Let’s face it, an in-depth knowledge of ancient Tyre won’t make you the life of any party (unless it’s a party for archaeologists, which I imagine would be pretty dead), but these events are extremely important. Why? Because according to many believers, some of the strongest evidence for the divine inspiration of the Bible is God’s ability to predict future events, and Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre are some of the most frequently cited.
Predictive prophecy stands as one of the most viable proofs of the Bible’s divine inspiration. Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the city of Tyre provides an excellent example of such evidence.
It is our contention that when the passage is exegeted carefully and properly, these verses [about Tyre] are excellent witnesses to the divine inspiration of the Bible.
While I’d prefer the evidence be a bit more direct (such as sending fire from heaven, or revealing specific insights about nature, or routinely answering prayers on a testable basis, or simply appearing in person), this is the evidence we’ve been given, so let’s consider it carefully.
A tale of two cities
Before we get started, it’s important to understand that at the time Ezekiel wrote this prophecy (roughly between 592-586 BC), Tyre was divided into two locations. There was the island of Tyre, which was a well-fortified city located about a half-mile off shore from modern Lebanon, and the mainland city, once called Ushu, which became a suburb of Tyre. The city of Tyre still exists today, but the island and mainland are now connected by an artificial causeway (i.e. land bridge) first constructed by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.
Our “proof of divine inspiration” begins in Ezekiel 26; let’s take it verse by verse.
1 In the eleventh month of the twelfth year, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre has said of Jerusalem, ‘Aha! The gate to the nations is broken, and its doors have swung open to me; now that she lies in ruins I will prosper,’ 3 therefore 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.
Tyre was rejoicing over Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon, which God apparently found distasteful, so he curses Tyre saying, “I will bring many nations against you.”
4 They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. 5 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, 6 and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword. Then they will know that I am the Lord.
The island of Tyre was famous for her impressive and impregnable “walls” and “towers.” On the side facing the shore, they were said to be 20′ thick at the base and 150′ high.
It’s crucial to note that the Tyre “out in the sea” refers to the island of Tyre, which was to become “a place to spread fishnets.” In order to accommodate those fishnets, the previous sentence tells us the island would be made bare rock by the pulling down of walls and towers. (If there’s any doubt that these two sentences belong together, verse 14 links the “bare rock” in verse 4 with the “place to spread fishnets” in verse 5, saying, “I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets.”)
Almost as an afterthought, Ezekiel then turns his attention to the mainland, saying “…and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword.” Ezekiel refers to the island as “Tyre,” and the mainland as “settlements.”
7 “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.
Here, Ezekiel describes how God will accomplish these things. Ezekiel accurately predicts that Nebuchadnezzar will come against Tyre. But how likely was this first prediction?
Either Nebuchadnezzar would attack Tyre, or he would not, and at the time of Ezekiel’s writing, the odds were looking pretty good.
Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon where he may have heard about the king’s interest in Tyre (the attack happened soon after Ezekiel’s prediction). Ezekiel would’ve known that Babylon had already conquered the Assyrians (612 BC), and was about to deal a final blow to Jerusalem (587 BC). He also knew that Babylon was in the process of incorporating most of the Eastern Mediterranean. Tiny Tyre, with its wealth and strategic ports, was a pretty obvious target, and Ezekiel’s promise of an easy victory may have spurred Nebuchadnezzar to attack.
While it’s also possible that Ezekiel could’ve written this prophecy after the fact, I tend to think he wrote it beforehand, simply because he gets many of the following details wrong. (Ezekiel also expresses knowledge of the attack just a few chapters later (29:18-19), so it’s not unthinkable.)
8 He [Nebuchadnezzar] will ravage your settlements on the mainland with the sword; he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you. 9 He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons.
Here, God says that Nebuchadnezzar will make quick work of the mainland settlements, ravaging them with the sword. Nebuchadnezzar will then attempt to “build a ramp” to the island in order to “direct the blows of his battering rams against [their] walls.”
This prophecy fails.
When Nebuchadnezzar arrives at the mainland, he actually finds the city abandoned. There is no “ravaging of the settlements on the mainland with the sword,” because the residents had all relocated to the island. Nebuchadnezzar also fails to demolish the towers of island Tyre.
To whitewash this prophecy, some Christians interpret these verses as referring to the mainland only, but there are several problems with this interpretation:
- There is no historical evidence suggesting the mainland was fortified with walls and towers.
- Such heavy fortifications were unnecessary, since the mainlanders would (and did) escape to the island in times of trouble.2
- The only way to deliver a battering ram to the walls of island Tyre was to “build a ramp up to [its] walls.” (This would be the same conclusion reached by Alexander the Great some 250 years later.) On the mainland however, a battering ram could be employed without the use of a ramp.
