Ezekiel 26 and the Tyre prophecy is a flagship prooftext for those who claim divine inspiration for the Scriptures. Let's see if it bears out under assorted criticisms and examination. I first wrote this essay some years ago and in 2003 had some new insights and arguments to add.
Who Are "They"?
"They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise.." (NIV)
This verse is pivotal to many of the arguments of each side. Our side would say that the "they" in v. 12 refers back the "nations" in v. 3-5, and were represented by Alexander the Great, who did the things described in v. 12, thus fulfilling the prophecy. Skeptics and other critics, however, say that the "they" in v. 12 refers to the elements of Nebuchadnezzar's forces in verses 7 and 11. Nebuchadnezzar never did the things ascribed to "they," in verse 12 - he failed to take Tyre at all - so the prophecy, it is said, was not fulfilled.
A key here is that the "they" in v. 12 can only refer to the "nations" in v. 3. Let's see how this is so.
- 3 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, O Tyrus, and will cause many nations to come up against thee, as the sea causeth his waves to come up.
Note to begin with this verse -- the being who is in charge here, who "will" do things, is the Lord God, Adonai YHWH. YHWH is at the head of the efforts, and it is He who will "cause many nations" to come up. The use of Adonai (which means sovereign or controller) places YHWH at the head of the nations.
- 4 And they shall destroy the walls of Tyrus, and break down her towers: I will also scrape her dust from her, and make her like the top of a rock.
We see again the same pairing: they and I. The nations will scrape Tyre off, and destroy the walls, and break down the towers. ANY nations are eligible for this action.
- 5 It shall be a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea: for I have spoken it, saith the Lord GOD: and it shall become a spoil to the nations.
Once again, the I/nations pairing is made.
- 6 And her daughters which are in the field shall be slain by the sword; and they shall know that I am the LORD.
- 7 For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings, from the north, with horses, and with chariots, and with horsemen, and companies, and much people.
Adonai YHWH now is said to bring on a specific attacker -- Nebuchadnezzar. In our view, this brings on the first of the nations against Tyre. Nebuchadnezzar comes WITH all these things. And now note how the pairing changes:
- 8 He shall slay with the sword thy daughters in the field: and he shall make a fort against thee, and cast a mount against thee, and lift up the buckler against thee.
Note that now the pairing I/they is not used, but it is now he -- Nebuchadnezzar, as all would agree -- who is "in charge" of the scene. And of course "he" personifies his own army here, and those things with him (horses, etc) -- obviously Nebuchadnezzar did not do all of these things himself.
- 9 And he shall set engines of war against thy walls, and with his axes he shall break down thy towers.
The "he" continues, and the subsuming "his" (with reference to the axes).
- 10 By reason of the abundance of his horses their dust shall cover thee: thy walls shall shake at the noise of the horsemen, and of the wheels, and of the chariots, when he shall enter into thy gates, as men enter into a city wherein is made a breach.
In one more case Nebuchadnezzar's forces are personified under himself; the horses are "his" and the horsemen, wheels and chariots are sumbsumed under the heading of when "he" enters.
- 11 With the hoofs of his horses shall he tread down all thy streets: he shall slay thy people by the sword, and thy strong garrisons shall go down to the ground.
And yet again: HIS horses, HE shall slay. But now note the change in the next verses:
- 12 And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise: and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water.
We return to "they" for the first time since v. 4. And:
- 13 And I will cause the noise of thy songs to cease; and the sound of thy harps shall be no more heard.
We return also to "I": Adonai YHWH. And it continues:
- 14 And I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more: for I the LORD have spoken it, saith the Lord GOD.
This oracle clearly offers two pairings: the I/they of Adonai YHWH the sovereign, leading the nations; the he/personified-possession army of Nebuchadnezzar, who though still under Adonai YHWH's sovereign control, is given credit for being able to "will" do things on his own, with his army under him and subsumed under his identity. The oracle therefore indicates that Nebuchadnezzar will do specific actions, and that "nations" will perform certain actions. Nebuchadnezzar brings one of those nations, but the language tells us that the actions of 3-5 and 12-14 may be performed by any nations God brings against Tyre and need not be actions of Nebuchadnezzar.
