Isaiah 23

The God of the Bible is the only God. He has created all things, sustains all things, and is the present and future judge of all things. No action or thought of any person escapes his immediate knowledge and his absolute determination of the extent of its culpability (Romans 3:19). Even in this life, not only individuals, but nations are judged for the good or evil effects of their policies and commerce. Every nation presently is under the perfectly just and infinitely knowledgeable examination of God (Isaiah 10:1-3). There is a constant mixture of mercy and judgment within every sphere of human discourse and organization. He uses godless nations as instruments of judgment and also will judge those same nations that have been his weapons of discipline (Isaiah 10: 5, 12, 15, 16).

The law under which nations should operate is the law that was present in the heart of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. All persons, and all nations, have embedded within their moral perceptions the law of God (Romans 1:18-21). Their repression of it is the root of cruelty and injustice, rapaciousness and revenge, opulent self-serving and licentiousness, and brings on the condemnation of their cultures in this age and precise judgments of the individuals that have perpetrated such things in the age to come.

Israel was given a specific declaration of this law distributed into precise parts. Their worship of God and honoring of his glory and his authority constituted one part of that law. Their respect for fellow creatures in every aspect of their lives constituted the second part of that law. This moral law was supplemented in Israel with specific applications of it for the governing of their nation as the chosen people of God and also with particular laws for worship and atonement for sin. That they were favored with this clearly delineated statement of righteousness as well as a guide to point them to the promised Redeemer was a matter of great grace but also increased their responsibility. At the same time, their blessing did not diminish the reality of judgment for nations that did not have this revealed and scripted code of righteousness, worship, and polity.


I. The passage for this lesson culminates a series of judgments on the nations around Judah. It is punctuated with promises of redemption through a Messiah (9:1- and 11:1-16 and 12:1-6). The list of nations, cities, and independent political entities that will be judged shows that, though God is working by revelation and redemptive promises with one nation, Israel, he is just as meticulously involved in the details of other nations. Though he has not given them special revelation of himself, his law, his promises, he, nevertheless holds them accountable for every action, every word, every thought and intention.

A. Assyria will be his tool of temporal judgment for Syria and Samaria (8:1-8) with warnings for all nations (9, 10). He also shows how both Israel and Judah have wasted, even despised, the favors God has given them in the promise of a Messiah and in instruction through special revelation (11-22).

B. Though Assyria is the chosen arm of God’s judgment, God holds them in contempt and will surely take vengeance on their idolatrous arrogance and intentions of cruelty (10:1-14). Even they should recognize their weakness in themselves and see that the source and effective operation of all power is the Lord of Hosts himself (10:15-19; 24-27).

C. Babylon is the future scourge of Judah (13:1-16) The slaughter and devastation will be appalling as they act as the Lord’s “instruments of indignation” (6). in the description of the judgment on Israel, God also shows something of the fury with which he will execute judgment on the entire earth (6-16). “Thus will I punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold” (11, 12).

D. Babylon will then be judged by the overwhelming strength of the Medes (13:17-22). The people will be slaughtered “Nor will their eye pity children” – 18) and the land made virtually uninhabitable (“It will never be inhabited or lived in from generation to generation” – 20). Israel will raise a taunt against Babylon (14:1-23 – “Your pomp and the music of your harps have been brought down to Sheol; Maggots are spread out as your bed beneath you and worms are your covering” 11). Their devastation will be thorough (21:1-10).

E. Also we find Isaiah issuing judgments on Assyria (“to break Assyria in my land, and I will trample him on my mountains” (14:25). And on Philistia as well as Moab (15, 16 –“We have heard of the pride of Moab, an excessive pride; Even of his arrogance, pride, and fury; his idle boasts are false” 16:6).

F. Isaiah prophesied concerning the destruction of Damascus (“Damascus is about to be removed from being a city” 17:1) and against Ethiopia (18) and against Egypt (19) (“In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread because of the waving of the hand of the Lord of hosts, which he is going to wave over them” 19:16).

G. Chapter 22 give a prophetic vision of an attack on Jerusalem. To Shebna, the steward of the royal household, the Lord said that he would roll him “tightly like a ball, to be cast into a vast country; There you will die . . . you shame of your master’s house.” (22:18).

H. In all of these judgments and his ruling of the nations God asserts an absolute sovereignty – “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand” (14:24)


II. A Message concerning Tyre – 23: 1-7) This oracle begins with a statement of the wailing of Tarshish. Tarshish was a major port city in the south of Spain. They were able to canvas the entire Mediterranean to bring a massive variety of luxuries to Tyre and then ship the products from Tyre to other spots along the Mediterranean coastline (Ezekiel 27:12, 25, 26). The devastation of Tyre will make Tarshish wail.

