The Anatomy of a Biblical Prophecy:
The Destruction of Tyre in Ezekiel 26
By: The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Any proper exegesis of Ezekiel 26 must be made from the understanding of Biblical Hebrew prophecy -- what is the prophet doing when he speaks for Yahweh? What kind of event is he relating, and to whom, and for when? These kinds of questions are rarely asked, and if they are asked they are usually not answered in any way which is coherent with the cultural, theological, and historical setting of the prophet. For instance, the nature of the prophecy itself is sometimes never considered; is the prophet repeating words spoken to him by God, is he relating visionary experiences which he has received and is translating into words, is he presenting a inspired analysis of the then-current social and political situation, or is his prophecy a combination of any two or even all three of these? The nature of the prophetic experience will have an impact on the interpretation and application of the prophecy itself.
Another point which must be remembered is that most prophetic utterances were intended to be understood and applied by the people then-and-there -- most Biblical prophecies had an immediate application to the immediate people and problems of that day; they were not intended to be understood as long-range pronouncements about events in the far distant future. This doesn't mean that such prophecies didn't take place, or that prophecies which are linked to specific events and specific people and places don't have an application for us, today, as well. The old, pre-critical concept of multiple prophetic fulfillment is one that needs to be recovered and reemployed by the modern Church.
Careful consideration must also be given to the structure of each prophetic pericope. Quite often the prophet gives us a general overview of what is going to happen, then proceeds to unpack the short-form of the prophecy with a more long-winded and detailed account. Sometimes literal readers (be they conservative Christians or Atheists looking for ways to disprove the Bible) will not understand that this is NOT two different prophecies but, rather, one prophecy about the same event but articulated twice with different degrees of detail. It is of paramount importance to understand both that this structure exists and that it exists for a reason; it probably stems from the fact that most prophetic utterances were originally spoken. Homiletically speaking, it's usually best to tell your audience what you're going to say before you actually say it (I do it in every sermon and, indeed, in every class I teach). In academic circles this is called an "Abstract." Ezekiel, in chapter 26, does exactly this.
Chapter 26 begins, in verses 1 and 2, with a dating of the prophetic occurrence, followed by a setting up of the circumstances (the reason) for the subsequent proclamations of doom. Verses 3 through 6 constitute the "abstract" of the prophecy itself. Specifically, and in my own translation:
vs. 3 "Therefore, thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I [am] against you Tyre and I will bring up against you nations many as brings up the sea its waves."
Note, the waves of the sea covering the city is metaphorical, NOT literal ... God will bring the nations against Tyre in such vast numbers, and with such might, that it will be like the waves of a sea overcoming the beach. This is a certain interpretation because the Hebrew prefix used here for "as" is used in *every* known instance to draw a similar relationship between two different things or ideas. Hence, the nations will be LIKE the waves of the sea in their numbers and power.
Verses 4 and 5 tell us what the nations will do to Tyre:
vs 4 "They shall destroy the wall of Tyre and break down her towers and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock."
The Hebrew pronoun for "they" is a suffix attached to the verb "shall destroy," thus indicating a relationship with "nations." The nations shall do this. The phrase then immediately shifts pronoun referents to the first person singular in the suffix attached to the Perfect Common Piel verb "shall destroy," indicating that while it is the nations who are the agencies for this activity, we are again reminded that it is the Lord Yahweh ("Adoni Yahweh") who is doing this. The imagery used here is fully consistent with similar examples of Semitic hyperbole found elsewhere in the Old Testament and in extra-biblical Hebraic sources, and thus should not be understood in simply a literal fashion. This is especially true since the imagery is of the Lord Yahweh Himself doing this. And, it should also be noted that there is a definite play on words present in the Hebrew: The Hebrew name for Tyre is "Tsor," which is formed from the same root as is the Hebrew word for rock ... a metaphor too strong for the prophet to pass up (in essence, "The City of Rock will be scraped bare of the city, leaving only the Rock."). Be the agency of destruction a human army or the hand of the Divine, the metaphor is one of utter and complete destruction. A handful of sand -- or dunes full, for that matter -- left on the rocks does NOT constitute a failure of the intended action because the object of the prophecy is NOT the inanimate substance of Tyre but, rather, the people -- the Phoenicians -- and their environs.
