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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezekiel 26

 

 

Verses 1-21

TYRE

Ezekiel 26:1-21, Ezekiel 29:17-21

IN the time of Ezekiel Tyre was still at the height of her commercial prosperity. Although not the oldest of the Phoenician cities, she held a supremacy among them which dated from the thirteenth century B.C., and she had long been regarded as the typical embodiment of the genius of the remarkable race to which she belonged. The Phoenicians were renowned in antiquity for a combination of all the qualities on which commercial greatness depends. Their absorbing devotion to the material interests of civilisation, their amazing industry and perseverance, their resourcefulness in assimilating and improving the inventions of other peoples, the technical skill of their artists and craftsmen, but above all their adventurous and daring seamanship, conspired to give them a position in the old world such as has never been quite rivalled by any other nation of ancient or modern times. In the grey dawn of European history we find them acting as pioneers of art and culture along the shores of the Mediterranean, although even then they had been displaced from their earliest settlements in the Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor by the rising commerce of Greece. Matthew Arnold has drawn a brilliant imaginative picture of this collision between the two races, and the effect it had on the dauntless and enterprising spirit of Phoenicia:-

"As some grave Tyrian trader, from the sea,

Descried at sunrise an emerging prow

Lifting the cool-hair’d creepers stealthily,

The fringes of a southward-facing brow

Among the Aegaean isles;

And saw the merry Grecian coaster come,

Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine,

Green, bursting figs, and tunnies steep’d in brine-

And knew the intruders on his ancient home,

The young light-hearted masters of the waves-

And snateh’d his rudder and shook out more sail;

And day and night held on indignantly

O’er the blue Midland waters with the gale,

Betwixt the Syrtes and soft Sicily,

To where the Atlantic raves

Outside the western straits; and unbent sails

There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,

Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come;

And on the beach undid his corded bales."

It is that spirit of masterful and untiring ambition kept up for so many centuries that throws a halo of romance round the story of Tyre.

In the oldest Greek literature, however, Tyre is not mentioned, the place which she afterwards held being then occupied by Sidon. But after the decay of Sidon the rich harvest of her labours fell into the lap of Tyre, which thenceforth stands out as the foremost city of Phoenicia. She owed her pre-eminence partly to the wisdom and energy with which her affairs were administered, but partly also to the strength of her natural situation. The city was built both on the mainland and on a row of islets about half a mile from the shore. This latter portion contained the principal buildings (temples and palaces), the open place where business was transacted, and the two harbours. It was no doubt from it that the city derived its name (Rock); and it always was looked on as the central part of Tyre.

There was something in the appearance of the island city-the Venice of antiquity, rising from mid-ocean with her "tiara of proud towers"-which seemed to mark her out as destined to be mistress of the sea. It also made a siege of Tyre an arduous and a tedious undertaking, as many a conqueror found to his cost. Favoured then by these advantages, Tyre speedily gathered the traffic of Phoenicia into her own hands, and her wealth and luxury were the wonder of the nations. She was known as "the crowning city, whose merchants were princes, and her traffickers the honourable of the earth". [Isaiah 23:8] She became the great commercial emporium of the world. Her colonies were planted all over the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean, and the one most frequently mentioned in the Bible, Tarshish, was in Spain, beyond Gibraltar. Her seamen had ventured beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and undertook distant Atlantic voyages to the Canary Islands on the south and the coasts of Britain on the north. The most barbarous and inhospitable regions were ransacked for the metals and other products needed to supply the requirements of civilisation, and everywhere she found a market for her own wares and manufactures. The carrying trade of the Mediterranean was almost entirely conducted in her ships, while her richly laden caravans traversed all the great routes that led into the heart of Asia and Africa.

