Studies in Ezekiel No. 23


Ezekiel 26:1-27:36

We have two chapters before us this evening, a lengthy reading if we read it all, so I am taking the liberty to skip two sections in chapter 27 that elaborate in a sort of repetitive ways the points that have already been made .

Text Comment

v.1

The date is February 3, 585 B.C., several months after the fall of Jerusalem and still more recently after the news of Jerusalem’s fall would have reached Ezekiel and at the same time at the outset of Nebuchadrezzar’s 13 year long siege of Tyre. Tyre was only one hundred miles from Jerusalem.

v.2

As with the nations considered in chapter 25, two of Tyre’s sins were the pleasure she took in Jerusalem’s devastation and the intentions she had to take full advantage of it. For Tyre the destruction of Jerusalem meant the elimination of a trading rival. [Block, ii, 36]

v.3

As previously in the book the “many nations” are probably the various ethnic groups that would have made up the Babylonian army. Imperial armies were composed of soldiers from various conquered peoples. Think of the Indian, South African and Australian units that fought in the British Army during the two world wars.

v.5

Tyre was originally situated on an island, a rock really (the name Tyre in Hebrew is derived from the word for rock) about 600 yards off the coast, connected to the coast by a narrow causeway built by Hiram I, the father of the Tyrian king who helped Solomon build the temple. In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Tyre by broadening the causeway which has been, by the effects of waves and tides, greatly expanded through the ages. The present-day Tyre is located on what is, in effect, a peninsula. Her destruction is depicted as the complete elimination of the great city so that fishermen may dry their nets on the rock where the city once stood.

v.8

The mainland settlements, unprotected by the sea, would naturally be the first to suffer attack. The city was surrounded by walls which would require a siege and then, eventually, as at Jerusalem before, the wall would be breached.

v.14

The prophetic forecast is of a decisive defeat and destruction. As a matter of fact, the siege lasted 13 years and the final destruction of Tyre did not occur until the time of Alexander the Great. Ezekiel makes a point of this himself elsewhere, especially in 29:17-20 where Babylon’s difficulty in defeating Tyre prompts the Lord to grant Nebuchadrezzar the land of Egypt in compensation. It is utterly typical of OT prophecy to fore-shorten the future and to see a future result as a single event without attention to the successive steps by which that future would unfold.

v.15

The “coastlands” refers to other maritime peoples who would identify with a seafaring and trading city such as Tyre.

v.16

Their dread presumably is due to their fear that what happened to Tyre could happen to them. The Babylonian appetite for new lands to conquer was voracious. What is more, Tyrian control of the seas had meant stability. Now there was uncertainty.

v.19

As with Jerusalem’s destruction, so Tyre’s will be the will and the action of the Lord himself. Notice the recurring first person pronoun, “I.”

v.21

All of these expressions – “down to the pit”; “to the netherworld”; “never to return to the land of the living”; “a horrible end” – we are right to take as terms expressing more than simply physical death. The Israelites, as every other ancient near eastern people, had a doctrine of the world to come and of both judgment and salvation in the next life.

The city itself would never entirely cease to exist – it exists today – but not as the great nation-state it once was. It never recovered significance.

27:4

In the lament Tyre is likened to a magnificent ship. In laments typically, we read of the greatness of the past and that makes more emphatic the terrible fall and the desolation of the present. The ship is described figuratively as having been made of the very best products that Tyre shipped throughout the Mediterranean. You wouldn’t, for example, actually use linen for the sails of the ship as in v.7.

v.10

Tyre’s glory is accented by the fact that she drew her servants from far and wide.

v.12

The sources of Tyre’s glory are now listed: her trading links with the known world.

SKIP to v. 25

v.25

Now the prophet returns to the prediction of Tyre’s great fall. READ VV. 34-36.

Now there can be no doubt as to the general function of this long prophecy of Tyre’s coming downfall, a prophecy we have not even yet completed. There is another chapter still to read that I will consider separately because of its bearing on another biblical teaching. Our Lord controls the destinies of the nations; that is the great point. [Stuart, 268] God’s people have been steeled, nerved to endure great hardships through the ages, hardships often caused because of the wickedness and violence of the nations of the world, precisely because they knew that what heathen nations choose to do does not determine the destiny of this world or of any human being in this world. The Lord determines the destiny of every nation, every people, and every person. God will judge the nations as he will judge the individual human beings who live in them. What we have here is an assertion of divine sovereignty over human history. Apart from this confidence it would be very easy to misinterpret history to imply that God is either absent or unwilling or unable to protect and to provide for the people who trust in him.

