An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 5

Now that we’ve actually covered Ezekiel’s prophecy of Tyre in detail, I’d like to make some closing observations.

The Track Record

For a moment, let’s consider the way the Old Testament god operates. He does nothing halfway. One of the examples that really stands out to me is the story of Elijah versus the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Elijah offers them a challenge. Let Baal’s prophets prepare a sacrifice on an altar, but instead of lighting it, they can call on Baal to light it for them. Elijah will do the same thing, but call on Yahweh. The Israelites can then follow whichever god delivers. The prophets of Baal accept.

Elijah lets Baal’s prophets go first. They prepare their altar that morning and spend most of the day calling on Baal to light the sacrifice. Of course, nothing happens, even when they begin to cut themselves. Elijah mocks them: “Call louder, maybe your god is on a trip. Maybe he’s sleeping.” Finally, Elijah says they’ve had long enough. So he then prepares his own altar and the sacrifice, and he digs a trench around the altar. Before he calls on Yahweh, he has pitchers of water poured over the sacrifice until it soaks everything and fills the trench around the altar. He calls on his god, and fire immediately shoots down from the sky. Not only does it light the sacrifice, it completely consumes it. But it doesn’t stop there — it consumes the wood, the stones of the altar, and even all the water in the trench.

God went above and beyond anything that was expected. He didn’t simply light a sacrifice. He obliterated it in an inferno under the most unfavorable conditions imaginable, and he did it in such a way that was unquestionable. Not a single person present could have denied what just happened. And this isn’t the only time God operated in this way.

In Genesis 41, God gives Pharaoh two dreams. In the first, he dreams of 7 fat, healthy cows coming up out of the Nile, followed by 7 emaciated cows. The 7 emaciated cows eat the 7 fat cows. In the second dream, 7 fat ears of corn (or wheat) are consumed by 7 thin and blighted ears of corn (or wheat). Pharaoh can’t make sense of these dreams. But God doesn’t leave him confused — he provides someone who can decipher the dreams. Joseph tells Pharaoh that the two dreams mean the same thing. The region will soon experience 7 years of plentiful harvests, followed by 7 years of extreme famine. This interpretation gives Pharaoh time to prepare for the famine, propels Joseph to prominence, and brings Joseph and his family back together again.

While the dreams themselves were vague and symbolic, God provided a very specific interpretation complete with timelines. He didn’t leave anything up to uncertainty. While Pharaoh was presumably free to react to this news however he wanted, the message itself was crystal clear.

We could look at countless other examples and see that God had no problem being clear and specific. So why not be specific here? In the first post of this series, I pointed out that this prophecy fails on the surface, since Tyre wasn’t scraped clean and it’s still a city today. And in the last post, we saw that the prophecy even fails in the details. But even if it hadn’t failed in the details and only appeared to at the surface, why would God have allowed it to be so ambivalent? If Alexander was supposed to be part of the fulfillment, why not mention him specifically just as Nebuchadnezzar was mentioned? Isn’t it a little suspect that the only king specifically mentioned was the one already in power at the time of the writing? If “bare rock” really just meant momentarily brought low, why be so misleading? If “never be rebuilt” and “no more forever” really just meant that it would never be quite as awesome as it used to be, why not just say that?

As it stands, this prophecy can never be used to convince a skeptic, because it seems to fail on so many levels. And Christians who consider it a success have to overlook a number of issues, which means no one can use it as evidence. Christians and Jews will believe Ezekiel was inspired whether he was right about this or not, and skeptics can’t be convinced by it because of its many problems. So why was it recorded, if Ezekiel was truly inspired? The faithful don’t need it, and it only causes more doubts for everyone else.

To Sum Up

If God wants everyone to believe that the Bible is his divine message, it’s hard to see what motive he would have for including this prophecy. I hope it’s evident after considering all the specifics that this prophecy is simply a failure. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the litmus test for a prophet:

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

By this standard, Ezekiel was not a true prophet. He was simply a Jew living in a difficult time trying to make sense of why God would allow his people to be so devastated. Perhaps a little jealousy and resentment caused him to make this pronouncement against Tyre — I don’t know. But whatever motivated him, it wasn’t divine revelation.

