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Assyria and Nineveh

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Assyria’s kings and armies were infamous for their ferocity, cruelty and outright bloodlust. History is full of accounts of Assyrian kings boasting of the unspeakable atrocities they perpetrated on enemies who had dared to oppose them. Moreover, the Assyrians saw themselves as the “master race” of their time.

The nation of Assyria (not to be confused with “Syria,” an entirely different nation) was located in Mesopotamia (essentially modern-day Iraq), near the upper end of the Tigris River, northwest of ancient Babylon. Over a period of nearly two millennia, Assyria and Babylon vied back and forth for dominance of the Mesopotamian region. At times they were more or less equal rivals; at other times one dominated over the other.

The last stage of their rivalry began in the 800s BC with Assyria once again stretching its empire across Mesopotamia—Babylon then being only a province of that empire. At one point in the 700s, because Babylon had rebelled, the Assyrian king Sennacherib wrought such total destruction on Babylon that he thought it could never arise again. But eventually it did.

In 721 BC, it was Assyria that conquered the ten tribes of the northern Kingdom of Israel and removed the remnant of its population to other locations in the empire (II Kings 17:18). Then, in about 705, Sennacherib attempted to conquer the southern Kingdom of Judah during the reign of its king, Hezekiah. The prophet Isaiah gives a detailed account of what happened there in Isaiah 36 and 37. After being threatened by the Assyrian army at Jerusalem’s very walls and the Assyrian general Rabshakeh making the mistake of taunting the God of the Jews, King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah prayed to God for deliverance. We read in Isaiah 37:36 that the next morning 185,000 Assyrian soldiers were all “dead corpses.”

Archaeologists and historians know that most chronicles of the exploits of great kings seldom include their losses. Sennacherib’s personal account of his siege of Jerusalem was found on a stele discovered in the ruins of Nineveh. Not surprisingly, he conveniently omits his failure to have ever penetrated the city (because of God’s supernatural decimation of his entire army in one night). Later historical records show that Sennacherib returned to Nineveh and was eventually killed by two of his sons. 

Assyria’s Fall Predicted

Prophecies—The prophet Isaiah, writing mostly before 700 BC, forecasted Assyria’s fall from world domination to tributary status. “Then Assyria shall fall with the sword—not of a man; and the sword, not of mankind—and it shall devour him, for he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall become tributary. And his stronghold will fall by reason of terror and his rulers shall be afraid of the banner…” (Isa. 31:8-9).

It was not until a century later, however, that Isaiah’s prophecy reached its complete fulfillment with the fall of Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, in 612 BC. In Zephaniah 2:13, the future state of Nineveh is also predicted: “And He will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, and will make Nineveh a desolation and dry like a wilderness.”

Indeed, some of the most striking prophecies regarding Assyria were leveled against its principal city, Nineveh. In its day, Nineveh was the largest city in the known world, with the highest and thickest walls. Yet skeptics once questioned whether there had ever been any such city as Nineveh, since for a long time the only knowledge of it was from the Bible. Then, in 1848, British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard excavated a tell that appeared to be the remains of a great settlement. Sure enough, it turned out to be Nineveh, as evidenced by countless inscriptions found there. Layard’s examination of the site proved Diodorus Seculus’ description of Nineveh’s unusually high and thick walls to be accurate. In fact, they were “a hundred feet high and … three chariots could drive upon them abreast.”15

The whole book of the prophet Nahum is, as the opening verse tells us, “the burden against Nineveh.” God says through the prophet that He will destroy Nineveh “with an overflowing flood” (Nah. 1:8). In verse 10, he says its defenders would be “as their drunkards are drunken.” In chapter 2, verse 6, he predicts: “The gates of the rivers shall be opened, and the palace shall be helpless.” And, “The gates of your land shall surely be opened to your enemies; the fire shall devour your bars” (Nah. 3:13).

Fulfillments—Excerpts from several accounts give us details of what happened to the supposedly impregnable Nineveh. Diodorus of Sicily describes how the Assyrian king and his army had defeated the attacking coalition of Babylonians, Scythians and Medes outside the walls of Nineveh and then celebrated their victory with drunken reveling. “It happened at this very time that the king of the Assyrians, who … had become elated over his past successes, turned to indulgence and divided among his soldiers for a feast animals and both wine and all other provisions. Consequently, since the whole army was carousing, Arbaces [commander of the rebel coalition], learning from some deserters of the relaxation and drunkenness in the camp of the enemy, made his attack upon it unexpectedly in the night. And … they won possession of the camp, and after slaying many of the soldiers pursued the rest as far as the city.”16

The “overflowing flood” predicted by Nahum is described by Diodorus in Book II, 27: “[But] in the third year, after there had been heavy and continuous rains, it came to pass that the [Tigris], running very full, both inundated a portion of the city and broke down the walls for a distance of twenty stades. At this the king … abandoned hope of saving himself … [and] built an enormous pyre in his palace…. [He] consigned both them [his servants] and himself and his palace to the flames.”17 These events fulfilled the prophecies cited above from Nahum.

How did the prophets know ahead of time the details of Assyria’s demise and Nineveh’s fall? Did it all happen—just as they had predicted—by mere “coincidence”?