An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 3

In the first post, I argued that this prophecy simply fails at face value. Ezekiel predicted that Tyre would be completely destroyed and never rebuilt, yet that didn’t happen. Tyre experienced a long history of both prosperity and calamity, and today, it’s the 4th largest city in Lebanon. In the second post, I briefly recounted Tyre’s history to give us a good foundation. In this post, we’ll examine the prophecy in more detail and examine some of the arguments that apologists make when they claim that this prophecy came true.

Why is the prophecy given?

In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gate of the peoples is broken; it has swung open to me. I shall be replenished, now that she is laid waste,’ 3 therefore thus says the Lord God:
— Ezek 26:1-3a

This gives us our context. Nebuchadnezzar has just decimated Jerusalem, and Ezekiel says that Tyre looked at this destruction and thought it would benefit them economically. According to Ezekiel, this attitude angers God, so he will now start laying out their coming consequences.

Incidentally, there’s something interesting about this that I didn’t realize until I was preparing for this series. Nebuchadnezzar took control of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, or thereabouts. But he didn’t destroy the city — he simply received its submission and instituted a vassal king. Years later, he was forced to come against Jerusalem again in 586 BCE, and that’s when he completely destroyed it. Which of these events does Ezekiel reference as causing Tyre’s smug attitude? I had assumed it was the attack in 586 BCE, considering Ezekiel’s reference to Jerusalem being laid waste. Yet we know that Nebuchadnezzar besieged Tyre for 13 years, and the siege ended in 584 BCE (see Livius). This would mean Nebuchadnezzar began Tyre’s siege in 597 BCE, long before Jerusalem fell. So if Ezekiel made his prophecy after Jerusalem’s destruction, Nebuchadnezzar had already been attacking Tyre for over 10 years. If so, then Ezekiel was guaranteed success to “prophesy” that Nebuchadnezzar would attack Tyre and destroy its mainland settlements, since that had already been done. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though — maybe Ezekiel was referring to Jerusalem’s subjugation and not destruction. I just find it curious.

Who will come against Tyre?

Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves.
— Ezek 26:3b

This is the first spot where there is some controversy. In just a few more verses, Ezekiel is going to specify that Nebuchadnezzar will be coming up against Tyre. We know from history that he did indeed besiege it, but was ultimately unable to take the city (there’s much more to say about this, and we’ll get to it soon). So this raises the question, what did Ezekiel mean by “many nations”? Does he mean many nations in addition to Nebuchadnezzar, or is Nebuchadnezzar’s army still referring to the same group, just being more specific? Does he mean that many nations will be coming with Nebuchadnezzar (he was the head of an empire, after all), or coming after him? Some have argued that the phrase “as the sea brings up its waves” means that various nations will come up against Tyre at different times, separate from Nebuchadnezzar’s attack. In other words, they’ll be attacked “in waves” that likely have years in between them. That’s a possibility. Of course, even one siege will include many waves of attack, so it’s still hard to know for sure what Ezekiel meant by this. Its significance will factor in as we continue looking at the prophecy, so we’ll come back to it.

Which Tyre?!

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. 5 She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. And she shall become plunder for the nations, 6 and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.
— Ezek 26:4-6

This is what’s in store for Tyre: her walls and towers will be torn down. The city will be scraped bare till only rock is left.

At this point, we need to address another contention about this prophecy. A number of Christians maintain that this portion of the prophecy is talking about the mainland portion of Tyre, because we know that Alexander took the ruins from the mainland and used them to build his causeway. As we discussed in the last post, this mainland portion was called “Paleotyrus” by the Greeks, meaning “old Tyre,” but historical records actually indicate that this was a misnomer. These mainland settlements more commonly went by the name “Ushu.” Even in the time of Hiram, about 400 years before Nebuchadnezzar’s time, when people spoke of Tyre, they were discussing the wealthy, prominent trade hub and political power, which was the island city. Even further back, the Amarna Letters, which were written around 800 years before Ezekiel’s prophecy, clearly refer to the island as “Tyre” and the mainland as “Sazu.” It doesn’t appear that the mainland portion ever went by the name Tyre, while the island is never referred to by any other name.