Such a sermon preached to Ezekiel’s contemporaries in the immediate aftermath of Jerusalem’s catastrophic destruction was meant to comfort and console them. The Lord was at work in the world judging his people and judging their enemies. No one can escape his judgment and no one shall. But that means that he is able to restore his people whenever he is ready to do so. No nation, no political situation, no alliance of human power can stand in his way. The nations are a drop in the bucket before him. Even the most powerful of nations is but an instrument in his hand to accomplish his will.

But there is a subjective side to this account as well. The human element is seen in Tyre’s prosperity and her confidence in her power and wealth. She is described here, not so much in terms of her various sins. There were plenty of those. She made a fortune in the shipping and selling of slaves. Tyre bought slaves on the cheap from the Babylonians who gathered them in droves through their various conquests and then sold them at much higher prices in other parts of the Mediterranean world. She was a typically ANE pagan state with typically ANE pagan practices. But here she is simply wealthy, fat, and sassy. Tyre’s prosperity rested on the sea trade that she had come to dominate. Her citizens were famous in the Mediterranean world as seafarers and she shipped the wares of many nations. But she also manufactured her own beautiful glassware and dyes and exported them. She is described as a ship at sea constructed of the very finest materials. She was used to the luxuries of life. She ruled the Mediterranean roost and was obviously proud of her station among the nations of the world. What she had, she had earned and trickle down economics had made the entire state prosperous. She was proud of herself – a point that will be further elaborated in the following and final chapter of the Tyre prophecy – but most of all she was rich and prosperous. She was in her day quite like the United States in ours.

And her wealth became her downfall. The higher they go, the further they fall. Her wealth and her power made her of interest to the Babylonians. She was a plum to pick. And there was nothing unique about this in Tyre’s case. It had been Israel’s as well. There never was a time in Israel’s history when she was so rich or so self-satisfied as in the middle 8th century B.C., during the reign of Jeroboam II, also known as Jeroboam the Great. And, as Hosea and Amos make clear, it was in some large part her wealth that had rendered her insensible to her sins and deaf to the warnings that the Lord’s prophets were preaching to her. Her women, Amos’ celebrated “cows of Bashan,” were too interested in their comforts to take seriously the Lord’s call to faith and holiness. As one commentator wisely puts it: “Women are the trend-setters in society. They have ever been the final guardians of morals, fashions, and standards. Consequently Amos can isolate the heart-beat of society by examining its typical women.” [Motyer, 93] And those women were spiritually sated on luxury, in love with pleasure, and far too enamored of their condition in the world to think about the hard, painful work of moral and spiritual reformation. Bashan was known for the size and quality of its livestock (cf. Deut. 32:14; Psalm 22:12) and the women there in Amos 4 are likened to animals fattening themselves on rich pasture. Theirs was a sensual life: lived for the flesh and for themselves. For the sake of their own pleasures they both oppressed the poor and demanded from their husbands the household service they themselves should be providing. [Stuart, 332] Of course, this was Israel, the northern kingdom, just a few decades before it was overwhelmed by the Assyrian army and wiped from the face of the map. How little wealth guarantees our security or our happiness!

Well, so it was in Tyre. We are not used to this kind of message and not accustomed to its tenor and tone. It is unsettling, disturbing, ominous, even depressing. And in the Western world, it has become much harder for people to believe, including ourselves. Like Israel in the 8th century B.C. and Tyre in the 6th century B.C. we are a prosperous people. It is hard for us to reckon with the prospect of a divine judgment so severe, so destructive. We are used to prosperity and we have a hard time imagining it being taken away, at least from ourselves. In our culture the twin influences of an all-pervasive advertising and popular psychology have rendered us inclined to the positive, the upbeat, the encouraging, and the congratulatory. We find condemnation and, still more, threat not only less welcome than previous generations of proud human beings have found them but less believable. What is more, we are constantly being encouraged to think of life in terms of the accumulation of things. Life without an I-Pod! Could it be?

