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, 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 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 an afterthought, Ezekiel turns his attention to the mainland, saying “…and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword.” Note 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.
Here, Ezekiel because to describe how God will accomplish these things. He accurately predicts that Nebuchadnezzar will come against Tyre, though this attempt on Tyre may have been 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, was an obvious target, and Ezekiel’s promise of victory may have even inspired Nebuchadnezzar to attack.
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 gets many of the details wrong. However, Ezekiel does express 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, ravaging it with the sword. He will then attempt to build a ramp to the island in order to “direct the blows of his battering rams against [their] walls.”
But this prophecy fails.
When Nebuchadnezzar arrives at the mainland, he finds the city abandoned. There is no “ravaging of the settlements on the mainland with the sword,” because the residents had all moved to the island for protection. He also fails to demolish the towers of Tyre (more on this in a moment).
To whitewash this prophecy, some Christians will interpret these verses as referring to the mainland only, but I see numerous problems with this interpretation.
- There is no historical evidence suggesting the mainland was ever fortified with walls and towers.
- Such heavy fortifications may have been deemed unnecessary, as the mainlanders could escape to the island in times of trouble.2
- Literally, the only way to deliver a battering ram to the walls of an island like Tyre is to “build a ramp up to [its] walls.” In fact, this would be the same conclusion reached by Alexander the Great some 250 years later. On the mainland, however, a battering ram could be deployed without a ramp.
- Finally, as previously discussed, it was always 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.”
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. 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. 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.
With the ramp built and the walls of island Tyre breached, the people of the island are killed “with the sword” (not to be confused with the people of the mainland, who were already “ravaged” by the sword back in verse 8.)
Again, this prophecy fails.
Nebuchadnezzar likely concluded that a ramp would be far too impractical, and settled upon laying siege to the island. This siege lasted 13 years, and in the end, he never broke through the walls, or killed the people with the sword, or brought Tyre’s mighty pillars to the ground.
But again, Christians cannot accept a failed prophecy, so some continue to insist this 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 had the opportunity to ravage 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, any reasonable person would conclude that Ezekiel is still speaking of King Nebuchadnezzar, but Nebuchadnezzar never accomplished any of this.
Because this assumption leads to a failed prophecy, believers prefer to look at the word “they” in verse 12 and assume “they” must be the “many nations” mentioned back in verse 3, not Nebuchadnezzar.
But in reading the pronoun “they,” one must assume it refers to the most recently defined antonym, which is Nebuchadnezzar’s army. It was Nebuchadnezzar’s army that God sends to make war with Tyre, and there is a very natural progression to the events being described: Nebuchadnezzar’s army comes, they break down walls, they ravage and siege, and they plunder. They take out their revenge on the people who rejoiced at the fall of Jerusalem.
There is no reason to think that we’ve suddenly switched gears, and are now speaking of some other event that would take place 250 years later. If this were true, the prophecy should’ve predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would come, lay siege to Tyre, and negotiate peaceful concessions. It might then mention that someone else would come along hundreds of years later to take vengeance on a future generation (one that that actually had nothing to do with the event… which just seems even more nonsensical).
While it’s true that God does assign several tasks to the “many nations,” God also assigns identical tasks to Nebuchadnezzar in verses 8 and 9. So there is 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 prefer the mainland, because (not surprisingly) it was the rubble of the mainland that Alexander the Great threw into the sea to build a causeway.
However, I believe that Ezekiel indicates that it would be the stones of the island, for several reasons:
- 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.
- After speaking of the destruction of the island in verses 4-5, Ezekiel turns his attention to the “settlements on the mainland.” It is the island that has its walls and towers destroyed, not the mainland.
- Finally, being encircled by the sea, it makes sense that Ezekiel would’ve envisioned 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 the 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 can’t confirm it was never built upon. And this defense assumes Ezekiel was speaking of the mainland never being rebuilt, and I’m certain Ezekiel was referring to the island… which was never even completely destroyed.
Alternatively, 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 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.
There are a couple interesting things about these verses.
Firstly, there was obviously an expectation that was not met. God had promised Nebuchadnezzar the plunder and wealth of Tyre (v. 12), but that didn’t happen. Ezekiel then resorts to offering concessions. But can he be trusted?
Second, we can infer that Ezekiel’s words were reaching the King’s ears (how else would the king have known that God just 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 come to pass) was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As for Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat of Egypt, history is fuzzy on the details.
Here’s what I believe actually happened. Ezekiel was 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 attack Tyre.
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 Alexander the Great (not Nebuchadnezzar) who was supposed to conquer Tyre, and that it was the mainland stones that were supposed to be tossed into the sea (even though the prediction was clearly about the island).
If you were living in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, there is no possible way you could read Ezekiel’s prophecy and conclude that Nebuchadnezzar would fail, compromise with Tyre, and Alexander the Great would show up 250 years to capture Tyre without destroying it. That’s a completely different prophecy! While Ezekiel’s prophecy seems cut and dry, it’s actually so ambiguous that it really doesn’t matter who eventually conquers Tyre, or when, or which stones end up in the sea, or why. You could shoehorn any combination of events into this prophecy and make it work. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that the Christian now proclaims: “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 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.
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 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. 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