The context of this passage also indicates that the island city is the focus of the prophecy. Verse 5 says “she shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets.” The mainland is not “in the midst of the sea,” but the island is. Some have argued that “midst of the sea” could still refer to the mainland, since all of its buildings and ruins would have been cast in the sea. But this seems rather unlikely. First of all, would it make sense to refer to the building materials as the city? More importantly, verse 4 says the city will be a bare rock. So the city can’t simultaneously be a bare rock and be the building materials that are at the bottom of the sea.

Furthermore, verse 6 makes separate mention of “her daughters on the mainland,” which would seem to indicate the mainland settlement of Ushu and other suburbs. Some Christians have argued against this as well by pointing out that “killed with the sword” must apply to individuals, not cities. But I think that’s a stretch — cities are made up of individuals, so I simply don’t see an issue here. They make a stronger point by saying that the word translated as “mainland” is usually translated “field,” and several versions translate it that way in this passage. In other words, they’re arguing that the passage is telling Ushu that “your daughters (women? children? people? etc) in the fields will be killed by the sword.”

Most scholars do not hold to that position. Biblehub has an article that lists a number of commentaries’ thoughts on this passage. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says it this way:

And her daughters which are in the field shall be slain by the sword,…. That is, the inhabitants of the cities, towns, and villages, on the shore near it, and which were subject to it; as such cities are frequently in Scripture called the daughters of the place to which they belong: or their daughters literally…

And when you consider the geography of Tyre, that its city center was unquestionably on the island, that no other ancient source ever refers to the mainland as Tyre, and you take into consideration verse 5’s “midst of the sea,” then there’s no reason to think that “daughters in the field” should suddenly make the whole prophecy refer to Ushu. After all, even if the passage literally meant “field,” it could still just as easily refer to Tyre.

This passage predicts that Tyre’s towers and walls will be torn down. It’s widely known that the island city of Tyre had massive, impregnable walls, but there’s no indication that the mainland had them at all. In fact, it’s said that the inhabitants of the mainland sought refuge within the island’s walls whenever there was danger, which suggests there were no heavy fortifications for the mainland (wiki: Katzenstein, H.J., The History of Tyre, 1973, p10). There certainly weren’t the kind that could sustain a 13 year siege.

Finally, there are several other passages in chapters 26-28 that indicate Tyre was an island. 26:17 says the city was “mighty on the sea”. 27:4 says “your borders are in the heart of the seas”. 27:25, 27:26, 28:2, and 28:8 all describe it as being “in the heart of the seas”. And the entirety of chapter 27 compares Tyre to a magnificent ship on the sea, which is a very fitting analogy for an island, but not so much for a mainland settlement that doesn’t even have a harbor.

But Alexander did actually scrape the mainland bare…

Yes, that’s true. He did throw the stones and timber of Ushu into the sea to create his causeway. Does this fact alone show that Ezekiel must have been inspired, since he talked about the city being scraped bare?

Hopefully, I’ve successfully made the case that Ezekiel’s prophecy is definitely directed toward the island city of Tyre, and the only portion that relates to the mainland settlements (like Ushu) is the section dealing with Tyre’s “daughters on the mainland.” Therefore, the “scraped bare” would apply to Tyre, not Ushu, and that’s a pretty big detail for someone inspired by God to get wrong. Additionally, when Ezekiel makes this pronouncement, he’s making it as a judgment — their destruction will be so thorough that nothing will be left. There’s no indication that the materials would be thrown into the sea for any other purpose. And though we haven’t covered verse 12 yet, it shows that the scraping and casting into the sea happens after the walls and towers have been torn down, after the streets have been trampled, after the people have been killed, and after their wealth has been looted. The reference to Tyre’s wealth and its walls and towers is another indication that it’s speaking of the island, not the mainland. In other words, the “scraping bare” is the last thing that happens, not the first. This is further evidence that Ezekiel didn’t foresee the mainland ruins being used to access the city, but was predicting that Tyre (the island) would be so thoroughly devastated that absolutely nothing would be left of it.

