Isaiah 23
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 23. An Oracle on Tyre

The unique position occupied by Tyre in the ancient world engaged the attention of more than one Hebrew prophet. Ezekiel, in one of the most original and elaborate of his foreign prophecies (ch. 26–28), where he announces her impending overthrow by Nebuchadnezzar, shews the liveliest appreciation of the genius of that great commercial city, her unbounded enterprise, her devotion to material interests, and her self-deifying pride. Very similar in spirit is the simpler and shorter passage now before us, which, however, is not directed exclusively against Tyre, but embraces the older though less famous Zidon, and the whole Phœnician sea-board.

The chapter is clearly divided into two sections:—

i. Isaiah 23:1-14. A poem in three strophes on the destruction of the Phœnician cities and harbours, which is conceived as having already taken place.

(1) Isaiah 23:1-5. Ships of Tarshish, homeward bound, are dismayed on their arrival at Cyprus by the intelligence that the harbours of Phœnicia are closed to them (1); the once populous and thriving coastland lies desolate (2, 3); the sea is now a childless mother and forgets that she ever had offspring (4); Egypt is stricken with terror at the report of the fall of Tyre (5).

(2) Isaiah 23:6-9. The inhabitants of Phœnicia are ironically urged to leave the joyous cities which had been theirs from time immemorial, and seek refuge in their colonies beyond the sea (6, 7). For this is the purpose of Jehovah, to make an end of the regal power of Tyre, and cast contempt on all earthly greatness (8, 9).

(3) Isaiah 23:10-14. But Jehovah’s power reaches over the sea, and not even in their own colonies can the exiled Phœnicians find rest for the sole of their foot. The distant Tarshish disowns their authority, the nearer Cyprus is also, for an unexplained reason, untenable. At the obscure Isaiah 23:13 we lose the thread of the writer’s thought, but in Isaiah 23:14 the poem ends as it had begun with an apostrophe to the ships of Tarshish, whose haven is demolished.

ii. Isaiah 23:15-18 form an appendix written in a prose style (with the exception of the “harlot’s song,” a snatch of popular poetry, in Isaiah 23:16). It announces the restoration of Tyre after the lapse of seventy years, but a restoration under entirely changed conditions, in which the gains of Tyre shall be consecrated to Jehovah and the use of His people.

There appear to be no valid reasons for refusing to ascribe the authorship of Isaiah 23:1-14 to Isaiah. The only serious difficulty is caused by the reference to “the land of the Chaldæans” in Isaiah 23:13; but there the text is in all probability corrupt (see the notes). There are two occasions in the time of Isaiah to which the prophecy has been referred. The earlier is the campaign of Shalmaneser IV. (727–722) against Phœnicia, described at length in a fragment of Menander of Ephesus (Josephus, Ant. ix. 14, 2). Shalmaneser is said to have blockaded the insular part of Tyre for five years; but as his entire reign was only about five years, it is probable that the siege (like that of Samaria) was finished by Sargon. That the city was captured is nowhere stated, and the reticence of Sargon rather suggests that the siege issued in a capitulation. Phœnicia was again ravaged by Sennacherib in the expedition of 701, just before the invasion of Philistia and Judah, when the king of Zidon actually fled to Cyprus. Tyre is not mentioned in the Assyrian record of this campaign. Either of these invasions would furnish an adequate occasion for Isaiah’s prophecy, though the second is perhaps less probable than the first. It may at least be said that the lyrical character of the passage is more intelligible when the prophet was a disinterested spectator of events in Phœnicia, than under the strain of excitement with which he faced the crisis of 701. It is true that Tyre did not then suffer the complete overthrow which is here contemplated; but it was nevertheless the first time that her existence had been seriously threatened, and the absence of a literal fulfilment affords no presumption against the genuineness of a prophecy.

The appendix (Isaiah 23:15-18) has been thought to bear the stamp of a later origin. The seventy years’ duration of the humiliation of Tyre may be based on Jeremiah’s (Isaiah 25:11 f.) determination of the period of Chaldæan supremacy, and the use to which the riches of Tyre are to be put (Isaiah 23:18) is perhaps suggested by such late prophecies as Isaiah 45:14; Isaiah 60:11; Isaiah 61:6. The case, therefore, appears to be closely parallel to that of the oracle on Egypt in ch. 19. In both we have a prophecy which is presumably Isaianic, followed by a supplement which there is reason to regard as post-exilic.

