We have seen that the apparently invincible prosperity of Phoenicia crashed. The economic forecasters did not see it coming, but Isaiah did. And in chapter 23, as he describes this collapse, he lays out charts to enable any culture navigate the troubled waters of financial ruin.
In verses 6 and 7, his song turns to a lament as he invites us the inhabitants of the once prosperous city of Tyre to face the fact that the party is over. “Is this your exultant city?” they sing in a ballad that surveys the rubble after the crash. They had been so proud of their success. It had lasted “since antiquity”; like the economic growth of the west, it had been going on as long as anybody could remember.
But as they mourn the end of an era, they plaintively ask the question: “Who has purposed this?” (v.7). Did it crumble because of a rival economy emerging with a threat of cheaper labour? Did it implode because of the greed of its captains of industry? No! The merchants and traders who drove the economy were “the honoured of the earth” (v.8). Just as the CEO’s of multinationals are the honoured ones today – as seen in their vast salaries that we are reluctantly happy for them to receive (however envious we might be) just so long as they keep the economy growing.
But Isaiah’s answer to the “Who burst the bubble?” question is the age-old biblical answer that every culture must wrestle with: “The Lord of hosts has purposed it!” (v.9). His purpose was to dishonour the “pride of all glory”, to bring into contempt those who had built their reputation on success apart from him. The only glory of Tyre had been their material prosperity. And, as Paul would say in Romans 1, to make that one’s glory is to exchange the glory of the Creator for the stuff that he has created. Sooner or later God always bursts that bubble.
In the excitement of economic prosperity and technological progress, it is humbling to realize, as Daniel puts it, that God is the one who “changes the times and seasons” (2:20-22). It is always God who is raising up cultures and economies; and in the tumult of every downturn it is He who is working his purposes out. He is shaking kingdoms; he issues commands to destroy the strongholds of entire cultures (Is 23:11). The financial affairs of whole economies, multinational companies, small businesses and private households are all in his hands. Demonic strongholds like materialism and consumerism ,set up as alternatives to his glory, must eventually crash.
Isaiah tells us that when God so acts, there is nowhere to hide. The confidence of the Phoenicians had been in their naval power, so the obvious answer to an attack on Tyre was to take to the boats and head over to the island of Cyprus. “Try it!” says God. “Arise, cross over to Cyprus. There also you will have no rest” (v.12). And neither will there be rest for those who put their confidence in any other means of surviving God’s big shakings. Wealth and technology are no more able to provide peace of mind for our culture than ships and islands could in theirs. But Isaiah will go on to tell us where security really can be found...