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  • Writer's picturemww

God Reigns - A Study of Isaiah 23

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

In Isaiah 13-23, God reminds the world powers that He, not they, is in charge of human history. We will focus on the example of Tyre and demonstrate how true this still is today.

But first, a Christmas Mission Challenge!

The pandemic has really gotten in the way of certain mission work. But that makes mission involvement all the more important! One thing we can do is send supplies to where they are needed. Our church participates in two such fall projects: Backpacks for Appalachia, and Operation Christmas Child.

Backpacks are due in October, so let's focus on that first. Our church has a goal of 75 backpacks. One of our Sunday School classes is challenging the rest of us: if each class packs just 5 backpacks, we will easily surpass that goal! Here's a short video with an overview:

You don't have to give through Sunday School. You can pack one as a family and deliver it to the church or the Association Office.

In November, we will talk about Christmas Shoeboxes.

Debate Your State!

Quick: what's the best state in the United States? I love a good ranking (even if it's basically meaningless). And it can lead to a fun discussion, especially if members of your group have lived in a bunch of different states. Google "best state" and you'll get more than you could ever want. (Don't take those ranks very seriously. In one "comprehensive rank" the best state is Iowa; in another it's Washington; in another it's New Hampshire. In one rank, Georgia is #38; in another it's #17; in another it's #31. You get the picture.) Of course, I got sucked into the black hole of meaningless internet content. Don't do that. Instead, let me give you two representative graphics. I have no idea where these sites got their information. I'm pretty sure some of these claims aren't even true! And that would actually be the point of this mental exercise. All best and worst ranks are ultimately subjective -- people find a statistic that validates their preconception and use that to create a "rank".

If you actually want to dive a little further into this topic, here is a 10-minute video by a YouTube channel I like called "RealLifeLore". They tend to produce videos that are measured and reasonable. I still don't know where they got their information, though! For example, at 2:05, they say that Georgia has the highest quality roads in the nation but the worst traffic. Debate that amongst yourselves.

Let's transition to a more serious place. Do ranks matter? Well, I would say that some of them do. If your state ranked poorly in statistics of violent crime or childhood literacy, that's something you would want to address!

[Aside on the Mission Georgia Offering. Ranks like that are where our Mission Georgia Offering come from. Georgia Baptists looked at five things that Georgia ranks poorly at and said "we need to do something about that". Human trafficking: Georgia ranks in the top 10 of states of reported cases of human trafficking. Prenatal care: Georgia ranks dead last in pregnancy-related deaths. Childhood literacy: 27% of GA 3rd graders were reading below grade level. Foster care: more than 12,000 children are currently in foster care in GA. Those are tangible examples of how state "ranks" can be meaningful and helpful.]

To illustrate this, we can look at countries. If I were to ask you about a country that is unsafe, which one comes to mind? How about a country with bad human rights? Or a country that's corrupt? Here are some rankings to help you gather your thoughts:

  • Worst countries for health and safety of women: 1. India. 2. Afghanistan. 3. Syria. 4. Somalia. 5. Saudi Arabia.

  • Worst countries to travel alone: 1. Saudi Arabia. 2. Oman. 3. Kazakhstan. 4. Lebanon. 5. Azerbaijan.

  • Worst countries for human development (education/health): 1. Niger. 2. Central African Republic. 3. South Sudan. 4. Chad. 5. Burundi.

  • Worst countries for controversy: 1. Saudi Arabia. 2. United States. 3. Poland. 4. United Arab Emirates. 5. Egypt.

  • Worst countries for personal freedom: 1. North Korea. 2. Democratic Republic of the Congo. 3. Central African Republic. 4. Syria. 5. Chad.

When I look at ranks like those, I come away with the impression that countries like India and Saudi Arabia and North Korea need to do something. I'm not sure what or how, but something needs to change, for the good of the people and the long-term future of the country.

If we dig far enough into enough ranks, just like in my silly example of what every state is "worst" at, we are going to find something that every country does poorly. Every country has its warts. Some of those warts are more serious than others, but no country is perfect.