For the person who believes in the Bible’s inerrancy, it can be difficult to accept this conclusion. If Ezekiel is false, what other books of the Bible might be bogus? It takes a truly open-minded person to not close themselves off when faced with this, but to forge ahead with rigorous study and put their beliefs to the test, considering all possibilities. It’s difficult, but so worthwhile. And it’s the only honest way to live, really.

For anyone who’s still interested in this prophecy, I ran across a great article about it — and don’t worry, it’s much shorter than mine! You can find it here.

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6 thoughts on “An Examination of Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Tyre: Part 5

  1. Nate, this was a well written series, your criticism outdoes all the apologetics I have seen on this topic! And, I wholeheartedly agree with your statement: “this prophecy can never be used to convince a skeptic”. Even so, I do think there is a reading that sees the prophecy as fulfilled. I’ll hash it out to see what you think.

    To start, it is highly improbable that Ezekiel admitted failure in chapter 29 for a few reasons. Ezekiel was very critical of Israel not obeying the Law which included strict law against false prophets as you pointed out above. Also, Ezekiel himself was very outspoken against false prophets even dedicating all of chapter 13 to this issue. Together, it makes it highly improbable that Ezekiel believed his prophecy in chapter 26 had failed, and it is highly improbable that Jewish scribes would have canonized the book of Ezekiel if they believed it contained a false prophecy. This means that whatever chapter 26 specifies about Nebuchadnezzar had to have been fulfilled. Then, what the heck did it specify about Nebuchadnezzar?

    There are some curiosities to take note of. Would Ezekiel have stated Nebuchadnezzar will destroy the fortified island city knowing that he had no navy? Also, did Nebuchadnezzar really lay siege to an island city half a mile offshore for a whopping 13 years? Neither one of these makes any sense! Nebuchadnezzar probably laid siege to Ushu. Whatever Ushu looked like, it was probably a sizable fortified city since it had enough stone to make the 200 ft by half mile causeway. Nebuchadnezzar must have laid siege to the fortified Ushu. Although, in this scenario there is a significant problem: Ushu is not Tyre, right? If Ezekiel was not foolish enough to think Babylon could take an island without a navy, then “Tyre” must mean more than just the island city. “Tyre” must have referred to Ushu and Tyre proper in some sense. And, “many nations” must have really meant many nations and not just Babylon. “Many nations” must have included both Babylon and other nations.

    Of course there’s one last problem. Much of the language used against Tyre seems to NOT be fulfilled: “make it a bare rock” and from chapter 28, “shall be no more forever”. I think the best explanation is that Ezekiel was employing hyperbole. In fact, hyperbole for war victory was common in ancient literature. More importantly, Ezekiel often used hyperbole. My favorite of his refers to the famine set before Israel: “parents shall eat their children in your midst, and children shall eat their parents” (5:10). And, referring to wrath against Egypt: “I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Ethiopia. No human foot shall pass through it, and no animal foot shall pass through it; it shall be uninhabited forty years.” (29:11). Did Ezekiel mean these to be taken literally or was he exaggerating? I mean literally no single animal for 40 years? Definitely an exaggeration! So, it’s not unreasonable to think Ezekiel’s pronouncements against Tyre also containing some exaggeration.

    In the end, without totally frying my brain, I can think of only one reading which sees the prophecy as fulfilled. In this reading Nebuchadnezzar wars against Ushu which Ezekiel considers part of Tyre then Alexander along with the navies of several nations (including Issus, several Phoenician city-states, Cyprus, and Ionia) finally crush Tyre putting a permanent end to its culture. The extreme statements like “make it a bare rock” represent hyperbole. Regardless of its physical buildings remaining, it’s difficult to argue that Ezekiel’s lamentation in chapter 27 does not match the shock of Tyre’s ultimate downfall. With 6K slain, 2K crucified, and 30K sold into slavery, this ship sank hard and justifies words like “you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever” (27:36).

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  2. Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t guess it would surprise you much if I disagree with you? 🙂

    If Ezekiel believed that his prophecy had been fulfilled, why do you suppose he felt the need to come back and address it years later? I think he’s saying that God changed his mind on this one. More than likely, Ezekiel really believed he was getting divine guidance from time to time, so he probably wondered why this particular prophecy hadn’t come true. Luckily, God gives him a follow up to say that Nebuchadnezzar is now needed in Egypt.

