Ezekiel's Prophecy Against Tyre (Ezekiel 26) November 17-18
Chapters 26-28 of Ezekiel contain a series of oracles against Tyre, the great Phoenician seaport and major trading center of the ancient world, located in what is now the country of Lebanon. The prophecy was given in the 11th year of Ezekiel's captivity on the first day of the month—but what month is not stated (26:1). Perhaps the month was considered as a given, following what was probably the previous date reference before the chapters of this section were rearranged thematically—the 11th year, third month, first day (31:1). This would mean the Tyre prophecies began later the same day—in the late spring of 587 B.C.
Tyre says of Jerusalem, "Aha! She is broken...she is laid waste" (verse 2). This could be a prophecy of what Tyre would say once Jerusalem had ultimately fallen to the Babylonians. Yet it could just as easily reflect what the Tyrians had already expressed when this prophecy was given. For with the siege against Jerusalem underway, onlookers from other countries no doubt said things like, "It's all over for Jerusalem."
Tyre says, "The gateway of the peoples...is turned over to me" (verse 2). "The people of Tyre were enthusiastic about the fall of Jerusalem, seeing it as an opportunity to further increase its own wealth. This was not only because Tyre expected to gain commissions from the sale of much of the Holy City's spoil, but also because Judah had controlled the important land trade routes in the area. Tyre, just 35 miles from the Sea of Galilee and 100 miles from Jerusalem, expected that more of the land routes' income would swell her own coffers" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Ezekiel 26). And there may be more to this, as we will see.
The remainder of the prophecy deals with punishment to come on Tyre. Verses 3-7 give a summary, and the passage that follows provides details. Some historical background and information on the layout of the city makes it easier to understand aspects of the prophecy. "Tyre was in effect [originally] two islands (they were later made one) joined to the mainland by King Hiram I [in the days of King Solomon]... In doing so he created ideal harbors, endorsing a seafaring tradition" (Karen Farrington, Historical Atlas of the Holy Land, 2003, p. 94). "Under Hiram's reign, Tyre flourished. The original layout of the city was in two parts: an offshore island, which was the older part of the city, and the overspill on the mainland. Hiram developed the island-city and used landfill to connect it to the other small islands nearby, and to the mainland by a narrow causeway" (Lonely Planet: Lebanon, 2001, p. 231).
Tyre was later incorporated into the Assyrian Empire. After the fall of Assyria, the city submitted to Nebuchadnezzar's Neo-Babylonian Empire. At the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign, Tyre plotted with Judah and other nations against Babylon, but nothing then came of it. But soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Tyre did rebel, leading to a siege by the Babylonians. The siege lasted for 13 long years, during which the Babylonian soldiers were worked very hard (see Ezekiel 29:18). "During the siege, the Tyrians destroyed a causeway which had connected the offshore islands to the mainland [the one Hiram had built], and retreated behind the [island] city's walls, said to be 50 metres (160 ft) high" (Insight Guide: Syria & Lebanon, 2000, p. 316). Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the mainland part of the city but really had nothing to show for all his efforts, having failed to capture the city's vast wealth. Grudgingly, the island city did again acknowledge his sovereignty but remained semi-autonomous—though the Tyrian king and royal family were deported to Babylon, in line with what Jeremiah had foretold in Jeremiah 27.
The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians in 539 B.C. In 525, the Persians sent forces to exert their control over Western Asia and Egypt. Tyre then became a Persian vassal state.
"The next in Tyre's long line of strongman-conquerors was more successful than Nebuchadnezzar. Alexander the Great was able to conquer the known world following his defeat of the Persian army and, in 332 BC, he marched along coastal Phoenicia exacting tribute from all its city-states. In its time-honoured tradition, Tyre alone decided to resist. The city was thought to be impregnable, but upon arriving in 332 BC Alexander built a mole or breakwater in the sea to reach the city [essentially rebuilding Hiram's causeway from the rubble of the mainland city]. This impressive feat was carried out under a hail of missiles. At the same time on the mainland, Alexander's engineers were constructing huge mobile towers called helepoleis, which at 20-storeys high, were the tallest siege towers ever used in the history of war. After seven months these great war machines lumbered across the mole and lowered the drawbridge, unleashing archers and artillery on the city. Tyre fell after seven months and Alexander, enraged at the dogged resistance of the Tyrians which had caused heavy Greek losses, destroyed half the city. The city's 30,000 citizens were massacred or sold into slavery. This destruction heralded the domination of the Greeks in the Mediterranean" (Lonely Planet: Lebanon, pp. 231-232).