Our brains naturally try to find patterns, so it’s no surprise that when Ezekiel says something about Tyre being scraped bare and cast into the sea, and then Alexander the Great takes ruins of a settlement and throws them in the sea, we try to make a connection. But it’s the same pattern recognition that we use when finding shapes in clouds or trying to match our personalities to the zodiac. When we look at the details of the prophecy, it becomes clearer that Ezekiel had something else in mind and doesn’t predict Alexander’s construction of the causeway at all.

In the next post, we’ll dig further into Ezekiel’s prophecy and compare it with what we know of Tyre’s history.

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19 thoughts on “An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 3”

  1. Well, i think you’re making solid points, and i really thought the one about the timing of the prediction was a good one as well – it’s certainly one that i was unfamiliar with.

    I believe it takes a lot of work to make the prophecy a good one.

    When Elijah was challenging the prophets baal, I wonder how much he had to convince them that the fire really came from heaven and really consumed the alter and all… according to the story, it seemed obvious, exact and literal.

    It’s remarkable with stories like that, that show an unquestionable power of god, that believers will insist on working so hard to pretend that the “fulfillment” of “prophecies” like Tyre are so obvious as long as you look at it this way, or realize this point or that point were figurative, etc…

    is it that god is so powerful that those who claim to speak for him don’t have to display proof of this power from on high?

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  2. Thanks William. It’s funny that you bring up Elijah and the prophets of Baal, because I talk about that in the final post of this series…

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  3. ah, well i look forward to reading it.

    It is interesting that all the proofs and hard evidences for the bible and its god are all things that happened long, long ago and are only provided to us as hearsay, and then just dont happen today…

    also interesting is that if we had the god vs baal test today, like the one elijah orchestrated, then everyone would just be sitting around for a long, long time waiting on something to happen…. the bible god would fail his own test if administered today.

    Elijah mocked baal and his believers for failing… is it really unfair to mock the believers of a supposed god that failed today?

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  4. I like your comments referencing the Baal Test, william–if that were done today, and when it failed, someone would find the scripture “a wicked and deceitful generation seeks after a sign”. Yes, how convenient…

    Nate, I (like william) really like the timing thing you mentioned…really, it is so obvious and yet pointing it out really seems quite a brilliant observation. But even mentioning the “Alexander interpretation” seems generous of you, b/c verses 7-11 of Eze 26 specifically say Nebby would be the one breaking down walls and towers and trampling through the streets. Some have tried to find ambiguity in the prophecy so that it can be interpreted as fulfilled by Alexander the Great, but really, does every single verse have to name “Nebuchadnezzar” instead of the personal pronoun “he”? Verse 7 says “Nebby”, the following verses say “he”, and it is only the most obvious Wish Thinking that interprets that change as “no longer talking about Nebby”.

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  5. Yes, I agree Eric. In fact, that’s one of the main things I focus on in the next post.

    It won’t surprise me if someone comes along to this thread and argues against the prophecy focusing on the island, but after going back through the texts again for this series and researching the history of Tyre, I just don’t see how they could make a convincing case.

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  6. I don’t think there is a case to be made at all for the prophecy to refer to the mainland, that has been well laid out. I still read it though predicting several waves of attacks/destructions which in fact happened. As pointed out many times the whole never being rebuilt thing fails, which now I am just realizing begs the question: The city cannot be attacked over and over again if it is never rebuilt, so which is it? Will the city be attacked over and over throughout the ages, or will it never be rebuilt. I loggically cannot be both.

