A Study of the King of Tyre Prophecy in Ezekiel 28
Does the prophecy regarding the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:11-19 have reference to the “fall of Satan”? Is it a preview of the so-called Anti-Christ? If not, to what does it refer?
In point of fact, Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the king of Tyre is not alluding to a “fall of Satan,” nor to the alleged rise of a sinister “Anti-Christ” near the conclusion of the present age — though these ideas have become popular among some evangelical writers.
Merrill Unger was a respectable scholar, but one who ventured far afield in this instance. In his book on demonology, he argued that this segment of Ezekiel’s work spoke of the ancient fall of Satan (p. 15; cf. Coffman, 285ff). Similarly, C. H. Pember, in his book Earth’s Earliest Ages, contended for this view in his defense of the “gap theory,” which was an effort to harmonize the Genesis record with secular geology.
There is a popular theory among certain dispensationalists who contend that the imagery of Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the king of Tyre previews the “Anti-Christ” (Lindsey and Carlson, pp. 41-50).
However, as Ellison observed:
“Those who implicitly hold [such views] have generally little idea of how unknown [these notions are] in wider Christian circles, or of how little basis there is for [these theories] in fact” (p. 108).
An Interpretative Principle
There is an important principle of Bible interpretation that must be emphasized at the commencement of this discussion.
When there is an inspired narrative that contains a significant portion of symbolism (as several biblical books do) and there is no specific historical connection within the immediate context, the conscientious Bible student must seek to determine, on the basis of a broader context, what the background of the text may be.
In other words, he is not at liberty to extract, from his own imagination, an “interpretation” that is wholly alien to the historical text or that stands in contradiction to information found elsewhere in the scriptures.
On the other hand, when the context specifically identifies the thrust of the symbolism, the issue is settled. And it is nothing short of exegetical criminality to substitute one’s personal “expository agenda” for that which the inspired author has stated explicitly.
The issue pertaining to this segment of scripture, therefore, is this. What historical significance has the prophet Ezekiel assigned to the narrative?
“Moreover the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, son of man, take up a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say unto him, Thus says the Lord Jehovah?” (28:11-12; emphasis added).
Could a text be clearer?
Admittedly, the narrative that follows contains messages that are couched in symbolic jargon. This is common in biblical literature.
Furthermore, it is clear that in the prophet’s presentation, some figures of speech have been borrowed from the early chapters of Genesis to help illustrate the instruction. Unfortunately this has become the point of confusion for many.
Nonetheless, the sacred declaration as to the historical meaning of the text must be the prevailing guideline of interpretation.
First, God’s prophet is charged to utter a curse against the king of Tyre (one of the principal cities of Phoenicia, a pagan city bordering Canaan to the northwest). The heathen ruler has exalted himself to the status of “a god,” and manifests his arrogance in a seemingly unrestrained fashion, amidst the riches he has amassed (vv. 2-6).
Second, the eventual doom of the prince of Tyre is pronounced. Jehovah will bring “strangers” against this egotistical regime, and the beauty of the prince’s alleged wisdom, together with the brightness of his feigned glory, will fade into oblivion. He will be killed and buried; no more will he be able to claim, “I am God.”
The tool in Jehovah’s hand to be used in this downfall will not be the Jews (circumcised), but “strangers” (uncircumcised). The Lord can use even heathen forces to providentially accomplish his will (vv. 7-10).
The Funeral Song
It is not unusual in Bible literature to accompany a divine judgment with a “funeral” dirge that echoes the predictions of sacred justice upon evil.
See, for example, the lyrics of the book of Lamentations that accompany Jeremiah’s prophecies of the impending destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, as well as Ezekiel’s lamentation over Tyre in chapter 27 of the present document.
Thus, verses 12-19 constitute a “funeral lament” over the fallen “king of Tyre” (v. 12).
It is paramount that the Bible student keep in view this point. This discussion is not regarding Satan. Rather, it is about a human king over a material city.
To ignore this fact is to be guilty of the coarsest form of textual manipulation.