It so happens that the twenty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel is one of the best sources of information we possess as to the varied and extensive commercial relations of Tyre in the sixth century B.C. It will therefore be better to glance shortly at its contents here rather than in its proper connection in the development of the prophet’s thought. It will easily be seen that the description is somewhat idealised; no details are given of the commodities which Tyre sold to the nations-only as an afterthought (Ezekiel 27:33) is it intimated that by sending forth her wares she has enriched and satisfied many nations. So the goods she bought of them are not represented as given in exchange for anything else; Tyre is poetically conceived as an empress ruling the peoples by the potent spell of her influence, compelling them to drudge for her and bring to her feet the gains they have acquired by their heavy labour. Nor can the list of nations or their gifts be meant as exhaustive; it only includes such things as served to exhibit the immense variety of useful and costly articles which ministered to the wealth and luxury of Tyre. But making allowance for this, and for the numerous difficulties which the text presents, the passage has evidently been compiled with great care; it shows a minuteness of detail and fulness of knowledge which could not have been got from books, but displays a lively personal interest in the affairs of the world which is surprising in a man like Ezekiel.

The order followed in the enumeration of nations is not quite clear, but is on the whole geographical. Starting from Tarshish in the extreme west (Ezekiel 27:12), the prophet mentions in succession Javan (Ionia), Tubal, and Meshech (two tribes to the southeast of the Black Sea), and Togarmah (usually identified with Armenia) (Ezekiel 27:13-14). These represent the northern limit of the Phoenician markets. The reference in the next verse (Ezekiel 27:15) is doubtful, on account of a difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text. If with the former we read "Rhodes" instead of "Dedan," it embraces the nearer coasts and islands of the Mediterranean, and this is perhaps on the whole the more natural sense. In this case it is possible that up to this point the description has been confined to the sea trade of Phoenicia, if we may suppose that the products of Armenia reached Tyre by way of the Black Sea. At all events the overland traffic occupies a space in the list out of proportion to its actual importance, a fact which is easily explained from the prophet’s standpoint. First, in a line from south to north, we have the nearer neighbours of Phoenicia-Edom, Judah, Israel, and Damascus (Ezekiel 27:16-18). Then the remoter tribes and districts of Arabia - Uzal (the chief city of Yemen), Dedan (on the eastern side of the Gulf of Akaba), Arabia and Kedar (nomads of the eastern desert), Havilaho Sheba, and Raamah (in the extreme south of the Arabian peninsula) (Ezekiel 27:19-22). Finally the countries tapped by the eastern caravan route-Haran (the great trade centre in Mesopotamia), Canneh (Calneh, unknown), Eden (differently spelt from the garden of Eden, also unknown), Assyria, and Chilmad (unknown) (Ezekiel 27:23). These were the "merchants" and "traders" of Tyre, who are represented as thronging her marketplace with the produce of their respective countries.

The imports, so far as we can follow the prophet’s enumeration, are in nearly all cases characteristic products of the regions to which they are assigned. Spain is known to have furnished all the metals here mentioned - silver, iron, lead, and tin. Greece and Asia Minor were centres of the slave traffic (one of the darkest blots on the commerce of Phoenicia), and also supplied hardware. Armenia was famous as a horse-breeding country, and thence Tyre procured her supply of horses and mules. The ebony and tusks of ivory must have come from Africa; and if the Septuagint is right in reading "Rhodes" in Ezekiel 27:15. these articles can only have been collected there for shipment to Tyre. Through Edom come pearls and precious stones. Judah and Israel furnished Tyre with agricultural and natural produce, as they had done from the days of David and Solomon-wheat and oil, wax and honey, balm and spices. Damascus yields the famous "wine of Helbon"-said to be the only vintage that the Persian kings would drink-perhaps also other choice wines. A rich variety of miscellaneous articles, both natural and manufactured, is contributed by Arabia, -wrought iron (perhaps sword-blades) from Yemen; saddle-cloths from Dedan; sheep and goats from the Bedouin tribes; gold, precious stones, and aromatic spices from the caravans of Sheba. Lastly, the Mesopotamian countries provide the costly textile fabrics from the looms of Babylon so highly prized in antiquity-"costly garments, mantles of blue, purple, and broidered work," "many-coloured carpets," and "cords twisted and durable."

