We saw that economic growth does not continue forever. Isaiah 23 describes the crash of Phoenicia, the economic powerhouse of his day. Nobody else saw it coming. In a song he recorded, he charts the troubled waters that other cultures have to pass through. We find here navigation tools for a generation of young westerners who may find that the economic security known by their forefathers has collapsed.
The commercial hub of the Phoenician Empire was Tyre, and her wealth had been amassed by the trade of its ocean-going fleet. So Isaiah’s song is introduced as a sea-shanty. Its form is a song sung by sailors as they get close to home with another cargo of wealth. Sailors have always sung songs of home. But this song is different.
They stop at their last port of call, Cyprus. They long for news from home, but the song that brings them news is a song of disaster. Returning ships will find the city laid waste and the harbours blocked. No way home; in fact, the home that they set sail from is no more. No home, no harbour (v.1).
But the shock waves that carried the news to Cyprus are spreading around the Mediterranean. “Be still, O inhabitants of the coast!” (v.2). The news our sailors have heard is washing up in all the Phoenician ports, like Sidon. This was the place where the storehouses were built, a vast container terminal to receive the wealth that flowed across the sea. Be still! An eerie silence settles on these recently thriving ports. The grain of Egypt, the breadbasket of the world, had come there; these cities were the “marketplace for the nations” (v.3) – the stock exchange centres of the day. This is like a Wall Street crash; there’s no trading going on.
The foam on the waves sings that the bubble has burst. So we read, in v.4, “The sea has spoken.” A “stronghold”, Isaiah calls it. Interesting word! The Ocean was the controlling power of their wealth, the spiritual force behind all that they had become – in much the same way as there are demonic “strongholds” in the worldviews that have driven our rise to prosperity and dominion. But the sea moans that she has been robbed of her offspring; she has become barren. The party is over.
The message that the ocean roars is loud and clear. Their world had been built on the expectation that there would always be more – the ships lining up at sea to line our pockets with ever more of the same, the young people lining up to continue the economic growth into future generations. All these dreams lie crushed under the economic tsunami that has crashed on their shores.
Of what can we be sure at such times? Not that life goes on. But that God has spoken. His Word is our only certainty.