Isaiah (Part 21): Judgment – Tyre (Ch 22:15–23:18)
The oracle against Jerusalem includes an extra warning beyond the oracles against the other nations. In verses 15 through 25, Isaiah concentrates on the activity of the leaders. Verses 15 through 19 help us understand that Shebna, the court secretary (2 Kings 18:18) was particularly prideful. At the time, Jerusalem was being assaulted by Assyria, who were threatening to tear down the walls and overrun the city. While 2 Kings 18 leads us to believe that Shebna was concerned, we read here that he was more concerned about creating a memorial to himself so that whether he lived or died, he would be thought of with awe and respect. Shebna was spending this critical time not seeking the Lord or comforting his people. He was busy with the construction of his monumental tomb. God calls Shebna a lackey (22:15) and further treats him with sarcasm in verse 17.
Shebna’s position would be given to Hilkiah, another important player at this time. (2 Kings 18:18 tells us that Hilkiah was in charge of the palace.) Isaiah first indicates that Hilkiah will be like a tent peg firmly driven in and supporting the structure. However, the image changes to a wall peg upon which household goods were hung. Isaiah warns that if Israel hangs all their hopes on this wall peg—Hilkiah—he will surely come loose and all their goods will come crashing down. Isaiah is emphasizing in this illustration that the hope of Israel must rest on God and not on its leaders. This is true no matter the century. We do not rely on another individual whether pastor, spouse, or other for spiritual hope. Jesus holds all authority. Jesus is our mediator. Jesus is our Lord.
Isaiah chapter 23 begins a new section with the judgment prophecies reaching out to the world. Chapter 23 specifically involves an oracle against Tyre, but the style changes. Instead of targeting the people of Tyre for the judgment lesson, Isaiah begins after Tyre has been destroyed and concentrates on the judgment effects issuing out to the world. Tyre was located on the Mediterranean coast a little north of Israel. It was established as a trading capital by the Phoenicians who owned the seas in the region from Egypt to Asia Minor. Their trade lines brought grain from Egypt (the breadbasket of the Mediterranean world) to the other cities and countries as far away as Spain. Because Tyre is judged—captured and weakened by Assyria—the economic trade of the Mediterranean world suddenly ceases, creating havoc for all the countries depending on that trade. This is why the chapter begins: “Wail, ships of Tarshish.” Tarshish—the city to which Jonah had tried to run—was located all the way across the sea in Spain. Tarshish was not the only city affected by Tyre’s judgment. But since it was located at the far reaches of the Mediterranean world, it is used symbolically of all the cities and nations that would be wailing because of what happened to Tyre.
In verse 4, Isaiah has the sea speaking, complaining of Tyre’s demise. Our English translations do not help much with the Hebrew poetry to give us the correct idea of the sea’s lament. The HCSB translates this: “I have not been in labor or given birth. I have not raised young men or brought up young women.” What the sea is trying to say is that with the death of Tyre, all the trade and the cities of trade that the sea has spawned have lost purpose and life. In other words, a better translation would be: “I may as well have not been in labor or given birth…” with the idea that since all this trade came to nothing, the sea wonders why it ever brought about this flourishing trade in the first place.
Verses 6 and 7 finish this first section of the chapter with additional calls to wail, instructing the ships of Tarshish who have come for trade to turn around and return or “cross over to Tarshish.”
The next section of this oracle, verses 8 through 14, focuses on the one who caused the judgment. It begins in verse 8 with a somewhat indignant demand. The question, coming seemingly from all the cities, is “Who dared to plan this destruction against our queen port city of trade?” And verse 9 thunders the answer: “The Lord of Hosts planned it.” It is the Mighty Existent One.
Notice especially verse 10. This is a difficult verse to interpret, but it holds the key for understanding the point of the entire oracle. There are three major interpretations of this verse, and translations usually take liberties in conforming the verse to one of the interpretations. The HCSB translates it this way: “Overflow your land like the Nile, daughter of Tarshish; there is no longer anything to restrain you.”
The first interpretation is that the verse simply says that Tyre is no longer master over its colonies. Tarshish was one of its colonies, and Tarshish now has the freedom to overflow its boundaries and act independently without Tyre to restrain them. This interpretation has significant problems. One is that, although Tyre did have colonies it controlled, it would have been difficult for this city on the eastern end of the Mediterranean controlled a city on the far western end of the sea. The other major problem is that the interpretation sounds like hope and gladness for Tarshish to be free of Tyre’s control. However, the surrounding verses tell Tarshish to wail because of Tyre’s demise. Thus, context argues strongly against that interpretation.
Another interpretation is pushed by the NIV translators. The NIV reads, “Till your land as along the Nile, O Daughter of Tarshish, for you no longer have a harbor.” The idea is that since Tyre is destroyed and trade cannot continue as it had been, Tarshish should till their own ground to grow grain instead of getting it from Egypt. This reading comes from the Septuagint. However, the words “till” and “harbor” do not match with the Hebrew words translated in the HCSB as “overflow” and “restrain.”
The third interpretation, I think, is the best. Rather than “overflow,” the KJV has “pass,” and this is closer to the Hebrew meaning. The idea is that the ships that had come to trade in Tyre should pass by as the Nile in its course passes by the land. The second clause: “there is no longer anything to restrain you” must be investigated further. The word translated “restrain” is the Hebrew word for girdle. A girdle does restrain. However, the point of girding up loins for war or for a run is to provide security. So the idea of the verse is that ships should pass by because Tyre is no longer a city of trade that they can depend on for the economic and provisional security for their own lands.
This really is the point of the whole oracle. The people of the world have turned from their Sovereign God to seek provision and security on their own. They, as Adam and Eve at the beginning, have removed faith and trust in God to place the trust in themselves and humankind. This is the sin for which Tyre is judged. And it is the sin for which the entire world will eventually receive ultimate judgment.
Verse 11 presents a minor difficulty. Who is the “he” at the beginning of the verse? Most interpreters understand the he to be God. The idea is that God stretches out his hand, shakes kingdoms, and has caused the Canaanite fortresses (the Tyre colonies) to crumble. While all that is true, I think the verse has a slightly different meaning. The initial “he,” I believe, refers to Tyre. It was Tyre that in arrogance and self-dependency stretched its hand over the sea for control and trade. Because of the control of the seas and sea trade, Tyre made kingdoms tremble. BUT, still answering the question of verse 8, God commanded that Tyre’s fortresses be destroyed. Any prideful self-exaltation will be met by the judgment of God. To demonstrate the point, Isaiah equates Tyre and Sidon to a ravished young woman—a prostitute who has sold self for self gain. Tyre has become like Babylon—its arrogance destroyed by God’s tool of judgment, the Assyrians.
The chapter ends with hope but not for the ones it first addresses. Tyre is promised restoration in 70 years. If Tyre was defeated by the Assyrians in around 700 B.C., the 70 year period corresponds with the weakening of the Assyrian empire. It was in 625 B.C. that the Chaldean Nabopolassar wrested Babylon control back from the dying Assyrian empire. The restoration of Tyre, however, is back to there same old selfish seeking of gain. They again become a trading port, but never with the power, influence, and glory of its former days. Isaiah says that its profit will be dedicated to the Lord in support of the Lord’s people. The idea here is probably that first, Judah would be benefited through trade with a restored Tyre. But it also presses an over-arching idea that Tyre’s goal—security, provision, rest—will come only by the orchestration of the Sovereign God for those who look in faith and hope toward the only true source of security, provision, and rest—their care-giving Creator.