Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Little History and a Look Down the Road

The famous Phoenician seaport of Tyre has a long history intertwined with the history of Israel. When Canaan was first divided into tribal allotments under Joshua, the border of the territory assigned to the tribe of Asher ran right along Old Tyre’s city limits.

This immediate proximity to one of the greatest trading centers of the ancient world made it natural for the people of Israel to engage in commerce with their northern neighbor, so that when David needed to build himself a palace, the materials, carpenters and masons all came from the friendly king of Tyre.

David recognized in this act of friendship an indication that God had established his kingdom. He was not wrong.

Post-Davidic Tyre

The accords continued after David’s death. In order to build the first temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, Solomon entered into a trade agreement with Tyre that involved the exchange of tremendous quantities of cedar and cypress for Israelite wheat and oil, along with the employment of numerous Tyrian carpenters and masons. The foundation of the temple was itself a product of Tyrian labor. An exceptionally skilled half-Tyrian bronze expert directed the casting of the temple’s pillars, its sea and basins of bronze, among other things. The agreement with Tyre was later expanded to include a huge palace for Solomon. It was so expensive that Solomon paid the bill by ceding sovereign Israelite territory to Tyre, though the king of Tyre deemed the cities he had been given less than acceptable. Nevertheless, he still referred to Solomon as “my brother”.

If God’s people got along better with another nation or city-state throughout their history, I can’t think which one it might be. The Tyrians were pagans, not fellow worshipers of Jehovah, but the two nations enjoyed mutually beneficial relations over an extended period.

Nevertheless, as we read through the Old Testament, it becomes clear that things were not right in Tyre.

Tyre Before and After the Exile

Like the nation of Judah, taken into exile only a few years prior, the city of Tyre took a major hit a little over 400 years later, during the days when Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon and conqueror of the entire region. The prophets tell us this was the richly-deserved judgment of God on Tyre. So the city proper was demolished after a 13 year siege, and its people retreated with their riches intact to a heavily fortified island half a mile offshore. The island’s defences were so impressive that even Nebuchadnezzar gave up and went home with nothing for his trouble after ransacking the mainland city. For the rest of the period of the Babylonian Empire, Tyre’s economic and political significance was a mere shadow of its glory days, but its people and practices survived the Babylonians. They rebuilt.

As with all empires, the Chaldeans too eventually passed into history. Tyre continued to be a major trading center for another 250 years, during which time the Judean exiles were allowed to make their way home and rebuild Jerusalem. A second temple was raised with Persian money and Tyrian cedar. However, Tyre’s influence on God’s people was no longer an unmitigated good, as was inevitable given what the prophets had written about the wickedness of its people. Nehemiah had serious problems with Tyrian traders who encouraged the Judeans to profane their Sabbath, and he eventually drove them off by force. Tyre’s obsession with trade and moneymaking was such that its merchants could not imagine another nation prioritizing anything else.

Tyre in the Prophets

As mentioned, the prophets have much to say concerning this great city. Amos prophesies a catastrophe in Tyre, which probably occurred around the time of Israel’s Assyrian captivity. Isaiah foretells the Babylonian siege of Tyre and its consequent reduction in influence over a seventy year period, after which it returned to economic prominence until finally being destroyed by Alexander the Great. Jeremiah also speaks of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the city as part of the larger expansion of the Babylonian Empire. Zechariah very briefly foretells what is either the Babylonian conquest of the city proper or possibly the destruction of Tyre’s island fortress 250 years later by Alexander, one of his more impressive military accomplishments. And Joel speaks of a future day in which Tyre will get what it deserves for its treatment of Israel.

Finally, in Psalm 83, Asaph curses this same Tyre-of-the-future, which will join with a group of nations seeking to destroy Israel forever. Surely he spoke prophetically of the Tribulation period. After all, Asaph lived in the time of David and Solomon, when the people of Tyre were treaty partners with no such allegiances or aspirations. He could not possibly know except by the Spirit of God that such events would ever unfold.

