Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This prophecy consists of two parts. The first predicts the fall of Tyre, vs. 1-14. The second promises its restoration and conversion, vs. 15-18. The fall of Tyre is predicted, not directly, but in the form of apostrophes, addressed to her own people or her colonies, vs. 1-7. The destruction is referred to God as its author, and to the Chaldees as his instruments, vs. 8-14. The prediction in the latter part includes three events Tyre shall be forsaken and forgotten for seventy years, v. 15. She shall then he restored to her former activity and wealth, vs. 16, 17. Thenceforth her gains shall be devoted to the Lord, v. 18.

Tyre, one of the chief cities of Phoenicia, was situated partly on a rocky island near the coast, and partly in a wide and fertile plain upon the coast itself. It was long a current opinion that the insular Tyre had no existence before the time of Nebuchadnezzar; but Hengstenberg has made it probable that from the beginning the chief part of the city was situated on the island, or rather a peninsula connected with the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Tyre is remarkable in history for two things; its maritime trade, and the many sieges it has undergone. The first of these on record was by Shalmaneser king of Assyria, who according to Menander, a historian now lost but quoted by Josephus, blockaded Tyre for five years, so as to cut off the supply of water from the mainland, but without being able to reduce the city. The next was by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who besieged it thirteen years; with what result, is not expressly mentioned either in profane or sacred history. A third siege was by Alexander the Great, who after seven months and with the utmost difficulty finally reduced it. It was afterwards besieged by the Syrian king Antigonus, and more than once during the Crusades, both by Franks and Saracens. After this period it entirely decayed, and has now disappeared, its site being marked by the insulated rock, by the causeway between it and the mainland still existing as a bar of sand, and by columns and other architectural remains mostly lying under water.

It has been much disputed which of these events is the subject of the prophecy before us. Some see the fulfilment in the days of Isaiah himself, and refer the prediction to the siege by Shalmaneser. Others give it a wider scope, and seem to make the siege by Alexander its main subject. But the great body of the older writers refer it to an intermediate event, the siege by Nebuchadnezzar. Most probably the prophecy before us is generic not specific, a panoramic picture of the downfall of Tyre, from the beginning to the end of the destroying process, with particular allusions to particular sieges, as for instance to that of the Chaldees in v. 13, and perhaps to that of Alexander in v. 6.

1. The burden of Tyre. Howl, ships of Tarshish, for it is laid wasteno house, no entrance-from the land of Chittim it is revealed to them. The command or exhortation to howl implies that those to whom it is addressed have peculiar cause for grief. By ships of Tarshish we are not to understand merchant ships in general, but strictly those which carried on the trade between Phoenicia and its Spanish colony Tartessus. It is laid waste may be indefinitely taken to mean desolation has been wrought, or something has been desolated, without saying what. The expressions no house, no entrance, may refer particularly to the mariners returning from their long voyage and finding their homes destroyed. Chittim is the island of Cyprus, in which there was a city Citium, which Cicero expressly mentions as a Phoenician settlement. It is revealed (i. e. the event announced in the preceding clause) to them (the Tyrian mariners on their way home from Tarshish). The meaning seems to be, that the news of the fall of Tyre has reached the Phoenician settlements in Cyprus, and through them the Tyrian mariners that touch there.

2. Be silent oh inhabitants of the isle (or coast), the merchants of Sidon crossing the sea filled thee. This may either be addressed to the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean which had long been frequented by the Phoenician traders, or to Phoenicia itself, which foreign commerce had enriched. The last explanation is commonly preferred; but the first is recommended by the fact that it assigns a reason for the mention of the foreign trade of Sidon, as accounting for the interest which other nations are supposed to feel in the fall of Tyre. On either supposition, Sidon, the other great city of Phoenicia, is put for the whole country.

3. And in great waters (was) the seed of the Nile; the harvest of the river (was) her revenue; and she was a mart of nations. The Hebrew and Egyptian names of the Nile are here combined. The first, according to its etymology, means black, and corresponds to *** and Melo, Greek and Latin names of the same river, all derived from the colour of the water or the mud which it deposits. Of the whole verse there are three interpretations. The first supposes an allusion to the fact that the grain of Egypt was exported in Phoenician vessels on the great waters i. e. over the sea. The objection that Phoenicia is described by Ezekiel as trading not with Egypt but with Palestine in grain, though entitled to some weight, is not conclusive. A stronger objection may be drawn from the apparent incongruity of naming this one branch of commerce as a proof that Tyre was a mart of nations. A second interpretation understands what is said of Egypt figuratively, or as a comparison; as if he had said that the wealth which Egypt derived from the Nile, Phoenicia derived from the great waters i. e. by her maritime trade. The third differs from this only by supposing a distinct allusion to the insular situation of Tyre, which, though planted on a rock and girt by mighty waters, reaped as rich a harvest as the fertile land of Egypt. This last interpretation is much more poetical than either of the others, and at least in that respect entitled to the preference.