"The history of the city did not end there, however. Eighteen years after Alexander captured the city it was again besieged, this time by Antigonus, one of Alexander's generals. That the city was far from indefensible is demonstrated by the fact that it took 15 months for Antigonus to capture it. Far greater than the damage caused by Alexander's siege was the reopening of the canal connecting the Red Sea with the Egyptian port of Alexandria. This diverted much of the trade that had formerly passed through Tyre" (Robert Bradshaw, "Tyre," 1999, http://www.robibrad.demon.co.uk/tyre.htm).
"The city...after a period of Seleucid rule following Alexander's death, became autonomous in 126 BC. In 64 BC, Tyre became a Roman province and later became the capital of the Roman province of Syria-Phoenicia... By the 4th century AD it had recovered some of its former splendour and a basilica was built on the site of the former temple of Melkart... The city was taken by the Arabs in 635, and its prosperity continued... People from other coastal cities had fled to Tyre when the Crusaders started to take the Middle East in 1124. They felt safe behind Tyre's 'impregnable' walls. After a siege of five and a half months, Tyre's defenses collapsed and the Christian army occupied the city and the surrounding fertile land. The Crusaders built the defensive walls and Tyre remained in Crusader hands for 167 years until the Mamluk army...retook the city in 1291. Over time, the classical and early Christian remains were demolished and the worked stone reused in later buildings. The ports were silted up and the mole which connected the island to the mainland became a sand bar; the city of Tyre became a peninsula which is now covered in modern buildings"—the modern Lebanese city of Sor or Sour (Lonely Planet: Lebanon, pp. 232-233).
With this history in mind, let's look at some specifics of Ezekiel's prophecy. God said that He would bring "many nations" against Tyre as "waves" of the sea (Ezekiel 26:3). The plurality of nations could conceivably refer to the many peoples that made up the Babylonian Empire. Or they could refer to a succession of nations that would conquer Tyre over the centuries. Either interpretation fits Ezekiel's prophecy. Notice again that they come as waves. While this is a fitting metaphor for military forces assaulting a seaport or an island city, it may also signify successive conquests. Again, either interpretation fits.
Verses 7-11 refer specifically to the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar. Since the Babylonian ruler did not take the island citadel, the heart of the city, the destruction described in this passage must refer to what he would do to the mainland city and Tyre's "daughter villages in the fields"—that is, outlying villages on the mainland. Nebuchadnezzar is denoted in these verses by name and then by the pronoun "he."
But in verse 12, the pronoun switches from "he" to "they"—perhaps referring back to the "they" of verse 4, denoting the many nations that would come against Tyre. In verses that follow, God uses the pronoun "I" to show that He is ultimately behind what is happening.
Notice the pronouncement of verse 12. God says that "they"—the nations to follow Nebuchadnezzar—would be successful in plundering Tyre. More remarkably, it is stated that they would lay the stones, timber and soil of Tyre "in the midst of the water." This must be, at least on some level, a reference to what Alexander's forces did. They dumped the rubble of the mainland city into the sea to rebuild the causeway out to the island fortress. It is surely no mere coincidence that Alexander's army conquered the city in this amazing way. Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city, but he did not accomplish all that was prophesied for Tyre. Alexander went further, casting the rubble from Nebuchadnezzar's destruction into the sea and plundering the wealth of Tyre by capturing the island city.
But did Alexander, then, completely accomplish the prophesied ruin of Tyre? God said He would scrape the dust from Tyre, leaving it like the top of a rock (verses 4, 14). He also said it would be a place for spreading nets in the midst of the sea, sunk in the deep (verses 5, 14, 19). In both cases, this could perhaps apply to what Alexander did to the mainland city area, scraping it bare for material to cast into the sea to construct his causeway. Yet nothing of the sort happened, or has ever happened, to the main city—the island city that was protected by 160-foot-high walls. Alexander did conquer it but obviously did not lay it waste as the prophecy would seem to imply. Some of the island city is now below water, but most of the ancient island remains a thriving city to this day.
