Oracles against Tyre: Pride before a Fall
Tyre was a formidable trading centre in Old Testament times. Yet it became proud and over-reached itself. Careful study of Ezekiel 26-28 can help the West to attain a God-given understanding of its current situation.
In the centuries that followed Solomon and Hiram, the balance of power shifted. Israel went into decline as the kingdom divided into two, Judah in the south separating from Israel in the north. Neither kingdom ever replicated the domination and prosperity enjoyed by David and Solomon.
In contrast, Tyre did rather well. It consolidated a prominent position in world trade, which was largely due to its favourable natural situation. Tyre was blessed with two excellent harbours, one on the mainland where part of the city was built and the other on an island, just offshore, which gave Tyre its name – Tyre means ‘rock’. The two were connected by a causeway that doubled the trading potential of the city. As a commercial centre Tyre was famous for her glassware and dyed materials, using purple and scarlet dye made from local shellfish.
True, Tyre was a small country, and so was vulnerable to interference from whichever major power happened to be dominating Middle Eastern politics. It came under the sway of Assyria when Assyrian power was at its height, but retained a partial autonomy through paying a large tribute. Tyre’s wealth meant that it could pay off grasping politicians. From about 630 BC Assyria was in decline, and for the next 45 years, Tyre’s sea-trade flourished, but the next major force to be reckoned with, Babylon, was looming on the horizon.
It is at this historical juncture that Ezekiel devotes three chapters of prophecy to Tyre. In them he reaches a height of poetic splendour unsurpassed in his whole book. Each chapter takes a different tack, though there are some connecting links between them. They were written, almost certainly, in 586, just after Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians.
In chapter 26, God pronounces judgment on Tyre because it has rejoiced over the downfall of Jerusalem, saying ‘Aha, broken is the gateway of the peoples’ (26:2). ‘Gateway’ suggests an intersecting point of international trade routes where tolls were probably exacted. It sounds as if Tyre is gloating that it has lost a serious commercial competitor. Even though Jerusalem’s fall lay within the purpose of God, as a punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, it is not for other nations to take pleasure in such things.
Tyre’s punishment is that it will become a bare rock (26:4, 14), a clear play on its name – all it will be fit for is fishermen spreading out their nets to dry. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is seen as the instrument of God’s judgment, bringing all his formidable military resources to bear on Tyre in a relentless siege operation, followed by plundering and destruction (26:7-12).
The neighbouring small city-states, which are dependent on Tyrian trade for their prosperity, will be shocked and dismayed at the city’s downfall. A shudder goes through them as they witness the overthrow of the apparently impregnable island fortress (26:15-18). Ezekiel pictures Tyre’s ruin as being so complete it will be like a descent to the Pit or Sheol. In highly figurative language the city is described as being submerged beneath the waves of the sea, gone to inhabit an underground from which there is no return. Tyre actually experienced such a demise in 551 AD, when the Lebanese coast was hit by a major earthquake and tsunami, and most of the island city disappeared under water.
Chapter 27 has a different feel to it. The prophet tells the story of Tyre’s downfall in a contrasting way. This is a lamentation rather than a proclamation. Ezekiel is told by God to ‘raise a lamentation’ (27:2), and there is even the unusual literary device of a lament within a lament (27:32). In an inspired feat of poetic imagination, Ezekiel begins by picturing Tyre as a magnificent ship, superbly fitted out and expertly crewed, with plants, mast, deck, sail, awning and oars made out of timber of the highest quality or brightly coloured fabrics. He describes in detail the places that all these materials and men came from – 16 different locations are named. Keel of fir planks from Hermon, mast from cedar of Lebanon, oars of oak from Bashan…so it goes on. Rowers, pilots, caulkers and mercenary soldiers all get a mention, because each made a notable contribution: ‘they gave you splendour’ (27:10); ‘they made perfect your beauty’ (27:11).
Next Ezekiel catalogues the countries that Tyre traded with and the products in which she traded (27:12-25). This time 26 places are named, systematically arranged from Tarshish in the west up to Damascus in the north and then on to exotic Arabian place-names in the east. Judah and Israel are in the middle of the list, which makes sense geographically, but without special prominence: they are mentioned for their agricultural produce. No less than 40 different items of merchandise are itemised, and a fascinating selection they are too, including fine linen, ivory tusks, white wool, wrought iron, sweet cane, precious stones and top quality carpets. All this detail is consistent with what we know of Tyre’s trading exploits from other sources.
Why does Ezekiel provide this plethora of detail? Surely to build up an impression of formidable power. We are confronted by a city that is highly self-confident, a confidence borne of affluence, commercial skill, and using the most advanced technology of the day. Tyre was no mean city.
However, the irony is that the fine ship Tyre is so laden with goods that in heavy seas and a fierce east wind she sinks to the bottom of the ocean (27:25-27). Tyre’s downfall takes place ‘in the heart of the seas’ – a phrase that recurs three times (27:25, 26, 27) – which was the very place where Tyre felt secure and supreme. And its fall inspires lament: the mariners and pilots ‘stand on the shore and wail aloud over you’ (27:29-30). As in chapter 26 we have a picture of an intense and prolonged process of mourning.
It is striking how the seafarers give credit to Tyre’s achievements. ‘When your wares came from the seas you satisfied many peoples; with your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth’ (27:33). Solomon back in the 10th century was a notable example. Tyre had been a creator of wealth not just for itself but for others as well.