Overview of the Text
It is not our purpose in this brief discussion to attempt an explanation of every difficult and shrouded expression in the following narrative. There is disagreement among respectable scholars as to the precise significance of these various phrases.
Whatever they signify, however, such must be compatible with the historical flow of the record.
Here are some facts that are most apparent.
The king of Tyre had been appointed by Jehovah to his place of authority (v. 14). God is the ruler of all nations (Psalm 22:28), and he places the dignitaries in power, and he likewise removes them — according to their character (Daniel 2:21; 4:17; cf. Proverbs 14:34).
With glowing imagery, the ruler’s initial administration is described as analogous to “Eden,” the very “garden of God.” The illustrious regime is graphically portrayed with dazzling precious stones (v. 13).
But the king’s power and riches corrupted him; unrighteousness consumed him. He became violent and egotistical. The Sovereign of the earth thus declared his impending doom.
“I have cast you as profane out of the mountain of God” (vv. 15-17).
The verb is a prophetic perfect. That which is certain to happen is spoken of as if it were accomplished already (Block, p. 116).
The fact that the Lord employed the “creation” motif (e.g., the fall of humanity) to convey these ideas should not be confused with the basic thrust of the message. There was some parallelism between the fall of man and the apostasy of this human ruler.
The punishment to be inflicted upon the pagan ruler would be devastating. The city of Tyre would be overthrown and turned into ashes (v. 18). The ultimate destruction would be complete and final, striking a note of terror in the hearts of those familiar with the events (v. 19).
“The idea of the city, of the spirit and activity of which the king is the embodiment, tend more and more to take the place of the idea of the king” (Davidson, p. 208; cf. v. 19 with 27:36).
Did Ezekiel’s prophecies ever come to fruition?
Liberal critics allege they never did; the prophet was simply wrong. Others contend that the predictions were never precisely fulfilled, but that this could be explained upon the basis that the citizens of the city of Tyre repented (as in the case of Nineveh — Jonah 3:10), though they acknowledge no such repentance is recorded in scripture.
Some scholars believe that the pronounced judgments were accomplished by the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar (cf. 26:7). Others maintain that the ultimate fulfillment came with the devastation wrought by Alexander the Great — and even other invasions that came centuries later (cf. 26:3). I believe this latter view has the greater weight of evidence.
The fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecies with reference to Tyre is a stunning chapter in ancient history (cf. 26:1-28:19).
Tyre became the leading city of Phoenicia. The city was located in the plain of Tyre, a small region about fifteen miles long from north to south, and about two miles deep (at most) inland, on the northwestern Mediterranean coast adjacent to Canaan.
Actually, Tyre was two communities — one was on the coast, another on an island about a half-mile off the coast.
About a thousand years before Christ, a Phoenician ruler named Hiram (the Great) fortified the two small islands just off the Mediterranean coast. He connected the two bodies, built harbors at the north and south, reclaimed some territory from the sea on the east, and constructed a wall some 150 feet high on the mainland side. It was a strong fortress, about two and a half miles in circumference (about 150 acres).
Though Tyre paid tribute to Assyria at times, and was assaulted by Assyrian forces on occasion, she always seemed to be resilient.
In 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon marched into Palestine and took captive the Phoenician city states, though these communities were still allowed substantial independence with their own rulers, though required to pay tribute to Babylon.
At this time Jerusalem also was attacked, and a number of Jews were taken to Babylon (cf. Daniel 1:1-3).
Subsequent uprisings brought Nebuchadnezzar back to Palestine. In 597 B.C. he assaulted Jerusalem again and took more hostages to Babylon, including Ezekiel.
An Egyptian/Judean revolt prompted the Babylonian ruler to return to Jerusalem again in 586 B.C. This time he destroyed the temple, burned the city, and took more captives to Babylon.
