Isaiah 23


“Tyre juts out from the coast of the Mediterranean and is located about 80 km (50 mi) south of Beirut. The name of the city means "rock" after the rocky formation on which the town was originally built….

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“Tyre originally consisted of two distinct urban centres, Tyre itself, which was on an island just off shore, and the associated settlement of Ushu on the adjacent mainland. Alexander the Great connected the island to the mainland by constructing a causeway during his siege of the city, demolishing the old city to reuse its cut stone.

“The original island city had two harbours, one on the south side and the other on the north side of the island. It was the two harbours that enabled Tyre to gain the maritime prominence that it did; the harbour on the north side of the island was, in fact, one of the best harbours on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The harbour on the south side has silted over, but the harbour on the north side is still in use…

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“The commerce of the ancient world was gathered into the warehouses of Tyre.

“Tyrian merchants were the first who ventured to navigate the Mediterranean waters; and they founded their colonies on the coasts and neighbouring islands of the Aegean Sea, in Greece, on the northern coast of Africa, at Carthage and other places, in Sicily and Corsica, in Spain at Tartessus and even beyond the pillars of Hercules at Gadeira (Cádiz).

“The city of Tyre was particularly known for the production of a rare and extraordinarily expensive sort of purple dye, produced from the murex shellfish, known as Tyrian purple. The colour was, in ancient cultures, reserved for the use of royalty or at least the nobility.

“Phoenicians from Tyre settled in houses around Memphis, south of the temple of Hephaestus in a district called the Tyrian Camp.

“Tyre was often attacked by Egypt and was besieged by Assyrian king Shalmaneser V, who was assisted by the Phoenicians of the mainland, for five years. From 586 until 573 BC, the city was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon until it agreed to pay a tribute.

“The Achaemenid Empire conquered the city in 539 BC and kept it under its rule until Alexander the Great laid siege to the city, conquered and razed it in 332 BC. In 315 BC, Alexander's former general Antigonus began his own siege of Tyre, taking the city a year later.”  (,_Lebanon

Isaiah 23:1  Howl, ye ships of Tarshish; for it is laid waste

Tarshish was at the western end of the Mediterranean; Tyre was at the eastern end.  They were the bookends of ancient maritime trade. Tarshish was the city that Jonah the prophet was sailing to when running from the call to be prophet to Ninevah. (Jonah 1:3)

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Isaiah is painting the picture of merchant sailors travelling east for Tyre.  When they get to the islands to the east, like Cyprus, they hear that their glorious destination has been laid ruin.  The houses and hotels are destroyed.

Isaiah 23:1 Be still, ye inhabitants of the isle

The island of Chittim, modern Cyprus, was dependent on shipping from Sidon. The Lord is telling them to be still when they see the destruction of Tyre.  They have much to fear if Sidon is destroyed as well.

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Isaiah 23:3 the harvest of the river is her revenue

Most scholars interpret “the seed of Sihor” to mean the grains of the Nile.  Tyre received all the merchants from the Nile and traded all her wares making her the trading capital of the Old World.

Isaiah 23:4-12 Be thou ashamed, O Zidon: for the sea hath spoken

Metaphorically, the great sea speaks to the proud mariners of Zidon, saying “isn’t it ironic, that you work so hard to raise children and make your money, and yet you and Tyre are destroyed?  What’s the deal?  It must be that the Lord has decided to tear down all your wealth and pride.  You’re not going to have anything to celebrate anymore.”

Isaiah 23:8 the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth

Is getting rich the greatest of human accomplishments? The world elevates the rich to the status of princes; the super wealthy become our kings.  Even now, names like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are household names for the same reason.  Will Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet be the ones at the pearly gates?