- Finally, it was the towers of the island “out at sea” that were to be removed in order to make the island “a place to spread fishnets.” Not the towers of the mainland (assuming there were any).
When speaking of Tyre, history typically places its emphasis on the island city and its well-fortified walls and ports. In fact, even the word “Tyre” means “rock.”
So when you move to attack Tyre, you move to take the island, not the mainland. The mainland was nothing more than an unimpressive “line of suburbs rather than one mainland city.”1
But more importantly, even Ezekiel himself refers to the mainland as “settlements,” not as Tyre. Even in the chapters that follow, all emphasis is placed on the island: “Your domain was on the high seas, your builders brought your beauty to perfection;” “You say, ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas,'” and “Who was ever silenced like Tyre, surrounded by the sea?” The most logical assumption is to assume Ezekiel was referring to Nebuchadnezzar destroying walls and towers of the island of Tyre. But this results in a failed prophecy, so Christians must adopt a far less obvious, and more convoluted, interpretation.
10 His horses will be so many that they will cover you with dust. Your walls will tremble at the noise of the warhorses, wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city whose walls have been broken through. 11 The hooves of his horses will trample all your streets; he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground.
Ezekiel predicts that once Nebuchadnezzar has built this ramp to the island, the walls of Tyre would be breached, and the people of the island would be killed “with the sword.” (Note that the mainland settlements had already been ravaged in verse 8. It is now citizens of island Tyre who are killed with the sword.)
Again, this prophecy fails.
Ezekiel probably imagined that building a ramp would be a fairly rudimentary task for Nebuchadnezzar’s impressive army. In reality however, Nebuchadnezzar must’ve concluded that a ramp was too impractical, and so he settled upon laying siege to the island.
The siege lasted 13 years, and in the end, Nebuchadnezzar never broke through the walls, or killed the people with the sword, or brought down Tyre’s mighty pillars.
Again, Christians cannot accept this as a failed prophecy, so some insist this verse was still speaking of the mainland. But if Ezekiel were still referring to the mainland, then the prophecy still fails, because the mainland was found abandoned. Nebuchadnezzar never ravaged any community with the sword.
The island city probably made submission upon conditions, without receiving the hostile army within her walls. The capture of the city was far different from the prophecy of it according to the prophet Ezekiel himself… The siege probably ended with the nominal submission of the city and the surrender of a number of her nobles.
~Wallace Bruce Fleming, The History of Tyre, 1915
12 They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. 13 I will put an end to your noisy songs, and the music of your harps will be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets.
Here’s where things get even more tricky. Ezekiel is still speaking of King Nebuchadnezzar, but Nebuchadnezzar never received any loot, or broke down the walls of Tyre. And as we’ll see in a moment, Nebuchadnezzar clearly expected to!
Because this leads to a failed prophecy, believers look at the word “they” in verse 12 and assume “they” refers to the “many nations” mentioned back in verse 3, and not Nebuchadnezzar.
In reading the pronoun “they,” one must first assume it refers to the most recently defined antonym, which is Nebuchadnezzar’s army. It was Nebuchadnezzar’s army that God was sending to make war with Tyre, and there is a very natural progression of events: Nebuchadnezzar’s army comes, they break down walls, they ravage and siege, and they plunder. End of story.
It is strange to assume we have suddenly switched gears and are now speaking of events that wouldn’t take place for another 250 years. If that were the truth, the prophecy should’ve predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would come, lay siege to Tyre, and negotiate peaceful concessions. Then, hundreds of years later, God would pour out his wrath on island Tyre.
Does it make sense that God would wait to take out his vengeance on a future generation of Tyre? And not the people who rejoiced in Jerusalem’s fall? Why let the guilty off with only a few concessions? But destroy a population that had nothing to do with the events at hand?
Interestingly, in verse 7, God refers to Nebuchadnezzar as “king of kings.” It may be that God (or Ezekiel) considered him the king of these “many nations” that would come against Tyre.
But this is only half the problem.
The other point of debate is which Tyre was supposed to be thrown into the sea.
Believers prefer the mainland, because (not surprisingly) it was rubble from the mainland that Alexander the Great threw into the sea to build his causeway.
But Ezekiel indicates that it would be the stones of the island that fall into the sea. It was the island “out in the sea” that would be used for spreading fishnets, after its towers had been pulled down and made bare rock. And after speaking of the destruction of the island in verses 4-5, Ezekiel turns his attention to the “settlements on the mainland, again proving that he was speaking about the island’s stones.
Being encircled by the sea, it makes sense that Ezekiel would’ve imagined the island’s walls tumbling into the sea as they are pulled down. If you’re going to make the island bare (a place to spread fishnets), you have to do something with all that rubble, and there is nowhere for the rubble to go but into the surrounding sea.