The burden of Tyre. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish; for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in: from the land of Chittim it is revealed to them.
1. The returning ships are apprised, at the last stage of their voyage, of the disaster that has overtaken their mother-country. Ships of Tarshish may mean here, literally, “ships trading with Tarshish” (Tartessus) at the mouth of the Guadalquivir in Spain. See on Isaiah 2:16.

it is laid waste] The unexpressed subject is best left indefinite,—“a destruction has been wrought.”

no house, no entering in] i.e. “no house (harbour) to enter in.” Cf. ch. Isaiah 24:10 “every house is shut up so that none can enter.” The last word, however, might be joined with the following clause, which would then run: since leaving the land of Chittim, &c. The vessels learn of the fall of Tyre, not at Cyprus, but on their voyage thence. The Chittim are the inhabitants of Kition, in the south of Cyprus, rounded by the Phœnicians. The name was extended to the whole island, and ultimately in biblical usage to the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean (Daniel 11:30).

it is revealed to them] whether by rumour from flying vessels, or by eye-sight as they approached the shore, does not appear.

Be still, ye inhabitants of the isle; thou whom the merchants of Zidon, that pass over the sea, have replenished.
2. The prophet next apostrophises the inhabitants of the coast (render so, as in ch. Isaiah 20:6), i.e. Phœnicia, calling them to be still, or rather dumb, with bewilderment.

the merchants (in Heb. collective sing.) of Zidon] Zidon is generally interpreted throughout this prophecy as standing for Phœnicia as a whole. This is perhaps unnecessary, although it can easily be justified by usage (see Deuteronomy 3:9; Jdg 3:3; 1 Kings 11:1, &c.). Zidon is said to have been the most ancient of the Phœnician settlements, and its merchants might naturally be spoken of as having founded the commercial prosperity of the country.

And by great waters the seed of Sihor, the harvest of the river, is her revenue; and she is a mart of nations.
3. The easiest translation would be: and on great waters the seed of Shihor, the harvest of the Nile, (was) her revenue, and it (i.e. her revenue) was the gain of the nations. Shihor might be a name for the Nile, as in Jeremiah 2:18; and the meaning would be that the revenue of Tyre (or Phœnicia) was derived from the sea-traffic in Egyptian grain. This was no doubt the case to some extent; but to suppose that the corn trade with Egypt was a principal source of wealth to Tyre is contrary to all the information we possess. The expression of the thought, moreover, is involved and enigmatic, and even if we call to our aid the subtle suggestion that Tyre, with no agriculture of her own, nevertheless reaped a rich harvest by her command of the sea, the idea is still unworthy of Isaiah, and of the rest of this poem.

The translation mart in E.V., instead of “gain” or “merchandise” is hardly justifiable.

Be thou ashamed, O Zidon: for the sea hath spoken, even the strength of the sea, saying, I travail not, nor bring forth children, neither do I nourish up young men, nor bring up virgins.
4. even the strength of the sea] Better as R.V. the stronghold of the sea. The fine figure of the lonely sea denying that she ever had children is somewhat marred by the introduction of this clause, as if the poet had corrected himself by an afterthought, and changed the subject of personification from the sea to Tyre. One is tempted to remove the words as a gloss.

I travail not, nor bring forth, &c.] Render with R.V. I have not travailed, nor brought forth, neither have I nourished young men, nor brought up (cf. ch. Isaiah 1:2) virgins.

As at the report concerning Egypt, so shall they be sorely pained at the report of Tyre.
5. The verse should be read as in R.V. When the report cometh to Egypt, they shall be sorely pained at the report of Tyre. Assyria being the common enemy of Egypt and Tyre, the report of the latter’s fall is received with the utmost anxiety in Egypt.

Pass ye over to Tarshish; howl, ye inhabitants of the isle.
6. The second strophe commences here with a summons to the Phœnicians to betake themselves to their Spanish colony for refuge, their own country being at the mercy of the invader. So the Tyrians, when attacked by Alexander the Great, sent all those unfit for war to Carthage, another western colony. Gesenius instances also the projected emigration of the Dutch merchants to Batavia in 1672 if the independence of Holland should be overthrown.

