Isaiah 23
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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 burden of Tyre . . .—The chapter calls us to enquire into the political relations of Tyre at the time of Isaiah. These we learn, partly from Scripture itself, partly from Assyrian inscriptions. In the days of David and Solomon there had been an intimate alliance between Israel and Hiram, King of Tyre. Psalm 45:12 indicates at least the interchange of kingly gifts, if not the acknowledgment of sovereignty by payment of tribute. Psalm 83:7, which we have some reason to connect with the reign of Uzziah, shows that this alliance had passed into hostility. The position of Tyre naturally threw it into more intimate relations with the northern kingdom; “its country was nourished by the king’s country” then as in the days of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:20), and there seems reason to believe that the son of Tabeal, whom Pekah and Rezin intended to place upon the throne of Judah, was the son of a Tyrian ruler. (See Note on Isaiah 7:6.) It was, at this time, the most flourishing of the Phœnician cities, and had succeeded to the older fame of Zidon. The action of Ahaz in inviting the help of Tiglath-pileser against Israel and the Syrians had tended to make Tyre also an object of attack by the Assyrian armies. The prophecy now before us would seem to have been connected with that attack, and foretells the issue of the conflict on which Tyre had rashly entered. Upon that issue light is thrown by the inscriptions of the Assyrian kings. Sargon records that he “plundered the district of Samaria and the whole house of Omri,” and “reigned from Yatnan (Cyprus), which is in the midst of the sea of the setting sun . . . from the great Phœnicia and Syria. . . . to all the cities of remote Media” (Records of the Past, vii. 27). Sennacherib boasts of a victory over the land of the Hatti (i.e., Hittites); “fear overwhelmed Luti, the king of Zidon,” and “he fled to Yatnan, which is in the midst of the sea,” and the Assyrian “placed Tubalu” (the Tabeal of Isaiah) on the throne of the kingdom (Records of the Past, vii. 61). In anticipation of these events, the prophet utters his note of warning to the great merchant city. It seems more natural to connect it with those events, which came within the horizon of his vision, than to refer it, as some interpreters have done, to the later siege of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar. The mention of the Chaldeans as having been subdued by the Assyrians, which fits in with Sargon’s and Sennacherib’s victories over Merôdach-baladan (Records of the Past, vii. 45, 59), who endeavoured to establish an independent kingdom in Babylon (see Note on Isaiah 39:1), and is, of course, entirely inapplicable to the time of Nebuchadnezzar, seems, indeed, to be decisive as to this question.

Howl, ye ships of Tarshish . . .—See Note on Isaiah 2:16. The prophet sees, as in vision, the argosies of Tyre speeding on their way homeward across the Mediterranean from Tarshish (Spain), and bids them raise their lamentation over the coming fate of their city. They will hear that their city has been taken, that there is no access to its harbours. At Chittim (Cyprus, or, probably, Citium, the chief Phœnician colony of the island), the tidings which burst upon them were as a revelation, confirming the vague rumours they had heard before.

Be still, ye inhabitants of the isle; thou whom the merchants of Zidon, that pass over the sea, have replenished.
(2) Inhabitants of the isle . . .—Better, coast. The word was specially appropriate to the narrow seaboard strip of land occupied by the Phœnicians—Zidon, the older city, the “great Zidon” of Joshua 11:8; Joshua 19:28, appearing as the representative of Phœnicia generally. It was her commerce that had filled Tyre and the other daughter cities. The “dumbness” to which the prophet calls the people is that of stupefied terror.

And by great waters the seed of Sihor, the harvest of the river, is her revenue; and she is a mart of nations.
(3) By great waters the seed of Sihor . . .—Sihor (“the dark river”) is as in Jeremiah 2:18, a Hebrew name for the Nile. The corn-trade with Egypt (Ezekiel 27:7, adds the linen-trade) was naturally a chief branch of Tyrian commerce. Practically, indeed, as the Egyptians had no timber to build ships, and, for the most part, hated the sea, their navy consisted of Phœnicians. Tyre practically reaped the harvest that sprang from the inundation of the Nile. For “mart,” read gain. The “great waters” are those of the great sea, i.e., of the Mediterranean.

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) Be thou ashamed, O Zidon . . .—Zidon is addressed as the mother-city of Tyre. The “strength” (or fortress) of the sea is the rock-island on which the new Tyre was built. She sits as a widow bereaved of her children, with no power to renew the population which once crowded her streets. (Comp. Lamentations 1:1.)

