In this study so far, I’ve argued that Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre fails on the surface, since he claimed Tyre would be utterly destroyed and never rebuilt and that didn’t happen. We’ve also covered a brief history of Tyre, and we’ve examined the first 6 verses of the prophecy and determined that the prophecy is directed at the island city of Tyre, not its mainland suburbs. In this post, we’ll continue our detailed look at Ezekiel’s pronouncements against Tyre.
“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. 8 He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. 9 He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground.
— Ezek 26:7-11
In the last post, we mentioned that verses 3-6 spoke about “many nations” destroying Tyre’s walls and towers, making her a “bare rock,” and killing her “daughters on the mainland.” Now, the same basic statements are made about Nebuchadnezzar. Verse 8 says he will kill “your daughters on the mainland.” As we said in the last post, this refers to Tyre’s mainland settlements, like Ushu. According to history, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in doing this. That means that verses 9-11 refer to the island city, since “you” is directed at Tyre, and “your daughters” refers to the mainland settlements. But these predictions didn’t come true.
Nebuchadnezzar was not able to assault Tyre’s walls, since they were about half a mile off the coast. It’s possible that Ezekiel thought Nebuchadnezzar could build something to reach them, since he talks about building a mound in verse 8, but Nebuchadnezzar didn’t do this. Even Ezekiel later admits that Nebuchadnezzar had to abandon his siege and got nothing for it:
In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her.”
— Ezek 29:17-18
To me, this problem seems insurmountable. Ezekiel says that Nebuchadnezzar would break down Tyre’s walls and towers, trample Tyre’s streets, kill its people with the sword, and tear down its mighty towers. None of that happened.
But why did Ezekiel include this prophecy against Tyre at all if he had to come back later and say it didn’t come true? Why not just remove it? We might be tempted to think that Ezekiel must have meant something else in chapter 26 — something that didn’t fail so completely — since the prophecy remained in place. However, this assumes that none of Ezekiel’s writings were distributed until they were all completed, and I think that’s a faulty assumption. Instead, if Ezekiel’s pronouncements were being passed around as he made them, then it makes sense that he would need to address the failures of chapter 26 once they didn’t come to pass. Consider this table:
According to this chart, the prophecy of Tyre (chapter 26) was written in 586 BCE, while Ezekiel’s admission that Nebuchadnezzar failed (29:17) was written 15 years later. And these dates aren’t just arbitrary, because Ezekiel dates them himself. In 26:1, he says “in the eleventh year…”, and in 29:17, he says “in the twenty-seventh year…”. I can think of no reason why his predictions against Tyre would not have been disseminated in the 15 or 16 years between when he first predicted them and when he felt the need to retcon them. As Blenkinsopp says concerning these dates:
Of the thirteen dates, seven are appended to oracles against foreign nations which, with one exception, are confined to the period of about twelve months following the fall of Jerusalem. The exception is the oracle occasioned by the failure of the predicted conquest of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar, which was added at a late date — the latest in the book — to mitigate somewhat the nonfulfillment of an earlier prophecy.
— p. 4
Ezekiel had given this prediction about Tyre and lived to see it fail. Naturally, he needed to say something about why it didn’t come to pass, so he says that God has now spoken to him and said that even though Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t able to take Tyre, he would now receive Egypt as payment for all his hard work. Ezekiel still doesn’t say why Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t take Tyre when he had God’s help, but I suppose the reader is left to assume that God changed his mind.
They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the Lord; I have spoken, declares the Lord God.
— Ezek 26:12-14
There are some interesting things in this section. First of all, the pronoun switches from “he” to “they”. Verses 7-11 were all talking about Nebuchadnezzar. Now that it switches to “they,” what is the antecedent? Christians say that “they” refers back to the “many nations” of verse 3, and maybe they’re right. But the most recent plural noun that it could refer to is Nebuchadnezzar’s army. As we discussed in the last post, there’s always the possibility that the two groups are synonymous. Nebuchadnezzar’s army would have been multi-national since he was the head of an empire. So “many nations” could easily have referred to his army.
There’s really no way to know for sure, as the writing’s ambiguous enough to work both ways. It’s a shame Ezekiel wasn’t clearer. Seems strange to imagine that God would inspire someone to be so vague. Regardless, we’ve already seen that the portion of the prophecy that unquestionably deals with Nebuchadnezzar fails, so whether “many nations” refers to Nebuchadnezzar or to later conquests of Tyre isn’t a question we necessarily have to answer for the purposes of this series.
“Never be rebuilt…”
This passage repeats the “bare rock” reference that was also made in verse 4, but the island of Tyre has never been a “bare rock” since its foundation almost 5000 years ago. And finally, there’s the problematic prediction that Tyre will never be rebuilt.
As we discussed in the second post, Alexander the Great besieged and defeated Tyre in 332 BCE. This is the destruction that most Christians point to as fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. But Tyre wasn’t utterly destroyed, nor did it remain that way. It was quickly rebuilt and repopulated, and came right back to its former glory. Tyre’s longest period of ruin came after its destruction in 1291. But that army didn’t have to break down Tyre’s walls or perform a siege against it, as the people of the city opened their gates to the enemy, hoping for mercy. So that incident doesn’t match Ezekiel’s prophecy either. And even then, despite remaining in ruins for centuries, Tyre eventually came back to some level of prominence. Today, it has a substantial population, an important port, and enjoys a healthy tourism industry.
The remainder of chapter 26 talks about how amazed the surrounding nations will be at Tyre’s fall. And verse 21 reiterates the same prediction made in verse 14:
“I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more. Though you be sought for, you will never be found again, declares the Lord God.”
It’s spoken with such finality, but it simply doesn’t match Tyre’s history.
In the next (and final) post, I’ll make a few closing observations.