Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 5 of 7

This 7-part series originally ran under the German title “Einige biblische Culturbilder” in Der Lutheraner from August 2 to October 25, 1904. The author is Georg Stoeckhardt, who served as a professor at Concordia Seminary – St. Louis for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is commonly regarded as the greatest exegete in the history of the Missouri Synod. I offer this translation in the hope it will be edifying and thought-provoking to the 21st century Lutheran reader also. – R.L.L.

Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 5

In the 23rd chapter of the Prophet Isaiah we find a prophecy, the heading being “The Oracle Concerning Tyre.”  Tyre was the capital city of Sidon, or Phoenicia.  The Phoenicians were the most significant trading people of ancient times, and their trade was concentrated in the capital city of Tyre.  Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Tyre puts world trade in the correct light.

The words are from verses 1-14: “The oracle concerning Tyre.  Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for Tyre is laid waste, without house or harbor!  From the land of Cyprus it is revealed to them.  Be still, O inhabitants of the coast; the merchants of Sidon, who cross the sea, have filled you.  And on many waters your revenue was the grain of Shihor, the harvest of the Nile; you were the merchant of the nations.  Be ashamed, O Sidon, for the sea has spoken, the stronghold of the sea, saying: ‘I have neither labored nor given birth, I have neither reared young men nor brought up young women.’  When the report comes to Egypt, they will be in anguish over the report about Tyre.  Cross over to Tarshish; wail, O inhabitants of the coast!  Is this your exultant city whose origin is from days of old, whose feed carried her to settle far away?  Who has purposed this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honored of the earth?  The LORD of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth.  Cross over your land like the Nile, O daughter of Tarshish; there is no restraint anymore.  He has stretched out his hand over the sea; he has shaken the kingdoms; the LORD has given command concerning Canaan to destroy its strongholds.  And he said: ‘You will no more exult, O oppressed virgin daughter of Sidon; arise, cross over to Cyprus, even there you will have no rest.’  Behold the land of the Chaldeans!  This is the people that was not; Assyria destined it for wild beasts.  They erected their siege towers, they stripped her palaces bare, they made her a ruin.  Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold is laid waste” (Isaiah 23:1-14 ESV).

Here the city of Tyre is addressed, and it is meant to be representative of the land of the Sidonites or Phoenicians.  Tyre was a stronghold on the sea, on a peninsula near the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  It had dominion over the other Phoenician cities.  The Phoenicians were an entrepreneurial and talented people.  They knew their advantageous position and how well to use the fecundity of their coastland.  Lebanon, which belonged to their region, gave them wood for building ships in surplus.  At Sarepta were iron and copper mines.  On the coast men fished dog whelks, and from the silica on the beach and in some rivers they made glass.  But above all the Phoenicians were a people of trade.  The Prophet points out the traders and the shipping of the Sidonites.  Phoenician ships crossed over all parts of the Mediterranean Sea.  The Phoenicians, especially the Tyrites, had trading posts and colonies in all coastlands, in the Orient, in Asia Minor, on the Greek islands, in Italy, Sicily, Spain, and on the north coast of Africa.  In the prophecy are named two of the most well-known Phoenician trade establishments.  First is the island of Cyprus, south from Asia Minor.  The other is Tarshish in Spain.  The Sidonian traders sold in part their own domestic products, especially purple clothing, their metal goods, and glassware.  In part they sold the products of the above-named foreign lands.  From Northern Europe they gathered amber, and they gathered tin from Britain.  Of great significance for all three parts of the Mediterranean world (West Asia, South Europe, North Africa) was the grain trade.  Phoenician ships carried “the grain of Shihor” to every known nation.  This was the harvest of the Nile valley, which was the granary of the old world.  This is a descriptive picture of the world market and world trade, just as we have before our eyes in our day.  The different natural products and artificial products of the various lands have become the common good of all mankind.  The welfare of a nation is essentially dependent on export and import.  The great cities of all parts of the world are bound together by trade routes on land and sea.  Our means of transportation have in themselves become an important branch of culture.  And of all branches of trade, still today the grain market and grain trade takes first rank.  The populated and overpopulated industry districts feed themselves from the fruitfulness of faraway lands.  In summary, not only in the individual cities, within the borders of individual countries, but also throughout the entire world – everything works hand in hand.  The world market, the world trade is in God’s hand a means of world-preservation, of supplying mankind on earth with food and clothing.