vs 5 "...a place for spreading nets she shall be in the midst of the sea for I have spoken says the Lord Yahweh and she shall become a spoil to the nations"
While this is probably an example of more Semitic hyperbole, it clearly states what Yahweh intends the nations to do to the island city of Tyre: wipe it out so utterly that the whole island will be good for spreading out nets, something absolutely UNTHINKABLE at the time of the utterance. The concluding phrase "and she shall become a spoil to the nations" is a direct reference to the island city's eventual fall to the "nations," essentially that her great wealth would become theirs.
vs.6 "...and her daughters on the mainland by the sword shall be slain[.] Then they will know that I am Yahweh."
This says, quite simply, that those parts of the mainland city -- the mainland settlements and suburbs of the island city -- would be destroyed by direct military action, and the indication is that this will happen before the events in the previous verses ... so that the intended "they" of verse 6 -- the island city -- would know who Yahweh is. The chronological reversal of events is a common aspect of Hebrew prophecy, in which the initial event is stated last. This little quirk is almost never caught by those who would read the passage in a strictly literal fashion.
Thus ends the Prophetic "Abstract." This is the totality of the prophecy. If you will look closely at the content of the prophecy above, this describes it ALL. What follows, in verses 7 - 16, is a more detailed explication of the above prophecy. Again, using my own translation:
vs 7 "For thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold I will bring upon Tyre Nebuchadrezzar, King of Babylon from the north, king of kings, with horses and chariots and with horsemen and a host and many people"
Here is named the agency through whom Ezekiel believed the Lord Yahweh would carry out His act of destruction upon Tyre. Ezekiel names him as King Nebuchadrezzar (or, as the Hebrews called him "Nevukhadreetsar"), who did indeed come with a huge army to embattle Tyre.
vs. 8 "her daughters on the mainland with the sword he will slay and he will set up against you a siege wall and throw up against you a mound and raise against you a large shield."
The verse relates DIRECTLY back to verse 6 ... the very first thing that happens is that Nebuchadrezzar destroys the lightly defended mainland settlements by the sword.
vs 9 "...and the shock of his battering ram he will direct against your walls and your towers he will break down with his axes."
This may be a reference to Nebuchadrezzar's military action against the mainland settlements. It certainly applies more to a mainland assault than it does to a sea-going attack.
vs. 10 - 11 "...from the abundance of his horses will cover you their dust at the noise of horsemen and wagons and chariots will shake your walls when he enters your gates as one enters a city which has been breached. With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets, your people with the sword he will slay, and the pillars of your strength to the ground will fall."
Again, the imagery is of a land conflict, not the seize of an island city. All of this clearly references Nebuchadrezzar's attack of the mainland city -- note the reference to the slaying of the people by the sword. However, what follows gives us a moment of pause because, frankly, the prophet sees MORE than what happened under Nebuchadrezzar. The King of Babylon DID take the mainland settlements, but we know from history that he didn't succeed in taking the island city. Nevertheless, Ezekiel saw the destruction of the island city, and the means by which such an attack was successfully accomplished. I suggest you take careful note of the pronouns used for the active agency here:
vs. 12 "They will make a spoil of your riches and make a prey of your merchandise, they will break down your walls and the houses of your delight they will destroy; your stones and timber and soil into the midst of the waters they will cast."
While this doesn't describe the attack on the island city, it DOES describe the military action prior to an attack on the Island city -- the building of the causeway out to the island from mainland over which armies moved to take the city. We have shifted in time from Nebuchadrezzar's action against the mainland forward to the seize of the island by Alexander the Great. Ezekiel saw these two different attacks as part of the same attack. How do we understand this apparent conflict with history?
