Thursday, October 11, 2012
Chapter 23: "Traffickers Are the Honourable of the Earth"
The twenty-third chapter of Isaiah, which foretells the destruction of a maritime trading hub named Tyre, seems to be a section with little--if anything--to offer the modern reader. After all, Tyre's destruction by the Babylonians (also foretold in Ezekiel 26-28) was accomplished some 2,500 years ago! But Isaiah's explanation as to why the Lord would destroy Tyre sheds insight into spiritual principles that are still quite relevant today.
One of the most important keys to understanding Isaiah's condemnation of Tyre is recognizing the implicit comparison he draws between the burden (massa) assumed by the Messiah in Isaiah 22:21-25 and the burden (massa) of Tyre. Isaiah prophecies that the Messiah will be "as a nail in a sure place" on which all the wealth--the "offspring" or "glory of his father's house"--will be supported (22:23-24). When that nail is removed, Isaiah writes that "the burden that was upon it shall be cut off" (22:25). Here the wealth that was initially a symbol of God's covenant people becomes a burdensome load; the removal (death) of the nail (Christ) relieves the people of that great weight (sin) in a beautiful representation of the Atonement. These verses, as in other passages from the Bible and extra canonical writings, represent wealth as a source of oppression.
Recognizing the burdensome nature of wealth is key, because prosperity is the "burden of Tyre" (23:1). Tyre, a thriving Mediterranean seaport whose commercial success made her "a mart of nations" (23:3) is a symbol of all wealth, a symbol that Ezekiel, one of Isaiah's prophetic successors, elaborates on at length: "with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded in thy fairs. Javan, Tubal, and Meshech, they were thy merchants: they traded the persons of men and vessels of brass in thy market. They of the house of Togarmah traded in thy fairs with horses and horsemen and mules. The men of Dedan were thy merchants; many isles were the merchandise of thine hand: they brought thee for a present horns of ivory and ebony. Syria was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the wares of thy making: they occupied in thy fairs with emeralds, purple, and broidered work, and fine linen, and coral, and agate" (Ezekiel 27:12-16).
All of this is to say that when Isaiah prophesies the destruction of Tyre, he is teaching Israel about the dangers of wealth. Tyre is "the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth," and "The Lord of hosts hath purposed it"--the city's burden of destruction--"to stain the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth" (Isaiah 23:8-9). In other words, the purpose of Tyre's destruction is to send a message about the futility of wealth and the mercantile (mercenary) lifestyle that seeks for fulfillment in riches. In the context of the previous chapter's portrayal of wealth as that burden which shall be alleviated by the death of the Messiah, this vision of Tyre's destruction becomes a warning against making wealth and the wealthy "the honourable of the earth" when it is the servant leader of Isaiah 22--and not "merchants"--who is the true prince.
It seems significant, in this context, that the destruction of Tyre--and thus the proof of wealth's corrupting futility--is delayed for seventy years: "And it shall come to pass after the end of seventy years, that the Lord will visit Tyre" with destruction (23:17). On the one hand, this seventy year reprieve is a matter of history: Tyre was conquered by the Assyrians at the end of their imperial powers in the seventh century BCE, and because of Assyria's decline enjoyed relative autonomy and self government until falling to the rising Babylonian empire approximately seventy years later in the sixth century BCE. This seventy year period is a matter of history, but it is also symbolic on at least two levels:
First, some scholars have suggested that this seventy year window foreshadows the seventy years of relative prosperity which Jerusalem would enjoy between the birth of Jesus Christ and the city's subsequent destruction in 70 AD. This parallel would make Tyre a symbol of all the wicked who reject the God of Israel and are, eventually, destroyed as a result.
Second, this seventy year reprieve is a crucially important reminder that the consequences of our actions are not immediately apparent. For worshiping the false idol of wealth, Tyre will eventually be destroyed. But that destruction is not immediate and, in fact, withholding destruction for seventy years means that most of those currently living in Tyre will be dead long before that calamity comes to pass. One of the most important aspects of this twenty-third chapter in Isaiah, I think, is the fact that the prideful and materialistic people of Tyre are NOT punished in this life; rather, their future punishment is foretold.
Chapter 23 of Isaiah warns against the dangers of mistaking wealth for an end in and of itself rather than the means by which we can accomplish God's ends. When we cling to wealth it becomes a burden weighing us down and distracting us from the ultimate destination of this mortal journey. As such, these verses describing the (long accomplished) destruction of an ancient city actually carry a crucially relevant message for this, our day.
Truly, great are the words of Isaiah!