    I think the core of your argument is a bit like saying Ezekiel’s prophecy is so obviously false, that it can’t be. Surely someone would have stepped in and corrected it, or just removed it. But would they have? I can easily see how many of those who might have had opportunity would make the same argument to themselves: Surely I just misunderstand what Ezekiel was talking about here. Or maybe this hasn’t been completely fulfilled yet. Or certainly someone else in a better position than I would have corrected this if it had been wrong… I just don’t find this to be a very good argument.

    I also see a problem with equating Tyre and Ushu. For one, there is no reference I’m aware of where anyone else refers to Ushu as Tyre. While they were closely related, they were still separate. There’s also no evidence that Ushu was heavily fortified. You ask how/why Nebuchadnezzar’s siege against the island could last 13 years, but I think it’s very possible. Tyre did rely heavily on the mainland for supplies — especially wood and water. Nebuchadnezzar was able to cut that off. While Tyre could still get supplies from other ports, it was not as convenient or reliable. It also damaged their ability to trade in general. I didn’t mean to minimize the difficulty of this siege in my post.

    On the other hand, it’s very hard to imagine that the mainland could have withstood a 13 year siege. Even when Alexander took Tyre proper, once he constructed the causeway and secured a navy, the city fell rather quickly. With Ushu, neither of those things would have been necessary. Had Nebuchadnezzar besieged it, it would have fallen in a short time.

    As far as the material Alexander used to construct his causeway, while he did use ruins from Ushu, he also used a lot of timber from the surrounding region. So I think it’s tough to get any kind of reliable estimate on how large Ushu was just from Alexander’s causeway.

    Finally, while I could accept that “make you a bare rock” and “no more forever” might be hyperbolic, I still don’t think the case can be made that these were fulfilled in any way. As I stated in my posts, Tyre was quickly rebuilt and returned to splendor shortly after Alexander’s siege. A number of its citizens escaped Tyre before Alexander secured his navy, many of them fleeing to Carthage. So many of these people were able to return. Tyre’s industries remained the same, as did its prominence. I just don’t see any of that fitting with Ezekiel’s prediction.

    Thanks again for your comment, though. It’s definitely good to have a different perspective represented here.

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  3. Thanks Nate. I think those are all strong objections. I really do think the fulcrum of this whole discussion is whether or not Ezekiel thought the prophecy had failed, because it determines how everything should be interpreted. What Ezekiel means by “Tyre” and “many nations” is determined by whether he thinks his prophecy fell short. I will admit that one of my favorite commentaries, the Oxford Bible Commentary, agrees with you! Other commentaries quote Jerome in the Assyrian Annals as saying that Nebuchadnezzar had succeeded in some way even though he did not take island Tyre. Regardless of which side the fulcrum is weighted, both believers and skeptics have to trade something in their readings. The believer has to admit to Ezekiel’s vagueness in terminology, while the skeptic has to conclude that Ezekiel, who was vehemently against false prophecy, admitted to false prophecy. When I see a bipartisan dilemma like this, it makes me want to bow out and take neutral ground. 🙂

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  4. Hi Nate, I thought I’d use this last post to try to sum up.

    There are several matters on which you and I are agreed – Ezekiel didn’t successfully and fully predict in a literal way what subsequently happened; this passage doesn’t support an inerrantist view of scripture and strong verbal inspiration; neither is it an argument against the existence of God.

    There are two matters on which we disagree – (1) his degree of “success” and the nature of prophecy and (2) the nature of inspiration as it refers to the Old Testament and what this passage tells us about inspiration.

    I’ll look at (1) under you post on numbers, but my main point all along has been (2). You make a convincing case that that Ezekiel (the book and the man) were not inspired by God if inspiration means something very specific and direct and ultimately inerrant, but I don’t think you have really interacted with the view that God’s inspiration is more organic, less direct and not necessarily inerrant. You seem to reject that view, but I believe as a christian who tries to keep up with postmodern christianity that this view is becoming more influential. It also seems to be the view that Jesus and the NT writers held.

    So Ezekiel might well have been a true prophet, that just meant something different to what you were taught and continue to think.

    I said before I thought we were 75% agreed, but that was before I read your numbers post. Now I think we are maybe 50% agreed, which I guess isn’t too bad. 🙂

    Thanks for all the work and thought you’ve put in to this – and the opportunity to re-think this a little myself.

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