Verses 3-5 and 12-14 are "I/they" verses -- and form a minor chiastic structure around the central core of verses describing Nebuchadnezzar's actions alone. The linguistic pattern of this passage indicates that the "they" of v. 12 are the nations of v. 4. Not only is the pronoun ("they") the same, but in addition, only in these verses is Adonai YHWH the sole leader, and two unique actions -- net spreading, scraping -- are the same as those ascribed to the nations in 3-5.
Slaying of the enemy is ascribed throughout the oracle, as would be expected of a common element of war.
Bottom line: "they" in v. 12 does not refer to Nebuchadnezzar and his army; they, as one of the "nations" brought by Adonai YHWH, would have qualified to fulfill those passages, but so could any other nation brought against Tyre in its history following.
One known proposal to refute the assertion that "they" in verse 12 refers to a plural antecedent is by comparing it Ezekiel 29:17-20, which is alleged to be similar in structure.
In fact it is not similar in structure at all, and has quite different contents. There are no "nations" in view in this short passage to serve as candidates for an antecedent of the pronoun "they", or anything else that can serve as a possible antecedent. There is no chaistic structure as the above noted. There is also no "I/They" pairing and consistent comparability of unique actions.
Let's look at the passage closely:
- 17 And it came to pass in the seven and twentieth year, in the first month, in the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Initially it is unreasonable to take a passage written 17 years later and compare it with the previous oracle, as though Chapters 26 and 29 were read and written in succession as we read it now. Any such comparison must be done critically and not on mere surface resemblances, which is all this objection does.
- 18 Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus, for the service that he had served against it:
Note that "he" and "his army" are highlighted together in a way that they are not in Ezekiel 26. During the Tyre prophecy, Nebuchadnezzar's army is personified under singular references to Nebuchadnezzar himself, or treated as his possession, a non-personal entity in which horses and chariots are listed with horsemen together.
That is not what is happening here: The army is allowed to have its own identity, in order to emphasize that "every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed raw" - a simple, hyperbolic way of expressing how much trouble the army had to go to against Tyre.
- 19 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the wages for his army.
Nebuchadnezzar and his army are again treated as separate entities, with no subsuming at all: Nebuchadnezzar is the head of the army who distributes the spoils, but he is not the one wielding axes or treading the streets. Here he literally occupies only the normal role for the leader of the army.
- 20 I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served against it, because they wrought for me, saith the Lord GOD.
It is this "they" which critics think paralells for Ch. 26, but there are again no "nations" or any other possible antecedent for "they" to refer to in this short oracle. There is no comparable linguistic pattern as in Ch. 26.
Those who reckon this as some sort of careless shift in grammar, or speak of Ezekiel "carelessly" separating a pronoun from its antecedent by such a great space in 26, are not only anachronistic but also ignoring the extensive linguistic pattern in the 26 oracle, which has no parallel in the 29 oracle.
At this point we bring in an argument brought to my attention, though it was not written in response to this page. An article entitled "A Problem of Unfulfilled Prophecy in Ezekiel" by one David Thompson, at an online location now defunct, argues thusly:
...the prediction of utter destruction is not easily separated from Nebuchadnezzar. Towers and standing columns (massebot) portrayed in the highly schematized art of Assyrian reliefs of insular Tyre make it quite probable that such "towers" and "columns" were distinctive features of the island city. 32 Their appearance in verses 4, 9, and 11 make it difficult to separate the description of Nebuchadnezzar's siege from the opening general prediction of Tyre's complete destruction. This overlap between the opening announcement of Tyre's destruction and the description of Nebuchadnezzar's siege in reference to an apparently distinctive feature of island Tyre make it further probable that Nebuchadnezzar's siege here is seen by Ezekiel as at very least including a thoroughly destructive conquest of the island, not just mainland Tyre.
Thompson's argument rests upon the premise, however, that the "towers" and "columns" by Ezekiel refer to specific (and literal) architectural elements. (Thompson also does not explain what the reliefs depict the mainland city as looking like, and whether it had any such features.) Since the word for "towers" is used in the Bible to refer to places that are merely lookouts that are higher than the rest of the city, and since "columns" can refer to an edifice even as small as the altar set up by Jacob, I have serious doubts about the relevance of the Assyrian relief specified.