This survey of the ramifications of Tyrian commerce will have served its purpose if it enables us to realise in some measure the conception which Ezekiel had formed of the power and prestige of the maritime city, whose destruction he so confidently announced. He knew, as did Isaiah before him, how deeply Tyre had struck her roots in the life of the old world, how indispensable her existence seemed to be to the whole fabric of civilisation as then constituted. Both prophets represent the nations as lamenting the downfall of the city which had so long ministered to their material welfare. The overthrow of Tyre would be felt as a worldwide calamity; it could hardly be contemplated except as part of a radical subversion of the established order of things. This is what Ezekiel has in view, and his attitude towards Tyre is governed by his expectation of a great shaking of the nations which is to usher in the perfect kingdom of God. In the new world to which he looks forward no place will be found for Tyre, not even the subordinate position of a handmaid to the people of God which Isaiah’s vision of the future had assigned to her. Beneath all her opulence and refinement the prophet’s eye detected that which was opposed to the mind of Jehovah-the irreligious spirit which is the temptation of a mercantile community, manifesting itself in overweening pride and self-exaltation, and in sordid devotion to gain as the highest end of a nation’s existence.

The twenty-sixth chapter is in the main a literal prediction of the siege and destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar. It is dated from the year in which Jerusalem was captured, and was certainly written after that event. The number of the month has accidentally dropped out of the text, so that we cannot tell whether at the time of writing the prophet had received actual intelligence of the fall of the city. At all events it is assumed that the fate of Jerusalem is already known in Tyre, and the manner in which the tidings were sure to have been received there is the immediate occasion of the prophecy. Like many other peoples, Tyre had rejoiced over the disaster which had befallen the Jewish state; but her exultation had a peculiar note of selfish calculation, which did not escape the notice of the prophet. Ever mindful of her own interest, she sees that a barrier to the free development of her commerce has been removed, and she congratulates herself on the fortunate turn which events have taken: "Aha! the door of the peoples is broken, it is turned towards me; she that was full hath been laid waste!" (Ezekiel 26:2). Although the relations of the two countries had often been friendly and sometimes highly advantageous to Tyre, she had evidently felt herself hampered by the existence of an independent state on the mountain ridge of Palestine. The kingdom of Judah, especially in days when it was strong enough to hold Edom in subjection, commanded the caravan routes to the Red Sea, and doubtless prevented the Phoenician merchants from reaping the full profit of their ventures in that direction. It is probable that at all times a certain proportion of the revenue of the kings of Judah was derived from toll levied on the Tyrian merchandise that passed through their territory; and what they thus gained represented so much loss to Tyre. It was, to be sure, a small item in the mass of business transacted on the exchange of Tyre. But nothing is too trivial to enter into the calculations of a community given over to the pursuit of gain; and the satisfaction with which the fall of Jerusalem was regarded in Tyre showed how completely she was debased by her selfish commercial policy, how oblivious she was to the spiritual interests bound up with the future of Israel.

Having thus exposed the sinful cupidity and insensibility of Tyre, the prophet proceeds to describe in general terms the punishment that is to overtake her. Many nations shall be brought up against her, irresistible as the sea when it comes up with its waves; her walls and fortifications shall be raised; the very dust shall be scraped from her site, so that she is left "a naked rock" rising out of the sea, a place where fishermen spread their nets to dry, as in the days before the city was built.

