Ashurbanipal might have reigned over the Assyrian Empire at its greatest height, with Nineveh the largest and most prominent city of its day. Yet its end had been decreed, and would come swiftly. As the Assyrians had done unto others, thus it would soon be done to them.
Nahum of Elkosh was given the burden of Nineveh by YHWH between 668 and 612 BCE. YHWH was about to render judgment on and obtain vengeance against Nineveh and Assyria (Nahum 1:1-15). Nahum invites the hearer to experience the crisis as it unfolded: the enemy advances upon Nineveh, and the Assyrians attempt to mount their defense (Nahum 2:1). The enemy soldiers have dyed their shields and clothing in red to terrify their foes; their chariots and soldiers have brandished their metal (Nahum 2:3). The chariots dashed around the city; commanders gave orders; they stumble over the accumulated bodies of the dead (Nahum 2:4-5). Nineveh had been built on two rivers which often flooded and would undermine the foundations of many buildings in the city, including the palace; Nahum correctly recognized that it would be during such a time that Nineveh would be attacked and conquered, with the sluice gates opened and the palace foundations undermined (Nahum 2:6). Thus Nineveh would be captured; its women would be made slaves and would lament deeply (Nahum 2:7). In this way YHWH was restoring Israel’s majesty, ravaging its ravagers and providing recompense (Nahum 2:2).
Nineveh was well known for its many pools of water; it would cry out to its residents to remain, and yet they all flee (Nahum 2:8). Its conquerors plunder all its wealth, leading to all kinds of devastation; the Assyrians have grown faint and pale and tremble (Nahum 2:9-10). Nahum asked where the den of the great lions had gone: YHWH of Armies was against this great lion den, and thus it would all be destroyed, they would no longer prey on the land, and their messengers would no longer be heard (Nahum 2:11-13).
Nahum pronounced woes upon Nineveh, a city full of bloodguilt, lies, plunder, and spoil: war chariots will break through into the city and the piles of corpses will rise (Nahum 3:1-3). Nahum spoke of Nineveh as a whore practicing sorcery which enticed and enslaved people by that sorcery; YHWH is against her and would expose her nakedness, treat her with contempt, and make her a spectacle, so all who would see her would turn in disgust (Nahum 3:4-7). The report of Nineveh’s devastation would spread, yet none would lament over her or comfort her (Nahum 3:7).
Nahum then referenced the destruction of No of Amun, which we know as Thebes in Egypt. The Assyrians and the Egyptians under the Twenty-Fifth Kushite Dynasty fought many battles against each other from 701 until 668. In 668 Ashurbanipal thoroughly defeated Tanutamun the Kushite king of Egypt and did not stop at Memphis as his father Esarhaddon had done: he pressed his advantage all the way into Upper Egypt to Thebes and thoroughly ransacked Thebes. Even though Egypt was no longer anything like its grandeur in the days of the New Kingdom, and had been overrun by Libyans and Kushites over the past few centuries, Thebes had endured without having been violated. Ashurbanipal’s sack of Thebes, therefore, was an unprecedented blow. Nahum now warned Nineveh and Assyria that they were no more secure than Thebes proved to be (Nahum 3:8). The Egyptians had their allies as well (Nahum 3:9). And yet they “went into exile,” having been thoroughly conquered by Ashurbanipal; thus the Ninevites would also act like drunkards, stumbling and tottering, and would hide from their enemies (Nahum 3:10).
Nahum compared the great fortifications of Nineveh to fig trees with ripe fruit: easily shaken out and made to fall (Nahum 3:12). Their vaunted military forces would prove weak and ineffectual; the great city would be exposed to their enemies; fire would consume their gates (Nahum 3:13). Nahum taunted Nineveh and the Assyrians, exhorting them to prepare for a siege, expand their mercantile base, and send out messengers and officials like locusts, buzzing with requests for aid but never found when needed (Nahum 3:14, 16-17). Nineveh will be cut down by fire and sword, devoured as if by a swarm of locusts (Nahum 3:15). Nahum declared Assyria’s leaders were sleeping and its people scattered without anyone to gather them together (Nahum 3:18). Their destruction would be a mortal wound, and all would celebrate when they would hear of it, for all had thoroughly suffered from their cruelty (Nahum 3:19).