Is this your joyous city, whose antiquity is of ancient days? her own feet shall carry her afar off to sojourn.
7. The reference is of course to Tyre, the principal subject of the prophecy.

whose antiquity … days] Next to Zidon, Tyre was regarded as the most ancient city of Phœnicia. Her priests claimed for their temple the fabulous antiquity of 2300 years in the time of Herodotus (II. 44); Josephus dates the city’s foundation 240 years before the building of Solomon’s Temple (Ant. viii. 3, 1).

her own feet shall carry her …] Render: whose feet used to carry her.… The reference is not to the future captivity or flight of the Tyrians (for which the expressions are unsuitable) but to the long journeys and residence in foreign parts of her enterprising merchants.

Who hath taken this counsel against Tyre, the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth?
8, 9. This is the execution of Jehovah’s purpose, and therefore irreversible.

the crowning city] Or, the crown-giver. Tyre is rightly so-called, inasmuch as some of her colonies (Kition, Tarshish and Carthage) were ruled by kings, subject to the mother-city.

whose traffickers] The word is probably the gentilic noun “Canaanite” which is used with the sense of “trader” in Job 41:6 [Heb. 40:30]; Proverbs 31:24; Zechariah 14:21, as the collective name “Canaan” is in older passages (Hosea 12:7; Zephaniah 1:11). It was of course from the commercial proclivities of the Phœnicians themselves that the word acquired this secondary significance amongst the Hebrews. The petty trade of Palestine seems to have been largely in the hands of Tyrian dealers (Nehemiah 13:16 ff.) and hence a Canaanite came to mean a merchant, just as a Chaldæan came to mean an astrologer and a Scotchman in some parts of England meant a pedlar.

The LORD of hosts hath purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth.
9. Jehovah has purposed it in accordance with a fixed principle of His government.

to stain (render to desecrate) the pride of all glory] The thought is the same as in ch. Isaiah 2:12 ff. For this use of the verb “desecrate,” cf. Ezekiel 28:7.

Pass through thy land as a river, O daughter of Tarshish: there is no more strength.
10. as a river] Rather: as the Nile (as R.V.). The people of Tarshish are now as free of the land they live in as the Nile is of Egypt in the time of the annual inundation.

there is no more strength] Render as in R.V. there is no girdle (about thee) any more. The “girdle” (cf. Psalm 109:19) is supposed to be a symbol of the restraints hitherto imposed on the colonists by Tyre. But nowhere else is a man represented as hampered by his own girdle; the removal of it is rather a synonym for weakness (Job 12:21—the same root as here—cf. Isaiah 5:27).

10–14. The third strophe, as usually explained, deals mainly with the emancipation of the Phœnician colonies from the somewhat stringent control of Tyre. But the passage presents many difficulties; and from the utter uncertainty as to the meaning of Isaiah 23:13 the general sense is doubtful.

He stretched out his hand over the sea, he shook the kingdoms: the LORD hath given a commandment against the merchant city, to destroy the strong holds thereof.
11. He stretched out his hand, &c.] R.V. he hath stretched out … hath shaken. Cf. ch. Isaiah 5:25, Isaiah 14:26-27. The kingdoms are specially Phœnicia and its dependencies.

the merchant city] Read Canaan and see on Isaiah 23:8. “Canaan” is the name used by the Phœnicians of themselves and their colonists, but this is the only example in the Old Test. of its restriction to Phœnicia.

And he said, Thou shalt no more rejoice, O thou oppressed virgin, daughter of Zidon: arise, pass over to Chittim; there also shalt thou have no rest.
12. And he said] What follows may be regarded as the “commandment” referred to in Isaiah 23:11.

O thou oppressed (or ravished) virgin, daughter of Zidon] The epithet “virgin” is applied to Zidon as a fortress hitherto unviolated by a conqueror. It is an almost inevitable inference that the calamity here described is the first she has known, at least within living memory. This would apply to the campaign of Shalmaneser, but not to that of Sennacherib.

