The can be no reasonable doubt that Isaiah 23 prophesies the downfall of Tyre; it is much harder however to accurately ascertain when this event occurred. This matter is further complicated although potentially solved by noting that the rebirth of Tyre is predicted in the same passage. The aim of this brief paper is to overview some of the considerations involved in dating the fulfillment of this prophecy and also to suggest how the rebirth of Tyre may place things accurately within Biblical history.
Keil and Delitzsch note that the placement of the prophecy against Tyre at the end of the prophecies against heathen nations is particularly appropriate. The sequence commenced with Babylon the imperial and military power that dominated through force. It ends with the great commercial power that wielded its influence through colonization and productivity. It should be noted too that whilst Babylon was dominant on land it was Tyre that ruled the waves.
Tyre itself was already the second incarnation of a city. Ancient Tyre had been upon the mainland and had been vulnerable because of it falling to Salmaneser around the time of the siege of Samaria. The Tyre of this prophecy drew its strength from a small island three quarters of a mile from the mainland that could be reached through relatively shallow water. This provided a formidable fortress that was able to withstand an Assyrian siege for a period of five years and a Babylonian one for thirteen.
Given the economic strength of the city and its incredible defensive power one might legitimately ask: "what did they have to be scared of?" The answer is provided in Is 23:9: God. The pride of Tyre had reached out to God to such an extent that He had chosen to humiliate those who were reveling in their pride. Isa 23:11 is also noteworthy: God can and does stretch out his hand to shake the established order. Tyre had ancient roots and strong connections throughout the Mediterranean . God is willing and able to upset and entire World order if he has to; one cannot hide behind the status quo.
The question therefore becomes: exactly when did this downfall of Tyre occur; or has it? There are four principle contenders for the fulfillment of this prophecy:
Whilst 1 is always possible if one is prepared to stretch metaphors enough it appears to be as an unsatisfactory solution to this passage. The chapter is very concrete: it names at least nine locations or nations that were physically present at the time the prophecy was issued. To come up with a mystical or further interpretation for each seems unreasonable. We also know of another city that appears to take the place of Tyre in the future which is mystical Babylon. Tyre and Babylon cannot be the same as in this chapter they are seen as being enemies.
The destruction under Alexander appears to fail as there is no record of it coming back into prominence afterwards. Whilst it certainly was at least partially inhabited by the time of the New Testament we do not see it coming into any form of trading prominence. There is no concrete argument against interpretation 1 although JFB notes that Tyre was not listed among the cities that the Assyrian kings conquered
However I think that Barnes provides some fairly convincing positive evidence in favor of the Babylonian interpretation based upon Isa 23:15. Here it states that the period of desolation will last for seventy years. On at least three occasions the period of Babylonian dominance is placed at seventy years. We are also told that the seventy year captivity will apply to the nations around Judah; not just to Judah itself. Barnes however goes a little further and suggests that the phrase 'according to the days of one king' in verse 15 may properly be applied to one dynasty rather than to an individual king. He then notes that the Babylonian empire did have one dynasty that lasted for approximately seventy years. This would appear to point strongly to a fulfillment of this prophecy under Nebuchadnezzar.
Where I am completely unable to agree with Barnes and JFB is in their interpretation of Isa 23:18. We are told here that the merchandise of Tyre became holiness unto the Lord. Barnes sees this as 'undoubtedly' the 'true religion' prevailing in Tyre. He notes that the Lord went to Tyre and that Paul found disciples there. This may well be a reasonable interpretation of Isa 23:18 if the preceding verse did not exist. However Isa 23:17 states:".. that the LORD will visit Tyre, and she shall turn to her hire, and shall commit fornication with all the kingdoms of the world upon the face of the earth." Committing fornication will all the kingdoms of the world does not sound like true religion to me even if the proceeds go to a good cause!
I think the wording of Isa 23:18 is actually quite suggestive. Whilst it states that her merchandise will be holiness to the Lord it also notes that it will not be treasured up but will be given to others so that they have an adequate supply. The wording does not even mandate the notion that the inhabitants of Tyre were happy with this arrangement. The matter in question may therefore refer to the rebuilding of the temple. We know that during the initial rebuilding materials were brought from Tyre in return for payment it is therefore quite possible that when Darius decreed that materials be provided to the Jews from the tribute 'beyond the river' that some portion of the burden, and possibly a substantial one, fell upon the city of Tyre.
In conclusion I would note that I consider the prophecy to be fulfilled and to have been fulfilled with direct or indirect Biblical references during the time of Nebuchadnezzar or specifically during the period of his dynasty. As such I don't think we should be looking for a resurrected Tyre now in the future. However I think we should be duly warned that economic prowess and the status quo do not guarantee future prosperity if we chose to cross the God of heaven. Particularly as American's we are probably in a uniquely privileged position of presently having the power of Ancient Babylon and Tyre all rolled into one. May we be careful lest we also combine their vices and find that the Lord of Hosts chooses to shake the world in order to bring us down.