It is important that we take the passage at face-value. What did Ezekiel actually say? He says, in verses 9 through 11, that Nebuchadrezzar would be the agency -- an exemplar of the "nations" -- to destroy the mainland city. It should be noted that through verse 11 the pronouns used are third person singulars and possessives: "he" and "his," thus indicating Nebuchadrezzar specifically. At verse 12, if you note, it shifts suddenly back to "they." Pronoun shifts in Hebrew are extraordinarily important. In Hebrew, since the pronouns are almost always attached to the nouns and verbs in suffix form, when a pronoun changes it draws particular attention to itself. Hence, it is impossible to miss the actor of a particular verb or the possessor of a particular item. However, when the pronoun shifts, the identity of an item or the action verb itself changes ... and, in Hebrew literature, relative to verbs, this is *always* an indicator that the principle actors involved have changed.
I personally find it interesting to note that at the *exact* point where we have a perceived conflict with history, the prophecy no longer personally and directly references Nebuchadrezzar with "he." The "they" in verse 12 may, indeed, reference the King of Babylon and his forces, but up until this point the prophet has been using the third person singular for them -- his armies are a personification of himself. Linguistically, and particularly due to the Hebrew stress on pronoun identification, the shift of the pronouns from "he" to "they" MUST reference another agency -- or, more likely, an agency of which Nebuchadrezzar was simply one example. Prior to verse 12, where the pronoun shift occurs, the only other place where the agency is "they" is in the prophetic abstract, verses 1-6. Hence, it is linguistically valid (in Hebrew) to make the argument that the "they" here references back to the initial "they," who are identified simply as "the nations." This argument is further strengthen due to the lack of agreement in number between "he" and "they," while there is agreement between "nations" and "they." Grammatically speaking, for numerical agreement to be maintained (fairly unimportant in English but supremely important in Hebrew), the "they" in verse 12 cannot be seen to refer to the "he" of verses 7 - 11.
If this is Nebuchadrezzar and not "the nations," then what we have is a situation rather untenable for Hebrew grammar ... we have a pronoun shift from "he" to "they" without a consequent shift in the identity to which the pronoun references. This aside, however, it is also impossible for us to identity the actor here as Nebuchadrezzar because the Babylonian King didn't do any of the things identified from the point of the pronoun shift in verse 12 and following. Prior to verse 12 it is certainly a defendable position that the activity described here applied to Neb, but from verse 12 on it is impossible that this could be our Babylonian friend.
That Ezekiel fully understood all of this, when uttering his prophetic vision, is another matter altogether. It is certainly possible that he saw, clearly, exactly what was going to happen and the way it was going to happen; this would directly explain the pronoun shift, though it would not explain why the prophet failed to then name Alexander the Great -- or, in the very least, to say something like "...then another great King of the nations will come ...." Indeed, this last point convinces me that Ezekiel had something of a myopic prophetic sense: he could see the totality of the event, and knew that the "nations" would do the deed, but when it came to the details he could only clearly make out most immediate actors -- the Babylonians and their King, whom he named. The more distant actors -- the Greeks and Alexander the Great -- grew fuzzy with the distance and merged into the plethora of "nations" that would crash up against Tyre like waves on the seashore. This realization doesn't invalidate the prophetic vision, it simply calls for something less than a literal reading of every word. It also calls us to realize that these Hebrew prophets were human, and sometimes their human interpretations of what they saw, what they heard, and what they analyzed sometimes got in the way of their relating it. In this case, Ezekiel probably thought that the destruction of the Island city of Tyre would come pretty much immediately with the attack by the Babylonians and King Nebuchadrezzar, however he was precise enough in his articulation and in his writing that he didn't directly finger Nebuchadrezzar as the actor in the second half of the drama but, rather, shifted the action back to the general reference to the "nations." Translations and/or interpretations that conclude otherwise are simply failing to pay close-enough attention to either Hebrew Grammar or the nature of Hebrew prophecy.
vs. 13 "...and I will stop the music of your songs and the sound of your lyres shall not be heard any more."
