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Ezekiel 29

Chapter 29

V. 17: Brandon Fredenburg writes that this verse is “a clear admission of Scripture” that Ezekiel’s earlier prophecy against Tyre (Ezekiel 26) failed.   He goes on to say, “Contemporary readers must not try to salvage this prophecy when even Yahweh admits its failure” (641).  Nina Jidejian makes a similar conclusion in her book, Tyre through the Ages, when she writes, “The capture of the city was somewhat different from the prophecy [of Ezekiel 26] and Ezekiel is forced to admit” this fact (55).  I suspect, therefore, that it is relatively common to believe that Ezekiel (or even God himself) admits in this passage that he made a mistake in his earlier prediction about the destruction of Tyre.  And yet I cannot find Ezekiel admitting an error here in any of the translations that I have read.  One might infer (incorrectly, in my opinion) that Ezekiel has made an error, but this is different from claiming that he admits that error.  An admission of error requires one to be aware of the error and to acknowledge the error as such.  To judge from Ezekiel’s attitude in this verse, however, he is unaware of any contradiction between this prophecy and the earlier one, and I believe that this attitude provides critical insight into the way he intended his earlier prophecy to be understood.  Since he does not admit an error, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that he neither saw the prophecy as a failure, nor anticipated that his contemporaries (who could have been well aware of the facts of the siege) would have seen the prophecy as a failure.  And surely they would have seen it as a failure if it had presumed to predict future events that never came to pass. (For a brief history of the events leading up to and surrounding Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre, see notes on chapter 26.)

There is a theory which claims that a prophecy need not be considered a failure in spite of making “predictions,” which do not come to pass.  The Oxford commentary expresses this theory very well:  “The followers of Ezekiel thus understood ‘unfulfilled’ prophecy as showing God’s mysterious freedom, not as discrediting Ezekiel.”  And Fredenburg, in spite of calling the prophecy a failure earlier, offers up a very similar explanation, which reads, “Biblical prophecies were still under Yahweh’s control and were not predictions that referred to irreversible, inevitable developments” (641).  I can agree with this theory if Ezekiel is not actually intending to predict the future in chapter 26 but rather to threaten Tyre with a potential future.  Indeed, the distinction between prediction and threat is sometimes quite difficult to see.  For instance, as my friend Greg Laing has suggested, one might think that the prophetic message of Jonah to Nineveh was a prediction rather than a threat.  God tells Jonah, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 3:1).  Jonah’s message from God is this: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4).  Such a message, which even has a timeline attached to it, seems to be a simple prediction of the future.  It certainly does not have the form of a conditional statement.  There is no hint in the text of the message that any other future is possible.  Nevertheless, as the story itself relates, Nineveh repented, and God “did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10).  We can safely conclude, therefore, that the message of Jonah 3:4 was a threat in spite of the fact that it appears to be a prediction.  Thus, I suppose, it is possible that Ezekiel is issuing a divine threat rather than a prediction in chapter 26.  Even if Tyre did not repent, as Nineveh did, it is possible that God could have decided not to carry out the threat for some other reason unknown to us.

If, however, Ezekiel actually means to predict the future, then no such theory as Fredenburg describes would apply.  If a man who claims to be speaking for God declares that something will happen, and that thing does not happen, the natural conclusion one comes to is that the man never spoke for God in the first place.  The reasonableness of this view convinces me even without the support of scriptures such as Deuteronomy 18:22: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”  I also believe that Ezekiel himself held such a view.  It is difficult to imagine that the man who wrote, “When all this comes true – and it surely will – then they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:33) would have held a theory of prophecy which allows prophetic predictions to fail and yet be valid.  It is similarly difficult to believe that his followers would have held such a theory.  Therefore, if Ezekiel actually means to predict the future in chapter 26, I would expect him to address any contradictions (real or perceived) between that prophecy and the actual events of the siege.[1] Since he does not do this, I conclude either that what seems to be prediction is in fact a threat, or that he saw no contradictions between his prediction and the actual events of the siege.

So, how does one decide whether a prophetic utterance concerning the future is a divine threat or a divine prediction?  As the Jonah example above illustrates, the decision is not always easy, but in the case of Ezekiel 26, I tend to lean toward the idea that he is predicting.  When a prophetic utterance about the future is supposed to function as a sign of the prophet’s (and God’s) credibility, I believe that that utterance should be interpreted as a prediction.  For instance, Isaiah’s credibility, as well as God’s, would have been lessened or ruined if the child Immanuel had never been born (Isaiah 7:13-25).  In Ezekiel 33:33, the prophet presents his prophecy of chapter 33 as a confirmation of his role as a mouthpiece of God, and I do not believe it is a stretch to assume that he thought similarly about similar prophecies such as the one in chapter 26.

Since I believe that he meant for his earlier prophecy (chapter 26) to be a prediction on which he staked his credibility, and since he does not address any contradictions (real or perceived) between this earlier prophecy and the actual events of the siege of Tyre, I believe that one should interpret the earlier prophecy in a way that does not contradict the actual events of Ezekiel’s day (events which Ezekiel’s critics would have been pleased to point out and which would have discredited the prophet in the eyes of most of his followers).   Thus, for instance, when the “they” of 26:12 contradicts the events of history (by Ezekiel’s own account) if applied exclusively to Nebuchadnezzar and his army, I think one should assume that he meant for “they” to be a reference to all the nations, collectively, which have conquered Tyre.

v. 18: Ironically, much of the support for the idea that Babylon did not conquer Tyre comes from Ezekiel himself in this verse.  Here we read that that Nebuchadnezzar and his men “got no reward from the campaign” against Tyre, but it should be noted that this verse does not say that he failed to conquer the city, only that he got no money as an immediate result of the campaign.  See also note on 26:12. Perhaps they got no reward because Tyre had smuggled the treasure out of the area, or hidden it, or spent it in the course of the siege.


[1] As for instance the various “prophets” (such as Harold Camping) who have predicted the date of the end of the world have done when their predictions proved inaccurate.

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