As at the report concerning Egypt, so shall they be sorely pained at the report of Tyre.
(5) As at the report concerning Egypt . . .—Better, When the report cometh to Egypt . . . The news of the capture of Tyre would cause dismay in Egypt, partly because the export trade of their corn depended upon it, partly because it had served as a kind of outpost against the Assyrians, who, under Sargon (Records of the Past, vii. 34) and Sennacherib (2Kings 18:21; 2Kings 19:8), were pressing on against the Ethiopian dynasty then dominant in Egypt.

Pass ye over to Tarshish; howl, ye inhabitants of the isle.
(6) Pass ye over to Tarshish . . .—The words have the ring of a keen irony. The Tyrians are told to go to Tarshish, the extreme point of their commerce; not, as before, to bring back their wealth, but to seek safety there as exiles. No nearer asylum would give them safety. So, in the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great, the Tyrians sent their old men, women, and children to Carthage (Diod. Sic. xvii. 41). So Layard (Nineveh, plate 71) represents enemies of the Assyrians taking refuge in ships (Cheyne). The “isle” or “coast” is, as before, Tyre, and. its neighbourhoods.

Is this your joyous city, whose antiquity is of ancient days? her own feet shall carry her afar off to sojourn.
(7) Is this your joyous city . . .?—Tyre was, as has been said, of later origin than Zidon, but was the oldest of the daughter cities. Josephus (Ant. viii. 3. 1) fixes the date of its foundation at 240 years before Solomon.

Her own feet shall carry her.—The English version (tenable grammatically) points to the wanderings of exile. Another rendering, her feet are wont to carry her . . . is also legitimate, and fits in better with the context, which paints the past glory of Tyre in contrast with her coming calamities. So taken, the words point to her numerous colonies, of which Carthage was the chief.

Who hath taken this counsel against Tyre, the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth?
(8) The crowning city.—The participle is strictly transitive in its force. Tyre was the distributor of crowns to the Phœnician colonies. The Vulg., however, gives “crowned.”

Whose merchants are princes.—It is a fact worth noting in the history of language that the word for “merchants” here, and in Hosea 12:7; Proverbs 31:24, is the same as that for Canaanite. The traffickers of the earth were pre-eminently of that race.

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) The Lord of hosts hath purposed . . .—This is the prophet’s answer. The kings of Assyria were but instruments in the hand of Jehovah Sabaoth, working out what He had planned.

To stain the pride . . .—The primary meaning of the verb is to pollute or desecrate, possibly in reference to the destruction of the temples of Tyre, such e.g. as that of Melkarth, which was reported to be one of the most ancient in the world.

Pass through thy land as a river, O daughter of Tarshish: there is no more strength.
(10) Pass through thy land as a river . . .—The word for “river” is that used in Isaiah 23:3 with special reference to the Nile. Here the inundation of the Nile gives special force to the comparison. The daughter of Tarshish (i.e., Tarshish itself) is to spread and overflow in independent action. The colonies of Tyre are no longer subject to her, paying tribute or custom duties as she might ordain. There is no strength,” no “girdle” now to restrain them, no limit such as Tyre had imposed on their commerce or colonisation. It is significant that Cyprus revolted about this time, and that the Phœnician colonies took part in attacking the mother city under Sennacherib (Jos. Ant. ix. 14. 2).

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 shook the kingdoms.—The picture of the great convulsion of the time includes more than Tyre and its subject states. Egypt, Ethiopia, Babylon, Syria, Israel, Judah, were all affected, shaken as to their very foundations, by the rapid progress of the restored Assyrian empire under Tiglath-pileser and his successors.

Against the merchant city.—Literally, Canaan (the word “city” being an interpolation), taken here as equivalent to Phœnicia. So in Joshua 5:1, the LXX. translates “Canaanites” by “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) Thou oppressed virgin.—Strictly speaking, the noun and adjective are incompatible, the latter conveying the sense of defiled,” or deflowered.” Till now Tyre had known no defeat. Her fortress was a virgin citadel. Now the barbarian conqueror was to rob her of that virginity.

Pass over to Chittim.—With a keen irony the prophet gives a counsel which he declares will be of no avail. They may flee to Chittim (Cyprus); but the power of the Assyrians would reach them even there. Once and again the inscriptions of the Assyrian kings record how they subdued and took tribute from “Yatnan,” the “island in the sea of the setting sun,” which can be none other than Cyprus (e.g., Sargon in Records of the Past, vii. 26).