Note, at verse 13, that it shifts again from "they" to "I." This, as we discovered earlier, indicates an important note of the actor in this verse. The actor is no longer the nations, but the Lord Yahweh, who authorized the activity of "the nations" and of Nebuchadrezzar. It is God doing the "dirty deeds" in all of this, regardless of the agency. And, note here what Ezekiel is reporting God to be doing ... the music is ended; by implication, the art and culture of the Phoenicians at Tyre is done away with.
vs. 14 "I will make you a bare rock, a place for the spreading of nets you shall be, you shall not be rebuilt again, for I Yahweh have spoken says the Lord Yahweh."
What is being said here, and to whom is it being said? Yahweh is telling Tyre that it will not be rebuilt, that it will be utterly destroyed. Utilizing the same Semitic hyperbole found in the Prophetic Abstract at the beginning of the periocope, Divinely sanctioned destruction is being proclaimed to the people of the city of Tyre. It was the Phoenicians at Tyre that were guilty of the sins outlined in verse 1, and it is they who are destroyed ... they and their buildings are laid waste. If people now live at the site, an issue I understand is open for debate in many circles, this would in no way conflict with the proclamation of the Lord Yahweh against Tyre that he would destroy them. He did. Indeed, the Phoenicians themselves are no more. Those people who live on or near the site of Ancient Tyre are not Phoenicians, and hence their presence on or near the site doesn't constitute a problem for the validity of this prophecy. Such people do not share the Phoenician culture, they do not share the Phoenician language, they do not sing Phoenician songs or play Phoenician music, and their ancestry is such a mixed bag of peoples that, while there may be a percentage of Phoenician blood in them, such is absolutely irrelevant to the fact that the Phoenicians themselves -- as a distinct people with a distinct culture and language -- are gone. A simple look at the region, and its history, is all one needs to do to support the position that the Phoenicians are no longer in existence. There is no "Phoenicia" in the UN, no team at the Olympic games, no language currently being spoken (though echoes of its written form can be seen in Greek and Latin and, hence, English), no embassy in Washington, no cultural trade mission, no military, no nothing. The Lebanese are not Phoenicians, even though they live on the property. To say that they are Phoenicians would be similar to making the claim that Chile is really the Inca Empire! Nevertheless, some Atheists will try to claim that, since Lebanese live on or near the site of Ancient Tyre, the prophecy failed. Their claim is absurd, This is a prophecy not to a piece of land -- not to a bunch of rocks -- but to a people. Arguments to the contrary are groundless at best or, at worst, compelled by an over-riding desire to find fault with the Bible and with this prophecy in particular.
A final note on the identity of the one(s) who carry out God's will in this matter. In one point the identity of one of the agents is made clear: Nebuchadrezzar is named. At other points the agency is clearly identified as "the nations." What we have going on in these set of prophecies is a case where the prophet saw a multiple of military actions taking place, the culmination of which was the total destruction of the island city of Tyre. He also saw the most prominent political/military power of the day doing the deed -- Nebuchadrezzar. However, he couldn't see -- as I have already stated -- that it wouldn't be completed by Nebuchadrezzar, but that Alexander the Great would have to come and finish the job. Just as two mountain ranges may merge into one in the distance, so these two separate events -- while held apart by a great gulf of years -- nevertheless is seen as if it were one connected event. And, indeed, a careful analysis of the passage -- as I have done above -- even relieves Ezekiel of having to take the unfair rap for mistaking the Babylonian King as the fellow to do all this. Quite the contrary, while he saw Neb doing quite a bit, he identifies the destroyers of the island city as "the nations," not the "he" of Nebuchadrezzar.