It's an election cycle, so let's get briefly political. What are the commercials telling you that America (or Georgia) is not great at? What do you personally believe that America (or Georgia) is not great at? [Aside on handling political discussions in Sunday School: the purpose of this kind of question is not to argue about someone's personal opinion. Our personal opinions are ours; the purpose here is to share, not debate. And that actually leads into my bigger point for this topic.] Hopefully we all realize and acknowledge that America isn't perfect and even has some real weaknesses. And I hope that we will all use our rights as citizens to influence our government in the direction we think it needs to go!

But here's the most important thing I can say to tie all of this together with our lesson in Isaiah: These rankings and opinions are fine, but there's only one opinion that truly matters: God's. As Christians, we need to make sure that the opinions we express line up with what God would have us say. And we need to make sure that our votes line up with how God would have us vote. And whatever we think of our country (or any country) or our state, we need to care even more about what God thinks.

And that takes us to Isaiah 23.

Where We Are in Isaiah

My professor put chapters 13-27 in a section he called "Trusting God's Plans for the Nations". Other scholars extend this out to chapters 13-35 and give it the idea of "Trusting God or Trusting Other Nations". The idea is the same either way -- God is the One who controls the flow of history, so should you trust Him or the nations who act according to His plan?

Isaiah 7-12. Last week's lesson in Isaiah 7 opened a prophecy that ran through chapter 12. In it, God condemned His people Israel for their wickedness and declared that they would be punished for it. He also condemned Assyria -- though they were acting as His instrument of punishment, they would still be punished for their extreme wickedness. But this prophecy also contains a lot of hope that points us to Jesus. There's Isaiah 7:14: "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." There's also Isaiah 9:6: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given." But also Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse." (Really, all of Isaiah 11 is earthshattering.)

Isaiah 13-23. There's a sudden transition at Isaiah 13.

  • 13:1 -- "a prophecy against Babylon"

  • 14:3 -- a "taunt" against Babylon

  • 14:28 -- a "prophecy" against the Philistines [year given: 715 BC]

  • 15:1 -- "a prophecy against Moab"

  • 17:1 -- "a prophecy against Damascus"

  • 18:1 -- a prophecy against "Cush"

  • 19:1 -- "a prophecy against Egypt"

  • [Chapter 20 gives us historical referent. Assyria conquered Ashdod in 711 BC, and the Philistines fled to Egypt for protection. God declares that solution foolish.]

  • 21:1 -- a prophecy against Babylon

  • 21:11 -- a prophecy against Edom

  • 21:13 -- "a prophecy against Arabia"

  • 22:1 -- a prophecy against Jerusalem

  • 23:1 -- "a prophecy against Tyre"

And then, chapters 24-27 declare God's sovereignty over the whole earth. In fact, these chapters are sometimes called "The Little Apocalypse". So, you can see that these chapters go after everybody, not unlike what we read in Amos in David's recent sermon series on Amos. Isaiah did not necessarily give these prophecies at the same time, but he compiled them in this order to make a clear point: God is the Sovereign Actor in the world, not these temporary kingdoms that we're so worried about.

Babylon's double-inclusion is very important in this list. At this point in history, Babylon is still under Assyria's control. It will be more than 100 years before Babylon conquers Nineveh (612 BC). (And of course, this is a reason why skeptics believe that someone else wrote Isaiah hundreds of years later, because who can look into the future like that?!) Even though Babylon the city had always been a major center of culture and learning in the ancient world, it would have been surprising to the people to hear about Babylon as the dominant world power. There might even be some sarcasm at work. Remember how Isaiah lambasted Ahaz for thinking he could trust Assyria? Well, in chapter 39, Hezekiah is going to make the mistake of thinking he could trust Babylon. "Don't say I didn't warn you." The massive focus on Babylon in these chapters with just a tiny reference to Assyria shows just how ignorant humans are of the real dangers and powers in the world. There's some further sarcasm about this in chapter 22, in which Isaiah refers to Jerusalem as "the valley of vision". Some vision they have!

Babylon is the eastern-most power listed here; Type is the western-most. Many scholars believe this structure is intended to make us consider all the nations of the earth, not just those listed. And indeed in the next section Isaiah does go on to discuss the whole world.

About Tyre

Lifeway chose to focus on Tyre in this lesson, so here we go.