4. Be ashamed (or confounded) Zidon, for the sea saith, the strength of the sea, saying, I have not travailed, and I have not borne, and I have not reared young men (or) brought up virgins. One of the great cities of Phoenicia is here called upon to be confounded at the desolation of the other; or Zidon may be put for the whole country, as in the preceding verse. The Prophet hears a voice from the sea. which he then describes more exactly as coming from the stronghold or fortress of the sea, i. e. insular Tyre as viewed from the mainland. The rest of the verse is intended to express the idea that the city thus personified was childless, was as if she had never borne children. The whole metaphor is clearly intended to express the idea of depopulation.

5. When the report (comes) to Egypt, they an pained at the report of Tyre. There are three distinct interpretations of this verse. The first refers the pronoun to the Sidonians or Phoenicians generally, and understands the verse to mean that they would be as much grieved to hear of the fall of Tyre as if they should hear of that of Egypt. The second makes the verb indefinite, or understands it of the nations generally, who are then said to be as much astounded at the fall of Tyre as they once were at the judgments of Jehovah upon Egypt. The third, which is the one now commonly adopted, makes Egypt itself or the Egyptians the subject of the verb. This last supposes the Egyptians to lament for the loss of their great mart and commercial ally. The idea expressed by the second construction is a much more elevated one. Either of these interpretations appears preferable to the first, which yields an unnatural and inappropriate sense.

6. Pass over to Tarshish; howl, ye inhabitants of the isle (or coast). The mother country is exhorted to take refuge in her distant colonies.

7. Is this your joyous city (literally, is this to you a joyous one?) from the days of old is her antiquity; her feet shall carry her afar off to sojourn. Most writers understand the last clause as applying either to the flight of the Tyrians to their colonies, or to their being carried into exile.

8. Who hath purposed this against Tyre the crowning (city), whose merchants (are) princes, her traffickers the honoured of the earth? Most writers seem to be agreed that the word here translated crowning denotes the crowner or crown-giver, in allusion to the fact that crowned heads were among the tributaries of Phoenicia, according to the testimony of the Greek historians. The question in this verse implies that no ordinary power could have done it.

9. Jehovah of Hosts hath purposed it, to profane the elevation of all beauty, to degrade all the honoured of the earth. This is the answer to the question in v. 8. Not only in poetry, but in animated prose, the writers of all languages ask questions to be answered by themselves. The word translated profane means strictly to desecrate that which is reckoned holy, but is here used to express the making common of that which was distinguished by magnificence or beauty.

10. Pass through thy land like the river (Nile). Daughter of Tarshish, there is no girdle (any) longer. It is commonly agreed that the phrase means, as the Nile passes, i. e. quickly or without restraint. The daughter of Tarshish is Tarshish itself. There is no more girdle, may be taken in opposite senses, as denoting the failure of strength and general dissolution, or the absence of restraint and freedom from oppression.

11. His hand he stretched out over the sea; he made kingdoms tremble; Jehovah commanded respecting Canaan to destroy her strongholds. The subject of the verbs in the first clause is the game as in the last.

12. And he said, Thou shalt not add longer (or continue) to triumph, oppressed (or violated) virgin daughter of Zidon; to Chittim arise, pass over; there also there shall be no rest to thee. The address is not to Chittim, nor to Tyre as a daughter of the older city, but to Zidon itself. Zidon is here put for Phoenicia in general. This exhortation corresponds exactly to the one in v. 6, Tarshish and Chittim being both Phoenician colonies. The last clause implies, either that the colonists would not receive them, or that the enemy would still pursue them, probably the latter.

13. Behold the land of the Chaldees; this people was not; Assyria, founded it for dwellers in the wilderness; they have set up his towers; they have roused up her palaces; he has put it for (or rendered it) a ruin. This difficult verse has been very variously understood. Some apply it exclusively to the destruction of Tyre by the Assyrians; but this can only be effected by au arbitrary change of text. The great majority, both of the older and the later writers, leave the text unaltered, and suppose that the Prophet here brings the Chaldees into view as the instruments of Tyre's destruction. The second clause will then be a parenthesis, containing an allusion to a historical fact not expressly mentioned elsewhere, but agreeing well with other facts of history, to wit, that the Chaldees were not the aboriginal inhabitants of Babylonia, but were brought thither from the mountains of Armenia or Kurdistan by the Assyrians in the days of their supremacy. This accounts for the fact that Xenophon speaks of the Chaldees as northern mountaineers, while in the sacred history we find them in possession of the great plain of Shinar. The former statement has respect, no doubt, to that portion of the people who were left behind in their original territory. This incidental statement, it may also be observed, is in strict accordance with the Assyrian policy of peopling their own provinces with conquered nations. But why should this fact in the history of the Chaldees be referred to here? Because the recent origin and present insignificance of the chosen instruments made the conquest more humiliating to the Tyrians. When Isaiah wrote, Assyria was the ruling power of the world; whatever changes were expected, were expected from that quarter. But here the conquest of Phoenicia is ascribed to a people then but little known, if known at all. It was perfectly natural therefore to say negatively, that it was not to be effected by Assyria, as well as positively, that it was to be effected by Chaldea. In like manner, if the fall of the Roman state had been foretold during the period of the Persian wars, how naturally might the Prophet have said that it should fell, not before the Carthaginians, but before the Goths.

