The Neo-Assyrian Empire
Biblical Dealings with Israel
Having looked at the earlier history of Assyria we now turn our attention to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Those were the years when it rose to the peak of its power, when nations opposed it at their peril and when its dealings with the northern kingdom of Israel and with the kingdom of Judah are recorded in Scripture.
The long history of Assyria went through many phases and its power waxed and waned with the passing generations. What is written in these notes is a very general overview. The relationship between Babylon and Assyria was not static. Babylon at times was under the firm control of Assyria: at times it was independent and at times semi-independent, until ultimately, when the Assyrian Empire fell, Babylon become the dominant power.
The Ascendancy of Assyria
After the acquisitive reign of Tiglath-pileser I there was a period about which little is known of what took place. This period covers around 120 years (1070-950 BC) but the years following can be more easily documented. The period from 950 BC to the fall of Assyria lasted for about 350 years.
During that time the kings of Assyria (see the list overleaf) steadily increased their borders. Tiglath-pileser II and those who followed him engaged in expansionist policies so that by the reign of Asshur-Nasir-Pal (884-859 BC) Assyria had become a powerful force. It is written of him: "In his many military campaigns he invaded, subdued, and conquered, after a series of devastations and raids, all the regions north, south, east and west of Assyria, from the mountains of Armenia down to Babylon, and from the mountains of Kurdistan and Lake Urni to the Mediterranean coast. He crossed the Euphrates and the Orentes, penetrated into the Lebanon region, attacked Karkemish, the capital of the Hittites, invaded Syria and compelled the cities of the Mediterranean coast, such as Tyre, Sidon, Bylos and Arvad, to pay tribute".
The kings who followed maintained the power and authority of the empire by their prowess in arms. For many years they kept the surrounding provinces subdued by strong government and skilful warfare. However, the hold of the empire over its provinces lessened, and in 745 BC Pulu, an Assyrian general (not one of the royal line) seized the throne and took the title Tiglath-pileser III. By so doing he was stating that he would emulate the victories of those other monarchs who had taken that name. This he did with stunning success. Babylon, that had loosened its ties with Assyria, was brought back again under its control. He set up a bureaucracy and a civil service to overseer the empire. Each province had to pay fixed taxes and to enrol a "regiment" for the imperial army. The kingdom of Syria, lying to the north of Israel, with Damascus as its capital, had long been at times an enemy, and even at times an ally of the northern kingdom of Israel. This kingdom was annexed to the Assyrian Empire (2 Kings 16.9).
"The Assyrian forces at this time became a standing army, that by successive improvements became an irresistible fighting machine; and Assyrian policy was henceforth directed toward reducing the whole civilized world into a single empire, throwing its trade and wealth into Assyrian hands".
The era commencing with this monarch saw the Assyrian Empire at the zenith of its glory and power. The map overleaf shows its expanded borders. Little did these monarchs know that the God of Israel was raising them up for His own purpose. Shortly after the death of Tiglath-pileser III Isaiah wrote, "O, Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets" (Is 10.5-6). It is no exaggeration to state that at its peak Assyria was the "super power".
Assyrias first intervention - in the affairs of Israel (2 Kings 15.13-20)
In order to help in understanding what took place there is a list overleaf of the last six kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. This is the first introduction into Scripture of the Assyrian Empire as an aggressive power. The king of Israel, Menahem, reigned for a period of ten years, but although he exercised his rule by mean of force he clearly did not feel secure. When the king of Assyria, came down through the northern boundaries of Israel in pursuit of his territorial ambitions, Menahem grasped the opportunity. He paid tribute to Pul in the form of one thousand talents of silver, an exceedingly large sum (2 Kings 15.19). As a result "the king of Assyria turned back, and stayed not there in the land" (2 Kings 15.20) and confirmed the kingdom in his (Menahems) hand. "Pul" is not the name of any recorded king of Assyria. Several theories have been put forward to reconcile this with the known list but the believer understands that the Scriptures are accurate.
Assyrias Second Intervention - in the affairs of Israel (2 Kings 15.29; 1 Chr 5.26)
After the death of Menahem, his son Pekahiah became king for a period of two years. Pekah, the son of Remaliah, put him to death and proclaimed himself king. He reigned for twenty years, but during that time Tiglath-pileser III invaded his kingdom and annexed a large part of Israels territory to the Assyrian Empire. The area on the east of the Jordan, possessed by the Reubenites, the Gadites and half the tribe of Manasseh, was invaded and the inhabitants taken captive to Assyria. With this commenced the dispersal of the Israelites from the land of Canaan. In addition, the occupants of the kingdom of Israel from Galilee northwards were also carried away captive. The warning given by the Lord when Canaan was promised to Israel had not been heeded and the consequences were now beginning to be felt (Deut 8.19-20). The judgment falling upon them would be that which fell upon the nations of Canaan. It was not possible for Israel to be utterly destroyed. The promises given to Abraham would be kept. But just as the nations of Canaan lost their possession of that land, so would Israel (and ultimately Judah) be driven from it. Assyria can now be recognised to be the rod of the anger of the Lord.
Assyrias third intervention - in the affairs of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 15.36-16.20)
During the reign of Jotham, king of Judah, who "did that which was right in the sight of the Lord", Pekah, king of Israel and Rezin, king of Syria, invaded Judah but were repulsed. Syria, as has been noted above, had a long history of dealings with Israel. After the death of Jotham and the accession to the throne of Ahaz, who did not do that which was right in the sight of the Lord, these two kings again invaded Judah and besieged Jerusalem. Ahaz appealed to Assyria, to Tiglath-pileser, who invaded Syria, put to death Rezin the king, exiled the inhabitants of Damascus, and annexed Syria to his empire. Ahaz, in calling Tiglath-pileser to help, sent the message, "I am thy servant and thy son", and acknowledged this by sending to him the silver and the gold that was to be found in the Temple in Jerusalem.
It was during these events (about 743 BC) that there took place the meeting between Ahaz and Isaiah (Is 7.1-25). As Ahaz was examining his defences in Jerusalem, Isaiah was instructed by the Lord to take his son Shear-jashub and go out and meet the king. The offer was made to Ahaz to ask a sign from the Lord, an opportunity for him to repent. This was refused with the curt reply, "I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord". The reason for this refusal was the agreement into which he had entered with Assyria, relying on Assyria to defeat his enemies rather than relying on the Lord. The reply of the prophet has become one of the best known prophetic utterances: "Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (v.14).
After the defeat of Syria, Ahaz went to Damascus, the capital of that now defeated kingdom, to meet Tiglath-pileser, the conqueror. There he saw an altar which appealed to him so much that he had a copy made and installed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The dark sixteen-year reign of Ahaz ended when he was thirty-six years of age. The situation looked hopeless in Jerusalem. The doors of the Temple porch were shut up; the lamps were darkened; there was no incense on the altar and it was empty. All seemed to be lost yet Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, brought about a remarkable recovery.
To be continued.