Tyre was a very important city in the ancient world, controlling a trading network that spanned the entire Mediterranean Sea. Tyre and Sidon were the chief cities of Phoenicia, a network of city-states that survived by being small, nimble, and seafaring. Ezekiel 27 tells us that the massive forests near then was the source of their impressive ship-building, and they used those ships to carve out a trading niche that made them very wealthy.

Tyre eventually became the chief city of the bunch due to its unique location. The main city lay on an island about 1/2 mile off the coast with two natural harbors and shorelines easily fortified with walls. Assyria laid siege to the city for 5 years without conquering it. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city for 13 years without breaking it. Indeed, it was almost the perfect location to defend; it took Alexander the Great bringing the entire might of Greece against it for it to finally fall. (Note that there was a mainland half of the city where they conducted all of their land trade. Assyria and Babylon easily destroyed this outpost and forced everyone to retreat to the island half of the city.)

Tyre might have seemed like the perfect city. Beautiful location. Perfect climate. Well-defended. Extremely wealthy. They had their act together. They supplied David and Solomon (and later Ezra) with the timbers for the palace and the temple (2 Sam 5, 1 Ki 5, Ezra 3). They were the envy of their neighbors (Ps 45:12). They had silver and gold galore (Zech 9:3). Ezekiel devotes 3 chapters to prophecies about Tyre! (Eze 26-28) Even in Jesus' day, after the destruction by Greece, Tyre was a very important port city and trading center under the control of the Romans.

Isaiah 23:1-7. Our lesson picks up in verse 8. Let's quickly cover what we skip:

23:1 A pronouncement concerning Tyre:

Wail, ships of Tarshish, for your haven has been destroyed.

Word has reached them from the land of Cyprus.

2 Mourn, inhabitants of the coastland, you merchants of Sidon;

your agents have crossed the sea 3 over deep water.

Tyre’s revenue was the grain from Shihor—the harvest of the Nile.

She was the merchant among the nations.

4 Be ashamed, Sidon, the stronghold of the sea, for the sea has spoken:

“I have not been in labor or given birth.

I have not raised young men or brought up young women.”

5 When the news reaches Egypt, they will be in anguish over the news about Tyre.

6 Cross over to Tarshish; wail, inhabitants of the coastland!

7 Is this your jubilant city, whose origin was in ancient times,

whose feet have taken her to reside far away?

Tarshish, a city in Spain (see Jonah 1:3) demonstrated the vast extent of Tyre's trading empire. In this prophecy, people sailing from Tarshish to Tyre will stop at Cyprus and hear of Tyre's downfall. Merchants from Egypt will also get the news and mourn. Tarshish and Egypt were major trading partners with Tyre; Tarshish bought most of its good from them, and Egypt sold most of its good to them. A disruption of trade with Tyre would cause significant economic hardship in many places on the Mediterranean. In this case, it means that those places can no longer afford to send merchants abroad on trade missions (and the loss of trade just makes the trade recession worse!).

It would be no different today. We all know that labor conditions in India and China are deplorable, but we benefit greatly from the low prices. If something shut down production in those trade empires (like, say, a pandemic) we might rejoice that those places deserve to suffer for their crimes against workers, but we would also complain about the effect on cell phone prices and refrigerator availability, right?

God's prophecies are so powerful and visceral because they're so sardonic -- cynical and mocking. The world is crashing down as God rains judgment for the wickedness of humanity, and yet God knows that the initial human reaction will always be selfish. The challenge is to set aside our care of how judgment impacts us and to acknowledge that God is right and just in His judgments.


Part 1: God Is Just (Isaiah 23:8-12)

8 Who planned this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose traders are princes, whose merchants are the honored ones of the earth? 9 The Lord of Armies planned it, to desecrate all its glorious beauty, to disgrace all the honored ones of the earth. 10 Overflow your land like the Nile, daughter of Tarshish; there is no longer anything to restrain you. 11 He stretched out his hand over the sea; he made kingdoms tremble. The Lord has commanded that the Canaanite fortresses be destroyed. 12 He said, “You will not celebrate anymore, ravished young woman, daughter of Sidon. Get up and cross over to Cyprus—even there you will have no rest!”

No one takes up a taunt like God. His woes are devastating and terrifying.

To start, God picks up the primary theme of this section: who is really in charge here - the nations or God? Who should you really put your trust in - the nations or God?