Perhaps our parents, who lived through great wars and the depression, can more easily come to terms with such a prophecy as we have here in Ezekiel 26 and 27. They’ve seen great nations reduced to nothing or ceasing to exist at all. But such things do not belong to our experience. We watch catastrophes even wars on television for entertainment. We are taken aback by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean or hurricane Katrina or the fires in Southern California, and their sudden and devastating impacts, but our world remains so comfortable we are not affected in any lasting way. The bird flu, deaths in IRAQ, even 9/11 make only momentary impressions on our society as a whole. They send a shudder, but are quickly gone. Church attendance spiked immediately after 9/11 but very quickly returned to previous levels.

What is more, in our scientific age, we are much less likely to connect events in the world with the action of the Almighty. If there is a drought, as there had been more than once in Israel, we are more likely to think of global warming than the hand of God. And if there are wars in the Middle East, well, we know something of the ancient animosities that fuel warfare there. The causes of such things, we think, are natural, or political, or social but we are concerned less where the problems came from and more with how to surmount them. And in the case of tsunami, earthquake and hurricane, well, those are just misfortunes that have no bearing on our behavior except that they call us to renew our efforts to combat global warming or detect the signs of such events beforehand so that we can give more effective warning. In all the flood of Western reporting of the tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, hurricane Katrina, or the wars that rage in Africa and the middle east, the one thing that was conspicuous by its absence was any thought – any thought whatsoever – that these catastrophes were either the hand of God or portents of still greater judgment to come. Indeed, to have suggested that they were would have evoked a howl of protest from every quarter, much as Ezekiel’s preaching had done, at least until it all came true.

And what is manifestly true about all of this is that we think as we do because we are so prosperous. Our hearts have become knitted to this world. We think very differently about life than do people in other parts of our world who have little and who live in constant danger that what they have may well be taken from them. There is a reason why Jesus said that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. And there is a reason why Zacchaeus, as soon as he became a follower of Christ, gave away half of his wealth.

You remember, perhaps, the account in Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis, the time when Francis was walking with a companion on a road near Bari on the Adriatic coast. There in the middle of the road they came upon a purse, a kind of money belt, bulging with money. Francis walked right by it but his companion urged him to pick it up. “Think of all the good that could be done with that much money, how many poor people fed and clothed,” he said. He continued to pester the great man as they walked along. Finally Francis relented and they turned back to the purse, but when the young friar who was Francis’ companion bent down to pick it up, a snake slithered out of the purse and then suddenly disappeared together with the purse and all the money. The lesson in what is manifestly a fable was that money is very dangerous and men ought to be very careful what influence it comes to have upon our hearts. Well, that is the Bible’s teaching as well.

And that is what is being taught us here in Ezekiel’s prophecy about the destruction of Tyre. Israel was, in her straitened circumstances, likely to be envious of Tyre, to wish that she could once again be strong, wealthy, and comfortable. But wealth and prosperity proved no protection whatsoever against the judgments of the Lord and, in fact, made Tyre’s fall far greater than otherwise it would have been. But that is not what people think. They trust their wealth. They love it and find satisfaction in it and are beguiled from even thinking about what would happen if they lost it, either in this world or in the next. Why does wise Agur, in Proverbs 30, pray: “Give me neither poverty nor riches”? As Bunyan has Christiana say at Interpreter’s House, “‘Give me not riches’” is scarce the prayer of one of ten thousand.” But why pray it? Wouldn’t it be a good thing to be rich? Think of all the good you could do! But wise men like Agur know how riches, how comfort, how prosperity knits the soul to this world and make it uninterested in questions about the world to come.

Tyre was wealthy and powerful as a city-state, but as the object of a sermon preached to Jews in Babylonia, she is also the symbol of all who trust in their wealth and who prefer prosperity to the will of God. There would not be so many warnings of this type in Holy Scripture were it not a danger to which far too many are susceptible. You know very well that you are, as I know that I am. It is true on the individual level as it is true on the corporate level. Show me a time in the history of the church when she has managed prosperity for more than a generation or two without it eating the heart out of her faith. No one can set his heart and affections on Christ and heaven who has them set here on the earth and it is far too easy to set them upon the earth when one is enjoying a great measure of this earth’s pleasures. You cannot serve God and money, our Savior said, indicating that in a very real sense it must be one or the other.