There is no explicit criticism of Tyre in Ezekiel 27. For the prophet, this is an astonishingly neutral piece of reporting. But verse 3 contains a hint of God’s perspective, though this too feels like it is spoken in sorrow rather than anger: ‘Thus says the Lord God: O Tyre, you have said, “I am perfect in beauty”. Tyre had a very good opinion of itself. Was that the seeds of its downfall?
Chapter 28 answers that question in the affirmative. Here the prophet is back in judgment mode. It is precisely because Tyre’s heart is proud and has said ‘I am a god’ that the real God is brining enemies against it. Even here, however, there is a plaintive, regretful sense about what is happening. The fact is that Tyre had a very impressive record of achievement: ‘by your wisdom and understanding you have amassed wealth for yourself, and have gathered gold and silver into your treasures. By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your wealth…’
It is interesting that in Zechariah 9:2 Tyre and Sidon are described as ‘very wise’. Tyre may have been blessed with a fine natural situation, but she had certainly made the most of it: all credit for the initiative and ingenuity which her trading record revealed. Nevertheless, she had become proud, which is always a peril of success. Tyre is sternly reminded twice: ‘You are but a mortal, and no god’ (28:2, 9). The king or prince of Tyre at the time was Itobaal II, but no details are given about him: the criticism feels not so much a personal attack on him as a comment on the ethos of Tyre as an entirety.
In Ezekiel 28:11-19 the story is retold in an unexpected way. The king of Tyre is pictured as an epitome of perfect primeval man, in the garden of Eden, or ‘holy mountain of God’ (28:13-14). He is dressed in ten magnificent precious stones which are a clear allusion to Tyre’s prosperity. This oracle is a fresh take on Genesis 1-3. Ezekiel brings out just as clearly as the Genesis writer both the perfection of God’s human creation: ‘You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty’ (27:12); ‘you were blameless in your ways, from the day you were created’ (27:15) and the headlong nature of man’s fall: ‘I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God’ (27:16); ‘I cast you to the ground’ (27:17). The message is clear. It is precisely the greatness of Tyre’s status that serves to accentuate the tragedy of its fall.
The main problem, as we have seen, was Tyre’s self-congratulatory pride. But Ezekiel now makes some adverse comments about Tyre’s practice of trade. ‘In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence and you sinned’ (28:16); ‘in the unrighteousness of your trade, you profaned your sanctuaries’ (28:18).
It is precisely here, of course, that we would like to know more. In what way was Tyre filled with violence? In what respects was its trade unrighteous? Was one objectionable feature the way that it traded in human beings, as indicated by 27:13, ‘they exchanged human beings and vessels of bronze for your merchandise’? Did the power of its position lead it to bully and threaten trading partners? That would be a natural consequence of its pride.
Is all this of merely historical interest? I don’t think so. Ezekiel’s oracles against Tyre can help the countries of the West to arrive at a properly nuanced understanding of our situation. We live in an age of polarised views, with some in the West being blithely complacent about global capitalism, others fiercely critical.
In the words of Harvard economic historian David Landes, some see the European dominance of the last 500 years as ‘the triumph of good over bad. The Europeans, they say, were smarter, better organised, harder working. The others wee ignorant, arrogant, lazy, backward, superstitious.’ Others see it as a triumph of bad over good. ‘The Europeans, they say, were aggressive, ruthless, greedy, unscrupulous, hypocritical; their victims were happy, innocent, weak – waiting victims and hence thoroughly victimised.’
Personally, I believe there are elements of truth in both views. The West (Europe and North America) deserves some credit for what it has achieved in terms of wealth creation. In particular, it has generated wealth partly through commendable cultural habits, factors such as a disciplined work ethic, integrity in public service, and a capacity for innovation and enterprise. National cultures vary how strongly they score on these different criteria.
But here’s the rub – sixth century Tyre could probably have claimed the same. They too appear to have displayed industriousness and ingenuity. They had much to commend them, as Ezekiel 27 and 28 make clear. But the fact that there is much in Tyre’s achievements and the West’s achievements which are good and impressive should not blind us to the things that are bad and unjust. The West has generated wealth for itself partly through treating the ‘Rest’ unfairly – through bullying, slavery and exploitation. So we too fall under the judgment of God. We are exposed to his searching gaze.
The tragedy is that many people in these countries whose collective faith inspired their economic ascent no longer acknowledge this God at all. I shared these thoughts on Ezekiel at a Faith and Business conference in Uppsala, attended by 25 businessmen from Sweden and Norway. They could see the relevance of these chapters to their situation, as I can to the UK. Sweden and Norway are admirable countries in many ways. They are populated by hard-working people, notably free of the scourge of corruption and with a strong egalitarian commitment to reducing the disparities of wealth. Having experienced their own banking crisis in the early 1990s, they learnt from their mistakes and have come through the global financial crisis relatively untroubled.
Yet these countries with a strong Lutheran heritage have largely abandoned it; very few Swedes and Norwegians go to church. Secularisation is accelerating fast. The danger is that they, like us, become complacent and take pride in their own efforts. I am not suggesting that Stockholm, Oslo or London are about to slide under the sea, as Ezekiel prophesied about Tyre. But I do believe we forsake the faith of our forefathers at our peril, and that there are likely to be unpleasant surprises for people who become ‘wise in their own eyes’ (Is 5:21)
Excerpt from Faith, Hope & the Global Economy, pp.79-84