Then follows (Ezekiel 26:7-14) a specific announcement of the manner in which judgment shall he executed on Tyre. The recent political attitude of the city left no doubt as to the quarter from which immediate danger was to be apprehended. The Phoenician states had been the most powerful members of the confederacy that was formed about 596 to throw off the yoke of the Chaldaeans, and they were in open revolt at the time when Ezekiel wrote. They had apparently thrown in their lot with Egypt, and a conflict with Nebuchadnezzar was therefore to be expected. Tyre had every reason to avoid a war with a first-rate power, which could not fail to be disastrous to her commercial interests. But her inhabitants were not destitute of martial spirit; they trusted in the strength of their position and their command of the sea, and they were in the mood to risk everything rather than again renounce their independence and their freedom. But all this avails nothing against the purpose which Jehovah has purposed concerning Tyre. It is He who brings Nebuchadnezzar, the king of kings, from the north with his army and his siege-train, and Tyre shall fall before his assault, as Jerusalem has already fallen. First of all, the Phoenician cities on the mainland shall be ravaged and laid waste, and then operations commence against the mother-city herself. The description of the siege and capture of the island fortress is given with an, abundance of graphic details, although, strangely enough, without calling attention to the peculiar method of attack that was necessary for the reduction of Tyre. The great feature of the siege would be the construction of a huge mole between the shore and the island; once the wall was reached the attack would proceed precisely as in the ease of an inland town, in the manner depicted on Assyrian monuments. When the breach is made in the fortifications the whole army pours into the city, and for the first time in her history the walls of Tyre shake with the rumbling of chariots in her streets. The conquered city is then given up to slaughter and pillage, her songs and her music are stilled for ever, her stones and timber and dust are cast into the sea, and not a trace remains of the proud mistress of the waves.

In the third strophe (Ezekiel 26:15-21) the prophet describes the dismay which will be caused when the crash of the destruction of Tyre resounds along the coasts of the sea. All the "princes of the sea" (perhaps the rulers of the Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean) are represented as rising from their thrones, and putting off their stately raiment, and sitting in the dust bewailing the fate of the city. The dirge in which they lift up their voices (Ezekiel 26:17-18) is given by the Septuagint in a form which preserves more nearly than the Hebrew the structure as well as the beauty which we should expect in the original:-

"How is perished from the sea-

The city renowned!

She that laid her terror-

On all its inhabitants!

[Now] are the isles affrighted-

In the day of thy falling!"

But this beautiful image is not strong enough: to express the prophet’s sense of the irretrievable ruin that hangs over Tyre. By a bold flight of imagination he turns from the mourners on earth to follow in thought the descent of the city into the under-world (Ezekiel 26:19-21). The idea that Tyre might rise from her ruins after a temporary eclipse and recover her old place in the world was one that would readily suggest itself to any one who understood the real secret of her greatness. To the mind of Ezekiel the impossibility of her restoration lies in the fixed purpose of Jehovah, which includes, not only her destruction, but her perpetual desolation. "When I make thee a desolate city, like the cities that are not inhabited; when I bring up against thee the deep, and the great waters cover thee; then I will bring thee down with them that go down to the pit, with the people of old time, and I will make thee dwell in the lowest parts of the earth, like the immemorial waste places, with them that go down to the pit, that thou be not inhabited nor establish thyself in the land of the living." The whole passage is steeped in weird poetic imagery. The "deep" suggests something more than the blue waters of the Mediterranean; it is the name of the great primeval Ocean, out of which the habitable world was fashioned, and which is used as an emblem of the irresistible judgments of Psalms 36:6, cf Genesis 7:11. The "pit" is the realm of the dead, Sheol, conceived as situated under the earth, where the shades of the departed drag out a feeble existence from which there is no deliverance. The idea of Sheol is a frequent subject of poetical embellishment in the later books of the Old Testament; and of this we have an example here when the prophet represents the once populous and thriving city as now a denizen of that dreary place. But the essential meaning he wishes to convey is that Tyre is numbered among the things that were. She "shall be sought, and shall not be found any more for ever," because she has entered the dismal abode of the dead, whence there is no return to the joys and activities of the upper world.