The best commentary for verse 8 is Ezekiel chapter 27.  In brief it says:

O Tyrus, thou hast said, I am of perfect beauty…

Thy builders have perfected thy beauty…

Fine linen… from Egypt… blue and purple from the isles…

All kinds of riches; with silver, iron, tin…

They brought thee… ivory and ebony…

Emeralds, purple, and embroidered work… honey, and oil, and balm…

The wine of Helbon and white wool… (Ezek. 27:3-18)


The ships of Tarshish did sing of thee in thy market: and thou wast replenished, and made very glorious in the midst of the seas…

Thy riches, and thy fairs, thy merchandise, thy mariners, and… all thy men of war… shall fall into the midst of the seas in the day of thy ruin…

They shall weep for thee with bitterness of heart and bitter wailing. (Ezek. 27:25-31)

Isaiah 23:9  The Lord of hosts hath purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory

The riches of Tyre become the symbol of worldliness.  The city is used by Isaiah as a type for the wealth of the world, the pursuit of filthy lucre, the pride of Babylon. 

Hugh Nibley

Isaiah has a lot to say about trade and commerce, "The burden of Tyre," the crowning city, "whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth." The Lord intends "to stain the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth." (Isaiah 23:9.) They are a restless lot, these enterprising people… Babylon is at once restless and busy, selfish and carefree; "None seeth me," she says, there is "none else beside me." (Isaiah 47:10.) She has all the technical and commercial know-how at her command. All the experts are working for her—the charmers, the astrologers, the expert analysts, the skillful accountants—and all will be burned as stubble. In the thirteenth chapter of Isaiah we see the burden of Babylon, the vast activity, the noise, the bustle, the self-importance, the consuming hunger for profits in this great world center that is also another Sodom, a sink of moral depravity…

What makes a nation great? Power and gain is the answer we give today; the thing is to be number one in military and economic clout. They thought so in Isaiah's day too. (Old Testament and Related Studies, edited by JW Welch, GP Gillum, and DE Norton [SLC and Provo: Deseret Book Co., FARMS, 1986], 229-231)

Again, we turn to Ezekiel to elucidate the pride of Tyre—a perfect type for the riches of Babylon.

Because thine heart is lifted up, and thou hast said, I am God, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas; yet thou art a man and not God…

By thy great wisdom and by thy traffick hast thou increased thy riches, and thine heart is lifted up because of thy riches…

Thou shalt die… in the midst of the seas

…thou shalt be a man, and no God, in the hand of him that slayeth thee. (Ezek. 28:2-9)

Isaiah 23:11 The Lord hath given a commandment against the merchant city, to destroy the strong holds thereof

This prophecy may have had multiple fulfillments. As is typical for Isaiah’s writings, the literal fulfillment of destruction becomes a type for the apocalyptic destruction of worldly merchants who fund the figurative kingdom of Babylon.

“Tyre was often attacked by Egypt and was besieged by Assyrian king Shalmaneser V, who was assisted by the Phoenicians of the mainland, for five years. From 586 until 573 BC, the city was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon until it agreed to pay a tribute.

“The Achaemenid Empire conquered the city in 539 BC and kept it under its rule until Alexander the Great laid siege to the city, conquered and razed it in 332 BC. In 315 BC, Alexander's former general Antigonus began his own siege of Tyre, taking the city a year later.”  (,_Lebanon)

Isaiah 23:13 Behold the land of the Chaldeans; this people was not, till the Assyrian founded it for them

Bible scholars struggle to interpret this passage.  The text seems to suggest that the Assyrians were the original founders of Babylon, but is there any evidence for that?  The Bible and limited historical evidence does not support this interpretation.  The Assyrian cities of Ashur and Nineveh were established about the same time as Babylon (see Gen. 10:10-12) when Noah’s descendants repopulated Sumeria.

The Assyrians and the Chaldeans (Babylonians) had a long history of war and subjugation.  Isaiah would have been familiar with this history.  The text may be referring not to the original establishment of Babylon, but a re-establishment that had occurred in recent history.

