The king of Tyre in Ezekiel 27 and 28 has been the subject of debate among scholars, including Adventist scholars. Most particularly the debate has focused on Ezekiel 28:12-19, a lament raised over the king. Is this lament depicting the literal king of Tyre, an Adam figure (and thus possibly all of humanity), a rebel prince, or a celestial being who fell from heaven? Seventh-day Adventists historically have favored the latter interpretation, viewing both this lament and the taunt song of Isaiah 14 (especially vv. 12-20), as depicting the fall of Lucifer. This was based, not only on traditional interpretations belonging to the 19th century, but also on the methodology of Bible study recommended by Ellen White of “comparing scripture with scripture” (LHU 114; GC 320).
Ilana Goldberg has pointed out that this lament is in parallel form, a surprising feature, since much of Hebrew poetry is arranged in a chiastic or envelope structure. Vv. 12a-13 (A1) parallel vv. 14-15 (A2), while vv. 16-17 (B1) parallel v. 18 (B2) with the closure of v. 19 at the end. In A1, the being is an Adam or earthly figure in the Garden of Eden wearing precious stones, but in A2 he is a cherub on the mountain of God who walks in the midst of fiery stones. This parallel between heaven and earth continues through B1 and B2 (cited in Greenberg 587-588).
H. R. Page has studied parallel stories in the ancient Near East of cosmic rebellion on the part of a heavenly or divine being. Building on a number of scholarly predecessors, Page concludes that anciently there existed an ancient story of rebellion in heaven (204). Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 thus may be interpreted as stories of cosmic rebellion.
Looking at the text itself one can readily see the celestial images such as “cherub,” “holy mountain of God,” and “stones of fire.” Yet, in order to interpret the meaning of the lament, we cannot completely forsake the image of the local king of Tyre. Chapter 28 of Ezekiel seems to draw on the perception, now understood to be fairly widespread in the ancient Near East, that kings obtained divinity from the gods (Wyatt 41-74). This is expressed in Ezekiel 28:1: “Because your heart is proud and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a mortal and no god, though you compare your mind with the mind of a god.”
The perceived link by the Tyrian king to divinity was a mirror image of the Tyrian god Baal (Melqart). Instead of acting as a name, the word Baal is a title, meaning “lord,” “owner,” or in Hebrew legal parlance, “husband” (see Exodus 21:22-25). The stories of Baal reflected in the myths depict a god who desired to be supreme and had to work diligently to obtain his kingship. This desire for kingly power, even divinity, lies behind the lament over the king of Tyre.
The trajectory of the king of Tyre moves from blameless perfection to a sinful state culminating in violence, and finally, to complete destruction and annihilation. From being “the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” the king descends through pride, corruption of wisdom, and violence to rejection, being cast to the ground, exposure, and self-destruction by fire from within. This king then serves as a prototype of the origin of sin and its final destruction. He is, therefore, a fitting image for the originator of evil.
Initially, the rebellion of the king of Tyre seems something of a surprise: “iniquity was found in you.” The first intimations of that iniquity, from the point of logic, would appear to be that of pride. To be proud because of one’s beauty is to shift one’s focus from internal pursuits of wisdom to something external, and letting that external image control oneself. This external focus leads one to a reliance on external circumstances to determined what one thinks and does and thus leads to a loss of self-control. As a result, the king corrupted his wisdom for the sake of his splendor. According to v. 16, the king engaged in extensive economic trading, which historically was the origin of societal externalism in which amassing wealth in turn led to war, slavery, and the objectification of human beings, lowering their personal value. Inevitably this process led to violence, the final stage in the trajectory of sin.
As a direct result of his economic prowess, the king profaned his “holy precincts,” that is, the holy mountain of God (Greenberg 586). To profane what is holy in the Hebrew Bible is to desecrate it or put what is sacred to common use. In terms of Tyre, this would suggest making city’s temples places of commerce rather than worship, but on a cosmic level, it would mean taking the “seal of perfection” and profaning it. The Greek LXX suggests a different reading than the MT: “seal of likeness” which may imply the image of God (cf. Bunta 228, 229). In practical terms, the cosmic king took the image of God and desecrated it and corrupting it by engaging in the trajectory of sin depicted in the preceding paragraphs. Such a destruction of divine holiness would result in the abuses of others culminating in outright violence.*
The terrible descent from pride to violence is only matched by the lofty king’s descent to destruction. First, iniquity is “found” in him, next God casts him as a desecrated object (paralleling the profaning of his holy places) from the mountain of God, and he is driven out from the midst the stones of fire. God then casts him to the ground (the inversion of his pride) and exposes him before other kings. Finally, God brings fire out from his midst (the inversion of walking on fiery stones), consumes him, and turns him to ashes. Just as iniquity was found within him, so God draws fire out from within him, as if the iniquity itself were responsible. Thus this proud king is thoroughly divested from everything that he once gloriously stood for.
The inversion of the king’s image from perfection to sin and from beauty to ashes is paralleled in another, more distant, time and place, in the inversion Jesus made. Perhaps behind the poem of Philippians 2 is a conscious undoing of the trajectories of the kings of both Tyre and Babylon. Jesus is the perfect “image of God,” but even so did not seek equality with God, but emptied Himself—first in being born human, then to taking the form of a slave, then to humbling Himself to dying, and not just dying but dying the most ignoble of deaths, as a criminal. Because of this, God highly exalts Him and everyone in the universe acknowledges that He is Lord.
Beneath the cross, with the trajectory of the cosmic king in mind, we learn that the basis of God’s government is not pride but humility, not desecration of God’s holiness and our personhood but love, not violence but service to others. And so once again we are brought to choose which path we will follow.
*I recognize that Greenberg is probably correct in rendering the word “violence” with “lawless gain” (579), since the context is that of economic trade. However, the Hebrew word more largely means “violence” and I contend that this nuance applies here. It was through economic trade that the king resorted to violence, a common scenario in the ancient Near East.
All texts cited from the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
Bunta, Silviu N. “Yhwh’s Cultic Statue after 597/586 B.C.E.: A Linguistic and Theological Reinterpretation of Ezekiel 28:12.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 (2007): 222-238.
Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 21-37: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible 22A. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1997.
Page, Jr., Hugh Rowland. The Myth of Cosmic Rebellion: A Study of Its Reflexes in Ugaritic and Biblical Literature. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.
Wyatt, Nicolas. “The Religious Role of the King in Ugarit.” Pages 41-74 in Ugarit at Seventy-Five. Edited by K. Lawson Younger, Jr. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3086