Numbers 31; Psalms 75-76; Isaiah 23; 1 John 1
IN THIS SECTION OF ISAIAH’S PROPHECY (chaps. 13-27), the city-state of Tyre (Isaiah 23) is the last region to attract an oracle of God against it. If Babylon became proverbial for its imperial might and for its cultural and aesthetic achievements, Tyre was famous throughout the Mediterranean world for its wealth.
The historical setting of this oracle is reasonably clear. Babylon has recently been destroyed by the Assyrians (Isa. 23:13)—a reference to either the attack of Sennacherib (710 B.C.) or the pillaging destruction under Sargon (689). This was before Babylon rose to become a superpower in its own right, one that would eventually destroy and replace Assyria. At this juncture in history, the recent destruction of Babylon serves as the model and threat of what will happen to Tyre.
Tyre made its money as the premier trading center of the Mediterranean world. The ships of Tarshish (Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean) wail at the reports of Tyre’s destruction (Isa. 23:1, 14). These reports reach Cyprus (Isa. 23:1), just off the coast, and then Sidon (Isa. 23:2-4). Egypt, the bread-basket of the Mediterranean, weeps because of the effect on her trade in grain (Isa. 23:5). The fall of Tyre affected the Mediterranean the way the crash of Wall Street in 1929 affected the world.
Whatever the historical pressures that brought about Tyre’s destruction, Isaiah wants us to know that it was the Lord’s doing (Isa. 23:8-12)—and it is he who restores the city-state again, even if all she does with her new lease on life is return to her old “prostitution” (Isa. 23:15, 17). Yet her sin, finally, is not money, but pride: “The LORD Almighty planned it, to bring low the pride of all glory and to humble all who are renowned on the earth” (Isa. 23:9). There is no necessary connection between wealth and pride (witness Job), but the link is frighteningly common. Great wealth often fosters a spirit of arrogant self-sufficiency. What steps should Christians in the relatively prosperous West take against this dreadful sin?
In the spirit of prophetic foreshortening, the last verses (Isa. 23:17-18) dance from history to eschatology. Eventually the wealth of the earth, even if it is gathered by great commercial traders like Tyre, will all be set apart for the Lord: he is the One who gave it, and all things return to him. And all such wealth will go to “those who live before the LORD.” Here is another adumbration of a reconstituted universe, no longer crippled by all that is vile, where God’s people delight in him and his gifts forever.