A. The judgement on Tyre (23:1) brings to fruition her sins based on the opulence of her culture. The determining sin was her jubilation at the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 26:2). This meant that Tyre, supposedly, would prosper more with the removal of Jerusalem as a major center of commerce. The same king, however, who would destroy Jerusalem would also devastate Tyre (Ezekiel 26:7-14).

B. Tyre’s commerce had been impressive and had made her rich and a center of entertainment (2, 3). For a statement of the arrogance that this induced in the King of Tyre see Ezekiel 28:1-5 – “Your heart is lifted up because of your riches.” For a narrative of the breadth, quantity, and quality of their trade see Ezekiel 27:1-26. Here we see how active Tarshish was in shipping all these goods from Tyre and to Tyre. It was on a ship of Tarshish that Jonah sought refuge from the missionary call of the Lord. He sought to go to the other end of the Mediterranean. No place is outside the holy presence and sovereign prerogative of God.

C. Isaiah calls on all the places that have benefited from the merchandise and trade practices of Tyre – (4-7). Sidon, the mother city of Tyre also has receded in importance, and the destruction of Tyre renders the Phoenician coast bereft of economic importance. Tyre’s destruction will cause anguish in Egypt and make all the inhabitants of the coastland wail.


III. A manifestation of Divine Sovereignty (8-12)

A. A Rhetorical Question (8) – “Who has planned this against Tyre?” The powerful Tyre, of great political influence (“the bestower of Crowns”) and of worldwide economic importance “whose merchants were princes . . . the honored of the earth.”) Who would be powerful enough to plan such a total collapse of power, wealth, and influence?

B. A clear and straightforward answer (9) – The Lord of hosts—the Lord of all power in heaven and earth—planned this fall. He has the power and the right to institute such a collapse. Note the words used to show how God’s evaluation of earthly celebrations is opposite the evaluation of the ungodly. He defiles what men consider beauty; he despises the honored of the earth. God will tolerate no attempted rivalry to his sovereignty, no dependence upon merely creaturely things, and no security in strictly human ingenuity. He still says “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

C. The disintegration of Tyre’s tyranny and the insecurity of its ports of call (10-12).

  1. It seems that many who were oppressed by Tyre and grossly overworked in Tarshish to keep the flow of goods to and from Tyre abundant were now free to pursue life in a different mode. In their leaving they would overflow the land like the Nile overflowed the land in Egypt.
  2. At the same time, while a sense of freedom came to some the reality of panic came to others. God’s actions toward Tyre have sent shock waves to the prosperous centers of the Mediterranean (Ezekiel 26:18). God’s mighty hand had devastated all the kingdoms of the sea. The land of Canaan around Tyre also was demolished as was Sidon. Even seeking to find refuge in the middle of the sea in Cyprus would be in vain.


IV. Recovery from the Ruins (13-18)

A. The prophet points to the Chaldeans (13), that is to Babylon, and its thorough devastation as an example of what will happen to Tyre. Assyria had done this to Babylon so that its land was a ruin, a haunt for creatures of the desert. Ironically, Babylon would be restored under Nebuchadnezzar and would inflict a like devastation on Tyre as well as act as the divine scourge on Jerusalem (Ezekiel 26:7-15).

B. Again, in light of the impending disaster on Tyre the prophet invokes, as in verse 1, a wailing from those who expected worldly wealth from their relationship with Tyre. When it was destroyed, it would be virtually without significance for seventy years. This would correspond with the length of time of the exile of Judah to Babylon.

C. After seventy years (16), Tyre will seek to restore itself. It will be like a worn-out and forgotten harlot who goes about the city singing and dancing, seeking the recognition of her old customers. Though far from its former splendor, Tyre will be able to restore some of its trade and commerce (17) but, God’s restoration is for the sake of his people. At the time of this modest ascendancy, the Jews are being restored to Jerusalem and Cyrus of Persia, who had conquered Babylon, issued a decree for all surrounding cities to aid in the restoration (Ezra 1:4). Skilled workmen came from Tyre and Sidon, bringing material necessary for the restoration of the temple (Ezra 3:7). The restoration of Tyre would be tor the sake of those “who dwell in the presence of the Lord” (Isaiah 23:18).


V. The Doctrinal Component

A. God is Lord of all the earth and he rightfully expects and demands worship from all his image bearers. All should recognize their dependence on him and live with a consistent sense of exuberant gratitude for such a loving and generous provider.

B. He is, therefore, justified in execution of wrath on those who refuse to worship him. In the final judgment, every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held guilty before God. Nations will receive judgment in this world for the idolatry and indifference to God and to his law. Lack of justice, mercy, and compassion in societies will be visited with divine punishment.

C. God is sovereign and can raise up and put down kingdoms according to his own purposes. He can punish evil empires and use other evil empire to do it. At the same time, he can hold all these instruments of his wrath responsible for their destructive, arrogant, cruel and self-centered actions.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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