The Babylonian king subsequently directed his attention to Phoenicia. He took Sidon and began an assault upon Tyre. For thirteen years (585-572 B.C.) he besieged the coastal city. He was able to destroy mainland Tyre, but because he lacked a navy, he could not conquer the island portion of the community (see Ezekiel 29:17-18).
The Lord was not through with haughty Tyre, however.
Alexander the Great
In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great commenced his ambitious project of conquering the Persian Empire. He subjugated Syria and then turned southward, down the Mediterranean coast.
Sidon and some of the other coastal cities meekly submitted to the Greek warrior. Tyre, however, refused to capitulate and dug in. Their hope of victory was grounded in the fact that the island-city was well fortified and Alexander had no navy.
Not to be out-maneuvered, Alexander decided to build a road-bridge from the mainland to the island, a half-mile away. Dredging up the ruins of old, mainland Tyre, he constructed a causeway, some 200 hundred feet wide. This would accommodate his war machines to be used in battering down the eastern wall protecting the city.
Likely the conquest would not have been achieved strictly by foot soldiers. But Alexander was able to secure ships from Sidon, Cyprus, and some of his Greek allies.
Thus, attacking from the east by land, and the west by sea, the brilliant young Greek commander finally took Tyre. He achieved in seven months what Nebuchadnezzar was unable to accomplish in thirteen years.
It is reported that 8,000 Tyrians were killed in the assault, another 2,000 subsequently executed (by crucifixion on the beach), and 30,000 were sold into slavery (Fleming, p. 64; Usher, pp. 223-226). Alexander lost only some 400 men.
The island city does not exist today. Apparently it
bq. “sank below the surface of the Mediterranean, in the same subsidence that submerged the port of Caesarea that Herod had built up with such expense and care. All that remains of it is a series of black reefs offshore from Tyre, which surely could not have been there in the first and second millennia B.C., since they pose such a threat to navigation. The promontory that now juts out from the coastline probably was washed up along the barrier of Alexander’s causeway, but the island itself broke off and sank away when the subsidence took place” (Archer, 277).
While there appears to have been some revival of the area in subsequent years, in time it was hammered over and over by invading powers (Newton, 174-175). The old Tyre, the real Tyre, was but a memory. The modern Tyre (Sur) bears no relation to the ancient city that fell under the curse of God.
It is utterly amazing that several of the prophets, writing centuries before the actual events, were able to foretell the destruction of wicked Tyre. Those interested in pursuing an in-depth study of these prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah may consult the works of Rollin, Newton, and Keith.
The immediate context of the ancient prophetic work clearly reveals the significance of Ezekiel 28:11-19, and there is no need to foist upon the sacred text an illusory meaning that has its basis in neither history nor sound interpretative methodology.
There is no hint in this narrative of a “fall of Satan,” or a “gap” between Genesis 1:1 and verse 2. And there is no projected rise of a sinister “Anti-Christ” who ushers in the concluding epoch of human history.
These notions are fantasies of perhaps well-meaning, but unsteady students of scripture.
- Archer, Gleason (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Block, Daniel I. (1998), The Book of Ezekiel — Chapters 25-48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Coffman, James Burton (1991), Ezekiel (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
- Davidson, A.B. (1892), The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Cambridge: University Press).
- Ellison, H.C. (1968), Ezekiel: The Man And His Message (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Fleming, W.B. (1915), History of Tyre (New York: Columbia University Press).
- Keith, Alexander (1840), Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion from Prophecy (Edinburgh: William Whyte & Co.).
- Lindsey, Hal C. and Carlson, C.C. (1972), Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Newton, Thomas (1831), Dissertations on the Prophecies (London: B.Blake, Bell-Yard, Temple-Bar).
- Pember, C.H. (1907), Earth’s Earliest Ages (London: Hodder and Stoughton).
- Rollin, Charles (1857), Ancient History (New York: Harper & Brothers), Vol. I.
- Unger, M.F. (1952), Biblical Demonology (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press).
- Usher, James (2003 ed.), The Annals of the World, Larry & Marion Pierce, Revisers (Green Forest, AR: Master Books).