This drama of human history is indeed partly our construct,
but it stands under a sovereignty much greater than ours.
— Reinhold Niebuhr (Justice and Mercy)
Do you remember the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf encountered the Balrog in the mines of Moria (on the swiftly crumbling bridge of Khazad-Dûm)? In that scene, Gandalf the Grey faced the fiery shadow-laden beast in a power struggle. Just when it looks like Gandalf won the battle, the Balrog snaps his whip around Gandalf and the two of them go crashing down along with parts of the bridge into the depths of the Middle-Earth.
Every culture tells stories about what lies beneath the skin of the world we’re on. In these three verses, Ezekiel makes use of the concept of underworld to underscore the totality of Tyre’s fall. Tyre, like Gandalf and the Balrog, were about to fall crashing into the underworld as the chaotic sea closed in over her.
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There are some interesting terms used in this passage of Scripture. This would be a good time to look at some of them:
- bôr (“Pit”, NRSV) – This term was originally used for a cistern used to collect rainwater. As the language developed, it began to be applied to the empty cisterns in dungeons—which were awfully convenient places to dump dead bodies! Thus the word gains its terror. In various places in the Old Testament it is paired with Sheol.
- yōrĕdê bôr (“those who descend into the pit”, NRSV) – This two-word phrase (in Hebrew) is used twice in verse 20. In very vivid language, Ezekiel described the dead as those who end up in those dungeon-cisterns. The inhabitants of Tyre will follow the yōrĕdê bôr into their new home.
- ‘am ‘ôlām (“people of long ago”, NRSV) – The ‘am ‘ôlām are (literally) the eternal people. It is important to note that the word “eternal” in Hebrew does not mean precisely what we think of as eternal today. It most likely referred to the finality of their state. Those who go down into the pit are there with finality. Game over.
- ‘eres tahtîyôt (“world below”, NRSV) – This phrase is the equivalent of our “underworld”. The use of the word “world” in the phrase makes it sound like its own country. The inhabitants of Tyre are going to live with those people who are finally consigned to life in the country down-under (my apologies to all Australians).
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Some people find their faith shaken when they are realize that certain concepts in scripture have parallels in contemporary culture. I would expect nothing less! When we’re talking about God, nothing in human experience can fully reveal him. He has always used parallels with culture to reveal himself. God is a Father. God has a strong arm. God is a jealous husband. The list could go on for quite a while.
I find that the differences between what culture understood and what God taught very instructive. In their culture, the concept of the underworld was a place where some could go to and return from. Many of the fertility cults in Ezekiel’s day celebrated the annual death (in the fall) and resurrection (in the spring) of their deity. Their gods supposedly descended to the underworld for the winter and returned in the spring. When Yahweh thrusts someone into the afterlife, however, the action is final. Death is not a two-way street.
The parallels between culture and divine reality serve to underscore the complete sovereignty and power of Yahweh over every aspect of life and death.
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Awesome God, without you we are nothing. You have power over life and death, and we thank you for continually giving us breath. In Jesus’ name, Amen.