The King of Tyre
A biblical conundrum
The 28th chapter of Ezekiel has long been a conundrum to commentators and students. Ostensibly it is a denunciation of the king of the Phoenician merchant city of Tyre in the days of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It is part of the section of the book of Ezekiel which contains prophecies against nations surrounding Israel. In chapter 25 it is the Ammonites, then Moab, Edom and the Philistines. Tyre is the subject of chapters 26, 27 and 28. Chapter 28 contains messages against the Prince of Tyre and the King of Tyre, turning next against Sidon. Egypt is the subject of chapters 29 to 32… However, the description in 28.11‑19 seems far too exaggerated to apply to any man, no matter how exalted. There are some who insist that it can only fit the story of the original sinless state of Satan, his rebellion and sin, and his ultimate end.
Tyre's principal stronghold was a rocky islet just off the coast, encircled by a high defensive wall which rendered them more or less immune from attack. More than one ancient conqueror essayed to capture the city without success; Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to it for thirteen years and gave up; Alexander the Great finally achieved the victory by building a mole from the mainland across the intervening water, which mole still remains. That was the end of Tyre, the greatest merchant city and seafaring people of ancient times. In the days of King David, Tyrian merchant vessels went to West Africa, Spain, Britain, and the West Indies and South America more than two thousand years before Columbus. Not so many years ago a cache of 800 BC Phoenician coins was found in Venezuela; some unlucky Tyrian captain either had to leave in a hurry or met his end without revealing the whereabouts of his trading capital.
Israel always got on well with Tyre. Hiram, king of Tyre was "ever a lover of David" (1 Kings 5.1). He could well afford to be; both David and Solomon were good customers. Hiram supplied the timber and stone for the Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 6.10) and probably a great deal of other material besides. Ithobal I of Tyre was the father of the notorious Jezebel wife of Ahab, and Ahab enriched his palace at Samaria with much of the luxury goods supplied by Tyre. And now in here was Ithobal II ruling in Tyre with Ezekiel in Babylonia and Nebuchadnezzar hammering at the gates of the city.
The first ten verses of this 28th chapter comprise a message delivered against one termed "the prince" (properly "ruler") "of Tyrus". Tyre was a merchant city rather than a nation, part of the land generally known as Phoenicia, a Canaanite people of mixed Semitic and Hamitic race. It wielded no political power and paid tribute to any great power which could back its demands by force, in the meantime waxing extremely rich by its world-wide trading interests. This is indicated in this passage; this ruler of Tyre, (in history Ithobal II), arrogant in his riches and world-wide influence, is pictured as saying "I am a god" ("el", mighty one, without claiming to be the God) wiser than Daniel, (who at this time was in Babylon, high in state office and enjoying a reputation which was certainly known throughout the Middle East) and particularly because of the wisdom and understanding (28.4‑5) exemplified in the world trade responsible for the very considerable wealth of the Tyrian people. Because of his arrogance, said the Lord through the prophet, he would be brought to the dust and his people beggared and dispersed. He was, after all, no god; he was only a man.
History records the fulfilment of the prediction. The 27th chapter describes it in full. Within three centuries Tyre was no more and the commercial supremacy of the world passed to the Greeks.
At this point the prophet passes from history to poetry, poetry which is based partly on the story of creation and partly on the philosophy of sin. Says the Lord to Ezekiel (v.12) "take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus". This word "lamentation" stamps the succeeding account as poetry, prophetic poetry, for "lamentation" here means a "mournful song" and its connection with the literal Tyre rests upon an analogy which is not immediately apparent at first sight - the meaning of the Hebrew word for "merchant" which (probably because of its trading and commercial implications) came to enshrine the combined ideas of one who goes about, goes to and fro, and one who bargains, misrepresents and slanders. In a rather clever manner Ezekiel pictures the one who, as Peter says in 1 Peter 5.8. "goes about seeking who he may devour", and Jesus says, "was a liar and a deceiver from the beginning" in the guise of a Tyrian merchant king, whose people likewise misrepresent and deceive in their commercial dealings.
On this basis, and through the medium of a splendid piece of poetic symbolism, the prophet is used to present the full story of Satan's original creation as a perfect and sinless celestial being, his declension into sin, a sin which involved the entire human race, and his destiny. A mournful song it is in truth.
Scholars are not necessarily agreed on this understanding of the passage. To take two examples:
"Ezekiel seems to have adopted… a popular story, presumably current in Tyre as elsewhere, of a primal being who dwelt in the Garden of God in splendour and purity, but was subsequently driven out through pride. So shall the King of Tyre shortly fall from his glory. It looks like a highly mythological version [containing ancient stories] of the story in Genesis 3, but the prophet does not hesitate to use it, since it was well known and admirably suited to his purpose." (New Bible Commentary Revised)
"In the language used of the King of Tyre in Ezekiel 28 we have references that can be applied to Satan himself, who is elsewhere called the prince of this world (John 12.31) He too is judged (John 16.11) along with the great city. Behind such imperial forces lies this satanic power, always doomed, but always needing to be recognised and opposed." (Collins Bible Companion)
As in all conundrums and points of discussion, readers will make up their own minds. For ease of reference, here are the verses in question as they appear in the NIV:
The word of the Lord came to me, "Son of man, take up a lament concerning the King of Tyre, and say to him: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: "You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you…. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendour. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings. By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries. So I made a fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching. All the nations who knew you are appalled at you; you have come to a horrible end and will be no more.