Let’s face it, an in-depth knowledge of ancient Tyre won’t make you the life of any party (unless you happen to be at a party with a bunch of 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 insights about nature, or routinely answering prayers on a testable basis), this is the evidence we’ve been given, so let’s take a look.
A tale of two cities
Before we get started, it’s important to know 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 (or 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 a footnote, Ezekiel then turns his attention toward the mainland, saying “…and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword.” Also notice how 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.
Ezekiel accurately predicts that Nebuchadnezzar will come against Tyre, though an attempt on Tyre was highly probable.
At the time of Ezekiel’s writing, he’d been exiled to Babylon and may have known about the king’s interest in Tyre (the attack happened soon after Ezekiel’s prediction). Ezekiel knew that Babylon had already conquered the Assyrians (612 BC), and was about to deal a final blow to Jerusalem (587 BC). He also knew Babylon was in the process of incorporating most of the Eastern Mediterranean. Tyre, with its wealth and strategic ports, would’ve been an obvious target, and Ezekiel’s promise of victory may have inspired Nebuchadnezzar (as we’ll see in a moment).
While it’s possible that Ezekiel could’ve written this prophecy after the fact, I tend to think he wrote it beforehand, simply because he get many of the details wrong. However, Ezekiel does express knowledge of the attack just a few chapters later (29:18-19), so it’s within the realm of possibility.
8 He 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 plainly states, “I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar … He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons.”
We’ve already established that it is the island’s walls and towers that are to be destroyed. But if that’s the case, then this prophecy fails, because Nebuchadnezzar never breached the island walls.
To get around this problem, Christians make the interesting claim that Nebuchadnezzar builds a ramp so that he can use his battering rams against the walls and towers of the mainland settlements, not the island. In other words, we are now talking about TWO sets of walls and towers, even though Ezekiel never differentiates between the two.
This is an unnatural assumption, because history typically places its emphasis on the island city of Tyre and its well-fortified walls and ports. In fact, “Tyre” even means “rock.” The mainland city was most likely an unimpressive “line of suburbs rather than one mainland city.”1
Even the book of Ezekiel itself refers to them as just “settlements.” And in the following chapters, all the 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?” There is little or no talk of the mainland.
Furthermore, there is no historical evidence indicating that there were fortified walls or towers around mainland Tyre. Such fortifications may have been seen as unnecessary, as the mainlanders tended to escape to the island during times of trouble.2 In fact, that’s exactly what they did when Nebuchadnezzar approached (he found the mainland abandoned). It would’ve surely been easier to escape to the island than to try to fortify such a long string of suburbs along a coastline.
The logical assumption would be to assume that Ezekiel was referring to Nebuchadnezzar destroying walls and towers of the island of Tyre, but again, this results in a failed prophecy, so Christians must adopt a far less obvious, and much more dubious, work-around. But let’s continue.
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.
If we continue to assume this is describing an attack on the mainland, then the result is another failed prophecy. Nebuchadnezzar found the mainland city abandoned, so the slaughter that was supposed to take place after breaking into the mainland walls (assuming it had any) never takes place. Even the thirteen year siege of the island ended rather peacefully.
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
The only option is to assume God has suddenly stopped talking about Nebuchadnezzar, and is now now referring to the attack by Alexander the Great that would happen some 250 years later.
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, critics would argue that Ezekiel is still speaking of King Nebuchadnezzar, but again, this would lead us to failure since he did not plunder their wealth (Ezekiel 29:18-19) or throw their stones into the sea. So believers claim that these verses are actually referring to the “many nations” mentioned back in verse 3 (or Alexander the Great, in particular).
When reading the pronoun “they” in verse 12, we must reasonably assume it refers to the most recently defined antonym, which is Nebuchadnezzar’s army. It is Nebuchadnezzar’s army that God sends to do all of the things described up to this point, and there is a natural and logical order to the events that follow God dispatching of Nebuchadnezzar’s army: they come, they ravage, they siege, they demolish, and they plunder.
But Christians will claim the pronoun “they” refers to the “many nations” identified back in verse 3. While it’s true that God assigns several tasks to the many nations, God also appears to assign these identical tasks to Nebuchadnezzar in verses 8 and 9. I see no reason to believe that God is not still speaking of Nebuchadnezzar, and assigning him the task of casting Tyre’s stones into the sea (especially since he’s the one clearly tasked with breaking down their walls in verse 8).
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 critics and Christians debate is which Tyre was supposed to be thrown into the sea. Believers mostly claim it was the mainland, no doubt because it was the mainland that Alexander the Great later threw into the sea. However, I believe that Ezekiel clearly indicates that it will be the stones of the island, for several reasons.
- It is the island “out in the sea” that is used for spreading fishnets after its towers have been pulled down and it is made bare rock, not the mainland.
- After speaking of the destruction of the island in verses 4-5, Ezekiel then turns his attention to the “settlements on the mainland.” It is the island that has its walls and stones removed, not the mainland.
- Finally, being encircled by the sea, it just makes sense that Ezekiel would have envisioned the island’s walls tumbling into the sea as they are pulled down. If you’re going to make the island bare, there is nowhere for the stones to go but into the 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 was located. If we don’t know where it was, we can’t confirm it was never built upon. And this defense assumes Ezekiel was speaking of the mainland never being rebuilt, and I’m fairly certain Ezekiel was referring to the island… which was never even completely destroyed.
Believers have also suggested that this prophecy was fulfilled because Tyre was never again 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 exceptions. We can’t have it both ways, if the prophecy can be said to have been fulfilled regardless of whether or not the city is rebuilt, the prophecy is worthless.
Later in Ezekiel 29, Ezekiel gives us a glimpse of what actually happened in 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.
What interests me most about these verses is that we can infer from them that Ezekiel’s words were reaching the King’s ears (how else would the king have known that God offered him Egypt?). If Nebuchadnezzar also heard Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre before he attacked, then not only was the attack probable, but Ezekiel’s promises of victory may have turned his prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy (well… at least the parts that were actually fulfilled).
As for Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat of Egypt, history is fuzzy on the details.
Here’s what I believe actually happened. Ezekiel was feeling angry over the loss of Jerusalem to Babylon, and enraged by Tyre’s rejoicing. This fueled Ezekiel’s vision 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 motivate Nebuchadnezzar to take action against Tyre.
This version of the prophecy failed, but coincidentally, 250 years later, Alexander the Great did use material from the mainland (and elsewhere) to build a causeway to attack the island. Later, believers applied this fortuitous event to Ezekiel’s predictions, and claimed it was the mainland stones that were supposed to be tossed into the sea (even though the prediction was clearly about the island).
The ambiguity surrounding these prophecies is actually so great that it doesn’t really matter who eventually conquers Tyre, or when, or which stones end up in the sea, or why. There are literally thousands of combinations of events that could be shoehorned into this prophecy. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the Christian now says with confidence, “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 become a thriving metropolis unto itself!? Apparently not Ezekiel, whose vision is of an uninhabited island rock.
I believe Ezekiel did accurately predict Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Tyre, though this was probably more likely than not. I also believe that Ezekiel predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would slaughter Tyrians, pull the island walls and towers into the sea, and that the island would become an uninhabited bare rock. Ezekiel was wrong on each of these counts.
Ezekiel’s prophecies are made to appear successful through a combination of predictions that are 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 one solid prophecy here that I could honestly consider 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 prophesied. And ideally, one would hope that proof from God would be far less ambiguous. 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