14. Howl, skips of Tarshish, for destroyed is your stronghold. The first part of the prophecy here closes very much as it began. The description of Tyre is the same as in v. 4, except that it was there called the fortress of the sea, and here the fortress of the Tyrian ships.

15. And it shall come to pass in that day that Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years, as the days of the king; from the end of seventy years shall be (or happen) to Tyre like the harlot's song. The remainder of the chapter predicts the restoration of Tyre, not to its former dignity, but to its wealth and commercial activity, the fruits of which should thenceforth be consecrated to Jehovah. There is no difference of opinion with respect to the meaning of the words or the grammatical construction of the sentence, but the utmost diversity of judgment in relation to the general sense and application of the whole, and especially of the words, seventy years as the days of one king. That Tyre was a flourishing city in the time of Alexander the Great, is matter of history. When it again became so, is not. But since the fact is certain and the prophecy explicit, the most rational conclusion is that they chronologically coincide, or in other words, that Tyre did begin to recover from the effects of the Babylonian conquest about seventy years after the catastrophe itself. This of course supposes that the words are to be definitely understood. If, on the other hand, they are indefinite, there can be still less difficulty in supposing their fulfilment. In either case, the words seventy days etc. remain so enigmatical, and all the explanations of them so unsatisfactory, that some may be tempted to refer them to the future, and to look for their fulfilment hereafter. When Zechariah wrote, the Babylonian conquest predicted by Isaiah and Ezekiel had already taken place. The change for the better, predicted by Isaiah alone, was then already visible. The prophecies of both respecting the total destruction of the city are renewed by Zechariah and referred to a period still future, with particular reference, as some suppose, to the time of Alexander but it may be with a scope still more extensive. The last clause foretells the restoration of Tyre in a very peculiar and significant form. Instead of a queen reinstated on the throne, she now appears as a forgotten harlot, suing once more for admiration and reward. Although this metaphor, as we shall see below, does not necessarily imply moral turpitude, it does necessarily impart a contemptuous tone to the prediction. The best explanation of this change of tone is that the restoration here predicted was to be a restoration to commercial prosperity and wealth, but not to regal dignity or national importance. The song of a harlot (or the harlot) is now commonly agreed to mean a particular song well known to the contemporaries of the Prophet. It shall be to her like this song can only mean that what the song presents as an ideal situation should be realized in the experience of Tyre. The Hebrew words will scarcely bear the meaning put upon them in the text of the English Version.

16. Take a harp, go about the city, oh, forgotten harlot, play well, sing much, that thou mayest be remembered. These are now commonly explained as the words of the song itself, describing the only way in which the harlot could recover her lost place in the memory of men, viz. by soliciting their notice and their favour. The application of the song to Tyre implies not only that she had lost her former position in the sight of the nations, but that exertion would be needed to recover it. Play well, sing much, literally, make good playing, multiply song.

17. And it shall be (or come to pass), from (or at) the end of seventy years, Jehovah will visit Tyre, and she shall return to her hire (or gain), and shall play the harlot with all the kingdoms of the earth upon the face of the ground. As God is said to visit men both in wrath and mercy, and as the figure here employed is at first sight a revolting one, some of the older writers understand this verse as describing the continued wickedness of Tyre requiring further judgments. The figure indeed is now commonly agreed to denote nothing more than commercial intercourse without necessarily implying guilt. In ancient times, when international commerce was a strange thing and nearly monopolized by a single nation, and especially among the Jews, whose law discouraged it for wise but temporary purposes, there were probably ideas attached to such promiscuous intercourse entirely different from our own. Certain it is that the Scriptures more than once compare the mutual solicitations of commercial enterprise to illicit love. That the comparison does not necessarily involve the idea of unlawful or dishonest trade, is sufficiently apparent from the following verse.

18. And her gain and her hire shall be holiness (or holy i.e. consecrated) to Jehovah; it shall not be stored and it shall not be hoarded; for her gain shall be for those who sit (or dwell) before Jehovah, to eat to satiety, and for substantial clothing. By those who dwell before Jehovah we are probably to understand his worshippers in general and his official servants in particular. There may be an allusion to the chambers around the temple which were occupied by priests and Levites when in actual service. The general sense of the prediction evidently is, that the commercial gains of Tyre should redound to the advantage of the servants of Jehovah.