Tyre's commercial trading empire was incredible and unparalleled. No one saw it coming to an end. (Well, no one except God.) Look at that description of Tyre: they were so wealthy they could make kings! Their regular traders were so powerful they were treated like royalty! Their common merchants were held in the highest esteem by everyone!

There are so many modern illustrations you could consider to hammer this idea.

The extent of Britain's influence in the early 1900s is almost incomprehensible. (You could do a deep dive into Portugal's empire, or Spain's empire, or the Netherland's empire to similar effect.) Where is it today?

Japan's technological dominance was unparalleled in the 1980s and 90s, but now they run a distant second behind South Korea. In the 1970s, people really thought that the USSR would be the dominant global power for generations, and now they scrape and claw for regional influence. And most pointedly, can you imagine a world in which America's hegemony has vanished? Maybe we can imagine it, but how many of us actually think something like that would happen? That's the impact of what Isaiah is saying.

Tyre's vast influence will be gone. Why? How? Because God Almighty -- the Lord of Armies -- has decided that it would be so. And there would be nothing Tyre could do about it. Eventually, human rulers cross a line of arrogance that God cannot leave unchecked. That's what happened at Babel. Nebuchadnezzar and Herod are two highlighted examples later in the Bible. (Coincidentally, men from Tyre were the ones stroking Herod's ego to the point that God ended his life - Acts 12.)

Back to verse 10. This is a disputed verse -- translated literally is "Cross over your land, like the Nile, daughter of Tarshish, there is no more waistband". This could mean (1) people of Tarshish should turn to agriculture like in Egypt because they can no longer trade for food with Tyre. Or (2) because Tyre is no longer there to dominate trade, Tarshish can become a merchant powerhouse. Or (3) Tarshish will soon be in the same kind of trouble as Tyre and so the people should flee. The point is that, per verse 11, God has brought this mighty city down and so all nations should tremble before Him. The Phoenicians used to be Canaanites; God probably used that term here to remind of their ancient animosity for God.

Sidon doesn't escape notice. It was the parent city of Tyre only to be eclipsed by Tyre's better geography. Sidon was the next stop to Cyprus, a very important trading stop in the Mediterranean (for example, Acts 13). But even the people fleeing from Tyre or Sidon to Cyprus would have no rest. (This is literally true; inscriptions indicate that King Sargon of Assyria conquered Cyprus in 709 BC.) (Remember, few of these prophecies are dated. It's probable that they were given sometime during the decade after Ahaz died in 715 BC.)

In other words, there is no escaping God's justice. (By the way, "delayed" justice is not the absence of justice because God metes out perfect eternal justice on the other side of death.)


Part 2: God Is Active (Isaiah 23:13-14)

13 Look at the land of the Chaldeans—a people who no longer exist. Assyria destined it for desert creatures. They set up their siege towers and stripped its palaces. They made it a ruin. 14 Wail, ships of Tarshish, because your fortress is destroyed!

So, here's a deep dive into history. I've already taken some rabbit trails today, so I'll keep this one short. [Aside on the value of time limits and the need to keep a "teaching plan": you always want to make sure that the rabbit trails you follow do not prevent you from thoroughly covering what's actually important in a Bible passage!]

Chaldea, depending on how you define it, is the ancient civilization. Abraham came from there (Gen 11). "Chaldean" is the name given to any of the nomadic tribes that lived throughout the region. Babylon was the chief city, and over time he terms "Chaldean" and "Babylonian" would be used interchangeably. At different moments in history, the Chaldeans would be the most important peoples in the entire Persian Gulf region.

But Assyria was able to dominate them without much trouble. This once-great people would be subjugated. But here's where things get interesting: after a few generations, later Chaldeans would rise up against Assyria and conquer it -- the "Neo-Babylonians". So, just as the Assyrians eliminated and plundered the Chaldeans, so later Chaldeans (Babylonians) would eliminate and plunder the Assyrians. Then the Persians would arrive. Then the Greeks. Then the Romans. Then the Muslims. And on and on. No one should feel too secure.

Isaiah's point is simple, though. Just as God did away with the Phoenicians, God did away with the Chaldeans. Why would anyone feel secure in themselves? This doesn't mean that God wiped them out completely! But God ended them as they were. Whatever civilization that rose from the ashes, even if it took the same name, would be something new.