Behold the land of the Chaldeans; this people was not, till the Assyrian founded it for them that dwell in the wilderness: they set up the towers thereof, they raised up the palaces thereof; and he brought it to ruin.
13. Every attempt to extract a meaning from the verse as it stands is beset by insuperable difficulties. Perhaps the best suggestion is that the fate of Chaldæa is mentioned as a warning example to Tyre: “Behold the land of the Chaldæans; this people is no more; the Assyrian hath appointed it for the beasts of the wilderness, &c.” (so R.V.). This is a fairly good sense; only, “this people is no more” is hardly a possible rendering of the Hebrew. The reference is supposed to be to one (probably the last) of Sennacherib’s three conquests of Babylonia, which were certainly carried out with a thoroughness which would justify the terms of the prophecy. But is there any evidence that Babylonia was known as the “land of the Chaldæans” before the rise of the Chaldæan Empire? There is none in the Bible.—The text is certainly in disorder, and there is little hope of recovering the original reading. Ewald’s attractive emendation of “Canaanites” for “Chaldæans” fails to meet the case, for the exclamation “Behold the land of the Canaanites” surely comes too late after so much has been said of the ruin of this very land. The most acute analysis of the verse is that of Duhm, although, as is usual with this commentator, it involves an extensive manipulation of the text. To the original prophecy he assigns only the first and last clauses, and for “Chaldæans” he substitutes “Chittim”: Behold the land of Chittim, he (Jehovah) hath made it a ruin”—a continuation of the thought of the preceding verse. The intermediate clauses are regarded as an interpolation and are ingeniously explained as follows: “this is the people that was founded by the sea-farers (cf. Numbers 24:24), they erected its watch-towers, its cities and its palaces.” It seems a pity that so good a sentence should be denied to the prophet.

Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for your strength is laid waste.
14. The poem closes as it began with an apostrophe to the ships of Tarshish.

your strength) your strong-hold (R.V. as in Isaiah 23:4).

And it shall come to pass in that day, that Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years, according to the days of one king: after the end of seventy years shall Tyre sing as an harlot.
15. seventy years] The period fixed by Jeremiah for the duration of the Exile and the dominion of the Chaldæan Empire (ch. Isaiah 25:11 f., Isaiah 29:10). The number occurs frequently in the later literature: Zechariah 1:12; Zechariah 7:5; Daniel 9:2 ff.; 2 Chronicles 36:21. It is to be noted that in all these cases there is a reference more or less explicit to Jeremiah’s prediction; and the use of the number here is probably to be accounted for in the same way. Ezekiel had used the number “forty” in a precisely similar manner (ch. Isaiah 4:6, Isaiah 29:13).

according to the days of one king] The meaning is uncertain. Possibly it denotes a fixed, unalterable order of things, such as is maintained by the even rule of a single monarch. Some take it to mean “during the existence of one dynasty.”

shall Tyre sing as a harlot] Rather: it shall happen to Tyre according to the song of the harlot,—evidently a well-known popular ballad, quoted in the next verse.

15–18. The appendix. Tyre shall be forgotten for seventy years; afterwards she shall resume her commercial activity, but its profits shall be dedicated to Jehovah’s people.

Take an harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered.
16. The song of the harlot, celebrating the wiles by which a forgotten prostitute seeks to regain her influence. The song has a light, dancing rhythm, and consists of six lines of two words each.

make sweet melody] Better: play skilfully.

And it shall come to pass after the end of seventy years, that the LORD will visit Tyre, and she shall turn to her hire, and shall commit fornication with all the kingdoms of the world upon the face of the earth.
17. The application of the song to Tyre. The comparison of commerce to prostitution is found in Revelation 18:3 and perhaps in Nahum 3:4. Here it signalises the mercenary motive which was prominent in Tyre’s dealings with other nations.

shall return to her hire] Shall resume her former lucrative activity. The last word is a technical term for the hire of a harlot.

And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the LORD: it shall not be treasured nor laid up; for her merchandise shall be for them that dwell before the LORD, to eat sufficiently, and for durable clothing.
18. merchandise and hire are synonymous; the one is the literal, the other the metaphorical designation of the same fact.

holiness to the Lord] i.e. “dedicated” to Jehovah (in opposition to the letter of Deuteronomy 23:18). The word has no ethical sense; and the idea of “commerce as the handmaid of religion,” if by that it is meant that Tyre’s commerce is to be conducted in a religious spirit, is foreign to the passage. Tyre is still a “harlot” as of old, and her conversion to the true God does not appear to be contemplated here.

shall not be treasured nor laid up] as formerly, for the benefit of Tyre herself. Those that dwell before the Lord are the Jewish people, who according to another prophecy (ch. Isaiah 61:6) are the priests of humanity.

For durable read stately, as R.V. marg. The word is not found elsewhere.

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