All of what Nahum prophesied came to pass. The Neo-Assyrian Empire projected strength, and its great leaders were able to accomplish fearful devastation across the ancient Near Eastern world; nevertheless, Assyria had been plagued for years by a cycle in which strong leaders would often be succeeded by weak and ineffectual heirs beset by continual infighting. If anything, the string of consistently strong leaders from Tiglath-pileser III around 750 to Ashurbanipal a century later was the aberration. Ashurbanipal had laid the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Elamites low, yet exhausted his army and empire in doing so. His successors after 631 came quickly and fought against one another in a series of civil wars. The collapse of Elam allowed the Medes to establish hegemony on the Iranian plateau to the east; the always restive Chaldeans gained strength under Nabopolassar their king in Babylon. In 616 Nabopolassar allied with Cyaxares king of the Medes along with the feared Scythians and Cimmerians of the north, and they attacked Assyria. This coalition attacked Nineveh and destroyed it in 612; Sinsharishkun king of Assyria died in the fighting. The general Ashur-uballit II was named king, and the Egyptians under Necho II and what was left of Assyria tried to keep the Assyrian power going to keep Babylon and Media in check (cf. 2 Kings 23:29); the Assyrian-Egyptian alliance was thoroughly defeated at Harran in 609 and at Carchemish in 605. After 609 the Kingdom of Assyria, which had existed since time immemorial, was eliminated as a going concern.
Thus Nineveh and Assyria would fall, and fall greatly. It is hard to overstate how unprecedented and unimaginable such a fate would have seemed for Nineveh and Assyria when Nahum was given its burden by YHWH. Yes, Thebes of Egypt had been ransacked, but the Egyptians had reasserted their control and a native pharaoh ruled as they had for untold generations. The Assyrians had previously destroyed Babylon yet also had rebuilt it, and the Chaldeans there had been restive since the days of Hezekiah king of Judah (cf. 2 Kings 20:12-20). The Assyrians had innovated in the administration of their empire and their practice of forced migrations of various populations, but otherwise nations and powers remained as they had for generations. Who could have imagined the complete elimination of the mightiest and most feared power of the day?
We as modern readers easily become dulled to the stories of the rise and fall of empires. We read here of the end of Assyria and know that in time Babylon, Egypt, and Persia would all fall in similar ways; the entire ancient Near Eastern world would be thoroughly transformed by the introduction of Hellenism; the devastation of late antiquity would bring an end to Roman rule, and Islam would become the prevalent force in the land during the medieval era. We thus do well to return to what Nahum prophesied with fresh eyes so we can see how profound it must have been to watch the end of a world play out, and all just as had been predicted. What was unimaginable in 650 had become the new reality within a generation. Thus it had also been with the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722; thus it would be when Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed in 586.
Yes, such “apocalypses” have happened many times ever since. The world has not yet ended, but the worlds of ancient Israelites, Assyrians, and other ancient Near Easterners certainly have. For good reason Nahum’s images for Assyria would be repurposed for Babylon and Rome: great powers act like great whores, enticing and enslaving other nations to participate in their idolatries. And YHWH of Armies judges them, and does unto them as they did unto others. Thus we have the word of prophecy made sure; thus we also are warned that our nation, if it is a great power and installs itself as the great whore of the world, will likewise be judged, and will suffer what it has caused others to suffer. May we find assurance of the prophetic word from the burden given to Nahum, and may we heed the warning of Assyria’s story, and find salvation in YHWH of Armies in Christ, and not trust in the ways of the world!
Ethan R. Longhenry