Such then is the anticipation which Ezekiel in the year 586 had formed of the fate of Tyre. No candid reader will suppose that the prophecy is anything but what it professes to be-a bona fide prediction of the total destruction of the city in the immediate future and by the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. When Ezekiel wrote, the siege of Tyre had not begun; and however clear it may have been to observant men that the next stage in the campaign would be the reduction of the Phoenician cities, the prophet is at least free from the suspicion of having prophesied after the event. The remarkable absence of characteristic and special details from the account of the siege is the best proof that he is dealing with the future from the true prophetic standpoint and clothing a divinely imparted conviction in images supplied by a definite historical situation. Nor is there any reason to doubt that in some form the prophecy was actually published among his fellow exiles at the date to which it is assigned. On this point critical opinion is fairly unanimous. But when we come to the question of the fulfilment of the prediction we find ourselves in the region of controversy, and, it must be admitted, of uncertainty. Some expositors, determined at all hazards to vindicate Ezekiel’s prophetic authority, maintain that Tyre was actually devastated by Nebuchadnezzar in the manner described by the prophet, and seek for confirmations of their view in the few historical notices we possess of this period of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Others, reading the history differently, arrive at the conclusion that Ezekiel’s calculations were entirely at fault, that Tyre was not captured by the Babylonians at all, and that his oracle against Tyre must be reckoned amongst the unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament. Others again seek to reconcile an impartial historical judgment with a high conception of the function of prophecy, and find in the undoubted course of events a real though not an exact verification of the words uttered by Ezekiel. It is indeed almost by accident that we have any independent corroboration of Ezekiel’s anticipation with regard to the immediate future of Tyre. Oriental discoveries have as yet brought to light no important historical monuments of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar; and outside the book of Ezekiel itself we have nothing to guide us except the statement of Josephus, based on Phoenician and Greek authorities, that Tyre underwent a thirteen years’ siege by the Babylonian conqueror. There is no reason whatever to call in question the reliability of this important information, although the accompanying statement that the siege began in the seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar is certainly erroneous. But unfortunately we are not told how the siege ended. Whether it was successful or unsuccessful, whether Tyre was reduced or capitulated, or was evacuated or beat off her assailants, is nowhere indicated. To argue from the silence of the historians is impossible; for if one man argues that a catastrophe that took place "before the eyes of all Asia" would not have passed unrecorded in historical books, another might urge with equal force that a repulse of Nebuchadnezzar was too uncommon an event to be ignored in the Phoenician annals. On the whole the most reasonable hypothesis is perhaps that after the thirteen years the city surrendered on not unfavourable terms; but this conclusion is based on other considerations than the data or the silence of Josephus.