Tyre in Ezekiel

But it is in Ezekiel where the depravity, pride and wickedness of Tyre over the course of its history are fully laid bare. The prophet dedicates almost three chapters (26:1-28:19) to the fall of Tyre, in which he describes aspects of both Nebuchadnezzar’s and Alexander’s desolations of the area and details the nature of Tyrian evil: pride, greed, materialism and the opportunistic plundering of Israel and Judah during the period of the divided kingdom. By the time we get to chapter 28, it becomes evident the Spirit of God sees the mercantile acquisitiveness, obsession with power and influence, vainglory and rampant injustice in Tyre as a perfect picture of the attitude of Satan, who aspired to the very throne of God. The language of these chapters is not dissimilar to that used by John in Revelation to describe the fall of Babylon the Great, and the wailing of Tyre’s merchants reminds us that a heart fixated on economic gain and the material wealth of this earth is a heart destined to lose it all one day.

So then, Tyre basically functioned as the earthly seat of Satan, adequately representing all the god of this world is and aspires to. Keep all that in mind when we find the Lord Jesus in this same region in Mark 7.

Tyre in Mark 7

Previously, Mark has told us the people of Tyre and Sidon were greatly interested in what Jesus was doing throughout Judea and Galilee. Along with others, they came from the north to see him in large numbers and followed him around, provoking the Jewish religious authorities to jealousy. With the Pharisees critiquing his every move and plotting against him, Jesus slips away to the region of Tyre and Sidon where they cannot reach him and seeks to remain out of the public eye for a time.

Naturally, Jesus is unsuccessful in this, not because of any inability to miraculously make himself scarce when he needed to, but possibly to draw out the faith and persistence of his Gentile followers and use them as a rebuke to his own nation, who had “received him not”. A true native of the region, a Syrophoenician woman, will not be dissuaded from seeing him, and begs him to cast out a demon from her ailing daughter. Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Can you see how this is not an unreasonable position for Jesus to take, not only as a Jew, but as God Incarnate, one who had witnessed all the evils of Tyre over the previous centuries and who had sent his prophets to declare his wrath against it? Dogs they were indeed, not just because Jews were prejudiced against Gentiles (which they certainly were), but because they had every reason to be. The abuses of the nations against them, Tyre included, throughout the preceding centuries, gave them every right — by human standards at least — to harbor a grudge or two.

Reversing the Spirit of the King of Tyre

Despite this display of concern for and loyalty to his earthly people, the woman answers him, “Yes, Lord.” That might have been enough right there. There is nothing of the historic spirit of the ancient kings of Tyre in her. The city and even the island fortress with its impressive 150 foot walls have been nothing but a distant memory for 350 years. Alexander had razed them to the ground and the island they had defended had subsided into the sea. Nothing of their former glory remains. As Ezekiel prophesied, Tyre has fallen on very hard times. She has become “a place for the spreading of nets” and “plunder for the nations”, and this Syrophoenician woman must have been fully aware of the heights from which her people have fallen. And now a Jew calls her a dog, and she answers him, “Yes, Lord.”

What a wonderful spirit. What a rebuke to pride, self-sufficiency and independence. What a clear understanding of her position in the world.

A Tyre with a Future

But she does better than that. She recognizes she can only enter into blessing by grace rather than by right. She replies, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Thank God they do. The woman went home and found her child lying in bed and the demon gone. And by God’s grace, even Tyre — once the domain of the prince of demons himself — has a future to look forward to. The demon will be gone for good. Two psalms describe the glories of the millennial reign of Christ. In Psalm 45, the sons of Korah say of the glorified Christ, “the daughter of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts”. In Psalm 87, they suggest the people of Tyre will be “among those who know me” in a future day. Like the Syrophoenician woman, this Tyre knows her place in the world: at the feet of Christ, acknowledging his right to rule and to do with the nations as he sees fit.

And really, where would you rather be?

Truly, grace can accomplish what judgment cannot, and humble acknowledgement of our position before God can bring us into blessings to which none of us are entitled by birth.

Just a little history and a look down the road.

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