But how?  Is it the general love of man?  Is it genuine brotherly disposition that men exchange their goods with one another?  Is justice somehow the basis for this exchange?  Does every man really receive his portion?  The Sidonian traders, the merchants of Tyre, were as Isaiah called them.  They were princes, kings, the “most honored men on earth.”  They lived in royal palaces which were decorated with “the pompous pride of all glory.”  They had collected treasures in their residences as one would find in kings’ homes.  They lived all their days gloriously and in joy.  The Prophet calls the city of Tyre “you exultant city.”  Cheerful enjoyment, luxury and feasting, jubilation and glory – these gave the rich trade city its imprint.  But how did the Tyrite merchants come to their fortunes and good living?  Isaiah points to it when he speaks of the daughter of Tarshish, the colony in Spain.  He says that from now on there is “no more restraint.”  The Phoenician trading princes had strangled their colonies with belts and bands.  They tyrannized strangers.  They rose to prominence through oppression of the smaller and weaker and claimed their royal status.  We see here again, how since the fall into sin, the total development of the God-forgetting mankind and the development of culture both stand in service of sin.  They go hand in hand with the cultivation of evil and blasphemy.  The leading principle, the soul of world trade is not love, brotherhood, or justice, but selfishness, self-interest, dirty cheapness, betrayal, and oppression.  World trade lies in the hands of the great and rich.  Big business is always swallowing up small business.  And the great and rich of this world have become great and rich for the most part through the most unethical means, through the most sophisticated knavery.  They indulge, live extravagantly, and benefit from the sweat of workers, sucking out the lifeblood of those who are poorer.  Yes, these money-aristocrats are princes and kings.  They tyrannize human society and dictate to the state which laws it should give.  Those who wear the crowns according to God’s decree, the princes and kings of this earth, presidents, governors, judges, and representatives – these bow themselves down under the scepter of money and let themselves be driven to and fro at the whims of monopolies and millionaires.  Put bluntly, we see on the open market and in world trade today just what we read in the Prophet Isaiah.  It is also as it was in the time of Luther, except now the rascality has only increased.  It is well-known, what Luther says of this subject in the Large Catechism: “Furthermore, in the market and in common trade also, this practice is in full swing and force to the greatest extent.  There one openly cheats another with bad merchandise; false measures, weights, and coins; and by nimbleness and strange finances [Proverbs 20:10].  Or he takes advantage of him with clever tricks.  Likewise, one overcharges another in a trade and greedily drives a hard bargain, skins and distresses him.  Who can repeat or think of all these acts?  To sum up, this is the most common trade and the largest union on earth.  If we consider the world through all conditions of life, it is nothing but a vast, wide sales booth, full of great thieves.  Therefore, some are also called swivel-chair robbers, land and highway robbers, not picklocks and burglars.  For they snatch away easy money, but they sit on a chair at home and are styled great noblemen and honorable, pious citizens.  They rob and steal in a way assumed to be good.  Yes, here we might be silent about the petty individual thieves if we were to attack the great, powerful archthieves with whom lords and princes keep company.  These thieves daily plunder not only a city or two, but all of Germany” (we add: also all of America)… “This is, in short, the way of the world: whoever can steal and rob openly goes free and secure, unmolested by anyone, and even demands that he be honored.  Meanwhile, the little burglars, who have once trespassed, must bear the shame and punishment to make the former thieves appear godly and honorable…No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open, free market into a flesh pit of extortion and a den of robbery [Luke 19:46], where the poor are daily overcharged, and where new burdens and high prices are imposed.  Everyone there uses the market according to his whim.  He is even defiant and brags as though it were his fair privilege and right to sell his goods for as high a price as he pleases, and no one had a right to say a word against it” (Large Catechism I 227-231, 240).  Certainly, Luther hit the nail on the head and gives it the correct name: this highly-cultivated world before our eyes, if one sees through all classes and especially examines the upper classes – it is nothing other than a “vast, wide sales booth, full of great thieves.”  And it is a miracle of God, that he holds the great world economy in motion.  He does this in spite of the all shameful acts of the “most honored men on earth.”  He does this in spite of the anarchy and breakdown of all relationships, which the elite class has brought about.  He keeps mankind on earth alive, and especially his pious children, giving them their daily bread.

Yes, God sits in judgment.  And one day he will prove to the great men of the earth in deed, that he is the Most High, the Lord of all lords, the King of all kings.  The prophecy under consideration is called: “The Oracle Concerning Tyre.”  The Prophet Isaiah announces here to the extravagant daughter Tyre the punishment and judgment of God.  The stronghold on the sea would fall.  A powerful people, the Chaldeans, would come from afar.  They would seize and conquer the city, destroying all of Phoenicia or Canaan.  Then the royal palaces with all their glory and decoration be reduced to a pile of rubble.  Their boys and girls would be devoured by the sword.  The rest would flee, and they would end their days in exile, in misery.  Jubilation and exultation would come to an end.  The seafaring Sidonian traders would howl and lament, when from afar they heard the report of the fall of their city, which made them so rich and great.  On the other hand, the oppressed colonies would rejoice, like Tarshish.  They would rejoice that the belt was snipped, the oppression was broken.  What the Lord decided concerning Tyre and what his prophet had proclaimed beforehand, that was fulfilled in time.  Since then many other rich and great cities of the world have met a similar fate, in which commerce and trade blossomed and worldly desire reigned.  But we Christians, who have God’s Word and believe God’s Word, we are reminded powerfully through such words as “The Oracle Concerning Tyre.”  We are reminded that God in heaven has appointed a day, on which the entire world economy, trade, and transportation – these will all suddenly come to a standstill.  Every acquisition and profit of injustice will melt away into nothing.  The jubilation and exultation of the great and rich of this world will change instantly into howling and gnashing of teeth.  And such a reminder at the same time includes a warning.  We should detach ourselves from the trends of this world.  Even more basic, we should detach ourselves from the world’s conceited ways, that we are not condemned along with it.

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