The first mention of Nineveh in the Word of God is in Genesis: “Nimrod...was a mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh” (10.8-11). This city continued to exist under various rulers and in differing decrees of importance for many centuries. It will forever be associated with the name of Jonah the Prophet as it was as a result of the God given commission to go to Nineveh and preach there that he fled to escape this command and was swallowed by a great fish.
Nineveh lay north of Babylon and of Ur of the Chaldees, on the banks of the River Tigris, near to the modern city of Mosel in Iraq. Archaeologists have calculated that they have uncovered evidence that by 1800 BC Nineveh was the city where thrived the worship of the “goddess” Ishtar, which gave the city prominence. It was important also due to its situation on the developing trade route that ran from east to west, linking the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. Religion and commerce combined to increase its significance.
It is said that there were six cities making up this great complex, with broad streets and walls able to take several chariots abreast. Hundreds of fortified towers were built into the wall defences. Within the city there were fields where crops and animals flourished, providing food for the inhabitants. An aqueduct served the city and a series of canals brought water from the surrounding high ground. The city walls were constructed of stone and mud brick about 6 metres high on top of which was another wall 10 metres high and 15 metres thick. It was a city that was the wonder of those who saw it and heard of it, a centre of commerce, militarism, and idolatry.
The boasting that marked the architecture evidenced the pride of the monarch in his achievements and military prowess. Much was made of the fact that his enemies were put to death without mercy and the streets of defeated cities, such as Babylon, which later rose to overpower Assyria, were filled with corpses. This magnificence in building was carried on by the monarchs who followed him, Esarhadden (681-669 BC) and Ashurbanipal (669-626 BC). Archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of material from the site of the capital of this all-powerful yet soon destroyed empire. 22,000 cuneiform clay tablets, most of which were given to the British Museum, were found.
The tremendous power of the Assyrian Empire did not last long, reaching its ascendancy about 700 BC. It was attacked by the Medes about 633 BC and overwhelmed by them and the Babylonians in 612 BC. At that time it was completely destroyed. The inhabitants who failed to escape the debacle were ruthlessly put to death and the great Assyrian Empire passed into history.
Nineveh in Scripture
2 Kings 15.16-31
This is the first mention of Assyria in connection with Israel. The Assyrians, in their thirst for the expansion of their empire, attacked the northern kingdom of Israel, at that time ruled by Menahem. He paid them off by giving them 1,000 talents of silver, and confirmed that he would reign as a vassal of Assyria. Following the death of Menahem his son Pekahiah reigned for two years until he was slain by Pekah, one of the captains of his guard, who took the throne. During his reign Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria, invaded and took possession of Gilead and Galilee, the territory of Naphtali.
2 Kings 16.1-9
Rezin and Pekah, the kings of Syria and Israel, invaded Judah, whose king at that time was the ungodly Ahaz. The prophet Isaiah went out to meet Ahaz as he prepared Jerusalem to withstand the siege. He was given the opportunity to repent and show this through asking the Lord for a sign. This he refused and the prophet then uttered the well known Messianic prophecy: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bare a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7.14). Ahaz refused to ask for a sign as he had entered into an agreement with the king of Assyria that he would send to Assyria the treasures from the House of the Lord and the house of the king. In repayment the Assyrian forces would attack those invading Judah. This made Judah a vassal state of Assyria. Following this Ahaz went to Damascus and saw an altar there, a copy of which he had made and set up in Jerusalem.
2 Kings 17.5-6
Hoshea was the last king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and Shalmaneser, King of Assyria, besieged the capital Samaria for three years. At the end of this the defeated Israelites were taken captive and the kingdom that was set up by Jeroboam during the reign of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, came to an end.
2 Kings 18.13ff
In the reign of Hezekiah, the godly king of Judah, Sennacherib, King of Assyria, besieged Jerusalem. Hezekiah sought to buy him off with a large ransom but this did not have the expected result. After a time of great distress the Lord dealt with the Assyrians and “the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand” (2 Kings 19.35) after which the Assyrians retreated.
Assyria and the “Minor Prophets”
When the power of Assyria was at its height the prophet Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh the capital and “cry against it” (Jonah 1.2) because their wickedness was so great. The account of Jonahs refusal and ultimate obedience, however reluctant, is well known and recorded in the book that bears his name. Two lessons are learned from this. First, in the days when God was dealing with Israel the Gentile nations were not overlooked and He also saw their sin. Second, He gave this city an opportunity to repent of its wickedness and “they turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3.10). As a result the Lord did not carry out His judgment on them at that time. The Lord Jesus referred to the men of Nineveh as an example of repentance (Mt 12.41). This is a most remarkable instance of the grace of God offered to the wicked and a positive response.
About the prophet Nahum little is known apart from what is revealed in his book, written about 150 years after Jonah. He is called “the Elkoshite” but it is not possible to identify with certainty the location to which this refers. The city of Nineveh is the subject of his writing. The prophet highlights two sins in particular. The first is that of the use of cruel, ruthless military might which did not respect the lives and dignity of others (2.11-13). The second is the deceitful and ruthless methods which were used to further their interests (3.1). The similarity with the ways of nations in this age cannot be missed.
Nahum foretells the downfall of this great proud city. Doubtless when this book was written Nineveh appeared to be impregnable, able to resist any enemy. But the wheels of Gods government continued to turn, and the Word of God and history teaches that even those who are at the peak of their power and influence have the seeds of their own destruction in them. When God decrees that their day is over, they fall. Kingdoms rise and fall, and events on earth are still subject to the rule of heaven. Evil powers are not an evidence of the weakness of God. When they fall they display the power of God and oftentimes the swiftness of His judgment. Although this book reminds Christians that God is still on the throne, it is not given to them to look around them, but rather to look up, for their hope is that of being raptured out of this world. Nahum tells us to take heart; He will overcome and His triumph will be displayed to all, but in the meantime we wait for His Son from heaven.