The Assyrian empire was revitalized by Tiglath Pileser III (745-727 BCE) who reorganized the military and restructured the bureaucracy of the government. According to Anglim, Tiglath Pileser III “carried out extensive reforms of the army, reasserted central control over the empire, reconquered the Mediterranean seaboard, and even subjugated Babylon… Under Tiglath Pileser III’s reign, the Assyrian army became the most effective military force in history up until that time and would provide a model for future armies in organization, tactics, training, and efficiency…

Tiglath Pileser III was followed by Shalmaneser V (727-722 BCE) who continued the king’s policies, and his successor, Sargon II (722-705 BCE) improved upon them and expanded the empire further. Even though Sargon II's rule was contested by nobles, who claimed he had seized the throne illegally, he maintained the cohesion of the empire. Following Tiglath Pileser III’s lead, Sargon II was able to bring the empire to its greatest height. He was followed by Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) who campaigned widely and ruthlessly, conquering Israel, Judah, and the Greek provinces in Anatolia. His sack of Jerusalem is detailed on the 'Taylor Prism', a cuneiform block describing Sennacherib’s military exploits which was discovered in 1830 CE…

Sennacherib’s military victories increased the wealth of the empire. He moved the capital to Nineveh and built what was known as “the Palace without a Rival”… Ignoring the lessons of the past, however, and not content with his great wealth and the luxury of the city, Sennacherib drove his army against Babylon, sacked it, and looted the temples. As earlier in history, the looting and destruction of the temples of Babylon was seen as the height of sacrilege by the people of the region and also by Sennacherib’s sons who assassinated him in his palace at Nineveh in order to placate the wrath of the gods. Although they certainly would have been motivated to murder their father for the throne (after he chose his youngest son, Esarhaddon, as heir in 683 BCE, snubbing them) they would have needed a legitimate reason to do so; and the destruction of Babylon provided them with one.

His son Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE) took the throne, and one of his first projects was to rebuild Babylon. He issued an official proclamation which claimed that Babylon had been destroyed by the will of the gods owing to the city’s wickedness and lack of respect for the divine. Nowhere in his proclamation does it mention Sennacherib or his role in the destruction of the city but makes clear that the gods chose Esarhaddon as the divine means for restoration: “Once during a previous ruler’s reign there were bad omens. The city insulted its gods and was destroyed at their command. They chose me, Esarhaddon, to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, and soothe their rage.” The empire flourished under his reign. He successfully conquered Egypt (which Sennacherib had tried and failed to do) and established the empire’s borders as far north as the Zagros Mountains (modern day Iran) and as far south as Nubia (modern Sudan) (

We suggest the following interpretation.  Speaking to the inhabitants of Tyre and Zidon, the Lord says “Behold the land of the Chaldeans, the city of Babylon disappeared until the Assyrian king Esarhaddon rebuilt it for the inhabitants who had been driven into the wilderness.  The Assyrians set up the towers and palaces, for he (Sennacherib) had brought it to ruin.” The message is that the cities of Tyre and Zidon should fear Assyrian conquest.

Isaiah 23:15-18 Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years… the Lord will visit Tyre, and she shall turn to her hire

The amazing thing about Isaiah is how he sees into the Millennium.  While other prophets describe events up to the Millennium, Isaiah tells us of events that take place years later, in this case 70 years later.  It seems that the merchants of Babylon will mourn the destruction as prophesied in Revelation:

   The merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more…

    And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas, that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! For in on hour is she made desolate (Rev. 18:11, 19).

Seventy years into the Millennium, the mercantilism of the worldly will return.  Isaiah uses the imagery of a harlot calling for business from the street.  That may seem like unusual imagery to use for a Millennial event, but that is the idea, “she shall turn to her hire, and shall commit fornication with all the kingdoms of the world,” meaning that she will begin again to trade internationally and make money as in ancient days.  The difference, 70 years into the Millennium, is that the profits go to support those that worship the Lord, “for them that dwell before the Lord, to eat sufficiently, and for durable clothing.”