Isaiah 23: The Significance of 70 Years
Updated: May 5
In the course of Jesus’ ministry, he traveled to places beyond the borders of Israel. One of those places was Tyre, and he didn't always go there to preach. Sometimes he went there to rest (Matthew 15:21; Mark 7:24). He must have done some preaching there though because people from Tyre came to Galilee to hear him teach (Mark 3:8; Luke 6:17). They must have responded to his teaching, too, because when Jesus was irate with the Galilean cities of Bethsaida and Chorazin for their lack of faith, he compared them to Tyre and Sidon and Tyre and Sidon came out on top (Luke 10:13).
Tyre was the most powerful city-state of the Phoenicians—a seafaring people who ventured out to sea from the region of Lebanon. In the time of Isaiah, the greater part of Tyre was an island with safe harbors on both sides, so it became a hub of international trade. That made Tyre self-sufficient; she didn’t need to exercise military might to gain control of other nations in the region—they were subject to her power in the realm of commerce.
(Interesting side note: one of Tyre’s major exports was a purple dye made from the murex, a sea snail. It took 12,000 snails and an incredible amount of time to make enough dye for one garment. As a result, purple garments were costly, and purple became the color of royalty. The Greek for purple is phoinikes, so the name Phoenicia, from the Greek, means “purple people.”)
Back to why we are here:
Tyre’s interaction with God’s people began in the time of King David. King Hiram of Tyre had ‘always loved David’ and he and David’s son Solomon made a friendly treaty when Solomon was king: Tyre would be the source of “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of the temple and Solomon would be the source of food for Hiram’s household (I Kings 5:1-12). (Either Hiram had a big household or Hiram’s household had some big eaters.)
Phoenicia was also a source of corruption for God’s people. Solomon took Phoenician wives who imported their worship of Ashtoreth into his kingdom. King Ahab’s famous wife Jezebel was from Sidon, Tyre’s sister city, and because of her influence and Ahab’s impotence, worship of Baal replaced the worship of Yahweh in Israel. The lure of riches, influence, and pretty women: all desirable and all deadly when they compete with the pursuit of God. In the prophetic sense, then, Tyre represents the influence of the world impressing itself upon the people of God.
It’s not surprising then that in this oracle more is said about the effect of Tyre’s destruction on the nations around her than the harm done to Tyre itself. The destruction of her harbor meant disaster for the eastern Mediterranean shipping industry and economic upset for the entire region. She was “the market of the nations,” and without a market for their wares, the nations were stymied (verses 1-7, 14).
Judgment on Tyre also revealed God’s judgment of man’s pride and self-sufficiency:
Who planned this against Tyre,
the bestower of crowns,
whose merchants are princes,
whose traders are renowned in the earth?
The Lord Almighty planned it,
to bring down her pride in all her splendor
and to humble all who are renowned on the earth. (verses 8-9)
God sent Tyre’s judgment in stages. Because of her wealth and influence, she was a formidable force to overcome. The fortress she built on the island was the most defendable of the time—the walls extended right to the sea. Assyria, Babylon, and Persia all laid siege to Tyre, all with limited success. In 701 BC, Sennacherib of Assyria scored a significant victory. He laid the mainland waste and did extensive damage to Tyrian commerce. The Tyrians had to change their trade to pay their bills. Commerce was replaced with agriculture to keep the people fed.
But the pounding by Assyria wasn't the judgment Isaiah was announcing here. He said Tyre would be ruined by the people who had been ruined by Assyria— by a “people that did not exist.” (verse 13) First: the Babylonians. (Purple people eaters? Wow, that was lame.)
Isaiah doesn't tell us much about Babylon’s destruction of Tyre, but the prophet Ezekiel does: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against you, Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. Out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets, for I have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord. She will become plunder for the nations, and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, with horsemen and a great army...Then they will take up a lament concerning you and say to you:
“‘How you are destroyed, city of renown, peopled by men of the sea! You were a power on the seas, you and your citizens; you put your terror on all who lived there. Now the coastlands tremble on the day of your fall; the islands in the sea are terrified at your collapse.’“ (Ezekiel 26:3-7, 17-18)
Note that Ezekiel said Tyre would become plunder “for the nations“—plural. This might indicate that God didn't consider her judgment complete until Alexander the Great’s great siege against Tyre in 322 BC. (That's another amazing story. Research it and you'll realize what a catch Tyre must have been.)
Regarding Babylon’s invasion of Tyre, in verse 15 Isaiah says the city will lie dormant for 70 years before being rebuilt, and in verse 16, he presents a strange picture to prophesy her rebuilding. No one told me what it meant, so that might mean nobody knows. But my guess is that he likened Tyre to a prostitute because she had given herself to the nations to become wealthy. In any case, at the end of seventy years, Isaiah said, the LORD would visit Tyre.
So why 70 years? In the Scriptures, the number seven is used symbolically to represent completion, but here Isaiah also uses it in a literal sense. The 70 years of Tyre’s imposed rest coincided with the 70 years God's people were exiled in Babylon. And at the end of those 70 years, when the people of Jerusalem returned to their city, Tyrian commerce would rise again. The people of Judah would be rebuilding the temple, and they would need those logs again.
Tyre’s supply of materials for the rebuilding of the temple is only a foreshadowing of the blessing the world economy will be in the kingdom of God. The wealth of the nations won’t be destroyed at the end of this age but merely repurposed. Psalm 45, a beautiful poem about the marriage of the King in the millennium, says just that:
“Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house; Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord. The city of Tyre will come with a gift; people of wealth will seek your favor.” (Psalm 45:10-12)
And verse 13 continues, “All glorious is the princess within her chamber; her gown is interwoven with gold.”
Is that gown purple, perhaps?
So those are the oracles. Put them all together and you have a picture of God’s insistent love for His people and His intent for the nations of the world. Isaiah spoke each of the oracles to deliver a message to Judah, but if we listen in we can hear what God is saying to us.
The judgment of Babylon announces that all that is against God will be wiped out. Satan and his forces will be destroyed and there will be nothing left to come between God and us.
The oracle to Philistia promises that in Zion the afflicted will find refuge.
The oracle against Moab reveals that God’s Kingdom is open to anyone who will trade their pride for His glory.
The oracles against Israel and Jerusalem caution us that confidence in others and confidence in ourselves are equally offensive to God and neither has the power to save.
The message to Cush reveals that when our pride is stripped away we become beautiful people on our way to Mount Zion with gifts for the King.
The voice crying out from Edom prompts us: there are people out there who want to hear what God has to say and it might surprise us who they are.
The oracle against Arabia reminds us that mutual support among men is good but provides no enduring security.
Egypt and Tyre, pictures of power and wealth, show us that when what we have is given to Him, we become part of His treasured possession.
Geographically, politically, and spiritually, the people of God are surrounded—the focus of the LORD and the target of the world. But a new day is coming: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” (Isaiah 2:2)