Part 3: God Is Honored (Isaiah 23:15-18)

15 On that day Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years—the life span of one king. At the end of seventy years, what the song says about the prostitute will happen to Tyre:
16 Pick up your lyre, stroll through the city, you forgotten prostitute. Play skillfully, sing many a song so that you will be remembered.
17 And at the end of the seventy years, the Lord will restore Tyre and she will go back into business, prostituting herself with all the kingdoms of the world throughout the earth. 18 But her profits and wages will be dedicated to the Lord. They will not be stored or saved, for her profit will go to those who live in the Lord’s presence, to provide them with ample food and sacred clothing.

So, this is a strange passage. Lots of debate over what it means, exactly. Not sure why Lifeway chose to include it, as opposed to other passages. Basically, no one can agree on how it was or would be fulfilled. What it seems to mean is straightforward: God will bring about Tyre's downfall; after 70 years Tyre will rebuild and become a commercial powerhouse again, but their profits will benefit God's people. The point is that God is in control.

But can we leave it at that? No, Bible readers want to know exactly how this prophecy was fulfilled. And there are no obvious candidates.

The most common explanation I read (from conservative Bible scholars) is that this parallels Jerusalem's exile. Tyre was conquered at about the same time as Jerusalem and released at about the same time as Jerusalem (possibly). And Tyre helped Ezra rebuild the walls and temple of Jerusalem.

There are also plenty of other times in the following centuries when Tyre was oppressed (and eventually destroyed by Alexander in 332 BC), and any of those could be in mind. Or, these things haven't happened yet. Or, "70 years" is intended to be symbolic of a "complete era". (And which king?) Because there is no clear answer (and because the New Testament doesn't address this prophecy), we have to accept that we don't know for certain how it was/will be fulfilled.

[By the way, that could open a brief conversation about the difficulty of understanding prophecy. Last week, we talked about all of the levels within God's prophecies. This week reminds us that prophecies aren't always that "clean". The book of Revelation is a perfect encapsulation of this; we want to know what it means and we debate what it means, but we probably won't know what it means until God Himself explains it to us.]

God is risque in His choice of words. Basically, He doubles-down on the prostitute imagery. (We don't know what song this is quoting, but it seems to be a well-known song from the day associated with a prostitute.) Tyre obtained its riches by prostituting itself to the nations. And it will do so again when it is restored. In fact, she will sell herself to every nation on the earth. But she won't get to keep her "earnings" -- they will go toward God's people in Jerusalem. See how risque that is? It's on the verge of saying that God is pimping Tyre for Jerusalem's benefit. (The point is that this is intended to be an insult -- all of Tyre's commercial work is no better than prostitution.) Offense intended!

Wrapping Up

There are some big-picture questions and topics that could be addressed with respect to this passage.

  1. What human institutions do we think of as being permanent or unassailable? Do we think that America will be here forever and ever? Will our military always be world-dominant? Do we rest in the security that our bank will always safely keep our money? Once we start placing our faith and trust in human institutions rather than God, we are setting ourselves up for the kind of fall that God talked about in these verses.

  2. How would we rank the importance of these things: money, power, influence, work, physical security? Where would faithfulness and trust in God fit? Any time our relationship with God drops to the bottom of a list like that, we're in trouble.

  3. How does God's view of material blessing differ from people's? How does God's view of the purpose of "work and profit" differ from people's? How does God's definition of "success" differ from people's? Why should we care?

  4. What are ways we can say that we have seen God's control over the flow of human history? What are ways we might misunderstand what God is doing in human history?

Those lead to a big-picture personal application. We, as individual Americans, cannot control America's relationship with God. What can we do? We can follow God in our homes and churches and live for God in our communities. We can vote our Christian consciences and pray for our leaders. But we don't do that so America will pass policies that benefit us economically or stroke our egos! No, that would be selfish and self-centered. We pray for and serve our country because we should want what's best for everyone around us. That's how we stay focused on what is right and Godfearing.

Rather than pray for God's swift judgment on the wicked nations in our world (God is going to bring judgment against them with or without our prayer!), we should pray for their repentance and healing. What nation will you pray for today, that they would repent and turn from their wicked ways and call out to God for forgiveness and healing?


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