The Leader of the Opposition in the UK Parliament recently declared that the current generation of young people will be the first in the modern era to be worse off than their parents. For generations we have lived with the expectation that economic growth is a fact of life. Now, Mr Miliband claims, 71% of voters believe life will be harder for their children. How do we respond to the prospect of the bubble bursting?
For us, an economic downturn in anything other than a cyclical sense is uncharted territory. How do we sail in such waters? Fortunately the Bible has seen it all before. Isaiah 23 depicts a similar reversal in his day. The chapter is a song about what will happen to Tyre, and it follows on from a prophecy about the downfall of Babylon a couple of chapters earlier.
The two big world powers were Phoenicia and Babylon. We know more about Babylon and its vast military might, conquering territory on all sides. But Phoenicia was a different kind of power – commercial power. She had amassed great wealth trading all around the edge of the Mediterranean establishing colonies and trading posts. Babylon’s power was its military army; Phoenicia’s power was its merchant navy. In comparison with recent history, Babylon was a bit like the old communist block, representing domination by force and might. Phoenicia was more like the USA of the day, representing domination by wealth and commerce. So when we read about Tyre, the hub of the Phoenician Empire, we might think of New York City.
The subject of Isaiah’s song is the collapse of Tyre. It’s not a gloating song about the downfall of a hated enemy; more like the kind of song that would be written to convey the tragedy of 9/11 and to muse on what went wrong. But as verse 1 tells us, the city has been flattened, the Twin Towers of economic power and commercial success have crashed. Nobody believed that could ever happen.
So this song sings to our culture. In the dark days of the cold war, nobody ever believed that the tyrannical military might whose tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia, and whose iron grip held so much of Europe in fear, would ever fall. But Isaiah had prophesied in chapter 21, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” (v.9), thereby prophesying the inevitable collapse of every Tower of Babel, every godless civilization, every political or military Beast that would arise out of the sea of humanity. Sooner or later they all come crashing down. So the world sang, “Fallen, fallen is the Berlin Wall.”
But Tyre was a second Tower that would also collapse. Economic power was no more invincible than military power. So why would we expect our idolatrous pursuit of ever-increasing wealth to last forever? Jesus said that there is an active principle always at work in such a pursuit; he likened it to “moth and rust”, both of which corrupt, eat away at that which seems so blue chip solid.
Everything comes to pass. The only reality that has unshakeable, ever-increasing power is the Kingdom of God. Every other man-built empire crumbles eventually, as Phoenicia discovered. Why would we assume western prosperity is immune?
It may be that our economic success will last a lot longer. Our purpose is not to predict economic collapse. But the Bible warns that there are some who trust in horses and chariots; there are others who trust in bank balances and pension funds. And neither is rock solid. By describing Tyre’s story, it also gives us charts to navigate the treacherous waters of economic turbulence. In subsequent posts we will scan those charts. When the bubble bursts, we turn to Tyre.