There is no reason why the two words cannot refer to less-prominent structures, or else be understood as metaphors for military strength.
Other points raised by Thompson about the reliability of the text itself have been dealt with by Lawhead in a reply article and will not concern us here.
Nations Scraping and Nets
3 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, O Tyrus, and will cause many nations to come up against thee, as the sea causeth his waves to come up.
Ezekiel 26:3 verse says that "many nations" will be against Tyre. Babylon, Alexander the Great, and the Muslim crusaders are commonly cited as fulfillment. I will argue later that it is unnecessary to bring the Muslim crusaders into the picture and that Alexander's actions sufficiently fulfilled the prophecy.
Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon was the first of the nations to come against Tyre. Alexander's forces were put together from a coalition of Greek city-states. Each of these was an independent entity and acted as a nation unto itself. Alexander's father, Philip II, unified (by military force) these city-states and the regions of Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece proper under his rule - giving Alexander the unified front he needed to go forth and conquer.
Nevertheless, this was a coalition composed of many nations - and thus fulfills the prophecy.
A Skeptic once objected to this: "They were COALESCED into ONE NATION" - so the prophecy is NOT fulfilled there. A reader however has noted:
In fact Phillip II conquered the Greeks. He was seen by many of them as being a barbaric overlord from the North. On the death of Alexander they went back to being city states, though with a ruler of Mecedonian extraction over them for the most part. In addition Alexander's Macedonian army had Cretan mercenary archers, Agrianian mercenary light infantry, led by their king at the outset, but he died before Tyre, Thracian mercenaries and Thesallian cavalry. These are in addition to the fleets of countries that did not like Tyre because of their dominance of the Meditteranean trading.
Moreover, according to the ancient historian Arrian, author of "Anabasi Alexandri," (2.20.1-2), Alexander got some help in attacking Tyre. Having no navy of his own to speak of, he got naval help from his friends in Macedon and from the Phoenician city-states Aradus, Byblos, and Sidon; ships also came from Enylos, Soli and Mallos, Rhodes, Lycia, and Cyprus to join in the fray and help Alexander overcome Tyre [Flem.Tyre, 58]. Each, other than Macedon, was an entirely separate nation from those in Alexander's land forces: a sort of ancient Gulf War Coalition
Thus, even if the first aspect I have mentioned in not accepted as a fulfillment, the second has to be - for it involves, by the most conservative count now, 11 nations; by a larger allowance, 13 or more - and either number certainly can be regarded as "many" in any event.
4 And they shall destroy the walls of Tyrus, and break down her towers: I will also scrape her dust from her, and make her like the top of a rock.
Few would dispute that Alexander fulfilled this verse, though Nebuchadnezzar undoubtedly started the process of breaking down walls and towers. It was Alex, though, who turned the rubble of Tyre into a causeway to defeat the island city. Note particularly that it is the city itself which will be made like the top of a rock.
One will of course, knowing this culture's literature, grant hyperbolic excess to the claim; it would be unreasonable to demand that every microscopic grain be removed, and absurd unreasonable to suppose that modern sands in the same place detract from the fulfillment, as of course sands shift and blow about constantly, and would not be reckoned as being part of the city itself. Whatever Alexander scraped away, dust would return to fill the void.
5 It shall be a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea: for I have spoken it, saith the Lord GOD: and it shall become a spoil to the nations.
The "spoil to the nations" part is not doubted by any critic I have yet seen. The "fishnets" part I formerly regarded as fulfilled even in the destruction of the island city, but have now determined based on further study that the reference is to the mainland city alone and that the "midst of the sea" reference refers to the likely spreading of nets on the causeway -- thus the mainland city became "a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea" (though of course direct evidence for such ancient use of the causeway, like any private action of peasant fisherman, is not documented).
Perhaps not very impressive for a coastal area, but we are sure the Skeptics would object if they thought it was missing.
6 And her daughters which are in the field shall be slain by the sword; and they shall know that I am the LORD. 7 For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings, from the north, with horses, and with chariots, and with horsemen, and companies, and much people. 8 He shall slay with the sword thy daughters in the field: and he shall make a fort against thee, and cast a mount against thee, and lift up the buckler against thee. 9 And he shall set engines of war against thy walls, and with his axes he shall break down thy towers. 10 By reason of the abundance of his horses their dust shall cover thee: thy walls shall shake at the noise of the horsemen, and of the wheels, and of the chariots, when he shall enter into thy gates, as men enter into a city wherein is made a breach. 11 With the hoofs of his horses shall he tread down all thy streets: he shall slay thy people by the sword, and thy strong garrisons shall go down to the ground.
Little needs be discussed here. Few doubt that this reflects accurately what Nebuchadnezzar did or could have done to the mainland city.
12 And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise: and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water. 13 And I will cause the noise of thy songs to cease; and the sound of thy harps shall be no more heard. 14 And I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more: for I the LORD have spoken it, saith the Lord GOD.
As noted above, we return here to the they/I pairing indicating that "nations" will do these things -- which would allow that Babylon or any other nation could fulfill these passages. However, here Alexander is the only one who made a spoil of Tyre (Nebuchadnezzar got ripped off, per Ezekiel 29); and only he qualified to have broken down Tyre's "pleasant houses" -- likely the good stuff on the island.
And of course only he threw all of the rubble into the water; we have already spoken of nets.
What then of "built no more"? Previously I followed the appeals that went as far as using Mulsim Crusaders as fulfillment, but I now see than as unnecessary. It is here where I now bring in specific insights learned from observation of ancient use of hyperbole, especially in oracles of war. Consider first this statement from Ramesses III:
I slew the Denyon in their islands, while the Tjekker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought on captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore.
Ramesses speaks of the Sherden and Washesh being "made non-existent" but then goes on to say that they were captured. Is this contradictory? Of course not. The "made non-existent" part is manifestly "trash talk". In the Victory Stele of Merneptah, we also see trash talk like, "Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent..."
Clearly literal descriptions (conquered, seized) are mixed with clearly metaphorical ones (made non-existent), and that is what I now argue we have here. The threat to be "built no more" is trash talk like that of Ramesses speaking of his non-existent, captured people.
In fact, Ezekiel goes on a skein of what we now regard as "trash talk" in the next several verses:
15 Thus saith the Lord GOD to Tyrus; Shall not the isles shake at the sound of thy fall, when the wounded cry, when the slaughter is made in the midst of thee? 16 Then all the princes of the sea shall come down from their thrones, and lay away their robes, and put off their broidered garments: they shall clothe themselves with trembling; they shall sit upon the ground, and shall tremble at every moment, and be astonished at thee. 17 And they shall take up a lamentation for thee, and say to thee, How art thou destroyed, that wast inhabited of seafaring men, the renowned city, which wast strong in the sea, she and her inhabitants, which cause their terror to be on all that haunt it! 18 Now shall the isles tremble in the day of thy fall; yea, the isles that are in the sea shall be troubled at thy departure. 19 For thus saith the Lord GOD; When I shall make thee a desolate city, like the cities that are not inhabited; when I shall bring up the deep upon thee, and great waters shall cover thee; 20 When I shall bring thee down with them that descend into the pit, with the people of old time, and shall set thee in the low parts of the earth, in places desolate of old, with them that go down to the pit, that thou be not inhabited; and I shall set glory in the land of the living; 21 I will make thee a terror, and thou shalt be no more: though thou be sought for, yet shalt thou never be found again, saith the Lord GOD.
Islands shaking and trembling at the sound of a fall, the princes descending from their thrones and sitting in dust (signifying actually the fear of other nations over Tyre's conquest); the figures of desolation and of water flowing over, and descent into a dungeon -- all of these bespeak ancient "trash talk" and threats like that of turning Edom's streams into pitch (Is. 34:9).
Therefore there is no need for my previous arguments with respect to the identities of the ancient and modern cities, or never "finding" the city again. Ezekiel does not predict a permanent destruction but uses the ancient metaphors of war to describe the seriousness of Tyre's predicament.
- Crai.Zeke - Craigie, Peter. Ezekiel. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983.
- Flem.Tyre - Fleming, Wallace B. The History of Tyre. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1915.