- The Explore the Bible Lesson for Sept. 27 focuses on Isaiah 23:8-18.
One of the most important themes of the Bible is God’s sovereignty over human history. This theme has prompted significant reflection, speculation and debate over the generations. How does God’s sovereignty relate to human free will and moral responsibility? Is God the author of evil? The questions quickly pile up the more you think about it.
The Bible is largely uninterested in engaging these speculative questions, however. The authors of Scripture are mostly comfortable letting these mysteries remain unsettled and letting readers live with the tension.
Rather than address the speculative questions concerning divine sovereignty, Scripture simply asserts the truth that God is in control of human affairs, even if the details remain a mystery. Today’s text, Isaiah 23:8-18, is one text of many that asserts God’s power over history, even over the most powerful and seemingly untouchable nations.
Tyre and Sidon
This text primarily is a prophecy of judgment against the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon. Both cities were neighbors of ancient Israel and Judah. Both cities appear frequently in the Old Testament, often as enemies of God’s people and recipients of God’s wrath.
Tyre was a fortified island city in the Mediterranean Sea. The city served as a center of maritime trade and was quite wealthy as a result. Beyond its wealth, Tyre’s unique location in the sea rendered it virtually invulnerable to attack. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon once spent 13 years laying siege to Tyre but ultimately failed.
Sidon was on the mainland coast of the Mediterranean and was another very wealthy center of maritime trade. Sidon is most notorious for being the home of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab and nemesis to the prophet Elijah. Like Tyre, Sidon was not part of God’s people and did not worship the Lord of Israel.
Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment against these cities does not occur in isolation but comes at the end of an extended series of oracles against various foreign nations, including Babylon and Egypt (chapters 13-23).
The bulk of our text (23:8-15a) is a series of condemnations and promises of punishment against Sidon and especially Tyre. Isaiah brings other nations into the matter, telling them to wail and mourn that their trade partners will soon be brought low. “Till your land as they do along the Nile, daughter Tarshish, for you no longer have a harbor” (23:10).
Isaiah’s oracles emphasize two aspects of God’s judgment against the cities: economic devastation and the destruction of fortresses (e.g., 23:8, 11). Tyre and Sidon believed their enormous wealth and influence made them virtually invulnerable, and Tyre especially believed—with good reason—that its fortifications could protect the city from any enemy.
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The Lord of Israel, however, makes it very clear that no amount of wealth or military might can provide ultimate protection. If God says Tyre and Sidon are going down, they’re going down. There is no way around it.
Isaiah refers Tyre and Sidon to the example of Babylon: “Look at the land of the Babylonians, this people that is now of no account! The Assyrians have made it a place for desert creatures… and turned it into a ruin” (23:13). Although Babylon would ultimately rise again and conquer Assyria, at the time of this prophecy Babylon had been crushed by the Assyrian empire.
Devastation, however, is not the final word of Isaiah’s prophecy against Tyre and Sidon. The final verses (23:15b-18) prophesy that Tyre will rise again. Granted, this rise is not presented as an especially positive occurrence.
Isaiah compares the risen Tyre to a prostitute: “Take up a harp, walk through the city, you forgotten prostitute; play the harp well, sing many a song, so that you will be remembered” (23:16). Isaiah here is emphasizing that Tyre’s return to prominence will be like a prostitute who returns to the street after being gone, once again plying her trade.
This return will take place after “seventy years, the span of a king’s life” (23:15), although this number may be symbolic. Tyre will spend an extended period of time in desolation and humiliation before rising again, but this return to “glory” will not be from Tyre’s own strength. God is sovereign, not human cities.
There is a twist, however. Tyre’s wealth “will be set apart for the Lord… . Her profits will go to those who live before the Lord” (23:18). This does not necessarily mean Tyre will repent and glorify God, but simply that God will claim Tyre’s wealth for himself and his people. It remains unclear when and how this prophecy will be fulfilled.
The Coming of Christ
God is not finished with Tyre and Sidon, however. An interesting story from the Gospel of Matthew carries these cities’ story into the New Testament. After an unpleasant exchange with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, Jesus withdraws “to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (15:21).
In this area, Jesus has an encounter with a “Canaanite” woman whose tenacity and faith impresses him. Despite this woman not being Jewish and being from a region notorious for its opposition to God and his people, she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and puts her faith in him to help her demon-possessed daughter (15:22-28).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does not send the disciples out to the Gentiles until the very end (chapter 28). However, this woman provides an early example of a Gentile pagan inexplicably recognizing and trusting Jesus, foreshadowing the influx of Gentiles to the people of God.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary.