Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Isaiah 23

Verses 1-18

Inner History

Isaiah 23

The whole chapter relates to the destiny of Tyre. History has confirmed the prophecy to the letter. Jesus Christ himself referred to the destiny of Tyre and Sidon. The Tarshish of this chapter is Spain. Chittim is the island of Cyprus. The word "merchant" is the same word that is rendered in other places "Canaanite." The Canaanites were the most energetic commercial men of their time. To be a merchant was to be a Canaanite; to be a Canaanite was to be a merchant, substantially. With these points of antiquity the general mass of the people have nothing to do. Yet with the inner history which lies under all these marvellous accidents the world must be concerned until the end of time.

For example, the world must come, however slowly, to recognise the fact that rulers themselves are ruled; that nations are units; that empires are limited; that the Lord reigneth. There can be only one Supreme. It would seem as if all pluralism were but accidental—that in unity we must find character, purpose, power, issue, and destiny. There are many volumes, but the only volume which holds them all, in so far as they are true, is the Bible. There are many kings, but they all have a King over them—eternal, immortal, invisible, the only Potentate; all others are dramatic kings, painted figures, useful or useless, as the case may be; but the King of glory reigneth, and all gates fly back at his coming, and all doors lift themselves up in sign of welcome, and in token of his right to come. Nations take a great deal of education in this matter, as indeed do individuals. What a glorious dawn is that which will shine above the eastern hills when the world begins to feel that it is reigned over, governed, guided in all its march of progress; that every throb of it is but the echo of a throb profounder still:—

The world grows warmer under that recognition. At first the recognition is terrible enough, but it becomes more and more beneficent as things shape themselves, as dumb things begin to sing, and things that looked impracticable and unmanageable fall into order, and consent to the universal economy. Unless we get some larger view like this we shall be the victims of circumstances; every little Napoleon that cares to be haughty to the ambassador of a foreign court may set us up in an attitude of alarm. Be quiet with religious tranquillity. Things are not ordered by the whims and moods of petty toy-kings: they come and go, they die of diseases, like dogs; they have no philosopher"s stone in their pouch; they are but a smoke, as we are: the Lord reigneth. When nations come to understand this, the earth shall yield her increase, the whole world shall be a harvest-field, and there shall be no want in our streets, no cry of atheistic pain.

The world must come, secondly, to recognise the fact that even empires are dependent upon character for their existence. Where are the testimonials? What is their record? It is all written. The greatest man cannot do without his references. Under many circumstances he may pass freely, because a good deal will be assumed regarding him; but there will come a point—call it, if you will, Day of Judgment; it is a solemn, grand term—when empires must put down their record, and stand or fall by what they have done. The individuals make the nation. When the individuals are right the nation cannot be wrong. It is not within our compass to deal with countries, empires, great lands, all at once; but we can deal with the little children, we can begin at some point of reformation or culture, and be faithful to the sphere which that point indicates; and thus every one of us can be helping the regeneration of the world. It is possible that we may be wasting much energy by imagining that because we cannot control an empire we cannot educate a life. Our empire may be the little house-empire—all the young forces that throb about the hearthstone and the table. Or we may have some wizardry of eloquence that can touch people who will not go to church. Or we may have that secret of sympathy which makes the whole world kin. Do not suppose that we are to wait until we have energy enough to make the whole world hear us; we may begin with the very first child that comes in our way—yea, with the dying man who has but an hour to live; even in him we may, by God"s blessing, cause to flash up that divinity which men call light.

We cannot read this history without feeling how true it is in all its moral outline and issue. For Tyre we may substitute London, Paris, New York, or the countries which they indicate. It is only the letter of this chapter which is ancient; the principle is energetic evermore. There is a tone of bitterness in the chapter, a tone of what is distinctively Scriptural irony—that acid, biting tone of old Elijah. "Pass ye over to Tarshish" ( Isaiah 23:6). That is an ironical expression. The people are mocked when through sin they have lost their strength. Go away to your remotest colony, and sit down with those whom you have called tributaries and dependents. O thou once overfed and over-pampered glutton, go sit down in the kitchen when the fire is out, and make a banquet for thyself on thy memory! How proud had Tyre been! How she thrived upon her corn trade in Egypt! Egypt had no timber, and therefore could not build ships; and if she had had a whole Bashan full of oaks she never would have cut a plank, for Egypt from time immemorial detested the sea. You never caught an Egyptian on the sea if he could stow himself away anywhere else. The Tyrian liked the sea, did not care how broad it was, or deep; he had a spirit of locomotion and daring and enterprise, and wherever the corn was the man of Tyre might be seen. Tyre enriched herself with the harvests of the Nile; she thought Sihor flowed for her advantage; the harvest of the river was her revenue, and she was a mart of nations. Honour to whom honour is due. She had acquired a great position in the world, and therefore she must have had elements of character of conspicuous value. It is idle to deny the energy, the capacity, the force of any man who has ascended to the top and planted his banner there. He has to be accounted for, and reckoned with; and he will never be brought down by sneers. Tyre was a haughty lady. To know what Tyre was we have only to read Ezekiel xxvi-xxviii. There we have a full-length portraiture of Tyrus; "O thou that art situate at the entry of the sea, which art a merchant of the people for many isles, Thus saith the Lord God; O Tyrus, thou hast said, I am of perfect beauty. Thy borders are in the midst of the seas, thy builders have perfected thy beauty. They have made all thy ship boards of fir trees of Senir: they have taken cedars from Lebanon to make masts for thee. Of the oaks of Bashan have they made thine oars; the company of the Ashurites have made thy benches of ivory, brought out of the isles of Chittim. Fine linen with broidered work from Egypt was that which thou spreadest forth to be thy sail; blue and purple from the isles of Elishah was that which covered thee" ( Ezekiel 27:3-7). Only a prophet dare have challenged such strength and splendour. The prophecies should be read not retrospectively but prospectively, as they were uttered, and we should see the great men of old hurling their thunders against evident might, pomp, grandeur, settled and immutable reputation.

A wonderful thing is this, that when the Spirit of God is in a man he cares for no city, how great soever it may be, though he himself may not have whereon to lay his head. There Isaiah, however, a spirit in him which makes him greater than all the capitals of the world, were they added to one another and constituted into one great avenue of capitals, each house in all the vista crowned or starred with the sceptre thrust from every window. The Galilean fishermen cared nothing for the pomp of Jerusalem; old prophets with ragged mantles on their stooping shoulders hurled divinest judgment against proud kings. The Church has lost this prophetic inspiration, and now she bows down to worldly greatness, and tells with delight that a chariot and pair has driven up to her front door. To what a cant of indignity has she sunk, even in her very speech! She is now an "influential" Church, a "respectable" Church, an "intelligent" Church, a Church possessed of "exceptional advantages," and most careful about her "reputation"! So the world pays its copper tribute, and says to the Church, Behave yourself! let us do what we like, and you sing your hymns and go up to heaven like any other vapour. Where are the men who can do without food, clothing, shelter? Where are the men who would spurn any offer of patronage?—sons of lightning, sons of judgment; men who never sit down to eat, but snatch their apple as they hasten along the road that they may keep their next appointment to thunder judgment upon unrighteousness, and break in pieces with an iron rod the vessel of impurity.

Tyre is called "the crowning city" ( Isaiah 23:8). The speaker cannot drop his satire; he has got accustomed to it now; he is in his best vein of mockery. The crowning city was Tyre because she distributed crowns to the Phoenician colonies,—so to say, she kept a whole cupboard full of crowns, and took one out after another, and gave to the little colonies that they might play at being kingdoms. "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity." But Tyre was proud of her dignities! "Haran, and Canneh, and Eden, the merchants of Sheba, Asshur, and Chilmad, were thy merchants. There were thy merchants in all sorts of things, in blue clothes, and broidered work, and in chests of rich apparel, bound with cords, and made of cedar, among thy merchandise. The ships of Tarshish did sing of thee in thy market: and thou wast replenished, and made very glorious in the midst of the seas" ( Ezekiel 27:23-25). Then the "rowers" of Tyre—the men who, so to speak, rowed the beautiful city as upon a river—brought her into great waters, and whilst she was there the east wind broke her. O that east wind! that eternal resource of God! So Tyre was overwhelmed:—

But the question arose: Who did all this? How did all this come to pass? The answer is sublime:—

"The Lord of hosts hath purposed it, to stain the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth.... He stretched out his hand over the sea, he shook the kingdoms: the Lord hath given a commandment against the merchant city, to destroy the strongholds thereof ( Isaiah 23:9, Isaiah 23:11).

There is a "who" in history. We find that who in the eighth verse: "Who hath taken this counsel against Tyre?" "Who" is not a word we apply to a dog, but to a Prayer of Manasseh, to one reasonable, responsible. Yet who could apply the term to a mere man under such peculiar circumstances? No man could have done it. We never ask, with any idea of receiving for an answer that a man did it, "Who set the sun in his tabernacle?" Did it ever occur to any one to say, "Two men lifted the burning load to that altitude"? The answer would, be received with a derisive smile. There are some things which man could not have done. God reconstructs geography. He is not only the Geologist of the globe, but its Geographer. The God that built up the rocks managed all the surface work. God readjusts the map of the world; he alters names, boundaries, capacities; the four seasons are his servants, and he tells them what to do. At this very time Chittim, or Cyprus, revolted against Tyre, and the Phoenician colonies began to be restless, and hey too joined Sennacherib when he attacked the mother city. There are colonies that will not always be colonies. Who did it? God shook the kingdoms: Egypt, Ethiopia, Babylon, Syria, Israel, Judah, quaked down to their foundations, whilst Tiglath-Pileser was building and glorifying the Assyrian Empire, as if he were a species of god: and in due time his neck was to be wrung, and he was to be thrown away, because there cannot be two Almighties.

"Pass over to Chittim" ( Isaiah 23:12). Here we have the irony again. Go into the little island, shrink within the smallest bounds: O thou mighty England, Great Britain and Ireland, go and sit upon a stone, and dine upon gravel and sand! "Behold the land of the Chaldeans" ( Isaiah 23:13). What is the meaning of that challenge? The meaning is that Tyre learned from Chaldea. Let one country learn from another. Do not let history be wasted upon our statesmen and leaders and merchants. Study the history of the world if you would study the history of your own town. Always read the little in the light of the great. Be sure to have the right atmosphere, the right point of view, the right perspective, or you may be imagining that a thing is great only because it is near. The philologist does not scruple to say that if a man knows only one language he knows none. There is an obvious sense in which that is true. It may be said to be distinctively and peculiarly true of the English tongue, which has about it the flavour of nearly all countries, and is the most difficult of all languages to acquire. So it is about our business, about our parish, about our city, and about our country: we know nothing about any of these until we know something about the whole scheme of things. We must know that even a straight line drawn upon a globe dips, and loses its straightness. We must remember that a city, any city, how proud, great, mighty, rich soever, is to be judged in the light of the history of cities. Tyre must ponder Chaldea.

How true the Bible is to itself in making everything turn upon character! Now what have you done? What is your spirit? Are you haughty or humble? Is your greatness moral, or only financial? What is covered by your fine linen with broidered work from Egypt? Do you cover wounds and bruises with these decorated plasters? What is your soul? This is God"s answer. "Son of Prayer of Manasseh, say unto the prince of Tyrus, Thus saith the Lord God; Because thine heart is lifted up, and thou hast said, I am a god, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas; yet thou art a Prayer of Manasseh, and not God, though thou set thine heart as the heart of God: behold, thou art wiser than Daniel; there is no secret that they can hide from thee: with thy wisdom and with thine understanding thou hast gotten thee riches, and hast gotten gold and silver into thy treasures: by thy great wisdom and by thy traffick hast thou increased thy riches, and thine heart is lifted up because of thy riches: therefore thus saith the Lord God; Because thou hast set thine heart as the heart of God; behold, therefore I will bring strangers upon thee, the terrible of the nations: and they shall draw their swords against the beauty of thy Wisdom of Solomon, and they shall defile thy brightness. They shall bring thee down to the pit, and thou shalt die the deaths of them that are slain in the midst of the seas" ( Ezekiel 28:2-8). The Lord will not have two gods. He will not have any rival. "Wilt thou yet say before him that slayeth thee, I am God? but thou shalt be a Prayer of Manasseh, and no God, in the hand of him that slayeth thee. Thou shalt die the deaths of the uncircumcised by the hand of strangers: for I have spoken it, saith the Lord God" ( Ezekiel 28:9-10). The rampant boaster should be brought down to the dust. Our strength is in our modesty. What hast thou that thou hast not received? We have seen men of boastful temper, who have mocked others, sold up in the public market-place without a soul to buy in a chair for the overthrown boaster to sit down upon. Character is everything. Character is dignity. There may be no money in the bank, but see how the head holds itself up, and how the eye has an upward turn in it that means, I seek a country out of sight; I am but a stranger and a pilgrim, with hardly time to put off my sandals and lay down my staff; I yearn for the city of light. Character is courage. "The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion." What is this character? It can only be a creation of God. Character is not one of the arts or manufactures. There is less manipulation about a character than about anything else. A picture may be painted, but not a character. Character is the real Prayer of Manasseh, the inward soul- Prayer of Manasseh, the spirit- Prayer of Manasseh, the very plasm of being. Blessed be God that it is Song of Solomon, for otherwise how many men would be mistaken: they are so rough externally, they have had so few advantages; they have been battled against and overthrown, until quite a tone of defiance has entered into their daily speech, but in their souls they are chastened, and refined, and pure, and trustful. This is the miracle of God. Character only can be regenerated and reconstructed and guaranteed by all the energy of heaven. "Ye must be born again." We have greater advantages than ever Tyre had: how are we using them? "I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you." Let us consider this well, and be wise.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 23". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/isaiah-23.html. 1885-95.