyre and Sidon are powerful international trading centers. Tyre’s merchants are the first to navigate the Mediterranean waters. They establish colonies on nearby coasts and in faraway lands. Tyre consists of two parts: a rocky fortress on the mainland called “Old Tyre,” and the city itself, built on a small, rocky island about half a mile from shore. The purple dye of Tyre is famous for its beauty and durability, and both Tyre and Sidon are crowded with glass shops, dyeing and weaving establishments, and engravers of precious stones (see 2 Chron. 2:7, 14). But the wickedness of these cities is well known, too, as several Old Testament prophets attest (Jer. 25:22; Ezek. 26, 28; Amos 1:9-10; Zech. 9:2-4).
Tyre and Sidon are important cities. Both David and Solomon make use of laborers and building materials from Phoenicia (2 Sam. 5:11; 1 Kings 5:8-9). King Ahab marries the Phoenician princess Jezebel, who spreads the worship of Baal throughout Israel (1 Kings 16:29-33).
The Lord makes it clear that He – not any earthly power – is judging Tyre and Sidon (v. 9), and He will continue to use them for His purposes. Their ill-gotten gain ultimately will benefit the righteous (v. 18). A church is established here soon after the death of Stephen. Paul, returning from his third missionary journey, spends a week with the disciples on Tyre (Acts 21:4). Both Tyre and Sidon are located in modern-day Lebanon.
The Lament over Tyre (Isa. 23:1-14)
While Isaiah predicts the stunning destruction of this prosperous port city, he also is speaking to the Hebrews, who watch the Lord sweep His mighty arm of judgment across neighboring states. As the men and women of Judah face the threat of military action against them, it becomes clear that trusting in alliances with these nations is a recipe for disaster. Judah’s only hope is to trust in God.
Several dates are suggested for the historical setting of this prophecy, including Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre around 332 B.C. However, it seems best to understand this lament as anticipating the fall of Tyre and Sidon during the time of Isaiah’s ministry. Since the Phoenician people will flee to Cyprus, and Babylon recently has been defeated (Isa. 23:13 happens in 703 B.C.), this prophecy may be given a short time before the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Only a year earlier, Sennacherib (704 – 682 B.C.) puts down a revolt by the Babylonians, attacks their cities and tears down their fortresses. If the Lord can do this to Babylon, why not to Tyre – or even Judah?
Tyre does not fall because she provokes her neighbors to wrath but because she entices them with her wealth, establishing her own colonies and engaging in massive international commerce. “She had become the mart of the nations, the great emporium of that part of the world. Some of every known nation might be found there, especially at certain times of the year, when there was a general rendezvous of merchants” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 23:1). The people of Tyre grow comfortable, then confident, and then arrogant, ignoring the prophet’s warnings that their wealth is a gift from God and may be revoked by Him. Steeped in a tradition of self-indulgence, these merchants look back on their long and prosperous history and conclude that it will continue forever. But Isaiah makes it clear that wailing, not revelry, is in their future (vv. 1, 14).
The Restoration of Tyre (Isa. 23:15-18)
After predicting the fall of Tyre, Isaiah speaks about her future restoration after 70 years. This is similar to the end of the Egypt oracle (Isa. 19:18-25). Just as the Egyptians and Assyrians one day will worship God (19:21), the citizens of Tyre one day will offer holy gifts to the Lord (23:18). “The implication of this prophecy for the prophet’s audience in Judah is that the
people of Judah need to trust God, for several of these foreign nations will eventually see the error of their ways and come to trust God” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 403). After Tyre is destroyed, it will be forgotten for 70 years. It’s impossible to say exactly when this 70-year period begins and ends. However, if the Assyrians defeat the Phoenicians around 702 B.C., then Tyre’s season of insignificance will last until about 630 B.C., the time when the Assyrian empire collapses.
Isaiah then moves to “the song of the prostitute,” probably a song familiar to his audience. The song mocks an aging and forgotten prostitute who must take to the streets, play music and sing suggestive songs in order to attract business. Just like the prostitute, Tyre will long to be remembered once again after a 70-year decline. “The Lord will restore Tyre,” the prophet promises (v. 17), and enable her to rise to prominence once again – with one dramatic difference. Rather than hoard tons of gold for her own pleasures, the people of Tyre will give some of the money they earn in international trade to the temple of the Lord, supporting the temple servants who dwell in God’s presence (v. 18). History provides no information about the fulfillment of this prophecy. However, the spirit of the prophecy matches that of Isa. 2:1-4 as all nations stream to Zion to worship the Lord. Perhaps this final verse of the chapter is a long-range view of the millennium.
Gary V. Smith comments: “Life, liberty, security, and prosperity are dependent on the gracious plan of a sovereign God, not on any arrogant attempts to manipulate circumstances through human wisdom, military might, or political alliances. God has revealed this truth to his prophets and history proves that it is so; therefore, each generation and each nation must choose how it will respond. The proud and self-reliant will be humbled; the humble people who trust God will walk in the security of his plan” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 395).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips