Isaiah 23:1-18 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. Isaiah 23 contains an oracle about Tyre and her sister city Sidon. What are we told about these city-states in verses 2-3 (printed below?) Note: The Shihor was a branch of the Nile River.

Be silent, you inhabitants of the coastland—you who were enriched by the merchants of Sidon who crossed the seas. (3) Across the great waters came the grain of the Shihor; the harvest of the Nile was stored at Tyre, she supplied the nations. (Isaiah 23:2-3)

The prophecy of Isaiah 23 focuses on Tyre; this seaport located north of Israel became the greatest maritime power in the ancient world. According to verse 2, Tyre, (also identified with her sister city, Sidon), was the great merchant who crossed the seas, she was the center of international commerce. A prime example of her commercial trade is given in verse 3: the merchants of Tyre were the transporters of the vast grain reserves of Egypt to the nations of the world. The ships of Tyre would load up with grain along the banks of the Shihor (a branch of the Nile River), that great grain harvest was then transported to the home port of Tyre and from there her ships set sail for a vast variety of foreign ports.

2. What has happened to Tyre (see verse 1 printed below?) Who is responsible for this (see verses 8-9; also, verses 11-12 printed below?)

The oracle concerning Tyre. Wail, O ships of Tarshish!—because Tyre is destroyed and left without house or harbor. The report has come to them from the isle of Cyprus. (Isaiah 23:1)

Who planned this against Tyre, the city who bestows crowns, the city whose merchants are princes and whose traders are famous throughout the earth? (9) Jehovah of hosts planned it, in order to defile the splendor of every glorious thing, to humble all those who were famous throughout the earth… (11) He has stretched out his hand over the sea, he has made the kingdoms tremble; Jehovah has issued an order concerning Canaan, namely, that her fortresses be destroyed. (12) He declared, You shall no longer rejoice, O virgin daughter of Sidon, you who are now ravaged. Get up, cross over to Cyprus; but even there you will find no rest. (Isaiah 23:8-9,11-12)

As the ships of Tarshish (a colony of Tyre located in Spain) head back to their home port of Tyre, stopping at the island of Cyprus, they receive the report: “Tyre is destroyed and left without house or harbor” (verse 1b). Verse 8 expresses the question, “Who planned this against Tyre?” Tyre was the great power who bestowed crowns (i.e.; she dictated to the world and honored those nations who cooperated with her), who could possibly have seized her crown and done such a devastating thing to her? The answer to the question of the nations is now given: “Jehovah of hosts has planned it” (verse 9a). Verse 11, stressing the sovereignty of the Lord, declares that He stretched out His hand over the sea, He shook the kingdoms, and He gave the commandment to destroy the strongholds of the merchants not only of Tyre, but of the whole coastline of Canaan.

3. What is the reaction of the nations located along the Mediterranean Sea when they learn what has happened to Tyre and Sidon? See Isaiah 23:5-7 (printed below) Note: Tarshish was a colony of Tyre located in Spain.

When word reaches Egypt, they will be in anguish at the report about Tyre. (6) Cross over all the way to Tarshish with the report; wail, you inhabitants of the coastlands. (7) Is this your jubilant city, whose origin goes back to ancient times, whose feet have taken her to colonize distant places? (Isaiah 23:5-7)

Verses 5-6 reveal the international ramifications of the conquest and downfall of Tyre. When the report of Tyre’s downfall reaches Egypt, it causes great anguish to the Egyptians; men become distressed because Egypt was dependent upon Tyre to transport her grain to the markets of the world (verse 5). The news of Tyre’s fall spreads as far as Tarshish, and all along the way it leaves nations mourning the loss of Tyre and their own consequent loss (verse 6). As the nations receive the incredible news of Tyre’s downfall, they are dumbfounded and ask, “Is this your jubilant city, whose origin goes back to ancient times, whose feet have taken her to colonize distant places?” (verse 7) The nations are expressing their astonishment, they cannot comprehend that such a thing could happen to Tyre, the city they have always known as being filled with joy, as being from ancient times (i.e.; firmly established with a long history of financial prosperity), and as being a colonizer of distant places.

4. According to verses 15-17, printed below (note especially verse 17), what will happen to Tyre after “seventy years?” Note: “Seventy years” is here used symbolically to designate a divinely-ordained length of time.

When that day occurs Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, the span of a king’s lifetime. After the seventy years it will happen to Tyre as in the Song of the Prostitute: (16) Take your harp, walk through the city, O prostitute who has been forgotten. Play a sweet melody on your harp; sing many songs, so that you may be remembered. (17) At the end of the seventy years Jehovah will visit Tyre. She will once again take up her profession; she will perform the role of a prostitute with all the kingdoms of the world that cover the face of the earth. (Isaiah 23:15-17)

According to verse 15a, from the date of its overthrow, Tyre shall be forgotten for “seventy years.” For a divinely appointed period of time (symbolically designated as “seventy years,”) this great empire of international business and trade shall lie prostrate under God’s hand of judgment. But at the conclusion of this divinely appointed length of time, this great international empire of business and finance shall re-emerge, fitting the description given in verses 15-17, namely, as an international “prostitute” of materialism. “The Song of the Prostitute,” probably a reference to a sailors’ drinking ballad, will truly depict what will happen in the case of Tyre. Tyre will be like the old forgotten prostitute who makes a comeback, once again strolling the streets, playing her harp, singing her songs, and seducing all passersby (verse 16). Described here is a great “prostitute” of materialism that seduces men away from God by offering them the wealth and “the good life” of this present world. Note: the original Tyre long ago passed off the scene of history, the “resurrected” Tyre spoken of in verses 15-17 prophetically represents a future nation (or future nations) that come to occupy the same position and possess the same attitudes that characterized ancient historical Tyre.

5. According to verse 18 (printed below,) what will finally be done with all the wealth of “Tyre?”

But her earnings and her profits will be dedicated to Jehovah. They will not be stored up or hoarded for herself; on the contrary, her earnings will purchase abundant food and fine clothing for those who dwell in the presence of Jehovah. (Isaiah 23:18)

According to verse 18, in the final analysis, all of “Tyre’s” wealth shall be “dedicated to Jehovah.” (Note: the Hebrew particle, usually rendered “and,” can at times be rendered “but;” this latter rendering seems to be appropriate in this particular passage.) The Lord tells us that the world and all that it contains belongs to Him (see Psalm 24:1-2). At the end of history the Lord will finally “re-confiscate” the wealth of the world and bestow it upon those “who dwell in the presence of Jehovah”—those who give Christ the pre-eminence in their lives and over every part of their lives. The redeemed of the Lord come to enjoy the treasures of the world as “abundant food and fine clothing” (verse 18c).