Put yourself to this simple test. Imagine that a few weeks from now, or a few months, or a few years – remember the swiftness with which people and with which entire nations have lost their wealth, their power, and their place – imagine you were to lose your home, your job, your bank account and were to find yourself on the street depending upon the charity of others or the welfare provisions of the state. And suppose the situation were, as it has so often been, that there was no prospect of recovering your fortunes any time soon. How many times in the 20th century did we see long lines of refugees leaving behind everything they could not carry – the possessions of their lifetime – fleeing ahead of an advancing army? Suddenly you are poor. The comforts of life have been taken from you. What do you see, when you imagine yourself in such a situation? How are you responding? In what shape are your spirits? Is the fundamental shape of your life the same, because this world and its pleasures are not what you have lived for? Or are you shattered because the things that made your life happy have been taken from you? If you were in Darfur, as a Christian, now in a refugee camp, having lost everything you owned, little as that may have been, would you still have the same theology and be committed to the same way of life that you had before the terrorists came and destroyed your village or your livelihood? Would you see your poverty as simply a new opportunity to give glory to God? Would you think, “Well, the great interests of my life have not changed one iota—my own salvation, the salvation of my children, my loved ones, and the advancement of God’s Kingdom—and now I have less worldly interests to distract me!”

If you now lived in one of those houses that our young people have built in northwest Mexico – no running water, no plumbing – a few small rooms, but large enough to hold your remaining possessions, would you men still be the spiritual leaders of your families, still concerned about the formation of faith, hope, and love in your children, still as eager to love your wives and make them happy, still churchmen, committed to the progress of the kingdom of God? Or would you be distracted by your poverty and unable to concentrate on those higher things until you had got back the comforts you had lost?

It matters not if you are comfortable now or only desire to be comfortable, prosperous, and well-to-do. Poor people can be in as much danger from a desire for the wealth of this world as the rich are from delighting in it. Search your hearts. You know how much you think of money, wealth, and earthly pleasures. You know how much you wish for them.

Money, comfort, pleasures, and status are subtle temptations. Not least because all these things—money, reputation, pleasure—can be God’s blessings and good things. But they have the power to change our view of things without our realizing it. That is why it is so important for us to attend to passages like this one and to remember how little money will help us and how bitter the recollection of our life must be when the Lord makes us reckon with the fact that we preferred money to him, pleasures to him, and comfort to him and now they are gone and only he remains.

You remember my telling you of William Burns the man whose preaching ushered in the revival in the Scottish church in the 1830s. A great man, a great preacher, who forsook all of the comforts, the status, the reputation that he could have enjoyed in Scotland to become a missionary in China. “‘Know him sir?’ exclaimed a brother-missionary when asked if he knew William Burns, ‘all China knows him; he is the holiest man alive.’” [In Smellie, R.M. McCheyne, 101] Burns died in China and when the box containing all his earthly possessions was sent home to his family in Scotland, it was found to contain his Bible, two other books, a shirt, a pair of trousers, and a Chinese flag. Not much to show for a life in this world, unless you think it something valuable to be known as “the holiest man alive.” Perhaps it is no surprise that such a thing should be said of someone who paid so little attention to the accumulation of earthly things, whether wealth or reputation.

Here great wealth is swept aside by the wrath of God and the people consigned to the pit, the netherworld, never to be found again in the land of the living. That is hell, of course. And what good does their once great material comfort do them then. It was important for Ezekiel’s contemporaries to hear that and to reflect on that. There had been far too much caring about money and the things money buys in the generations leading up to the exile and it was time now to purge the people of that foolish desire for things that do not last and to set them once again seeking after treasure in heaven.

And we cannot hear that message too often ourselves. Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures here, my friends. Even if you succeed, you will regret it. Lay your treasures up in heaven where they will delight you forever. Heavenly treasures make for happier, wealthier people here, already, and then are never lost. So says Ezekiel, so says Jesus Christ, and so says every Christian who has ever lived in this world and left it for heaven.