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  7. It’s a good question, Matt. It further complicates figuring out when it would be fulfilled. This is what’s so problematic about prophecies that don’t give a specific timeline.

    I guess there’s only two ways to see it:

    The “never rebuilt” thing would apply to whenever Tyre was finally destroyed. After all, the city could be attacked many times (like waves) without actually being destroyed. So Alexander’s sacking of Tyre is the next event in its history (after Ezekiel’s prophecy) that would qualify, which is why it’s usually pointed to as the fulfillment. But Tyre was quickly rebuilt, which is a problem.

    The other way to look at it is if the “waves” just reference the different waves of attack in Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. If that’s what Ezekiel meant, then he was obviously way off.

    I agree with you that there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable way to make this prophecy apply to the mainland, but the two scenarios I just laid out illustrate why so many apologists try to make the connection.

    As I’ve said before, this prophecy was huge for me when I was going through my deconversion.

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  8. and if another religion, such as islam had a similar prophecy, with a similar fulfillment, would we find it believable then?

    in other words, those who find this believable now, is it really because it’s so compelling, or is it because they’ve somehow been conditioned to give the bible, and no other religion, the benefit of doubt?

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  9. I agree William, especially for those of us here in the Bible Belt, the Christian bible is given more slack if you will, than any other religous text. Also i’ve found that many many teachers within our own faith lack a solid knowledge of our own texts. It bothers me to no end.

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  10. Nate, I agree with almost all of your analysis so far! Alexander using rubble to build a causeway seems to be the coincidence that is so distracting for apologists. They want to make that part of the fulfillment, but I’m guessing that they would be willing to concede that Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt in chapter 29 which states “no human [or animal] foot shall pass through” the whole land of Egypt for 40 years is hyperbole. It’s just so tempting to try to squeeze that causeway in!

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  11. Howdy, Brandon!

    And I agree — I completely see where his dismantling of the mainland buildings and ruins and throwing them in the sea is just close enough to Ezekiel’s prophecy to be very tempting. I get it. 🙂

    Thanks for chiming in!

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  12. Brandon and Nate – I also agree as far as the whole “scraping” thing goes. To me that is actually the only thing of the prophecy that really stands out, but Nate I think you are right it also sits right alongside the fact that the prophecy does really look like it points to the island, and it seems to be talking about utter destruction (never to be found again). I also see problems with extending this prophecy out to an indefinite amount of time (way beyond the lifetimes of those who could verify that Ezekiel was predicting correctly). Nothing new here – many have said the same things on your blog. Just wanted to say that the whole scraping thing really seems to me to be the most curious of the entire passage. How many times do cities really get scraped like that anyways. (actually, do any of us really know? Perhaps other causeways were built in the same way, but I don’t have any data for that).

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  13. I know we haven’t discussed anything on this thread for a very long time, but some comments on another of my threads concerning Tyre got me going back through these posts. While reading this one, something struck me about the fact that Alexander used the materials of Ushu to construct his causeway to Tyre and how that seems so similar to what Ezekiel prophesied about Tyre itself. I wonder if someone told Alexander about Ezekiel’s prophecy? If they had, perhaps the bit about Tyre being scraped bare of its buildings and monuments actually helped inspire Alexander’s strategy? Thoughts?

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  14. Maybe, that’s an interesting thought. Even if that could be proven, it wouldn’t mean anything for the believer though – they’d view it like the Jews showing Cyrus his own name in the scriptures as a way to convince him to let them go home and all that.

    the Lord moves in mysterious ways…

    it’s not the mysterious nature that trouble me, just the fallacious nature he evidently has.

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  15. It is an interesting thought, but then if you want to get to nearby island that’s heavily fortified, building a causeway makes sense, and using easily available materials makes sense, especially when gathering those materials would also serve to reduce the morale of the island people you’re about to sack.

    But for real, Tyre is still there

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