14 (Cont.) You will never be rebuilt, for I the Lord have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Some believers defend Tyre’s existence by suggesting that mainland Tyre was never rebuilt on the exact same spot. However, even Biblical archaeologists admit that the area was so well cleared by Alexander the Great that no one knows where the original city stood. If we don’t know where it was, we certainly can’t confirm it was never built upon. And this defense assumes Ezekiel was speaking of the mainland never being rebuilt, and I’m positive Ezekiel was referring to the island… which was never even completely destroyed.
Other believers have suggested that this prophecy was fulfilled because Tyre would never again be rebuilt by the Phonecians, or never rebuilt in exactly same way, or with the same measure of success. But Ezekiel is clear that it would “never be rebuilt,” and he offers no escape clauses. We cannot have it both ways. If the prophecy can be said to have been fulfilled regardless of whether or not the city is rebuilt, then the prophecy is rendered worthless. It succeeds no matter what happens.
Later, in Ezekiel 29, Ezekiel gives us a glimpse of what actually happened following Nebuchadnezzar’s siege against Tyre:
29:18-19 Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder made raw. Yet he and his army got no reward from the campaign he led against Tyre. Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army.
There are a couple interesting facts about these verses.
First, there seems to be an expectation that Nebuchadnezzar would plunder the wealth of Tyre (v. 12), but that didn’t happen. Ezekiel must now resort to offering alternative concessions. This could be seen as an admission that what was expected of the prophecy, and what was delivered, did not match up.
Second, we can infer that Ezekiel’s words were indeed reaching the King’s ears (how else would the king have known that God now offered him Egypt?). If Nebuchadnezzar also heard Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre before he attacked, then his attack (the only part of the prophecy to actually come to pass) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As for Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat of Egypt, history is fuzzy on the details.
So what actually happened?
Ezekiel was most likely angry over the loss of Jerusalem to Babylon, and enraged by Tyre’s rejoicing. This fueled Ezekiel’s visions of Tyre’s cherished island walls being pulled down into the surrounding sea, and the city becoming a devastated and uninhabited rock. No doubt this prophecy tickled the ears of many exiled Jews, and Ezekiel probably also hoped it would further motivate Nebuchadnezzar to attack.
The most reasonable interpretation of the prophecy is a failed one, but coincidentally, 250 years later, Alexander the Great would use some material from the mainland (and elsewhere) to construct a causeway to attack Tyre. Later, believers would apply this fortuitous event to Ezekiel’s predictions, and claim it was always Alexander the Great (not Nebuchadnezzar) who was always supposed to conquer Tyre, and that it was the mainland stones that were always supposed to be tossed into the sea (even though the prediction is clearly about the island stones).
If you were living in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, there is no way you would’ve read Ezekiel’s prophecy and concluded that Nebuchadnezzar would fail, compromise with Tyre, and Alexander the Great would show up 250 years to capture Tyre without destroying it. That’s certainly not how Nebuchadnezzar understood it.
Ezekiel’s prophecy is actually ambiguous enough that it doesn’t matter who eventually conquers Tyre, or when, or which stones end up in the sea, or why. You could shoehorn millions of possible combinations of events into this prophecy and still make it work. It is only in hindsight that the Christian can proclaim: “What God meant to say was that the stones would be thrown from the mainland, by Alexander the Great, 250 years later, in order to build a causeway!”
Perhaps the most fascinating and significant change to the landscape of Tyre was that it went from being an island “out in the sea” to a full-blown peninsula! Who could’ve predicted that a causeway built to attack the island would slowly silt up and one day become a thriving metropolis unto itself!? Apparently not Ezekiel, whose vision ends with an uninhabited island rock.
I believe Ezekiel did accurately predict that Nebuchadnezzar would make a move on Tyre, though this was probably more likely than not, and possibly self-fulfilling. However, I also believe that Ezekiel predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would slaughter the people of Tyre, pull the island walls and towers into the sea, and that the island would become an uninhabited bare rock. Ezekiel was wrong on all of these counts, and seems willing to admit it.
Ezekiel’s prophecies are made to appear successful through a combination of predictions that are highly probable (5, 6 & 16), ambiguous (3), open-ended (17), liberally reinterpreted in hindsight (7, 8, 9 & 15) and possibly self-fulfilling (4). There is not a single solid prophecy here that we could use as proof of divine inspiration.
If we’re going to insist that the prophecies of Tyre are proof “of the Bible’s divine inspiration,” we need to be absolutely certain of what is being predicted. And ideally, one would hope that proof from God would be far less ambiguous and open-ended. After all, my eternal life hangs in the balance, and it would be a shame to spend an eternity in hell because I misunderstood which Tyre God was referring to.
1 Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911, Vol. 27
2 “[Tyre’s] numbers swelled greatly in time of war, when residents of nearby cities on the mainland (such as Ushu) found refuge on the island…” Katzenstein, H.J., The History of Tyre, 1973