The chief reason for believing that Nebuchadnezzar was not altogether successful in his attack on Tyre is found in a supplementary prophecy of Ezekiel’s, given in the end of the twenty-ninth chapter (Ezekiel 26:17-21). It was evidently written after the siege of Tyre was concluded, and so far as it goes it confirms the accuracy of Josephus’ sources. It is dated from the year 570, sixteen years after the fall of Jerusalem; and it is, in fact, the latest oracle in the whole book. The siege of Tyre, therefore, which had not commenced in 586, when chapter 26 was written, was finished before 570; and between these terminal dates there is just room for the thirteen years of Josephus. The invasion of Phoenicia must have been the next great enterprise of the Babylonian army in Western Asia after the destruction of Judah, and it was only the extraordinary strength of Tyre that enabled it to protract the struggle so long. Now what light does Ezekiel throw on the issue of the siege? His words are: "Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has made his army to serve a great service against Tyre; every head made bald and every shoulder peeled, yet he and his army got no wages out of Tyre for the service which he served against her." The prophet then goes on to announce that the spoils of Egypt should be the recompense to the army for their unrequited labour against Tyre, inasmuch as it was work done for Jehovah. Here then, we have evidence first of all that the long siege of Tyre had taxed the resources of the besiegers to the utmost. The "peeled shoulders" and the "heads made bald" is a graphic detail which alludes not obscurely to the monotonous heavy work of carrying loads of stones and earth to fill up the narrow channel between the mainland and the island, so as to allow the engines to be brought up to the walls. Ezekiel was well aware of the arduous nature of the undertaking, the expenditure of human effort and life which was involved, in the struggle with natural obstacles; and his striking conception of these obscure and toiling soldiers as unconscious servants of the Almighty shows how steadfast was his faith in the word he proclaimed against Tyre. But the important point is that they obtained from Tyre no reward-at least no adequate reward-for their herculean labours. The expression used is no doubt capable of various interpretations. It might mean that the siege had to be abandoned, or that the city was able to make extremely easy terms of capitulation, or, as Jerome suggests, that the Tyrians had carried off their treasures by sea and escaped to one of their colonies. In any case it shows that the historical event was not in accordance with the details of the earlier prophecy. That the wealth of Tyre would fall to the conquerors is there assumed as a natural consequence of the capture of the city. But whether the city was actually captured or not, the victors were somehow disappointed in their expectation of plunder. The rich spoil of Tyre, which was the legitimate reward of their exhausting toil, had slipped from their eager grasp; to this extent at least the reality fell short of the prediction, and Nebuchadnezzar had to be. compensated for his losses at Tyre by the promise of an easy conquest of Egypt.

But if this had been all it is not probable that Ezekiel would have deemed it necessary to supplement his earlier prediction in the way we have seen after an interval of sixteen years. The mere circumstance that the sack of Tyre had failed to yield the booty that the besiegers counted on was not of a nature to attract attention amongst the prophet’s auditors, or to throw doubt on the genuineness of his inspiration. And we know that there was a much more serious difference between the prophecy and the event than this. It is, from what has just been said, extremely doubtful whether Nebuchadnezzar actually destroyed Tyre, but even if he did, she very quickly recovered much of her former prosperity and glory. That her commerce was seriously crippled during the struggle with Babylonia we may well believe, and it is possible that she never again was what she had been before this humiliation came upon her. But for all that the enterprise and prosperity of Tyre continued for many ages to excite the admiration of the most enlightened nations of antiquity. The destruction of the city, therefore, if it took place, had not the finality which Ezekiel had anticipated. Not till after the lapse of eighteen centuries could it be said with approximate truth that she was like "a bare rock in the midst of the sea."

The most instructive fact for us, however, is that Ezekiel reissued his original prophecy, knowing that it had not been literally fulfilled. In the minds of his hearers the apparent falsification of his predictions had revived old prejudices against him, which interfered with the prosecution of his work. They reasoned that a prophecy so much out of joint with the reality was sufficient to discredit his claim to be an authoritative exponent of the mind of Jehovah; and so the prophet found himself embarrassed by a recurrence of the old unbelieving attitude which had hindered his public activity before the destruction of Jerusalem. He has not for the present "an open mouth" amongst them, and he feels that his words will not be fully received until they are verified by the restoration of Israel to its own land. But it is evident that he himself did not share the view of his audience, otherwise he would certainly have suppressed prophecy which lacked the mark of authenticity. On the contrary he published it for the perusal of a wider circle of readers, in the conviction that what he had spoken was a true word of God, and that its essential truth did not depend on its exact correspondence with the facts of history. In other words, he believed in it as a true reading of the principles revealed in God’s moral government of the world-a reading which had received a partial verification in the blow which had been dealt at the pride of Tyre, and which would receive a still more signal fulfilment in the final convulsions which were to introduce the day of Israel’s restoration and glory. Only we must remember that the prophet’s horizon was necessarily limited; and as he did not contemplate the slow development and extension of the kingdom of God through long ages, so he could not have taken into account the secular operation of historic causes which eventually brought about the ruin of Tyre.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 26:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezekiel-26.html.

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