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) Behold, the land of the Chaldeans.—Heb., land of Kasdim. The prophet points to the destruction of one power that had resisted Assyria as an example of what Tyre might expect. The Assyrian inscriptions record the conquests referred to. Sargon relates his victory over the “perverse and rebellious Chaldæans,” who had rebelled under Merôdach-baladan (Records of the Past, vii. 41, 45). Towns were pillaged, 80,570 men carried away captive from a single city. Sennacherib (ibid., p. 59) boasts of having plundered Babylon itself, and all the “strong cities and castles of the land of the Chaldæans”; and again, of having crushed another revolt under Suzab the Babylonian (ibid., i. 47-49). The words that follow on this survey are better rendered: This people is no more: Asshur appointeth it for the desert beasts. They set up their towers, they destroy its palaces. The “towers are those of the Assyrian besiegers attacking Babylon; the palaces, those of the attacked. The words have, however, often been interpreted as pointing to the origin and migration of the Chaldæans, as having had scarcely any national existence till Assyria had brought them into the plains of the Euphrates. The English version seems based upon this interpretation of the passage. It is obvious, however, that such a fragment of ethnological history does not cohere well with the context, and gives a less satisfactory meaning. It is doubtful, too, whether the supposed history itself rests on any adequate evidence.

Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for your strength is laid waste.
(14) Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for your Strength is laid waste.—The prophecy of woe ends as it began in Isaiah 23:1. The “strength” is the fortress of Tyre.

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) Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years.—If we take the number literally, the seventy years may coincide with those of the captivity of Judah, during which, under the Chaldæan supremacy, Tyre was reduced to a state of comparative insignificance. It seems better, however, with Cheyne, to take it as a symbolic number for a long period of indefinite duration, and so, bringing it into closer connection with the context, to reckon the period from its conquest by the Assyrians.

According to the days of one king.—We look in vain for any ruler of Assyria or Babylon whose reign was of this length, and the words probably mean, as the days fixed by a kingi.e., by a despotic and absolute decree. Possibly, however, the “one king” may stand for one dynasty.

Shall Tyre sing as an harlot.—Literally, there shall be to Tyre as the song of the harlot, possibly referring to some well-known lyric of this type. The commercial city, welcoming foreigners of all nations as her lovers for the sake of gain, is compared to the prostitute who sells herself for money. (Comp. Revelation 17:2.)

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) Take an harp, go about the city . . .—In a tone half of irony and half of pity, the prophet tells the “harlot that had been forgotten” to return to her old arts of song (the singing women of the East were commonly of this class), and to go about once more with song and lyre, recalling her old lovers (i.e., her old allies) to the memory of their past love.

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) She shall turn to her hire.—The words indicate, in the strong imagery of Isaiah 23:15, the revival of the commercial prosperity of Tyre under the rule of the Persian kings. To that commerce there was to be no limit. The ships of all nations were once more to crowd her harbours.

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) Her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord.—The words seem to reverse the rule of Deuteronomy 23:18, which, probably not without a reference to practices like those connected with the worship of Mylitta (Herod., i. 99), forbade gifts that were so gained from being offered in the Sanctuary. Here, it seems to be implied, the imagery was not to be carried to what might have seemed its logical conclusion. The harlot city, penitent and converted, might be allowed, strange as it might seem, to bring the gains of her harlotry into the temple of the Lord. Interpreted religiously, the prophet sees the admission of proselytes to the worship of Israel in the future, as he had seen it probably in the days of Hezekiah (Psalm 87:4). Interpreted politically, the words point to a return to the old alliance between Judah and Tyre in the days of David and Solomon (1Kings 5:1-12), and to the gifts which that alliance involved (Psalm 45:12).

For them that dwell before the Lord . . .—These were probably, in the prophet’s thoughts, the citizens of Jerusalem, who were to find in Tyre their chief resource both for food and raiment. Traces of this commerce after the return of the Jews from the captivity are found in Nehemiah 13:16, “men of Tyre” bringing “fish and all manner of ware” to the gates of Jerusalem. Of the more direct service we find evidence in the fact that Tyrians and Zidonians contributed to the erection of the second Temple, as they had done to that of the first (Ezra 3:7).

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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