God said of Tyre, "You shall never be rebuilt... so that you may never be inhabited... You shall be no more; though you are sought for, you will never be found again" (verses 14, 20-21). It is difficult to reconcile this with the history of Tyre up to the present time. It is possible that God was speaking exclusively of the mainland area. While there are Roman ruins on what used to be the mainland coast, seeming to indicate rebuilding, it may be that the original Phoenician city was located not here but somewhere nearby. Regrettably, if the original mainland city was completely scraped bare, we don't know exactly where it was located—which could conceivably fit the description of never being found again. (Curiously, an uninhabited area a bit south of the modern Tyrian peninsula surrounding several major freshwater springs has been declared a nature reserve, with construction forbidden by law—an interesting way to keep it from being rebuilt if this is the site of ancient mainland Tyre.)
Yet it seems odd that God's announcement of doom on Tyre would apply primarily to the mainland overspill of the city and not the main island city itself with its towering walls. Indeed, notice verse 13, where God says, "I will put an end to the sound of your songs, and the sound of your harps shall be heard no more." Consider that before the mainland city was destroyed, the people simply moved a half-mile out across the water to the island citadel—where singing and music could still be heard (and can still be heard today). So it seems likely that Alexander did not accomplish all that God had foretold for the city's destruction.
Notice again the summary of Tyre's judgment in verses 3-7, ending with the intended purpose in punishment: "Then they shall know that I am the LORD" (verse 7). Recall from chapters 25 and 29-30 that the same thing is said of the outcome of punishment on Judah's other national neighbors, which seems to signify that ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies will not come until the end time. Jeremiah had warned Tyre's ruler that sword, famine, pestilence and slavery would come on those nations that failed to submit to Babylon (Jeremiah 27)—but many of the Tyrians escaped destruction or captivity in Nebuchadnezzar's time, and it is likely that nothing of what Jeremiah said was recalled by anyone in Tyre at the time of Alexander. Indeed, the Tyrians as a people did not really come to know that the true God was God in either Nebuchadnezzar's or Alexander's invasions. Most of them probably did not even know that God had pronounced any judgment against them at all.
Indeed, there are other indications of duality in the prophecies of Tyre in chapters 26-28, pointing to fulfillment in ancient times and the end time. One is the similarity of the description of Tyre and its fall in chapter 27 to that of end-time Babylon in Revelation 18. Another indication is the obvious parallel with other prophecies of Tyre that are apparently dual in nature, such as the one in Amos 1:9-10 and Isaiah 23.
Furthermore, we've already seen in Isaiah 13 and Jeremiah 50-51 another parallel: God's prophecies of Babylon's utter destruction and desolation, where He states that it would never be resettled or rebuilt—even though the site of ancient Babylon has been resettled and parts of it rebuilt over the centuries. As noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on those passages, the explanation is that God is speaking primarily there of end-time Babylon, a powerful global empire, religious system and trading bloc centered in Rome in the years just prior to Jesus Christ's return. In fact, God foretold of Babylon through Jeremiah: "How Babylon has become desolate among the nations! The sea has come up over Babylon; she is covered with the multitude of its waves" (Jeremiah 51:41-42). Is not this very close to what God foretold of Tyre through Ezekiel?
In the Bible Reading Program's comments on Isaiah 13 and 23, it was explained that many people of Babylonian and Phoenician descent eventually displaced the Romans and became spread across southern Europe. Thus, the European empire of the last days can logically be referred to as either Babylon or as Tyre, the chief Phoenician city. The end-time Babylonian capital, the city of Rome, is located close to the sea. And figuratively, the waters from which Babylon rises and over which it rules represent "peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues" (Revelation 17:15)—back into which this great power bloc will sink when it is at last overrun by those it has oppressed.
With this in mind, consider again Tyre's statement against Jerusalem in Ezekiel 26:2: "She is broken who was the gateway of the peoples; now she is turned over to me; I shall be filled." In other prophecies in the book of Ezekiel, Jerusalem is often representative of all Israel in the end time. So this particular verse, besides the ancient application, may also portray a future "Tyre" or "Babylon" rejoicing over the fall of modern-day "Israel" (meaning the United States, Britain, the Jewish people, etc.), seeking to take over the Israelites' position as gatekeeper of world commerce and banking and to seize their wealth. In any case, we know from other prophecies that this will happen—and that it will bring God's judgment.
Finally, it is clear that the destructions of ancient Tyre under Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander did indeed fulfill important elements of God's prophecy in Ezekiel 26. But these did not constitute complete and final fulfillment. They were, in fact, mere precursors to the ultimate fall of the latter-day "Tyre" at the time of Christ's second coming, when the whole Babylonian-Tyrian system will be plundered, stripped bare and destroyed forever—never to rise again.