Isaiah 23:1-18 Link to LXE Modernized
Tyre in Its Setting
Tyre in Isaiah’s day was a great port city. Located on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it traded as far west as Spain (Tarshish) and as far east as Babylon (Chaldea). Its ships touched Egypt and Carthage in Africa. Just offshore from this Phoenician trading city, Cyprus also became a home base. Isaiah’s prophesies “against the nations” began in Chapter 13, against Babylon. If Babylon had dominated by land, Tyre dominated by sea.
Why Does Isaiah Prophesy Against Tyre?
Isaiah 23:9 is the key verse of this chapter.
9 The Lord of hosts has purposed to bring down all the pride of the glorious ones, and to disgrace every glorious thing on the earth.
11 … the Lord of hosts has given a command concerning Canaan, to destroy the strength thereof.
Isaiah 40:13 Who has known the mind of the Lord? And who has been His counselor, to instruct Him?
It’s easy enough to say that the Lord did such and such and for such and such a reason. But as Isaiah states later in his book, Who has know the mind of the Lord? All this writer’s small voice can
say with certainty is that the Lord wanted to destroy the strength of Canaan, where Israel and Judah were located. And he wanted to dislodge every glorious and prideful thing. He did not spare his own chosen people. Them, too, he dislocated and judged.
I can think of several examples when humans destroy. For one thing, a farmer destroys and turns under last year’s field. For another, city planners tear down buildings. Often dating couples, or even married couples, break up. An artist smashes her paintings, and a writer throws it all into the waste basket, yet again.
In each of the above examples, something is torn down in order to build something better in its place. For example, a farmer ploughs under last year’s crop in order to prepare the soil for a new crop. Old buildings get torn down, so that new ones can be built in the same space. Couples who break up often work things out and give it another go. Or, just as likely, the persons move on to better relationships.
God Has a New Way and a Better Plan
Humans are made in God’s image. Humans demonstrate their tremendous creativity by tearing down the old in order to build the new. God created, and it was good. But an enemy came in and destroyed God’s good work. So God destroyed it all in the Great Flood of Noah’s day. Then he built again.
He chose a special people to be his representatives on earth. They failed, rebelled, and disobeyed. So God used their neighbors to destroy them. But these neighbors were no better than God’s people. In fact, they often were worse. So God proposed to destroy them as well.
If readers quit reading Isaiah right after he prophesies the punishment of all the nations of the whole world in Chapter 24, they might think that God was a bad character who really disliked people. But this is not the case. God’s ways are always good. We are similar to God in some ways. Just as our destruction of something worn out, old, and dysfunctional is often the first step of our building something new and better, so in Isaiah’s prophesy, God first destroys in order to rebuild new and better. The second half of Isaiah explores details of what his new creation will be like.
The Second Portion of Chapter 23
The content of Isaiah 23 has two clear parts: first, destruction, and second, a comeback. Of the two, the first is the easier to understand. The metaphors in the second portion are more difficult.
Songs of a Harlot
First, verse 15 states that Tyre will be pushed off to the sidelines, abandoned, left behind, for seventy years, which is approximately one full generation. The prophet Daniel also discovered this number in Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2 and Jeremiah 25:11-12). Why seventy? It would seem that this number corresponds with the removal of the old and the birth of the new. Much can be lost and reformed in the span of one generation.
But the latter portion of this same verse is more difficult to understand. (This is a verse for which it profits to read as many translations as possible. Scroll down and click on “all versions”.)
15 … Tyre shall be as the song of a harlot. 16 Take a harp, go about, O city, you harlot that have been forgotten; play well on the harp, sing many songs, that you may be remembered. (Septuagint)
How can a city be like the song of a harlot?
Descriptive words come to mind applicable to both the ruined city of Tyre and an old harlot: wasted, discarded, abandoned, broken. Nevertheless, even an old harlot can be sung about and remembered for her past fame.
Isaiah 23:17 interprets verse 16.
17 And it shall come to pass after the seventy years, that God will visit Tyre, and she shall be again restored to her primitive state, and she shall be a mart for all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth. (CAB, LXE)
17 At the end of seventy years, the LORD will visit Tyre, and she will return to her wages and will prostitute herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth. (ESV, Masoretic)
A POINT TO NOTICE: Tyre itself does not repent. Its new condition appears similar to its old. Nevertheless…
Tyre to Be a Provision to God’s People
18 And her trade and her gain shall be holiness to the Lord; it shall not be gathered for them, but for those that dwell before the Lord, even all her trade, to eat and drink and be filled, and for a covenant and a memorial before the Lord. (CAB, LXE)
What can this verse mean? On the one hand, verses 15-18 give no indication that Tyre would repent and change its ways. New Tyre appears to be much the same as old Tyre (i.e., a prostitute). Nevertheless, God’s intention is that the sea trade of the new Tyre will somehow bless his people.
WARNING: A reader’s presuppositions can influence the conclusions she draws from a text. For example, NET notes indicate that Isaiah is making reference to Israel in verse 18. “Tyre will become a subject of Israel and her God.” However, even the NET translation does not use the word “Israel”. The text states, “Her profits and earnings will be set apart for the Lord. … her profits will be given to those who live in the Lord’s presence” (Isaiah 23 | NET Bible). In the book of Isaiah, “those who live in the Lord’s presence” does not equate with national “Israel”. Isaiah–in what we have seen so far, and especially in what we will see in later chapters–prophesies the message of hope and redemption to all the world, even to Israel’s enemies (Isaiah 2:2, 25:6-7, 40:5). History bears out that the Christian message bore fruit in Tyre (Matthew 11:21-22 and Acts 21:4).
I much prefer the commentary of Robert Hawker:
Who shall calculate to what extent in the present hour the Lord is accomplishing his purpose, in the commotions of the earth, among kingdoms and people, in order to gather his dispersed to himself, from all the varieties of the earth? (Hawker, Studylight.org).
But How Does This Work?
We have parallels in a specific, material sense that can help us to understand how God will bless his people with provision supplied by a sinful city and commerce. For example, this country in which I live was founded on godly principals. In its former days, it acknowledged God publicly and officially. Who would say that many people, including “those that dwell before the Lord,” have not been blessed simply by living here?
Jeremiah provides a biblical example of the teaching that the Lord’s people benefit through the prosperity of the ungodly:
Jeremiah 29:7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (ESV)
There is one more chapter of God’s judgment, even judgment against the whole world. After that, Isaiah breaks into peals of praise in chapter 25.