Phoenician Alliance

Isaiah ended this cycle of oracles with his prophecy concerning the commercial empire of the Phoenicians, what today is Lebanon.  

Tyre and Sidon were key cities that exported workers and building materials throughout the known world, including Judah. Israel had enjoyed an amicable relationship with the city-states of Phoenicia since the days of King David.

Now King Hiram of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father, for Hiram had always been a friend to David.

1 Kings 5:1 (NRSV)
Phoenician ship Carved on the face of a sarcophagus. 2nd century AD. | By Elie plus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Solomon entered into a more binding diplomatic and trade agreement with the Phoenicians at the very beginning of his reign.

“You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until he put them under the soles of his feet.

“But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. 

“So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’ 

“Therefore command that cedars from the Lebanon be cut for me. My servants will join your servants, and I will give you whatever wages you set for your servants, for you know that there is no one among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians.”

When Hiram heard the words of Solomon, he rejoiced greatly.

1 Kings 5:3-7 (NRSV)

When the Southern and Northern Kingdoms divided, the Phoenicians remained friendly to both nations, and King Ahaz even married the Phoenician princess and Baal’s high priestess, Jezebel.

He took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians and went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal that he built in Samaria.

1 Kings 16:30 (NRSV)
Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries BC, found in Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit).

Phoenicia, An Empire of the Sea

In his prophecy, Isaiah spoke of all those things that had made the Phoenicians noteworthy in antiquity.

Their mighty fleet of ships

The mercantile empire of the Sidonians

O merchants of Sidon;
your messengers crossed over the sea
   and were on the mighty waters;
your revenue[c] was the grain of Shihor,
    the harvest of the Nile;
    you were the merchant of the nations.

Isaiah 23:2-3 (NRSV)

The impregnability of their ancient cities

O inhabitants of the coast!
Is this your exultant city
    whose origin is from days of old,

Isaiah 23:6-7 (NRSV)

Their wealth and international influence

Tyre, the bestower of crowns,
whose merchants were princes,
    whose traders were the honored of the earth?

Isaiah 23:8 (NRSV)

All this would be brought low

Seventy Years of Silence

Navigating this next part of Isaiah takes careful reading.

The seventy years Tyre would be forgotten occurred between 700-630 B.C. when the Assyrians restricted Phoenician trade. Set aside what is in the brackets as you read these verses.

Wall relief in Niniveh, showing the evacuation of Tyre in 702 BC. A very early example of a two-tiered galley (bireme). Plate 71 in the book Monuments of Niniveh. Cropped from scan by the University of Heidelberg.

[Look at the land of the Chaldeans! This is the people; it was not] Assyria. They destined it for wild animals. They erected their siege towers; they tore down her palaces; they made her a ruin.

Wail, O ships of Tarshish,
    for your fortress is destroyed.

From that day Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, the lifetime of one king.

Isaiah 23:13-15 (NRSV)

Isaiah was speaking so far future he was now pointing the Phoenician diplomats in Hezekiah’s court to look ahead past the seventy years in which the Assyrians would suppress them, to the Chaldeans who would one day be powerful enough to liberate the city-states of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Arwad, and Akko.

Tyre was revived when Babylon came to power.

At the end of seventy years, the Lord will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade and will prostitute herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.  Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the Lord; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the Lord.

Isaiah 23:17-18 (NRSV)
Sites of Phoenicia during the first half of the 1st millennium BC. | By I, Zunkir, CC BY-SA 3.0

When I first taught on the Book of Isaiah years ago in a Bible study class, we ended this long section of prophetic judgement with a review of Isaiah’s repeated reminder:

God’s purpose for the world’s nations is to judge and to bless

God is sovereign over all the earth, all nations are held accountable to the Lord. It is God’s prerogative to judge the nations, but because the Lord is compassionate it is God’s desire to rescue.  

There is a tension between these two truths.

God’s desire is a hard-to-understand aspect of God’s will, especially when considering God’s infinite and eternal attribute of sovereignty. Martin Luther helped me to navigate thinking about the complexity of God’s will

The Will of God

According to Luther, God’s will can be seen in three ways: Determinate Will, Declared Will, and Desired Will. There is much that Luther wrote about the freedom (or lack thereof) of human will, and the hidden and revealed aspects of God’s will. I am not sure I agree with everything Luther wrote on these topics, but the following does make sense to me.         

Determinate (Sovereign) Will  

God determines the outcome of all things according to God’s wise purposes. 

Isaiah was describing what would happen as individuals and nations either stood on their pride or humbled themselves before God. Even when we talk about God permitting, or allowing, something to happen, God is choosing to permit. God always has the power to intervene, to prevent actions and events. Therefore, because God permits events, we can say, in a certain sense, that God has willed them.

That said, God’s sovereign will is often hidden until it happens

God is in control of the universe, nothing is outside the scope of God’s rule. God controls and guides all events for God’s glory and for the good of believers.

Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890—1907)

Declared Will

Though God’s sovereign will is often hidden until it happens, God’s declared will is always available for us to see in the written scriptures. Moreover, God’s values of right and wrong is evidently written into the mind and heart of every person.

God’s decrees govern history. The Lord does not adjust God’s plan according to the events of human history, but rather guides events according to God’s plan.

God’s laws are binding, whether written in Scripture, or written on our hearts, and we have no authority to reject God’s law. But God has allowed us the power, or the ability, to reject God’s will.

God’s sovereign permitting of human failure and wrongdoing is not God’s ignorance of human behavior, or God’s moral approval of transgression. To permit is not moral permission.

God is not surprised by evil.

God does not approve of evil. 

But God has sovereignly decreed that people exercise their ability to make moral choices—to choose between good and evil. 

All around us is the proof that God does not control people the way you and I would control a puppet. God is all‑knowing and all‑powerful and God gives real choices through which God works out God’s will. The Lord is able to work in, around, and through people to insure the outworking of God’s purposes. 

If God were any less sovereign, the Lord would not be able to give people moral freedom because the Lord would not be able to guarantee that God’s will would be done

Inscription of the 53rd year of Tyre, 221 BC (year 26 of the reign of Ptolemy Evergetus), in phoenician alphabet: commemorates the construction of a portico for the goddess Astarte in a temple of the god of Hammon. Found at Ma’achouq, near Tyre (Lebanon). Limestone, sandstone. AO 1440. Louvre, Paris | By Zunkir – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Desired Will

This describes God’s disposition, what the Lord has said is pleasing to God, though there is tension between what pleases God and what God sovereignly wills to do. God desires that none should perish. But many have and will perish. God desires that all should come to the Lord in salvation. Many do not. God takes no pleasure in death but longs that all should live. Yet death prevails.

This is the mystery of God’s will.

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